Blogs / 26 Aug 2021 9 min

The Great Resignation: How to avoid losing talented women

Struggling to conduct a Zoom meeting, while having to yet again ask her kids to be quiet was a daily battle and stress for Amanda during the school holidays. Although things would be easier when schools returned, there was still the risk she would be juggling her work and kids with little or no notice, if class bubbles closed again. She really loved her job but eighteen months into the pandemic, Amanda was close to breaking point.

The great resignation is here

The COVID pandemic has brought drastic changes to people’s working and home lives: sadly Amanda’s story is not unique. Despite this, we know from history that in times of uncertainty most people stay put in their roles. Yet as vaccine rollouts start to reach a critical mass and with lockdown restrictions easing in the UK and many parts of Europe, things may well be about to change. According to management professor Anthony Klotz, the ‘Great Resignation’ is upon us. Having had more than a year to re-evaluate life priorities, Klotz predicts that as employees are asked to return to ‘normality’ and their daily commute to their office jobs, this will result in a Great Resignation.

According to a Microsoft survey of 30,000 people from around the world, 41% of employees are considering quitting in the next year[i]. Similar findings emerged from a UK and Ireland study by Personio who found a 38% intention to leave in the next 6-12 months[ii]. So what is behind the Great Resignation? After almost 18 months of stress and disruption, many employees are feeling the emotional toll. Stress and burnout have increased. According to a Gallup poll in North America, over the last year 61% of women and 52% of men said they have felt stressed on a typical day[iii]. Personio found worsening work-life balance, pay freezes and toxic cultures as key resignation reasons[iv]. For those who were furloughed, being at home with their families gave them valuable time to evaluate what they wanted – with many realising they needed a better work/life balance. Parents and non-parents alike have experienced their workload intensify over the last year, their stress compounded by the isolation of working from home. And it seems the pressures on many companies to stay afloat and adapt to the pandemic mean that in some cases employees’ needs were neglected.

Additionally, how and where we work is changing. During the pandemic, LinkedIn has seen a 5-fold increase in remote job postings[v]. With 46% of people saying they are more likely to switch jobs because they can now work remotely, this has the potential to be a game changer for the job market. And with staff turnover costs estimated to be up to 213% for senior roles[vi], this has the potential to be a very expensive reckoning. To put it bluntly, those employers who haven’t met their employees’ needs and haven’t been great employers are likely to suffer the greatest talent losses.

Why does this matter?

The pandemic has sadly exacerbated the gender gap, and now the Great Resignation has the potential to compound this. Globally, during the pandemic more women than men have lost their jobs (5% of all employed women compared with 3.9% of all employed men). Industries with more women – such as the consumer sector, not-for-profit and media and communications) are seeing a greater loss of roles. Progress in women’s appointments to senior leadership roles has been reversed – we’ve eroded the progress of the last couple of years in some cases. And significantly, the double burden of paid and unpaid work has increased during the pandemic, leading to more stress and job instability[vii].

We now have a choice. Continue with the way things have been, and see women’s workplace gains further eroded, or make the bold choice to build new and better ways of working.

What companies can do

1. Reset what the working week looks like

Many organisations have indicated they will move to a hybrid working model with employees able to combine office-based and home-based work. In doing so, companies need to ensure the reimagined work arrangements serve all employees. A CMI poll of nearly 2,300 leaders and employees found 69% of mothers wanted to continue working at least one day a week from home, compared with 56% of fathers[viii]. We must avoid the situation where disproportionately men return to the office and women remain working from home as ‘second class’ workers. We all know the informal networking benefits of being seen and being in the office and if companies don’t provide meaningful plans that serve all employees, we run the risk of further disadvantaging women’s careers. One counter-intuitive idea to combat this is proposed by David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute. He has implemented a ‘one-virtual, all-virtual’ approach to meetings[ix], to combat the proximity bias that can favour people closer to us. (A 2015 study involving a NASDAQ-listed Chinese travel company found remote workers had better performance but lower promotion rates[x]).

Rock’s system means that if one person is joining a meeting virtually, then everyone does. Even those in the same office will dial in from different desks to ensure those working remotely aren’t inadvertently excluded from the side conversations that naturally occur when people are physically together.

2. Listen and respond to the needs of employees

It is essential that companies engage their employees in determining the right balance for their teams. One of our clients is doing this really well by determining the hybrid working mix on a team-by-team basis. After all, not all teams are the same, and not all individuals’ needs are the same. Consider the needs of the young graduate, with little experience of the workplace, living in a shared house with no separate area for home working, longing for the social interaction of the workplace, versus parents who, without a commute, are now seeing their children more and want to maintain this balance. Just last week I was discussing with a friend the value of me being able to see my daughter before her bedtime, even though I was running an evening workshop. I am working from home and in a break was able to say good night before my husband put her to bed and I returned to my workshop.

3. Support employee well-being and foster a sense of belonging

Retaining great talent starts with being a good place to work. Goldman Sachs hit the headlines earlier this year for all the wrong reasons when a group of graduate analysts revealed they were working 95 hours a week and sleeping only 5 hours a night. Three-quarters reported feeling they were “victims of workplace abuse”[xi]. It is little wonder these individuals rated their job satisfaction as two out of 10. Organisations must not allow work practices that contribute to burnout, such as back-to-back meetings, or scheduling client meetings without leaving any preparation time within working hours. Reduce or cap workloads where needed, ensure performance measures are fair and realistic, and give employees the chance to re-charge.

Dating app Bumble was recently applauded for mandating a company-wide week long holiday giving all 700 employees a chance to de-stress[xii]. Founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd was heralded for by a senior Bumble leader as “having correctly intuited our collective burnout”.

4. Lead from the top

Senior leaders have an important role to play in role modelling the right behaviours. Microsoft have a ‘Model, Coach, Care’ framework which sees leaders role model self-care practices, coach employees on priority setting and demonstrably show support for their teams. Seemingly small things like not responding to emails on the weekend, noticing who is over-working and giving them permission to stop, and expressing genuine gratitude, all have a magnified impact when role modelled by senior leaders.

The unprecedented events of the last 18 months have taken a toll on employees and organisations. We now have a choice. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape the workplace and abandon outdated working practices in favour of socially responsible practices which support the holistic needs of employees. By really listening and responding thoughtfully to the needs of their workforce, companies can become talent magnets attracting the best of the talent who are mobilising in this Great Resignation.

Sharon Peake is the founder and CEO of Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.

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[i] Microsoft 2021, The Next Great Disruption is Hybrid Work: Are we Ready?
[ii] Personio, 2021. Counting the Cost: How businesses risk a post pandemic talent drain
[iii] Gallup, 2021. 7 things we learned about US and Canadian employees in 2020
[iv] Personio, 2021. Counting the Cost: How businesses risk a post pandemic talent drain
[v] Microsoft 2021, The Next Great Disruption is Hybrid Work: Are we Ready?
[vi] Centre for American Progress, 2012. There are significant business costs to replacing employees
[vii] World Economic Forum (2021). Global Gender Gap Report 2021
[viii]Chartered Management Institute, 2021. Management Transformed
[ix] David Dock, 12 August 2021. One awful-sounding idea that will actually fix the flaws of hybrid work: “One virtual, all virtual”
[x] Stanford Graduate School of Business, 2015. Does working from home work? Evidence from a Chinese experiment
[xi] FT, 18 March 2021. Junior Goldman Sachs bankers complain of 95-hour week
[xii] Sky News, 22 June 2021. Dating app Bumble closes for a week to let staff tackle ‘collective burnout’