Article

Don’t be fooled, the great resignation isn’t over: Talent retention in a new age

Finding opportunity in change

Dec 21, 2022

Key takeaways

The trend toward hybrid work predates COVID-19 by years

If not managed properly, remote work can harm rather than strengthen employee loyalty

Retaining talent requires a focus on clear expectations and effective communication

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Note: this article initially appeared on RSM’s global website.

The pandemic revolutionized the workplace, with sweeping changes everywhere. COVID-19 lockdowns saw remote work surge across the globe in 2020. And while restrictions almost everywhere have now lifted, the work-from-home trend persists.

A survey by the Australian government’s Institute of Family Studies found that two-thirds (67%) of employees in the country are sometimes or always working from home, compared to 42% pre-COVID. In the U.K., almost half of working adults sometimes worked from home during the crisis, and most plan on hybrid work in the future, according to the nation’s Office of National Statistics.

As of May 2022, one in seven Brits remained entirely home-based, and nearly a quarter worked both from home and the workplace. Likewise, in the United States, Pew Research published earlier this year found that six in 10 U.S. workers thought their jobs could be done from home.

Although less common, many employees in Africa are also working remotely, with the World Economic Forum (WEF) confirming that 42% of African employees work remotely at least one day a week. For example, employers in Nigeria are increasingly focusing on candidates that can work remotely, with vacancies for remote job positions rising steadily in the country between 2020 and 2021.

Assuredly, remote work continues to be attractive, partly because concerns over COVID-19 persist. China’s Wuhan district locked down a million people at the end of July, while in the same month in Australia, telecom company Telstra and Westpac bank advised staff to work from home following national health advice designed to limit the spread of the virus during the winter.

Evolving employee expectations

Of course, decisions about work schedules and benefits are partly driven by employees, who have significant bargaining power due to tight labor markets and widespread staff shortages in many industries, and who see remote work as appealing. Vacancies across the United States, U.K., Germany, Australia, and elsewhere have all seen record highs in recent months. However, it is wise to note that a looming recession could start to shift this power back to employers, thereby bringing some balance back to the marketplace.

Perhaps the most significant reason to expect hybrid work to remain, however, is that the trend toward increased flexibility predates COVID-19 by years. In the United States, for example, between 2000 and 2010, the number of people working at least one day at home a week increased by 4.2 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Other countries, like the U.K., have joined France in giving workers legal rights to request flexible working arrangements.

Most recently, lawmakers in the Netherlands announced plans to submit a proposal to the Dutch Parliament to begin treating remote work as a legal right for citizens. This is in addition to the 2019 Work-Life Balance Directive that created an EU-level right for parents and caregivers to request flexible work arrangements.

Like the uptake of workplace technology, the pandemic merely accelerated an existing trend. The rise of flexible work cannot be avoided. However, it does need to be managed.

Home alone

While recruitment and retention are motivating employers to adopt hybrid models, how they’re adopted matters. If not properly managed, remote work can undermine rather than strengthen employees’ loyalty. Without daily interactions, opportunities to socialize, and regular engagement from peers and management, employees’ ties to the business will weaken, making them more likely to leave.

A similar risk applies to customers or clients, too, if working from home means in-person visits and meetings decrease or cease. And it is more than just being in the office or out—employees’ desire for different working times may correspond poorly with customer demands. Without strong personal relationships, some businesses are left competing solely on price for sales and compensation for staff retention.

However, it is not only businesses that may suffer as a consequence of increased remote work. While working from home can provide a better work-life balance, if poorly managed those benefits may be undermined. For instance, several studies have shown that remote work during the pandemic added to working hours and led to increased fatigue, and, in the worst cases, caused employee burnout.

It is also important to recognize that it is not just the hours that employees work but what they accomplish in them that can be negative. The inability to easily seek help and direction on how to accomplish challenging tasks can leave employees feeling isolated, unsupported, and disheartened. Any delays or disruptions in employee performance reviews can have the same effect.

Businesses today cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the risk of losing talent. According to the WEF, the “great resignation” (a term that describes the unprecedented number of skilled people leaving their jobs since the pandemic), is still going strong. In one of the largest surveys of the global workforce, carried out by WEF recently, one worker in five plans to quit their job by the end of 2022, which is bad news for businesses looking toward economic recovery, stability, and future growth.

Expectations and engagement

Mitigating these risks requires a clear strategy, although strategies will vary widely between industries and the organizations within them. Indeed, the first step will be to understand the business and the unique circumstances of the workforce. Two principles, however, apply:

1.     Clear expectations are essential. The necessary number of days on-site and at home, frequency of attendance at meetings, and availability to clients should be clearly stated. Companies should not be surprised if hybrid work fails to meet business requirements if it was never designed to do so.

This does not preclude permitting further flexibility on request to accommodate individuals’ responsibilities and particular circumstances; ensure these arrangements are formalized and understood by both sides.

2.     Good communication is crucial. The key to ensuring employees feel engaged and supported is communication. Emails and scheduled video conferences are not enough. Businesses and managers need to recreate the immediacy, collaboration, and engagement of the live environment. Frequent, unplanned telephone and video calls keep communication, engagement, and relationships alive. Because the further away staff are, the closer they need to be kept in mind.

RSM contributors

  • Robert Frattasio
    Partner

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