18th May 2022
3 Min Read

The time of autonomy: as research highlights the extent of employee restlessness, how can businesses stem the tide of resignations?

Lindsay Kohler
Lindsay Kohler
People & Change

Many would agree that the unplanned experiment in remote working due to the pandemic led to a fundamental shift in employee expectations.

Last year, the number of people quitting their job rose to a 20-year high, indicating that dissatisfied employees had no qualms about jumping ship in search of better opportunities elsewhere.

Salary, benefits and career progression were among the most obvious drivers – but something else was happening too. Those who’d enjoyed the newfound freedom and flexibility of remote working found they no longer had to compromise on where and to some extent, when they worked, especially if their skills are in high-demand. Take the tech industry, for instance. An intense war for talent has seen desperation set in for some companies who’re struggling to attract and retain people with the right technical capabilities, who are commanding ever-higher salaries and other incentives. With tech giants like Twitter and Facebook adopting permanent remote working policies, others in the sector have no choice but to follow suit if they want to widen their talent pool.

Itchy feet

Warning signs that people were growing restless in their current jobs can be seen when you compare Google search data between 2020 and 2021(table one).

During 2020, when pandemic-related uncertainty was at its height, the number of searches for ‘how to write a resignation letter’ dropped by around 15% compared to 2019. However, in 2021, it grew by 56% year-on-year, as people got serious about leaving their jobs.

Similarly, searches for ‘do I have to work my notice period?’ fell by 6.6% in 2020 compared to the previous year – yet jumped by around a quarter last year.

Interest in hybrid working has surged too, with search volumes up by a staggering 63,354% (yes, you read that right) between 2019 and 2021.

And the trend towards more flexibility continued, with searches for ‘four day working week’ and ‘flexible working’ rocketing by just over 51% and 50% respectively in the same period.

There was also a 10% rise in the number of searches for ‘changing career’ – perhaps prompted by people’s experience of being furloughed or simply because they saw better opportunities in another role or sector thanks to a buoyant jobs market.

What the search data shows

Why is this happening?

Taken together, the data suggests that people now see how they could work more flexibly, with more autonomy over the schedule and a better work-life balance.

Scarlettabbott's Lead Behavioural Scientist Lindsay Kohler, who works with our team of employee engagement consultants to drive behavioural change in global organisations says:

“It’s fascinating that searches for hybrid working were essentially zero in 2019, had a slight uptick in 2020, but then exploded in 2021 – meaning that it’s a relatively new term and concept. But searches for ‘flexible working’ were already quite high in 2020, suggesting the idea of flexible schedules isn’t new, but where we physically work is.

“That desire for autonomy is only likely to grow, especially if employers mandate a return to the office or rigid schedule.

“People might not have realised how much more control they had over their day during the pandemic but now, with the juxtaposition of trying to go back to before, we’re feeling that loss of control more keenly than ever, and will fight to keep it.

“It’s important to remember this is still a very hot job seekers’ market. I think there’ll be quite a bit of movement for at least another year before things start to settle back down, and people have found the right balance of work and flexibility for their lives.”

New working model

For employers faced with a tide of resignations, Lindsay suggests the following three tips:

1. Build trust: If you trust your people to do their job, and express that trust repeatedly, then people feel empowered to do their job, and leaders will give them the autonomy to do their best work. It’s important to be honest too. If managers are intent on controlling their team, perhaps they’re not the best people for the job. People get promoted into management positions often with little regard as to whether they have the right skill set and temperament to be leading people.

2. Grow your alumni network: If someone has their heart set on making a change for any other reason than money, then let them go with grace and set them up to be an ambassador for your brand once they move on. Companies such as Monzo and HSBC have thriving alumni networks, and Proctor & Gamble even hold an annual alumni conference. The scarlettabbott 2020 World Changers report does a deep dive on harnessing your alumni as both ambassadors and an important source of insight.

3. Promote autonomy: When managers empower rather than control people, they gain so much more – goodwill, trust, creativity and a level of openness in the business that enables people to flourish. So, really look at your leadership hierarchies and see if they’re still fit for purpose in an evolved workforce.

        To find out more about how your business can support a culture that boosts retention, speak with one of our employee engagement consultants.

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