Where Did All the Workers Go? (And How the Right Strategy Will Attract Them)

Some refer to it as the “seismic impact” of the pandemic. Others refer to it as the “Great Resignation” or the “Great Attrition.”  The president of a large medical testing company, currently trying to hire 800 workers, recently summed it up with this comment, “The war with talent is over, and talent won.” No matter how you define the current challenges involving the human element of doing business, your organization’s success, if not your very survival, will require designing the right strategy to attract and retain talent.

Many companies are already scrambling to maintain the necessary workforce to support and continue operations. We see evidence of this in recruiting efforts on social media, such as an Amazon post on FaceBook that offered warehouse workers a starting wage of $15-$18/hour, plus health care, plus paid family leave, plus fully funded college tuition. In many communities, the effective “minimum wage” at which a business can hire and retain workers has climbed to $18/hour. Competitive sign-on bonuses are escalating, with $3,000 bonuses becoming common. And still, a record number of employees are quitting or thinking about doing so.

Why don’t people want to go back to work?

Forbes.com noted that tech companies such as Apple have asked their workers to come back to the office at least three days a week. But a recent survey reported by TechRepublic found that more than one-third of respondents said they would quit if their employer should end work-from-home (WFH). It is noteworthy that 11 percent of the respondents said they had already negotiated a perpetual WFH position. Respondents almost universally expressed support for a flexible hybrid office/WFH employment model.

There’s also a mismatch between worker and company expectations. Many business leaders have determined that it is time for workers to return to in-person work full time, which is fundamentally inconsistent with the flexibility workers want.  The TechRepublic survey noted a comment by a SalesForce employee, who said, “I don’t know of a single company that doesn’t pack engineers cheek to jowl like cattle, while making unintelligent noises about ‘collaboration.’ …Meantime, the engineers put on earphones and Slack and Zoom each other from across the aisle.”

Why are people quitting their jobs?

Marc Bitzer, CEO of Whirlpool, recently told CNBC that he is “starting to get worried” about the U.S. labor market. He’s right to be worried. The most recent U.S. Labor Department monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey indicated there were 10.4 million job openings in August, whereas the number of people leaving their jobs (the “quits rate”) rose to 4.3 million, the highest level seen on record since December 2000. 

According to a recent McKinsey report, a record 19 million U.S. workers have quit their jobs since April 2021. While businesses have embraced digitization and reorganized their supply chains through the course of the pandemic, many have not taken the time to re-think their strategy – how they operate and why they exist – as it relates to people and rewards. Without a clear understanding of why workers are leaving, many organizations are quite naturally inclined to focus on transactional factors, such as inadequate compensation and hours spent at work. But pay increases and other financial perks may only serve to create a transactional relationship that is devoid of relational ties between employees, their colleagues, and their employers.

Recognizing the socio-economic shift that has emerged from the pandemic, business leaders should start with a close look at your company’s strategy. How well have you aligned the “People and Rewards” side of your cube (Mastering the Cube) to the overall strategy? We all know that employees expect fair pay and upward mobility, but it is equally important to have a people and rewards strategy that goes deeper than a transactional relationship, one that will encourage employee engagement and loyalty.  Here are a few suggestions:

Create and reinforce a strong sense of purpose in your organization. People want meaning in their work lives and, with a clear purpose for their work, are more likely to be better employees – more loyal, more engaged, more likely to go the extra mile, less likely to leave. This sense of purpose should be integrated into activities and programs that the company actively supports and in which leadership participates. A strong sense of purpose will also help your organization to recognize emerging opportunities and connect with your customers.

Encourage social and interpersonal connections between employees, colleagues, and managers. Recognizing that the polarization related to personal beliefs of workers may create tension, your organization should create a culture that gives employees permission to be themselves, while encouraging collaboration. This must, of course, include a company-wide commitment and action, which is demonstrated from the very top of the organization, to support diversity, belonging, and inclusion.

Establish clear work-life boundaries. Create policies that strongly discourage after-hours emails or messages (unless your facility is actually on fire). Leaders should recognize that when subordinates receive emails or messages outside of “normal” work times, they will either feel like they have to respond or feel stressed that they have not responded. On a regular basis, this kind of stress is apt to cause workers to feel burned-out and re-think their employment situation.

Re-address time off policies.  Find and implement creative policies that encourage employees to take real breaks from the stress of work. Rather than assuming your employees’ mental health insurance benefits will take care of mental health needs, consider giving people a “mental health” day off occasionally, which will significantly reduce burnout. Also, WFH policies and boundaries should be structured to provide balance between personal and work time.

Look for opportunities to retain older, experienced workers.  Establish a policy to offer flexible, hybrid, WFH, or part-time roles where the older workers’ knowledge and experience won’t be lost in the vacuum of burnout and readiness for retirement. Many older workers will welcome the opportunity to continue to contribute their knowledge and expertise without the structure of regular, full-time employment.

To understand the wants and needs of your employees, business leaders need to develop a much deeper empathy for employees and their personal struggles and to pair that empathy with the compassion—and determination—to create a workplace where employees feel the flexibility, connectivity, and sense of unity and purpose that people crave. Along the way, you may be challenged to update your strategy and reimagine how you lead.  We don’t know a better way to meet the challenges of the months and years that lie ahead.

1 thought on “Where Did All the Workers Go? (And How the Right Strategy Will Attract Them)”

  1. Excellent
    What if there was a workshop where leaders were trained in the three key elements of getting and retaining “engaged employees”
    It works!


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