Jay is Chairman & CEO at Zenefits, a leading people operations platform serving more than 11,000 small and mid-sized (SMB) companies.
The pandemic upended our lives, livelihoods and perspective on what’s “normal.” Now we’re responding by making significant changes in our professional and personal lives. Where and how we live and work is increasingly balanced with what keeps us grounded and what makes us happy.
But what happens when that doesn’t work? The headlines since May have a name for that: the “Great Resignation.” And this isn’t just a blip on the radar; the research is astounding. For example, according to a June survey from Monster (via HR Dive), 95% of American workers are open to changing jobs. Furthermore, the U.S. saw 4 million people quit their jobs in April alone. The industries most affected span from retail trade, professional and business services, to transportation, warehousing and utilities.
For American businesses — especially small businesses — during the pandemic, it’s a critical time to dig into how we got here and how employers can stop the mass exodus.
It’s a job seeker’s market, and people are fueled by the confidence that they can find better work — and work that is better for them. April saw a record 9.3 million job openings. Remaining employees are now in a position to negotiate better pay or accommodations or seek work elsewhere. Often, the workers who did remain, despite furloughs or layoffs, were left behind to do more work for the same pay.
The pandemic fundamentally altered how workers view their career and their lives, with many reevaluating their circumstances.
How to stop the mass exodus: Make your business personal.
Now more than ever, employers must put their people first or risk losing talent. It requires a closer and more consistent commitment. As the CEO of a benefits platform, I have a few suggestions on how to get started:
1. Listen and learn.
Whether your people are in the office or remote, what impacts them outside of work hours matters.
Consider regularly surveying your workforce to gauge well-being. How are they doing? What do they need for both personal and professional growth? This can be followed by timely and transparent actions to ensure workers feel heard. Provide people managers with tools and training to help navigate impactful, ongoing individual follow-ups. Stay interviews (versus exit interviews) are a great way to identify adjustments to prevent turnover and wandering eyes to other job offers.
For example, I learned of one company that has built “manager pods.” These gatherings allow managers to engage and inspire people, whether they see them in person or whether they never meet. They also review ratings of how people feel about their managers and leadership in these meetings to keep them accountable.
I contend there is value to creating a safe environment to engage in civil discourse on the most pressing topics during office hours. For example, I host listening hours at our company. One of our most recent was about racial inequity and how to build better empathy, awareness and impact better balance. And we also institutionalized monthly check-ins with a shared topic theme across the company to ensure active dialogue and problem-solving continue.
2. Coach to mitigate burnout.
Many people leaving their jobs are doing so because of burnout. The sustained multi-layered levels of stress caused by change and uncertainty during the pandemic are at the core of this burnout. When you add in the fact that many workers at America’s small businesses didn’t take a vacation last year, it causes a trickle-down effect.
Whether your company is going back to the office, remaining remote or is a hybrid of the two, burnout is a real risk. It’s time to take a hard look at your wellness benefits and consider adding a few more. Identify at-risk workers and make sure they have everything they need. Offer employees mental health hours to step away — no questions asked. There’s no cost to the business and it goes a long way toward mental health. Offer flexible work hours, or surprise your staff with a freebie Friday off as a show of appreciation. Encourage employees to unplug and take vacations — then enforce it.
Misaligned work can be a big culprit of stress, so taking a more holistic look at the “what” and the “how” of the work, along with how it makes you feel, can make bigger impacts. I believe companies offering a blend of career and mental health coaching could see an increase in the number of employees who leverage employee assistance program benefits. This would be a marked improvement over median EAP usage, which was at about 5.5% in 2018, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
3. Invest in flexibility.
Another way to reverse the mass exodus is by stepping up to deliver the benefits that matter most to your team. While competitive pay always contributes to luring employees to new roles, for small businesses, that isn’t always easy to do. But the second most impactful lever is work flexibility, and that can make a big impact at a smaller price point. If your business can ease up on the conventional parameters of when and where your people work, they will be more likely to return the favor by staying.
How long will it last?
Just as “the office” has forever changed, so have the conventions, infrastructure and expectations across the broader workforce and workplace. We’re in uncharted territory in this post-pandemic reality, and there will undoubtedly be even more implications on work. We couldn’t have predicted the pandemic any better than we could’ve predicted the Great Resignation — or what’s to come next, for that matter.
Like it or not, small businesses are the bellwether for the rest of business. Shifts in the market hit them first. So small business employers must adapt — or be left behind by their competitors and by their people.