Many C-suites and business commentators seem to believe that the Great Resignation is a short-term, post-Covid blip which will fizzle out as the global recession hits consumers. However, this superficial analysis ignores the underlying drivers behind the Great Resignation, as well as sweeping changes globally in people’s attitudes towards what they want from their jobs and work-life balance together with the developing demographics of the global workforce.
We’re at an inflection point when it comes to how organisations move forward. The Great Resignation offers a window into why companies are failing as well as opportunities for those who learn its lessons to change, develop and improve performance. Those that deal in denial will almost certainly waste these opportunities.
Organisations were put to the test by COVID, given its speed and depth of impact. Chronic pre-existing problems related to leadership, culture, empowerment, agility, and effective decision-making were highlighted and exacerbated. These were long-standing issues which should have been properly addressed but never were It also highlighted new possibilities to improve performance and wellbeing.
Hybrid working, for example, had never been fully utilised despite it having been a very real possibility for many organisations for years.
Only by acknowledging the truth that our experiences shape our views, which subsequently influence our behaviour in response to various circumstances can we hope to understand and learn from what we have been through.
Keeping this in mind helps us make sense of what we are seeing now and what we need to do next.
The COVID Lessons
Everyone’s experience of COVID varied widely, depending at least in part on their proximity to the risk of infection. Based on this, McKinsey divided the working population into four distinct groups:
- 20% – continued to work – low risk roles, e.g. outdoor & construction
- 30% – furloughed / unemployed – e.g. hospitality and retail
- 30% – remote work – e.g., office-based staff
- 20% – essential workers – high risk but continued to work, e.g., healthcare and transport
Impact varied across different groups too.The most affected were women, minority groups, younger adults and lower-paid workers. Those industries that essentially closed down during the pandemic had higher proportions of employees in these groups.
In terms of organisations there was a significant difference between different individual organisations and sectors. Some failed, some thrived. Few leaders are aware of the vast differences in events and outcomes. That’s because business leaders only know what happened where they were and do not have clear insights into what happened elsewhere.
The reality was that organisations which survived well if not thrived had a positive culture, trust, empowerment, and where leadership adapted more successfully. Their teams were able to work together more effectively and were more agile in reacting to the rapidly changing circumstances created by the pandemic.
COVID required executives to create the right environment for their organisation’s continued success set against unprecedented demands. They needed to step up their game, but many did not. Speaking to many of these executives post-COVID about their experiences, I was struck by one consistent theme: “COVID showed us who the leaders really were in our organisation.”
There is often an assumption that almost everybody has ended up working remotely. But, in practice, remote working is not consistently applicable.
Overall, only 30% of workers were able to do so. Only 5% of those earning under £20k pa were able to remote compared to 95% of those earning £50k pa. Furthermore, 55% of jobs in London were “remotable”, whereas in northeast England, the figure was only 35%.
The experiences from pandemic-induced remote working teaches us valuable lessons about how to make hybrid working effective in the future. What were they? Simply that, if set up and implemented correctly, remote working works well. It delivers improvements in work performance over office-based work, especially in individual activities that require creativity or focused work. It also enhanced wellbeing even during the pandemic, which itself negatively impacted wellbeing globally. Within this, the overall experience of remote working gives us an excellent roadmap to make hybrid working highly successful, if we learn the lessons. One of those lessons is that, in cases where remote working was not set up effectively, the cause could be traced to insufficient support from leadership. Here’s how this impacted the results:
- 30% found difficulty adjusting to the remote environment.
- 30% felt lonely and disconnected from their organisation.
- 15% felt their mental health suffered.
These are leadership problems rather than technology issues.