A record 4.3 million U.S. workers quit their jobs in August. Add that to the 20 million people who voluntarily left their jobs since April, and it’s clear that the U.S. workforce is experiencing a shift of historical proportion. Dubbed the “Great Resignation,” the rapid pace of this trend has dominated headlines, unsettled business leaders, and left many scrambling to adjust to the unprecedented levels of turnover.
However, looking down the long line of significant market shifts of the past, the pendulum usually swings back. In this case, I predict that this swing will carry a surprisingly large number of former employees—or “boomerangs”—back to their previous companies over the next few years.
To truly understand the reasoning behind any major market shift and its inevitable response, you must first thoroughly understand the underlying driving factors—including those that go beyond the obvious. In the case of the Great Resignation, there are several. Many employees are leaving for better pay, higher titles, and more flexibility. Some are facing increased workloads and more responsibilities at home as a direct result of COVID. And others are looking to take back control of their lives during a time of great uncertainty. Encouraged to embrace the “new normal,” new jobs have become an inevitable part of the equation. Still, regardless of the reasons employees leave, those companies that handle exits with respect and understanding are most likely to see boomerangs in the years ahead.
There is much value in recouping strong, previously trained talent, but it is critical to let them know before they leave that the door could be open for a return. Leaders who consciously establish from the get-go that work is a choice and that personal situations or great opportunities may warrant a job change, make all the difference in encouraging boomerangs. Let them go explore. Let them do it on good terms. And if the opportunity arises, welcome them back with open arms.
A strong culture of trust marks this kind of attitude, which does not get established overnight. To become a company that merits an encore requires strong company values, a trusting culture, and attention from the top down. The difference between leaders who have been able to keep their company united while facing this life-altering period head-on, and those who have not, is whether they waited for a crisis before establishing their company values. Crisis does not build culture; it reveals it. Leaders and companies with strong values that are designed to respect and support the growth of their employees have come out of this crisis much, much stronger.
Within these values, leaders must prioritize knowing their people outside the walls of the business. Effective leadership means learning the likes, dislikes, concerns, and questions of your team, and working to address them. Above all, it’s critical to treat people like adults—i.e., employees should be included in the decision-making process whenever possible. As a leader, I’ve tried to tell my team what I would like from them, give them what they need to get it done, and then get out of the way. Ultimately, this cultivates an environment that allows our “crew members” to work in the way that is best for them and provides the balance they need for success. Overall, this allows our company to achieve its goals and our team to experience greater joy.
I was fortunate to learn this lesson early on in my career. Deep in the trenches of a startup with a small team of around 20 people, one team member’s father was extremely sick in another state, and he was worried about leaving the team and delaying a development deadline. The only right answer for me was to insist he go and take a leave. We knew he would come back when he could. Life is not secondary to work; they are highly interrelated. I cannot drive a hard line in the sand between life and work and still treat our team with the honor and respect they deserve.
Under that philosophy today, the boomerangs are on their way back. In a hot job market, one engineer left SailPoint in June 2020 and returned just a few months later. Prior to SailPoint, this person worked at several large organizations, including Fortune 500 companies. His return was specific to something he had not found anywhere else: the same level of care. This includes care towards the quality of product and also care for each other. This was reflected in his boomerang experience. His manager had told him to come back whenever he wanted; so, he did. He shared with this manager that he felt like he was “back at home.”
This is how it should be when boomerangs return. Onboarding should feel natural, and integration back into their teams should be made seamless — no judgment. This also provides an excellent opportunity to get their feedback. Why did they leave? What drove them to come back? What will cause them to stay? Getting this type of information from boomerangs gives executive teams insight into what their employees need to continue to be successful, and ultimately what will drive their company’s success as a whole moving forward. Maintaining a happy, values-driven workforce means being open and adaptable.
As I noted above, the Great Resignation is likely to experience a pendulum swing back toward the center. Leaders that will benefit the most are those who, through strong values, respect, and understanding, have made their company a home worth coming back to.