After the Great Resignation: Practical Engagement Strategies for an Evolving Workforce 

Crowded Workers


By Jim Buchanan
CEO, CadientTalent

The story of how organizational psychologist Dr. Anthony C. Klotz came up with the phrase “the Great Resignation” feels almost anticlimactic given the chain reaction the idea set in place. A professor at May Business School at Texas A&M University, Klotz saw the warning signs of the resignation wave early on and used “the Great Resignation” in a conversation with his wife about what he expected would happen. It has been almost a year since Klotz’s realization went viral after appearing in a Bloomberg Businessweek article titled, “How to Quit Your Job in the Great Post-Pandemic Resignation Boom.” Though the boom has yet to go completely bust, many folks – employers and workers alike – are starting to wonder what is next. 

For those without Klotz’s level of prescience, there is data and lots of it. Monthly reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics offer estimates of recent job openings, new hires and separations, insights from economists help illuminate past and emerging trends and analysis from industry-centric firms dive deep into the world of human capital management. 

Engagement and the systems supporting it aren't going away – they're taking on a new form that emphasizes employee listening and career development. @CadientTalent #HR #HRTech Share on X

Case in point, recent research from Gallup Workplace Solutions found that the percent of engaged workers in the U.S. declined in 2021 – for the first time in more than a decade. Though the total drop was only a couple of percentage points, the findings align with the more significant movement that impacted last year’s employment landscape. 

The latest available Department of Labor report showed that the U.S. economy added almost half a million jobs in the month of January 2022, with the unemployment rate essentially unchanged from December 2021. As employers grapple with the continued fallout of the Great Resignation, combined with lingering pandemic-era disruption, there remains the fundamental need to understand the root of turnover in order to support increased engagement across industries and organizations. 

To that end, Gallup used a multifaceted method to measure employee engagement in 2021, “by asking random samples of the working population about specific workplace elements that link to many organizational outcomes, including profitability, productivity, customer service, retention, safety and overall wellbeing.” Gallup’s methodology demonstrates advancement in employee engagement as the concept grows with today’s workforce. 

Global industry analyst Josh Bersin touched on this last part in his HR Tech Virtual Conference keynote presentation in early March 2022. During the session, Bersin offered an update on his “Ten New Truths About the HR Technology Market” from September 2021 and elaborated on the move from “Systems of Engagement,” which he put between 2012-2017, and “Systems of Productivity,” from 2021 on. Bersin explained a shift in the space spurred on by the integration of work and life these last two years. Engagement and the systems that underlie it are not going away so much as taking on a new form. What was once based on surveys, feedback and recognition will now correspond with larger initiatives around employee listening and career development. 

Jim Buchanan - CadientTalent
CadientTalent’s Jim Buchanan

In recognizing the toll of the Great Resignation alongside what is happening in HR technology, it becomes possible to reimagine employee engagement efforts in line with what is happening in the workforce. That came up again at the HR Tech Virtual Conference, in a presentation by George LaRocque, principal analyst of WorkTech, titled “No Room for Error: HR Tech for 2022 & Beyond.” Leveraging an instructive approach, LaRocque endorsed aligning people strategy with tech strategy by understanding how market drivers combine with market forces to promote outcomes. For the sake of employee engagement, this starts with going back to basics; as Gallup suggested, “During significant turmoil, the basic elements of employee engagement become vulnerable, as was evident in 2021. Employees’ confidence that they know what’s expected of them, have the right materials and equipment and have the opportunity to do what they do best declined the most. Getting these basic elements right increases resiliency.” But realizing that everything is different now, what do those basics look like in practice? 

For starters, employers need to know what led their workers to resign in 2021. One of the indicators Klotz observed ahead of his proclamation was that not many people quit their jobs in 2020, which led him to believe “a rush of quits might be making up for the deficit.” Beyond the “missing quits,” Klotz keyed in on the existential crisis that the pandemic presented, with workers questioning their purpose and happiness. Burnout factored in, characterized by the pressure placed on healthcare and service workers. Employers should aim to uncover the cause of dissatisfaction – and disengagement – among their workforce before implementing any changes. 

Once the baseline gets established, there is the matter of the basics Gallup mentioned – and what that means for each worker. It is well-documented that certain segments of the workforce endured different experiences over the course of the last two years. In 2020, even before the Great Resignation, ample headlines were touting a “shecession” or “pink-collar recession” as women were forced to choose between caregiving and careers. Pew Research determined that the pandemic did increase gender disparities, compounded by education level, with fewer women in the workforce working longer hours than men. Hybrid work options, flexible scheduling, access to childcare are all critical factors in engaging and retaining workers, especially women. 

Likewise, through the sample conducted, Gallup learned that many workers no longer know what their job is despite showing up day in and day out. Employers have been so intent on making the work happen, no matter the circumstances, that workers have seen their responsibilities repeatedly change, sometimes on the fly. “In the first half of 2020, roughly 50 percent of employees strongly agreed that they felt well prepared to do their job. This figure has since declined by seven percentage points.” Two years in a position they were not hired for or did not expect to take on is too long. To be successful, workers deserve clarity around their roles and their employer’s expectations of them. If this has not been addressed, it should become a priority. 

Part of this involves exploring the everyday strengths of workers, repeatedly proven to boost engagement levels over the last decade. Strengths are highly personal and speak to appreciating workers for who they are and what they bring to the organization. That also plays directly into increased concern around skill gaps, which both Bersin and LaRocque spoke about this in terms of business-critical strategies and technology stacks. There are countless ways to go about skilling, reskilling and upskilling, but for engagement, the focus should be on enhancing workers’ strengths to ensure they remain fulfilled in their work. Otherwise, this will serve the organization over the worker, putting engagement at risk. 

Of course, the reason roles, and consequently the need for specific skills, have shifted over time goes back to the period of sustained uncertainty that underpinned every business decision that has taken place since March 2020. It is unclear if that is lifting or if this will be a brief moment between variants. Either way, not knowing what is next correlates with engagement. When a worker hears, “We’re reopening the offices on May 1, you will be expected to return to in-person, full time – and vaccinated,” they will know whether or not that works for them and their life in 2022. If it does not, they will disengage and look elsewhere. If a worker (or job seeker) hears, “This position is remote for now,” it is immediately harder for them to decide whether or not to commit long term. As much as humanly possible, clear communication is the way forward.

Building on this is the question of the experience. Employee experience is another aspect of talent management and HR technology that looks vastly different in 2022 than before. Still, connections can be forged regardless of physical location; it just takes additional effort on the employer’s side. The more a company can invest in its workers, get to see them as individuals, provide resources, and develop personalized plans, the stickier the relationship becomes. Even the simplest tasks can promote higher engagement, like finding the answer to an essential question in real-time or getting a gift card from a manager after finishing a project. Or, as Bersin said in his talk, “Ignore [employee experience] at your peril.” 

Moreover, the holistic nature of employee experience runs parallel to nearly all facets of engagement described above. Empathy and compassion, personalized support, the ability to perform and develop one’s skills, open communication and strengthened connections all dovetail into wellbeing – perhaps the most basic need to meet. While total well-being accounts for physical, mental, emotional, financial and more, each factor into overall productivity and engagement. Given the collective trauma of the last few years, it comes as no surprise that trust and safety have reemerged as part of employee engagement and any related strategies. 

With what seems like a possible transition from pandemic to endemic and no new buzzy workforce phrase entering the lexicon, employers have the opportunity to improve work from the inside out. And who could imagine a better ending to the Great Resignation and everything that came with it?

Jim Buchanan has spent the past 15 years in executive management roles in the talent acquisition industry. Before CadientTalent, Jim co-founded Merlin Technologies, the parent company of Assess Systems, a human capital management company specializing in assessment software and solutions. Under his leadership, the company experienced significant growth and was acquired by a private equity firm in 2015. Before Merlin, Jim was the CFO of Peopleclick, one of the first companies to offer an applicant tracking system serving a blue-chip customer base – including 49 of the Fortune 100 and more than a third of the Fortune 500. Jim earned his bachelor’s degree at Indiana State University and his MBA at Indiana University.

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