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The latest Microsoft Work Trend Index shows that over 40% of people want to quit their jobs in 2021. This is nearly double the figure for job-changing intent two years prior, and reflects a similar survey in the UK and Ireland illustrating that 38% of workers plan to switch in the next 12 months. The numbers are even more striking when one focuses on Gen Z – an Adobe survey of working professionals aged 18-24 shows that 56% of them plan to quit jobs over the next year, while the numbers are 54% and 77% for similar surveys by Microsoft and Bankrate respectively.

But why exactly is this happening? And what can companies do about it? Leaders and people management firms everywhere are sharing perspectives and strategising responses to what many are calling The Great Resignation – a worldwide move towards new jobs and opportunities precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the paradigm shifts it brought about in business.

Why employee discontent is on the uptick

The pandemic has been a trying time for workforces everywhere. Several lost their jobs, while others had to take large pay cuts. Even in companies that managed to hold onto their teams, the lockdown exposed shortcomings in leadership and people culture that did not sit well with employees. With the shift to remote work, in particular, not all companies were able to maintain open communication lines or stay sufficiently invested in employee wellbeing once the office space shifted to Zoom. In India, with its traditional resistance to flexible/remote jobs, many companies have removed the option to work from home as soon as the official lockdown ended, or plan to do so shortly. Still others have failed to suitably appraise, appreciate and motivate their employees amidst trying to keep things going remotely.

Another negative consequence of the last 18 months is the erosion of work-life balance – which is in fact paradoxical to what remote work stands for. According to one survey, over half of remote employees were worried about the need to ‘appear’ busy to their managers, which is why 44% ended up working longer hours than usual. This is particularly irksome for Gen Z workers, who grew up amidst technology and are accustomed to smarter and faster ways of doing things, but are also relatively unproven and thus need to ‘look good’ with their managers. The pressure to do so resulted in a trend of clocking extra hours on mundane tasks for appearances’ sake, rather than actually getting things done. This has led to frustration and burnout, further encouraging the outward shift.

What lies ahead

It remains to be seen whether the Great Resignation will be a deluge or a drizzle. A fair fraction of employees are happy to stay on in companies that kept them safe during troubled times, while several companies – especially in the financial sector – continue to be fundamentally opposed to working from home and will likely resume office operations as soon as it is feasible.

What is evident, however, is that people have reassessed their priorities and expect different things now. Gen Zers, in particular, can’t be won over by things like free lunches and foosball tables at work (which they can’t use anyway now that offices are shut). They want jobs where they are valued and where they are given the scope to realise their potential. Moreover, many have used the extra time at home to pick up skills and pursue passions that were on hold earlier. Equipped now with new skills and self-awareness, many have chosen to start their own gigs or shift into jobs more in line with what they like doing.

Need of the Hour

So what can companies do? Take conscious steps to rework HR policies to emphasise flexibility, mental health, choice of location, better learning opportunities and higher employee engagement. Flexibility, in this context, refers not only to the choice between on-site and remote but also to the hours clocked each day. Employees should be allowed to choose the workday that works for them, whether that falls into the traditional 9-to-5 or not, and they should be encouraged to use technology that does mundane tasks for them. For Gen Zers, especially, companies that prioritise the ‘why’ of work – by giving them tasks in line with what they believe in – will give them a reason to keep showing up and putting in their best. Star Squared PR, One of India’s fastest growing PR firms, has a young and vibrant team of Gen Zers and their HR team works closely with them to develop programmes and initiatives to keep them engaged. Managing their expectations and continuously creating opportunities for collaboration has been crucial during the last few months.

For better or for worse, remote work has enabled hiring to go global, and young professionals have too many options to stay on with an employer that doesn’t meet their expectations. Companies that keep their employees front and centre, by accommodating their individual needs and demonstrating that they are wanted and appreciated, will see higher retention and productivity.