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Out of office, permanently.

Written by Richelle Stewart on October 4, 2021

“The Great Resignation” is all over the media. Perhaps the interruption to our normal operating processes, brought about by the pandemic caused us all to step back and take a look at what isn’t working with the way we are working. Let’s say “goodbye” to the broken ways we work and “hello” to a better workplace for EVERYONE.

The “Great Resignation” has been all the buzz. In the last several months, millions of Americans have quit their jobs. MILLIONS. Four million in April and close to that in June, actually. Every media outlet has covered this mass exodus in its many, various ways. Most of the articles I’ve read have asked “why” questions and are sharing shocking statistics, but the fact that so many are quitting isn’t the shocking part. What’s shocking is that it didn’t happen sooner.

If you examine the way we work, as I have for several years, it is clear that we’ve been running on fumes while trudging up a steep hill for decades. 

We work insanely long hours.  We work on average 47 hours per week, but many people work many more hours than that. Countries whose work week averages 30-35 hours see our number as a measure of inefficiency, not  productivity. If you add up the extra time spent commuting, logging on, traveling, and thinking about our jobs, it’s easy to see why work consumes the largest part of our day. And for many, the largest part of our  life. We’ve been running towards burnout for so long that when Covid came in and forced us to stop for a second, we realized we didn’t want to run that hard anymore.

We have no real work-life balance. Employee wellness programs look good on paper. Encourage your staff to take time for self-care, and they will be more productive. Here’s a discount on that gym membership, but I’m not going to make any adjustments to your workload so that you can actually use it.  During the pandemic, people took up new hobbies, added pets to their households, and worked from an AirBnB beach house for a week even though they had no vacation days. They enjoyed some fresh air during a lunchtime walk and got some laundry done in between Zoom calls. The thought of losing that flexibility and giving up the time we gained seems inconceivable. Many have proved that you CAN do work AND have a flexible schedule. Asynchronous working provides more balance than in-office haircuts and Thursday massages ever will. 

We have left no margin for real life. When I left my full-time job, it was because I didn’t have enough available time. My work life of 50+ hours per week wouldn’t fit with my outside life requirements of caring for sick parents, cultivating a new marriage, settling in a new house, and one day having children. I like to say that businesses would operate perfectly if their employees never got sick, never took time off, never wanted to have a family, or never needed to care for relatives. If a company builds zero margin for the unexpected, then when the unexpected happens, it can be catastrophic, leading to business closure, unemployment, or poor culture. Enter Covid, the margin destroyer.

We make no room for families. We’ve all heard it from employers: “We are like a family!!” Sigh. No, you’re not my family. My family is at home eating dinner while I sit in this three hour meeting. Out of 41 emerging countries, the US is the ONLY country that does not mandate a paid maternity leave. The ONLY one. This stat should make us so angry. Currently, 50% of dual parent households have both parents working. When someone says, “Go, Girl, take the board seat! Lean in! Be a boss!” I’d like to say, “Show me the leave. Show me the support for parents. Show me the way to care for families and return to work smoothly.” This is one of the biggest causes of  the current quitting climate. Women in the workplace have crashed to the same levels of the mid 80’s.  When there is no childcare available, no support at the office, and no room for working parents, the decision has to be made — who works and who is the caregiver?

We grow our companies but not our employees. Boredom. Lack of growth. Feeling siloed. These are typically quoted as reasons a person quits. Nearly two-thirds (64%) would leave their job due to lack of growth opportunities. In many cases, the only way you can grow in salary and in position is to move on. We are looking at working a career upwards of 40 years (age 22-62) without continued learning or training. It’s been lazy of us to think that an employee would be happy doing the same thing for 40 years without wanting more. When I talk to freelancers who have started their own businesses, many of them state the reason they broke away is that they wanted to be in control of their careers. They wanted to pursue new challenges and grow according to how they wanted to be challenged.

We have a false sense of stability. “I can’t freelance because I need something more stable.” That is one of the top reasons I hear as to why someone won’t start freelancing. I get it. Stability, health insurance, and retirement are all very important and the three tenants that full-time work offers. My dad started a job with a large company and worked that job until he retired about 38 years later. He retired with a pension and a watch (no joke). The old idea of security in a company is still there even though the security rug has long been pulled. But now, we entered the “unprecedented times” Covid has given us. Many of the things we viewed as stable have been brought into question. Work? Health? School/Childcare? For so many employees, when their stable foundations have become squishy, their self-reliance has kicked in. It left many of us waking up, shaking our heads, and saying, “Maybe I need to find security in something else.”

We associate physical location with an “office.” Butts in seats as it’s also called. The big offices with beautiful desks, shiny computers, ping pong tables, and beer taps all sat empty for a year, and some still are. Currently 19% of commercial real estate in Manhattan is unoccupied. That’s insane. We talked about it before Covid, but companies who were hesitant to think about flexible schedules and remote working would grow to be out of date. Covid came in and EVERYONE who didn’t have a plan in place had to adapt quickly. Lucky for us, we all went through the “figuring out Zoom” dip at the same time. Now as we look at coming back and what an office might look like, companies are forced to rethink what identity, productivity, and culture are with and without a set location. 

We think compensation and benefits are only money. Most compensation packages are quoted as salary, health, and retirement benefits. That’s standard. That’s needed. That’s not all. The pandemic allowed employees to be more aware of the value of flexibility. Flexibility perks have included: work-from-anywhere, adjusted working times, home office stipends, exercise and health benefits, training and upskilling, mentorships, and so on. Many workers have said they would take a lower salary if they could receive flexible remote work.

So while we still wade through the new normal of Covid life, we will continue to see more people quit as they pursue a job that will allow them the new flexibility they have discovered. Companies will begin to adjust their models and rethink their staffing in light of these requests. They will have to. I am encouraged to see that the last year and a half has taught us, among other things, that our time is important and we, the workforce, need to pay attention to how and where we are spending our one wild and precious life.