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This is the new battleground in the fight to retain employees

Leaders who want organizations to flourish long-term need to think more like their employees.

This is the new battleground in the fight to retain employees
[Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images]
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The exodus of employees many of us are now familiar with (nicknamed “The Great Resignation”) is shaping up to be one of the most memorable work trends of the pandemic.

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Despite a significantly high unemployment rate and feelings of uncertainty generated by the pandemic, the spike in people quitting their jobs has hovered at record-breaking level according to recent Labor Department data. And concerning for employers, studies are suggesting as much as 40% of employees are currently thinking about leaving their jobs.

Why is this happening? One reason is grounded in economics: Pent-up supply of job hoppers, and relatively generous unemployment benefits is making quitting more alluring. Another is grounded in psychology: Employees have a newfound motivation to find meaningful work.

These explanations make it sound like the “Great Resignation” is something that will be fixed with governmental or organizational policy. Unfortunately, the solution is not so simple. These perspectives are incomplete in that they are overlooking trends that have been accruing over the last decade or more. Organizations that want to not only survive the day, but also thrive tomorrow, should think more broadly about their future as it relates to employees’ perspectives about work.

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A historical perspective on resignations

There was a massive dip in the number of people quitting their jobs in April, 2020. This was followed by a massive spike a year later in April 2021. This doesn’t tell the full story. If you zoom out and look at the past decade, the quit rate has been steadily increasing from 2011 to 2021. If you plot the trend, we’re close to where we would have been, pandemic or not.

To understand why this is happening, it’s helpful to tease apart what organizational psychologists call organizational commitment, of which there are three types. When employees stick with their organization because of compensation, this is continuance commitment. When employees stay because they feel emotionally attached—to the people, the culture, or the work itself—this is affective commitment. The last type, normative commitment, is about our social perceptions of right and wrong as it relates to employment. Is it fair or morally acceptable to leave in less than a year? How much loyalty should employees show to an organization that has invested in their development over 10 or more years?

Of the three types of commitment, normative is the only one that is steadily declining over the last decade, and has potentially hit rock bottom. As of today, employees are always on the lookout for better opportunities. I’m not surprised by the statistics showing that nearly half of employees are considering quitting their jobs.

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But keep in mind that “considering” is quite different from doing. Recruiters commonly highlight that there are three types of employees: not looking, passively looking, and actively looking. What we’re talking about in the Great Resignation is that the proportion of passively searching candidates is greater than what it was pre-pandemic. Everyone is spiffing up their LinkedIn profiles, just in case something better comes their way.

So what can organizations do? You can’t fix normative commitment; it is what it is. And more than likely, trying to increase continuance commitment isn’t worth the investment. The majority of employees these days just want to be paid fairly. The only type of commitment left—the only one that really matters—is affective commitment.

Why affective commitment matters

The software company, Tinypulse,  recently conducted a wide-scale study of 769 HR leaders. They found that 75% of the respondents reported that the majority of their employees were experiencing moderate to high levels of burnout. Organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, has an alternative name for this COVID-induced psychological state: languishing, or a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It would be hard to feel emotionally attached to an organization that doesn’t take these sentiments seriously.

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Organizations need to get laser-focused on employee health and wellbeing. But I’m not talking about gym memberships, employee assistance programs, or even paid time off. Employees just want their organizations, particularly their direct managers, to role model and support self-care.

The idea of supporting employee self-care is not complicated; it’s simply recognizing that as human beings, there is only so much time in the day to work, and that it’s just as important to rest, recover, and take care of one’s physical and psychological health. There’s quantifiable value in going in this direction; not only does it increase affective commitment and decrease turnover, but it also increases employee efficiency and even the likelihood that employees will proactively help colleagues.

A return-to-work is increasingly top of mind for companies these days. There is a battle brewing between leaders who want people in the office as much as possible, and employees who want the flexibility to work remotely as they see fit. This work location debate strongly relates to the conversation around welbeing at work and affective commitment.

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Organizational leaders pushing for employees to come back to the office are correct in their assumption that it can be harder (but not impossible) to collaborate and build trust remotely. But organizational leaders need to also recognize that employees’ individual productivity is just as high (if not higher) when they work remotely, and that the primary reason they want expanded options is that it improves their wellbeing.

Employees enjoy flexible work environments because it gives them more control over how to structure their lives. According to studies, this manifests as enhanced self-care or work-home balance.

People are not only an organization’s biggest asset; they are also its biggest cost. Salary and employee benefits are typically the big-ticket items of any balance sheet. The soft cost of recruiting and training also aren’t cheap. It’s not surprising that attracting and retaining top talent is good business (and over the years, it will only become more important).

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A feeling of being socially obligated to stick with an organization is a thing of the past. And employees don’t job-hop and uproot their lives for a negligible salary bump. They do, however, have their eye out for organizations that genuinely care about their wellbeing and recognize the implications of affective commitment.


Scott Dust, Ph.D., is a management professor at the Farmer School of Business, Miami University, and the chief research officer at Cloverleaf, a technology platform facilitating coaching for everyone.