Date: 04/01/22 | Duration: 00:29:54

Whether the ‘Great Resignation’ is a phenomenon supported by statistical evidence or not, the pandemic has prompted many to reassess what they want from their jobs. The battle to recruit and retain talent in these challenging times has been well documented, and if a workplace revolution is truly underway, employers need to be tuned in to what employees and potential employees really want.

Join Nigel Cassidy and this month’s guests – Melanie Green, Research Adviser at CIPD, Josie Cox, Business Journalist, and Pete Thomas, Head of EVP and Brand at Department of International Trade – as we explore how employers might raise their employee value proposition and meet the demands of the post-pandemic labour market.

Nigel Cassidy: More workers than ever are quitting or planning job moves. So how can you help stem the tide that’s being called The Great Resignation? I’m Nigel Cassidy and this is the CIPD podcast.

Now, back in the day we put on our work outfits, left our souls at home and went into work. But something’s changed. The pandemic has left us asking pretty big existential questions about how we want to live our lives. It could be why almost a quarter of UK workers are plotting a move in the next few months, according to one job agency, Randstad. Another, Robert Walters, predicts that workers who find their loyalty and hard work isn’t properly recognised in their new year appraisals will walk.

So, are we seeing a power shift from employer to employee? Because if so, organisations are surely going to need to act if they want to retain their best staff and meet the competition. 

Well, joining our first podcast of the new year to talk about all this, I’m delighted to welcome a man with decades of senior HR experience in the Civil Service, most recently in developing the Department of International Trade’s employee value proposition and recruitment brand, which he heads, it’s Pete Thomas. Hello. 

Pete Thomas: Hello, everyone.

NC: Josie Cox is a writer, editor and broadcaster with a particular interest in workplace culture and equality. She’s currently been based in New York City, so I hope she didn’t join the exodus and walk out just to join us here back in the UK. Josie, hello.

Josie Cox: Hello, Nigel. Lovely to be here.

NC: And from the home team, it’s the CIPD’s research advisor and former HR practitioner in a technology organisation with a particular interest in work life boundaries, it’s Melanie Green. Hello.

Melanie Green: Hi, Nigel. Thanks for having me. 

NC: So, Melanie, let’s start with you. The Great Resignation, well, we know it’s definitely a thing in the US, in the white collar job market, and definitely it’s a thing on social media. But I just wonder, before we get too excited, is there evidence that it is something on this side of the pond?

MG: Well, I think this is something we need to, kind of, approach with a bit of caution. So official stats from the Office of National Statistics from the third quarter of 2021 suggest that yes, there are more job to job switches at the moment in the UK than pre pandemic levels. But what we haven’t seen is a huge rise in people that are in work looking for a new job. And what that indicates really is perhaps when you start looking for a new job, it’s perhaps a bit easier to get one. Because we know there’s a context in the UK where there’s record low unemployment and a huge amount of vacancies. So, while there is some evidence of job switching, it’s also an employee’s labour market at the moment really, at least for some employees. 

NC: So we’ve got a, kind of, talent crunch which could turn nasty for employers?

MG: Potentially, yes. I mean, I think, again, we need to take that with a little pinch of salt and think about what different workers have experienced through the pandemic. So some might be looking to move jobs but, you know, we’re definitely not out of the pandemic yet. Even in the past couple of weeks in the UK the situation’s become really difficult again, especially for certain sectors. So for some, the last couple of years have been more about keeping a job and job security than necessarily moving jobs. So we need to just think about that when we’re talking about The Great Resignation, I think. 

NC: But certainly, Josie Cox, in the United States where you’ve been most recently, I mean, #QuitMyJob is a thing. I think it’s had 184 million views. And of course, I wonder how many people there might be regretting leaving their work so dramatically? You know, maybe having been rude about their old boss and left a bit of a trail on social media?

JC: Yes, I’m sure there are certainly isolated incidents of that happening and you’re right, social media has, you know, a lot of people have taken to social media during the pandemic. I’d assume that’s got something to do with the fact that we’re all deprived of social interactions. But, again, like, I would really echo what Mel’s saying here in terms of actually our understanding of The Great Resignation, because it has become a sort of buzzword, a, sort of, trendy word to use on social media in a dramatic fashion. But I think it’s really important that we use it as a means of exploring a much broader theme here and not just a quit rate or an unemployment rate even at that. But it’s important to understand what this is actually telling us about the dynamics in labour markets and the power dynamics between employers and employees, and, you know, something that we’re certainly going to explore more here, which is the way in which workers’ priorities are changing and have been sort of drawn into focus as a result of the pandemic. 

NC: OK, well let’s pick up on that immediately with Pete Thomas. Remote and hybrid working, as Josie’s already implied, has changed us in some way. Have you picked up on this mood and how it’s affected your people?

PT: Well, I think across all of corporate life, I think we’re seeing people now rediscovering things about family life, discovering about their own, how they live their lives without work. So it’s, kind of, like, a flip between work life balance and life work balance now. So I think people are now starting to think about, what is it I really want from work? How can work serve my family a lot better? And I think depending on what life stage you are, workers have become much more savvy about how this employee value proposition matches what they’re looking for from work. 

NC: And Melanie, these job churn figures that you spoke about earlier certainly show that it’s professional young people, the Generation Z’ers, the Millennials, who in particular won’t stick at jobs when overwork is coming as standard. 

MG: Again, I think this is a really interesting area when we’re talking about, kind of, Generation Z and Millennials, I think what evidence shows is that throughout people’s life stages, as Pete has said, people’s priorities change. And it’s not particularly about Millennials or Gen Z’ers having particular characteristics, it’s a general trend for younger people to switch jobs for career development, as they always have. And certainly throughout different stages of your life, different things matter to different people. If you’re slightly older your family responsibilities might take centre stage, and it might mean that if you’ve got a good thing in your current role, perhaps you’ve got flexibility, then you might be less likely to look for a new job, and that might be less relevant to you when you’re younger. Not always, of course. People are different across different generations. But again, I think it’s really important that we think about what our employees really want throughout different life stages. And also what we’re giving them as an organisation to get them to stay, too.

NC: Josie.

JC: Yeah, I think, as Mel says, I think, you know, one of the narratives that people have tended to adopt during the pandemic is that this is Millennials or Gen Z’ers or, you know, a generational cohort that’s, sort of, painted with the same brush and that generalisations are made about a particular generational cohort. And I think, again, we have to be really, really careful here because the overarching fact is that the pandemic has showed us that there’s no one size fits all when it comes to work. And that is the same, you know, regardless of which generation you belong to, whether you’re old or young, which sector you sit in. 

But I do think it’s fair to say, as Pete mentioned earlier, that our professional ambitions are changing. And I think that the pandemic has, sort of, cast a light on the fact that we’re redefining, in many cases, what success means to us and how we define success. And I think historically we might have measured professional success in terms of money or in terms of promotions, but I do think that it’s become more acceptable in society generally to talk about a need for boundaries. For work life balance, for having an opportunity and having almost the luxury, I suppose, of prioritising family over work and making those choices. Having control over the extent to which you give yourself to work and what you get out of work. And I think that that’s so healthy for us as a society, and it’s certainly one of the silver linings of the pandemic. That we’ve, sort of, normalised this attitude towards work not being, you know, the be all end all, and not being the way that we have to, sort of, create our identities either. That there’s a separate between who we are at work and who we are at home.

PT: I find this fascinating as a HR professional. And I think one of the things that a lot of your listeners will be thinking about now is, when you’re thinking about your, what your employee value proposition, or your people promise, or what is the deal for your people, it’s really about impact. You know, can I thrive in this organisation? What’s happening for me right now in this organisation that will enable me to make a great contribution? Then I think you’ve got purpose, which is, can I identify with the organisation? And I think people are making choices about this now, in a way that actually they didn’t do before. I think we’ve gone way beyond, sort of, compensation of benefits. And the last is the, kind of, the belonging. So it’s, like, am I going to be in part of a community? Will I fit in? Are there people like me in it? Which is the whole strategic inclusion debate. So I think impact, purpose and belonging are the things that HR professionals really need to be thinking about in terms of constructing their roles.

NC: I get all that, Peter, and we can talk a bit more about the proposition that you can offer people in the light of all this. But from what Mel and Josie have said, if people are wanting to rejig their lives a bit, that can create a real problem for the kind of jobs in the Civil Service where people are deeply committed, but they do have to work long hours. You can’t have people who just want to take the afternoon off at a moment’s notice. 

So is there a problem about actually being able to deliver something to people where their expectations maybe have become somewhat unrealistic? We’ve already seen these examples of bosses demanding people physically come back to work, and even the government at one point started joining that, sort of, siren cry, which, to a lot of HR people was rather unhelpful.

PT: Well, I’m not sure I agree actually. I think this is all about job design. I mean, I think there is plenty of work and lots of people, the traditional way to look at that is, how can I throw more time at this? But I think if we’re going to be savvy HR professionals, we need to think about, well actually, what is the nature of work? How does it need to get done? You know, to what extent does it require a lot of hours, or can we be smarter? So I’m not quite sure I agree with that. I do think that you’ve got, you’re onto something about the, sort of, predictable unpredictability that we seem to be going through. There is an element of, actually, you know, we know that we’re dancing with Covid a little bit in terms of, do we go back the office? Do we stay at home? And I think people have got used to that. But I think, is this our new normal? It might well be, but I think we’re just going to have to embrace the uncertainty of that. 

JC: Just further to what Pete was saying, and your question about the Civil Service and the nature of those jobs, I think one of the really important things here is to remember that the pandemic has taught us an awful lot about what it actually takes to do a job well. And I think that we’d be absolutely foolish not to remember those lessons as we, sort of, hopefully embark on a post pandemic life at some point. And that we really, kind of, reconsider why we’re doing jobs the way we’re doing them. And is there evidence that that’s the best way to do them? Is there evidence that we have to come into the office? Is there evidence that these jobs have to be done between the hours of 9:00 to 17:00 or 9:00 to 18:00, or whatever. And I think that that’s something that, you know, every organisation would be wise to really take into account. 

NC: Yeah, I’m sure you’re right about that. I mean, I’ve seen several times where bosses have, kind of, all but acknowledged that their preconceptions about how their whole place would function have actually been turned upside down. And when people are given more responsibility and more freedom, it actually works out better than they thought. 

Let’s look into a bit more of the detail with Melanie. The biggest culprits that are really making people feel they want to change jobs. You hear this phrase toxic mix. Hours, workload, bad bosses, lack of recognition. What would you say are the biggest factors that people will cite?

MG: Well, I mean, it really depends on the type of roles people do. I think a really important thing to note here when we’re talking about how the pandemic has changed the world of work is that firstly, not everyone can do their job from home. And as much as we’re talking a lot about hybrid working, which we absolutely should, because for those that are doing it, it’s having a huge impact on the way they do their work, but also for organisations, kind of, managing the challenges that come with longer term hybrid working. But ONS stats tell us that, you know, 60% of the workforce aren’t doing their job from home. And their roles haven’t changed in the same way. So we really need to think about what some of those challenges are. 

We surveyed employees in the UK for coming up to five years now. In our Good Work Index we ask up to 6,000 people a year about their working life. So we have a really good idea of some of the challenges that people are facing. So things like workload, as you said. Of course, in industries like healthcare, that’s been incredibly challenging in the past two years. Things like work life balance also an issue, particularly for people working from home. They tend to do, sort of, roles that perhaps go beyond the 9:00 to 17:00 anyway if they’re in, kind of, senior managerial roles. But it’s very dependent on the type of role you do. And we already know that there’s inequality in how good people’s jobs are, dependent on the type of job they do. So, kind of, managerial and professional roles tend to fare a lot better in terms of good work. So having more flexibility, for example. Having a higher pay. And although there are, of course, trade offs, it’s all about understanding what those trade offs are and making sure that everyone has access to good quality work, whatever that looks like in their organisation. 

So Pete was talking about job design earlier, and we know that’s an absolutely crucial aspect of whether you have a good job or not. Whether you have control over your work. Whether you have autonomy, whether your workload’s too high. Those things I think perhaps we don’t talk about enough when we’re thinking about what people want from their jobs, I think. 

NC: And talking about redesigning about how people work, Pete, often it’s the technology which is the source of the frustration. Anything from, I mean, at the worst end, I suppose, surveillance people complain about, or simply that the platforms and networks are just hard to use. 

PT: Yeah, I mean, I think what we’re seeing now is technology is a basic hygiene factor isn’t it? And I think, for me, when I think about people who I, who my friends and family work with, so whether they’re lorry drivers, where they’re working in retail, as we’ve already heard, their work experience is very different. But the technology that they use or the equipment that they use is actually a really key part of the job. So certainly when we are looking at, I don’t know, our digital professionals, the kind of equipment that they use and how reliable it is, and the platform, how stable the platform is, is kind of a critical way in which they experience way. In the same way that a lorry driver would experience their cab being safe, being state of the art, their health and wellbeing being looked after. So I think technology, just for now is, that is just basically part of the baseline standard that should all work. And I think that’s really changed. At one point it was quite cool to have a shiny new phone. But now it’s just, that’s just the standard now.

NC: OK, so Josie Cox, I know you talk to a lot of people about their work life, and I’m sure you’ve seen good and bad examples. Just start to talk us through if you can, the sort of things which employers can start to do to turn things around. Is it about changing the culture in organisations? Is it about the technology? Where should you start?

JC: It’s a great question. So, as you say, I did a lot of reporting on this this year and had the privilege of talking to a lot of different people in different sectors, in different types of jobs, and managers too. And lots of people at the CIPD of course as well. And I was actually surprised at what I found. And this kind of, you know, connects back to what we were just talking about a minute ago in terms of what has to change in order for people to be happier and to feel better about the types of jobs that they do. And I think what it boils down to is trust. Because we’ve been thrown into this world where people are working, and many people in isolation, but some people are not. They have to come into their offices. And it’s completely changed the dynamic between managers and employees in many ways. 

And in the organisations where I feel like there is a real retention problem, there’s often a real lack of trust as well. Trust going both ways, both from the manager to the employee and from the employee to the manager. And I think if we can recreate an environment where managers hire the employees who they know can have the autonomy and who they can trust, then that automatically creates a degree of respect, which in turn fuels motivation, belonging, all those great factors that Pete talked about a minute ago. So I think trust is this, kind of, core principle, without which you cannot create a good work environment. And I think that during the pandemic, a lot of us were thrown into work arrangements where trust was this, sort of, elusive concept that we didn’t really know how to prove. And so I think if we can nail that one factor, then we can, sort of, build off that.

NC: Any thoughts, Mel, on how you can achieve that? Because, of course, a lot of activities that people do that are now at home that might have been in the office are in many cases quite highly regulated. And it is difficult to tell people, just do what you think’s right. 

MG: Yeah, so I think Josie’s point’s a really interesting one, about building that trust. And it goes back to something that we were talking about earlier in terms of what are the outputs that we want from people in their roles? Is it about how long you spend at your desk, or is it about what you achieve and having really clear goals and objectives and expectations of your employees? So if people are working from home, do they know what they need to deliver, and by when, and how they need to do that is up to them. That can certainly give people a lot of autonomy but it’s really about that output I think that we need to be talking more about, I think the last few years have taught us that on the most part people can be trusted to get their work done. People have been incredibly productive throughout thick and thin through the pandemic. 

And I also wanted to pick up on another piece really, which is about the changing relationship with employees and line managers. And certainly, people professionals and managers that we’ve been speaking to in the past few months to understand what cross functional collaboration has looked like through Covid, is that managers are really finding that their employees’ expectations of them and their employer more generally are shifting in terms of having really high expectations of what their work could and should look like, from their wellbeing, to where they can work from. So although this isn’t, kind of, large scale data, I think what we are seeing is employees certainly wanting more from their employer and expecting more of them, perhaps rightly so in terms of wellbeing and where they can work. So that’ll be certainly one to watch in the coming years.

NC: And Pete, have you had any experience of persuading some of your senior managers to trust people more? Because this is all about those line managers who maybe even after Covid are still reluctant to give people that freedom, so they don’t just feel like a cog in a machine. Because in the Civil Service, as in other places, a lot of the work is repetitive. 

PT: Generally speaking, we trust people to get the work done. And I think there is an element of empowerment that people have choice of how they get it done and when they get it done, within that cycle. I think the tricky thing here is that I think, if I was understanding Josie correctly and Mel correctly is, it’s like, how do you get it done at a point where the manager and the employee are satisfied? So, for example, if you’ve got to collect children or you’ve got an evening commitment, can you work around it and can you share your perspective of, this is when I’m intending to get this job, so close of play now doesn’t mean five o’clock. It might mean later because you’re going to do something between that and schedule your day. And I think that what we’re seeing here is, to go back to Josie’s point, is that trust. That’s a, it will get done, it might not be exactly when you expected it, as if we were in the office, but it will get done by this time. 

NC: Do you know, I read a story about an industrial tribunal and it said that the bosses were saying to an employee whenever they were at home, oh you’re having one of your cosy days. And it was what they probably thought was a light remark. But you can see how that would cause an awful lot of resentment. 

PT: I think there’s a lot to how this dynamic is playing out. So often, like, I was just going to talk about something Mel said about, you know, wellbeing and resilience during this time. So how we actually support employees. I think there’s the difference between being robust and resilient. So there’s the element of, how do you make sure that your staff know how to plan, do their project management, organise their day? And then when you get that pressure, how do they bounce back from that? So how do you make sure that no-one’s overly stressed and what kind of support and care packages do you offer people? So I think there’s a lot that we’re seeing in this space now of how hybrid working has changed the relationship between line manager and employee. But also, to what extent that you need to make sure that they’re robust and resilient as well. So you make sure that they’re up to, it’s their sets and reps, kind of, thing. Like, all of the things that you need to be fit for work, have you got that basic offer? And then have you got the other offer to make sure that, because you need to manage your life in such a different way now, are those, is that support in place as well?

NC: Josie Cox, any thoughts about that?

JC: Yeah, one thing that I would add as well, and after harping on about trust just a minute ago, just based off what Pete was just saying now, I think communication is one of these factors that is just so important. It really can’t be over emphasised how important communication is in these situations. Because I think if you think about it, if you have trust, assuming you have trust, an employee should be able to say to their line manager, look, one of my kids’ schools has closed because there was a Covid case. I need to be at home with my child today. I can bring my child over to my neighbour’s house between 2:00 or 3:00 so I will do this really important call then. Explain the situation. The manager will have the insight, hopefully, and have the empathy to be able to understand that this is a real necessity and this is an exceptional situation. 

But that goes both ways. If the employee feels comfortable doing that, then the manager will respect the employee more, because the employee trusts the manager. So it’s, sort of, this continuous cycle. If there’s plenty of communication, the chances are that the trust will be higher, and the chances are that nobody will feel out of control or like they have a lack of autonomy. So I just really think that particularly when we’re working hybrid, when everyone’s facing their own challenges, be that childcare, be that your own health, be that something completely different, there’s absolutely no substitute for good communication. And if that communication is in place, then I just feel like everything can be more productive.

PT: I think what Josie’s touched on there is a really important point about, you know, we just need to up our game here on communications. And I think one of the toughest things has been we’ve seen the effects of the pandemic on people’s mental health. And the ability to, like, to prioritise people who need to come into the office as opposed to people who want to come into the office. If you’re sharing a flat with five people, you just, you know, you need that space to be in. Sometimes you know, that’s where you, kind of, need to be able to step into that space and say, we’re prioritising our staff’s wellbeing so as that they can come into the office. And that’s something that we never really did before. We didn’t talk about things like that in the way that we do now. 

And I think, so in terms of the positives of what we’ve all been through over this last, basically last couple of years, you know, it’s accelerated our use of technology. It’s meant that we’re having to trust each other a little bit more. We see into each other’s homes and families and we see each other’s children and pets. You know, there’s a whole bunch of, we’re doing things so differently and if you had said to me five years ago that that would happen, I would never had believed it. But we are in a different place. But with that comes that we actually need to make sure those human connections that are actually, are even stronger than they were before.

NC: Yeah. And Melanie, if I can bring this back to the idea of The Great Resignation, which at the beginning you were relatively sceptical about as to whether it’s actually happening, in that case, if this is about just essentially being more sensitive to what people want from work and heading off their concerns and providing them with a job that meets their needs, how do you, kind of, measure whether you’re making progress here?

MG: You make it sound very simple, Nigel, if only it was that easy. I think firstly I’d say we’ve talked a lot about communication and making sure that people are supported as individuals in all of this, which is incredibly important. And a really key linchpin of all of that is people’s relationship with their line manager. So it’s the line manager in many cases that will be supporting employees, will be building that trust with employees. So I think a really core thing that people professionals will need to prioritise in the coming years is supporting managers to be able to deliver that. They’ve got a difficult job and it’s been made more difficult in the past few years by change and complexity. So I think that’s the first thing I’d say. 

I think the second thing I would say about measuring if you’re getting it right is I think we, kind of, know how to measure whether people are happy in their organisations pre pandemic. It’s whether people are staying, why people are leaving. It’s using organisational data to understand what people’s pain points are. It’s having more regular communication and getting all different sorts of data to answer those questions I think, that will really help us pinpoint where we need to take action. Because it will look different for all organisations.

NC: OK. And let’s get a final thought from Josie and Pete too. Josie Cox, in particular from everything that you mentioned earlier you’ve heard from workers and employers?

JC: Yeah, I just think what Mel was saying just there, just this culture of transparency. Creating organisations where it’s OK to voice things that are not working. And where it’s OK for managers as well as employees to speak up and say, actually, no, this is not working for me. If this continues the way it does, I’m going to have to look for something else. But allowing an opportunity for something to change before it gets to that point of The Great Resignation.

NC: And Pete, we talked at the beginning you have this grand title of raising the value proposition. How do you know you’ve done it?

PT: Well, I think the first thing is, first thing I’d say is, do you know what it is? So I would be saying to HR professionals, you know, you need to be talking to your staff. You need to find out, why do they work here? Who thrives here? What are the harsh realities of working in this organisation? To find out what really matters to people. Because it’s, we’re so much more, as I say, than that compensation of benefits. It’s like, what is your culture? What are the, kind of, the learning and development opportunities? What are the opportunities for growth here? I think there’s so much that goes into the mix. So my advice to HR professionals is probably lift the hood of your organisation, having a look around and find out what’s going on in there.

NC: Great. Pete Thomas, Melanie Green and Josie Cox, excellent range of guests for our first show of the new year. So if not a Great Resignation in the UK, I think we’re certainly going to see a great awakening as people’s priorities, as we’ve heard, continue to change. 

Let me just mention some feedback on our recent podcast about what people managers should be doing about making their places more sustainable. The Evie Consultancy have got in touch. It, sort of, took our guests to task saying they felt the starting point needs to be a level deeper, challenging what the actual organisation is trying to deliver. And I’m sure we’ll be returning to that theme of how HR should use its seat at the top table. 

Please subscribe where you get your podcasts so you never miss an edition. But for now, from me, Nigel Cassidy, and all of us here at the CIPD, it’s a Happy New Year. 


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