Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu.

Over four million Americans resigned from their work in August. Four million quit the month before in July and there are concerns that these numbers are abnormally high. The talk is of a ‘Great Resignation’ and the phenomenon is expected to hit the Australian workforce early next year. Estimates are hovering around the 40% turnover mark for some kinds of work.

Why is there a delay impacting Australian workplaces? It may have a lot to do with our ‘wait and see, we’re still locked up’ problems, or it may be the usual reasons why people stay in their jobs at this time of year. Some tend to hang about to see if the Christmas Party is a good one, or if there is some bonus cheque in the offing or they just follow a ‘let’s get Christmas and a summer holiday out of the way’ mindset.  Or it may not hit this market with quite the same strength, but whether the figure reaches 40% or not, this kind of change will have consequences.

What is driving this trend?  

Vaccination is a factor.  In the US, surveyed individuals talked of their fear of going back to work with unvaccinated colleagues and members of the public. There are also individuals who refuse to be vaccinated and they are more likely to state ‘other reasons’ when resigning. At some point, economics will drive them all back to some form of paid work, so this group may be causing more of a Great Reshuffle than a Great Resignation. 

But the pandemic has also caused many others to want to quit and that may have a lot to do with the fact that millions of workers were handed a circuit breaker in their daily routines.

Not all kinds of work could be done from home, but as it turned out, quite a lot could be done from home and over Zoom. It was not always ideal, but it was often good enough. Workers at home became more aware of how their day was consumed in unpleasant commutes and how much unnecessary activity was eating into their time. And whatever wastes our time, wastes our lives – because, as Benjamin Franklin told us, that’s the stuff life is made of. Freedom and space away from the treadmill to oblivion allowed many people to ask the question, what is it that I really want to do with my life?

I knew something was changing when I went for a daily walk in my suburb. I had never seen so many dads out on bikes with their kids.  It looked like very precious time, and as it turns out, many of those dads and mums also concluded it was precious. Those who spent longer hours with their children, who dusted off the Scrabble, went for walks and oversaw homework, are now amongst the strongest responders saying they do not want things to go back to where they were.

Having proved they could meet their targets without being watched, employees now have some real bargaining power in the quest for work life balance.  Goodness! Who could have foreseen that mature responsible trained people with clear targets and open lines of communication would get on with their work? Of course, trust was stretched to its limits – but mostly it didn’t break. Did it matter if workers stopped during the day to walk their dog or watch The Great British Bake Off? Not really.

While some sections of the economy took a beating, many bottom lines did not suffer. In fact, many businesses prospered during Covid, and they will be particularly challenged to insist on a full return to the face time requirements of yesterday. 

There will be some employees who refuse to return to the soul shrivelling misery of working in cubicle prairies. If that exodus becomes painful enough, employers might want to rethink offices, just for starters. That will be a good thing.

Managers who never liked the term flexibility, are really going to loathe it now. A survey by one job search site in the UK found that 58% of those who had been working from home, said they would absolutely look for a new job if this was not allowed to continue. PWC research in 2021 indicated that more than half of employees would prefer to work remotely for at least three days a week when the pandemic subsides. 

I believe this movement is ultimately a sign of great optimism. Confident, talented people have always been good quitters. They know they will get a job somewhere else, but clearly a lot of less cocky people are also on the move. They feel comfortable in their skin and in making a big change. They are at ease with leaping without a safety net, even if they need to explain a career gap or downwards move in their CV. When a large number of people become less ambitious, it can also make the workplace a kinder place for everyone else.  

Leaving has always been far healthier and more rational than sitting in a job, career, or city that you do not like, for years, whinging about it. Conversely, employees with great self-awareness, who have done a bit of thinking about life, and actively chosen to stay with you, are good for business.    

Another great hope in all this, is that the struggle to fill roles might just put an end to the dehumanizing recruitment software that has been screwing with careers and talent for too long.  Recruiters may have to start reading CVs again. Good grief! They might even have to look at the over forty-fives that they had been happily massaging out of their job search criteria with algorithms and start valuing experience and life skills a bit more. Employers may have to train more of the willing. 

So, here’s my question; could this small revolution help us improve work life balance, push some real gender equality through shared parenting and reduce ageism at the same time?

Well, that would be something. 

4 thoughts on “Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu.”

  1. Very thought-provoking Cheryl. Thank you. Working from home provides people with so much flexibility as you say, if interspersed with family outings and adventures, whilst allowing people to feel they are contributing to lower fuel costs and topically right now contributing to the health of the planet too – as green energies will most likely need to be used more at home for greater energy savings.

    And I like the fact that if you are in your later 50s you might still be seen as a worthwhile contributor to the workplace.

  2. Fantastic piece. Good to see (from here in UK) the Great British Bake-Off referenced. More seriously, you touch on this expression of the need for meaning in life; and this the search for meaning/purpose is a defining human characteristic.

  3. I love this topic. It’s going to be interesting to watch in real time. Lots of people leaving their jobs will mean there are lots of people looking for a new job, a new employer, a new career. Surely not everyone can suddenly become self-employed or create their own start-up. I hope employers are ready and have worked out how to attract all the potential new talent that could be out there!

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