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The Great Resignation is a Great Opportunity

My inbox is filled with articles on “The Great Resignation” and how to “retain employees”. The problem is that we keep applying old solutions to a new paradigm. The whole concept of “retention” is old school. What if we look instead at how to get the work done, instead of how to “retain” people? By shifting our perspective on the problem, more possibilities will appear.

First, let’s take a look at how we got here. Then we’ll see what opportunities have been created.

How did we get here? As anyone resigning can tell you, the Great Resignation didn’t suddenly happen, it’s been brewing for years, and finally hit a tipping point. Workers have been at the mercy of their employers for years, and now the balance of power is shifting.

Organizations have been successful without having to account for the human toll. During the industrial revolution, unions were formed to protect workers from physical harm and exploitation. When we moved into knowledge work, and salaries rose, we stopped protecting people from exploitation. Most knowledge workers are “management” and therefore not subject to unionization.

So in exchange for high pay, we kept working longer and longer hours, checked email all the time, and gave up big parts of our lives. Why? Because it felt good! We were valued! We were paid! And we slipped right into being overworked. When management employees work overtime, there is zero cost to the organization. That’s why when managers ask for more headcount, they often get turned down. Why would the organization pay for more people when it costs them nothing to do the same work with the people they have?

Why now? The pandemic woke many of us up to the fact that it’s not worth the money to have your life consumed with work. But it couldn’t have shifted without a collective movement. One resignation didn’t make an impact, one person can be replaced. But when thousands resign, and the work can’t get done, organizations are forced to take notice.

People as Energy Sources rather than Resources. The industrial revolution sparked us to think about people as “Human Resources”. Resources are a source of energy that we feed work into, and deplete the energy. What if we instead thought of people as “energy sources”, bringing energy in, energy that needs to be fueled and not depleted.

What opportunities have emerged? The Great Resignation has created opportunities for workers but also for companies.

Workers are able to take their power back. They can negotiate better terms for a job they love. They can create work with more flexibility in hours, location, fulfilling work, and more. There is also an opportunity to restructure the way they work and who they work for.

What would be possible if people actually did only work on things they were interested in? What if no one had to take on drudgery, soul-crushing work? People could sign up for work they were passionate about.

The number one cause of people leaving their job is their supervisor. What if no one worked for a boss they didn’t like? You might say “well no one ever HAS TO.” But they do, if you’re in a job and you get a new boss, who you hate, it’s a difficult thing to change. If you are choosing your work assignments and choosing who you work with, you would have more power over who you work with. What if you chose your boss, instead of your boss being imposed on you?

How can organizations adapt to a wave of Resignations? First, instead of focusing on how to keep people, focus on how to get the important work done. We’ve had the luxury of being inefficient because people picked up the slack. A whole lot of non-value added work happens in organizations. Start by prioritizing the work that is truly impacting the bottom line.

Second, be willing to break the old “employment” paradigms. For example, if there are different funding “buckets” for employees vs contractors, stop doing that. Get the work done the best way the work can get done.

Third, let go of the idea that we need people to do a “job”. If you got nervous earlier when I said “let people work on what they’re passionate about”, you’re not alone, I get a little nervous too. But if the only way I can get results is by getting people to do “dull” work, something is amiss. What would it take for all the work we need to do, to be exciting? Keep in mind that different people are excited about different things, but let’s face it, some tasks are simply inhumane. When people’s work lights them up, the whole company lights up.

Can we have continuity and innovation with a flexible workforce? One fear of a flexible workforce is; because no one has “skin in the game” the strategy will fall apart, and no one will have a stake in innovation. What would need to be in place to overcome these risks? When I think about the movie business, it works exactly like a flexible workforce. Teams come together for a short time, innovate, and create magic. The skin they have in the game is pride, reputation, and love of the work.

What if there were a structure for individuals to build their reputation through their contributions? Strategic continuity in the past has been shouldered by individuals, but what if instead it lived in the organization? How might we rethink structures to support that continuity?

Conclusion. The Great Resignation is more like a “Great Opportunity”, and an opportunity to rethink the way we look at workers. Instead of viewing workers as “resources” if we view them as “energy sources” it has the potential to revolutionize the way we work.

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