Commentary: The coming resignation tsunami - why many may leave their jobs in a pandemic economy
COVID-19 has brought about changes in working styles and given employees food for thought in what they want in a job, says NUS’ Wu Pei Chuan.
SINGAPORE: Countries might have worried about rising unemployment in the wake of a pandemic bringing lockdowns and curbs on economic activity.
But there’s a new and very different problem on the horizon: A potential “resignation tsunami”.
Only last year, many workers around the world worried about losing their jobs. Perhaps because of that, many are proactively searching for a back-up plan.
A survey conducted by the Achievers Workforce Institute in the US and Canada indicated that more than half intended to look for a new job in 2021.
Here in Singapore, a Michael Page Talent Trends report similarly found that 56 per cent of employed respondents are expecting to find a new job in 2021.
This figure is higher than the 31 per cent of employees in Singapore intending to find a new job between April and October 2020, based on a Randstad survey. This is despite the economy seeing a 2 per cent contraction in the second quarter as restrictions were tightened.
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Why are people thinking of ditching their current jobs? Before the pandemic, the top factors typically driving employees away were compensation and benefits, job security and growth opportunities, according to a 2017 survey by the Society of Human Resource Management. Job satisfaction then was already low at less than 40 per cent.
These top factors haven’t changed much, but employee expectations of bosses and companies have hiked, because of pent-up job switches that did not happen and pandemic-driven epiphanies of what truly matters to them.
Nine in 10 polled by a Michael Page survey suggested room for improvement in the employee experience including calls for more transparency in leadership communication and sincerity in how leaders delivered their messages.
Expectations have generally moved beyond work to centre on the balance between work, life and purpose.
Remote work has created burn-out due to longer working hours in front of the computer, heavier workloads, endless Zoom meetings and conference calls, and a myriad other new responsibilities as the daily norm.
Mental and emotional well-being are now one of the most important topics in many companies. A Microsoft Work Trend Survey published in May found that 55 per cent of respondents indicated feeling overworked whereas 39 per cent felt exhausted.
How employers address mental well-being issues reveal the relationship between leaders and employees, and underscores a deeper picture of the overall company culture.
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For example, how did leaders handle retrenchment during this period? When employees were forced to leave, did their leaders treat them with respect and dignity? When employees suffered while working from home in isolation, did their leaders do anything to help?
As a leader, it is not only about ensuring hygiene factors, like making sure employees have the technology-related tools to work efficiently at home but the human touch in supporting staff during this tumultuous period.
Few are like DBS which gave contracted drivers who used to ferry DBS Asia Treasures clients before the pandemic a new purpose in delivering meals to households in need.
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JOBS AND SKILLS
There are also pull factors. With the economy showing glimpses of recovery, new jobs are creeping up too.
Total employment in Singapore turned positive in the first quarter of 2021 for the first time since the pandemic. The same Michael Page survey showed 40 per cent of employers planning to increase headcount in Singapore in 2021.
Reskilling has also given workers more options. With the wide accessibility of free online learning courses and government training subsidies, people have made themselves more marketable and suitable for a wider range of roles.
About 540,000 Singaporeans benefited from SkillsFuture Singapore programmes in 2020 and employees took up courses in the areas of data analytics, digital commerce and customer service, and soft skills in communication and change management.
These skills align to the top few emerging jobs in Singapore reported by LinkedIn Talent Solutions – in data analytics, design, cybersecurity and digital work.
WHAT CAN EMPLOYERS DO?
According to a recent Mercer 2020 Global Talent Trends Study, only 11 per cent of human resources (HR) teams in Singapore provided an extremely good employee experience last year.
Companies with HR that use this opportunity to reimagine work-from-home policies will do better in attracting talent. According to a McKinsey November 2020 report, hybrid remote work will continue with more than 20 per cent of workers in advanced economies working from home for three to five days per week.
Firms like Twitter have promised that working from home will be a permanent option, but many others couldn’t wait to welcome their employees back into the office, claiming there are benefits of being physically present in the office.
At a time when an Iceland study on the four-day work week has sparked excitement over a potentially new paradigm for work, employers must first rethink work itself and to what extent flexibility can be an element in the job design itself.
Japan, Spain and many other countries are following through with certain levels of experimentation in this respect.
The good news based on the Mercer study, almost half of Singapore companies plan to focus on work flexibility in 2021, strengthen their learning ecosystem and upskill talents. They know these are top priorities.
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The second important step is to listen to what your employees want. Companies have conducted engagement surveys and exit interviews every year – however, many fail to take follow-up actions.
Six in 10 polled in the Achievers Workforce Institute report collected feedback from employees on improving their experience, yet only 34 per cent of employees felt their employers have taken action.
To reimagine employee experience, listen and provide feedback to your employees. Get to know your workers better and learn how to better design experiences for them. You also won’t be surprised when someone submits a letter of resignation.
A third important step is to recognise your employees’ achievements beyond compensation and benefits. Many employers have asked: “Why are our employees still leaving even when we offer above market salaries?”
Sometimes, all it takes is a simple and sincere visible gesture that employees can see, feel and remember that makes a difference. How to demonstrate recognition is highly related to a leader’s social and emotional skills too.
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The path ahead may or may not see people quitting en masse. People can talk tough in surveys only to proceed more cautiously in taking action.
But we are in a peak hiring period where annual performance bonuses and any increments would have been dished out.
So in a tight labour market like Singapore’s where competition for talent is stiff, perhaps it’s time for employers to reimagine the possible learning journeys they might make with their employees to rethink work.
Dr Wu Pei Chuan is a senior lecturer in the Department of Management & Organisation at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. She is also the Deputy Academic Director for the MSc in Human Capital Management and Analytics (HCMA) programme.