Why the great resignation calls for some great re-engagement

Workers are re-evaluating their relationship with work. The employee experience is under so much scrutiny that businesses must act


It’s been 19 months and counting of Covid-induced change for huge numbers of workers across the globe. Many are burnt out, others fed up. As their priorities evolve, businesses must re-evaluate how they engage employees.

The stresses of juggling work and life, dealing with uncertain employment, accelerating business and digital transformations, working from home or not working from home, have created a great dislocation in the jobs market. And the numbers are stark. In the US, people have been quitting jobs at the highest rates this century. 

The so-called “big quit” may be an American phenomenon, but job vacancies in the UK soared to an all-time high recently. Employee engagement is a hot topic around the globe.

“In recent times, organisations have shunted the idea of resilience onto employees rather than themselves; that way businesses don’t need to devote resources to being resilient,” says Dr Adrian Madden, a senior lecturer in the Department of Management at the University of Huddersfield. “There is also the issue of trust between employers and employees. This has been significantly eroded as a result of Covid, not helped by a renormalising discourse of recovery, where workers should put aside these issues as the economy rebounds.” 

Gauging happiness

However, when attrition is high or it looks as if workers are in demand, with calls from politicians for a “high wage, high productivity” economy, then the issue of employee experience matters even more. The “great resignation”, as it’s also called in the US, should be met with a “great re-engagement” by businesses around the world, especially now that skilled labour is in peak demand globally and attrition is an issue. 

“Organisations must increasingly be genuine about putting the employee at the centre, and not just taking a utilitarian approach to staffing. It is no longer about optimising people as a resource for the benefit of the company,” states Gal Rimon, CEO of employee engagement platform Centrical. “It’s in a company’s best interest to keep employees engaged and feeling valued, especially now. There’s also a great deal of expense associated with recruiting and onboarding employees.”

The employee experience needs to be agile and exciting, otherwise people can just go elsewhere

While customer-centricity is a well-worn business phrase, forward-thinking firms realise it’s time to focus on employee-centricity. But a lot needs to be done in this area. For instance, the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development or CIPD’s annual Good Work Index finds that job quality in the UK still falls short, with too many workers reporting a lack of development and poor wellbeing. 

Defining what “good” looks like when it comes to employee experience is therefore important. This goes beyond remuneration, a better work-life balance, snazzy office spaces or free breakfasts. It’s increasingly about achieving happiness at work. It’s personal, hard to define and evolving, with greater expectations among Gen Z and Millennials. Pulse surveys and real-time employee feedback help. 

“The employee experience needs to change because our whole world experience has changed. The pandemic has taught people that the core of their job can be done in a way that suits them. Employee experience has also become about individuality in the workplace,” explains Nathan Peart, managing director at law recruitment firm Major, Lindsey & Africa. 

“Today, firms need to ensure staff can thrive, not just survive,” Peart says. “The employee experience needs to be agile and exciting, otherwise people can just go elsewhere. The savviest companies are therefore prioritising growth and development tailored to the individual.” 

Plugging the gaps

British multinational telecoms firm BT is aiming to upskill and motivate staff, particularly about cybersecurity. This is one of the fastest-growing areas of the company, but there’s a shortfall of 3 million workers globally. The firm is keen to plug this skills gap through engaging its employees. 

“We are training our own people to fill the void, given the job shortage in the global marketplace. Our business is moving from traditional to new services, therefore we need to make that transition from old skill sets to new ones,” states Andy Newman, director of BT Security. 

This is achieved by providing on-the-job microlearning, he says, but in a creative manner, different to what’s been done in the past. “Making it interesting, making it engaging, as well as making it more enjoyable and fun.”

For BT’s staff, it’s been about personal development, he says. “From an individual perspective all of a sudden employees have an expertise on their resume that they never had before to do with cybersecurity. For the business we’ve seen a material impact on our sales metrics.”

Aligning business outcomes with employee personal goals – for example, lifelong learning or developing know-how – is a new imperative, especially with the shift to a greener economy in which new skills are needed. Peel Ports, the second-largest port operator in the UK, has committed to slash emissions, but it also needs to embed this knowledge among its workers. 

The company is going through an education process, “putting in courses on sustainability to raise awareness among our teams”, says Lewis McIntyre, managing director of port services at Peel Ports Group. “We have 1,700 employees and we need to build expertise within industry.”

There’s no doubt the landscape for employee experience is shifting, and companies must adapt. The winners will co-create more shared value with their workers, align personal and business goals, and tackle some of society’s biggest challenges.