August 30, 2021 – Updated to include newer supporting information. Is this a Post-COVID exodus, or simply the continuation of a growing trend of people quitting their bosses? Check out the graph later in the story.

Over the past 18 months, people everywhere have been shaken to their core. An abundance of fear, uncertainty, isolation, sorrow and grief has taken its toll. The 2020-2021 COVID pandemic has left people around the world questioning what gives meaning to their lives.

What’s Happening?

In a survey conducted in March, 26% of American workers said they were planning to leave their current jobs and look for new ones when the pandemic was over. Amongst Millennials (born between 1981 and 1994), the number increases to 34%. The Microsoft Work Trend Index found that the number may be as high as 40%.

Will it really be as many as 40%? Probably not. But consider two points:

  1. The IT industry has one of the highest turnover rates among all industries.
  2. What’s worse – an employee who wants to quit and does, or an employee who wants to quit but doesn’t feel they can? You could end up with disengaged employees instead.

J.P. Gownder, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, cautioned against taking a desire to quit the same as the intention to go ahead and do so, but also cautioned, “I think we are at an inflection point at which many people are reconsidering the particulars of their lives and of work-life balance.”

We can’t blame this on COVID-19, so it would be unwise for any organization to assume that, once the effects of COVID have passed, everything will go back to normal. According to US Department of Labor statistics, “voluntary separations” (people quitting) have been slowly increasing every year (with the single exception of 2020, where people were more likely to hold on to jobs OR were laid off).

Voluntary Separations (Non-Farm)

Are you ready for a possible exodus of employees searching for meaning in their lives? Considering how hard it is to fill current open positions, will your organization even survive an exodus of some of your best employees?

What Can You Do About It?

As a leader, you can not only survive the exodus, you can leverage this opportunity to create even stronger relationships with your employees. However, leadership needs to experience “The Great Awakening” in order to deal with “The Great Exodus.”

Prudential Financial vice chair Rob Falzon said his greatest concern currently is being able to retain talent.

“As individuals disassociate themselves with their organizations from a cultural standpoint,” he said, “it becomes increasingly easy for them to make decisions to leave and go elsewhere.” – Rob Falzon

This is absolutely true — but this isn’t an argument to bring employees back into the office; it’s a reason to start improving the culture of the organization.

Here are some steps you can take:

  1. Create a deeper meaning in the work – when employees leave a company, it is rarely because of the salary. As a leader, you must discover a clear connection between what your employees are doing and the customers they are doing it for. I used to work for a company that provided software for hospitals – this gave me a clear connection from developers to patients. What’s your connection? Is it about solving customer issues? Helping people get through their day with a little less stress? For Artisan Agility, we work to help people like you – leaders – make others lives easier, more enjoyable, and more fulfilling through string leadership.
  2. Create an environment where people can step up – too many of us work in environments where we can’t safely speak our minds. I recently heard a story about a friend who was fired because she spoke her mind about how things were getting done. Instead of recognizing my friend for her ideas and willingness to share them – instead of being clear what could be improved and what simply couldn’t be changed at the time – they silenced her by firing her. People are constantly looking for someone with whom they can freely share their ideas. when an employee feels strongly enough about the work they are doing that they are willing to speak up, let them. Be THAT kind of leader.
  3. Create stronger relationships with your employees – its not terribly difficult to build stronger relationships with your employees. Much of it comes down to one word: LISTEN. More generally, be the kind of leader that gives feedback and accepts feedback freely and often. Be constructive, be timely, be honest, and be open.
  4. Create an environment safe for innovation and mistakes – successful organizations take calculated risks and innovate. When you create an environment where everyone recognizes that work is a learning experience and everyone makes mistakes, people are more willing to experiment and to admit when they aren’t sure how to proceed with a problem. Stop trying to fix the blame and, instead, fix the problem. Admit that you make mistakes and that you can’t see the future.
  5. Create flexibility in the work structure – the new normal is a flexible work environment that includes working from home as well as modified hours. When employees are expected to be in the office, make sure there’s a really good reason for it, not just because “that’s the way we worked before.” As a leader, you have a choice to make. You can either make the world your prospective employee pool and hire the best no matter where they are or construct an echo of the 9-5 work environment where everyone is in the office 5 days a week and flexible hours are not an option. If you pick the latter option, you WILL have a turnover problem soon.

I recommend considering changes in your organizational culture RIGHT NOW. Employees have already started updating their resumes and are reaching out to recruiters and job placement websites. The only way you are going to stop most of them from jumping ship is to make your ship more meaningful.

These and more than one hundred other tips are discussed in Artisan Agility’s The Leadership Edge training system. When you consider the cost of replacing employees against the cost of a single training system that can keep you from having to replace all those employees, it’s an easy decision. Learn leadership skills that will change your career, your life, and your world.