Special Reports

Want to Know How to Keep Employees From Quitting? Ask Them What They Want

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  • Employees want more flexibility and they're willing — and able — to switch jobs if they're not getting it.
  • The freedom to work remotely, or with at least some schedule flexibility, is a hard thing for employees to give back.
  • 66% of executives report they are designing post-pandemic workforce policies with little to no direct input from employees.

Whether it's called the Great Resignation, Great Reallocation, or the Great Talent Swap, one thing is clear: Employees want more flexibility and they're willing — and able — to switch jobs if they're not getting it.

The most recent jobs numbers make the case. For the second straight month, Americans left their jobs at a record pace. The Labor Department reported that 4.4 million people quit their jobs in September, the most recent available data. That number topped August's roughly 4.3 million and hiked the quits rate as a percentage of the labor force to 3%, also a record.

All this job movement has leaders scrambling to respond to the rapidly evolving expectations of their workers. They want to listen and respond and, in many cases, are offering employees vastly different ways of working. But at the same time, many executives are running their companies with the quiet hope that things will eventually go back to some version of the way they were pre-pandemic.

To which increasing numbers of chief people officers are saying: not likely.

If there's one thing that's become abundantly clear over the past 20 months it's that the freedom to work remotely, or with at least some schedule flexibility, is a hard thing for employees to give back. And with the tight labor market, they feel they don't have to, giving workers a newfound sense of power in setting the terms for where and how they do their jobs.

The companies succeeding in this new landscape are the ones embracing this change, not clinging to the remnants of what office life used to look like.

"There's going to be a harsh assessment of companies that hung on to the way things were done with a clawed hand," says Steve Pemberton, chief human resources officer at Workhuman. "Those are the companies that are going to continue to see talent walk out the door."

To keep that from happening, leaders and managers need to learn how to reset the definition and expectations of work. "Workers have proven over the past 20 months that they can do their jobs well remotely," Pemberton says. "All those markers of commitment — how long you've been in the office, how many cars are in the parking lot — don't matter anymore and that means managers have to do things differently."

At job site platform Indeed, Paul Wolfe, who until recently was CHRO at the company, says he was hearing managers talk about going back to doing things in the office the way they were done pre-pandemic.

"The paradigm of work that existed before the pandemic does not exist anymore, it's gone," he says. For example, Wolfe says Indeed has inside sales directors with teams comprised of 10 to 12 sales reps. Pre-pandemic, each team sat together, allowing a director to join a client call or jump in to give a team member feedback.

"That way of working will not exist anymore because even when offices reopen in January, that team will be dispersed," he says. Some people will work remotely, some will be in on different days, and some will be strictly remote. Those directors are learning how to manage differently in this new arrangement, Wolfe says.

Finding out what matters to employees

Pemberton says he views what's happening now across companies as an opportunity for more robust collaboration between employers and workers. As Workhuman set out to reimagine its future of work, the company surveyed its entire global workforce.

Employees were asked: What are you looking for? What matters the most to you?

"It doesn't mean you're going to be able to do everything that employees want, but just being asked matters to them," Pemberton says. "It shows you care about what's on their mind."  

And it seems as if not enough leaders are taking the time to talk to their workforce. A recent study shows a massive and growing divide in how executives and employees envision the future of work.

The Future Forum Pulse study reveals that 66% of executives report they are designing post-pandemic workforce policies with little to no direct input from employees. And while that same percentage of executives believe they're being "very transparent" regarding their post-pandemic policies, less than half of workers agree.

Once companies take the time to ask for feedback, it's important to communicate back to employees what's been heard.

Mike Morini, CEO of Workforce Software, a workforce management solutions company, says employees, especially millennial and Gen Z workers, want to know they have a voice and are being heard by management. If not, he says, "they have no issue changing jobs."

That means explaining to workers, "we can do these three things immediately, these three things in the next year, and we can't do these three things," Pemberton says. "Employees will be more understanding when they know they're being listened to."

He and other CHROs say they have little patience for executives who fear that this era of collaboration with employees will undercut their leadership or make them look like they're not in control.

"I have news for you: when you've got 15% or 20% turnover of your workforce, you've already lost control," Pemberton says. Collaboration, he adds, is the new leadership muscle that needs to be developed.

To join the CNBC Workforce Executive Council, apply at cnbccouncils.com/wec.

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