Reposted with permission from AALL Spectrum, Volume 26, Number 5 (May/June 2022), pgs 20-22.
By John DiGilio, Firmwide Director of Library Services, Sidley Austin LLP and Courtney Toiaivao, Director of Research Services, Holland & Knight LLP
What the Great Resignation can teach us about desirable workplace culture and happiness.
Much has been made of the Great Resignation, the buzzy labor market phenomenon that has seen millions of Americans leave their jobs since spring 2021. The question on so many minds right now is simple: Why? Why are people suddenly hitting the bricks in such large numbers? While it is easy to blame the ongoing pandemic, the answers—and they are multiple—go much deeper and are far more complex. Take for instance the fact that U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that over two-thirds of people who left their jobs in 2021 did so voluntarily. Roughly 69 million Americans quit their jobs since 2021, which means that 47.8 million made up their own minds that it was time to go. (View the data at bit.ly/MJ22laborstats.) The numbers have staggered employers as they try to come up with ways to retain the talent they have, as well as replace the workers who have left. At the same time, a new world of considerations and opportunities has opened for those contemplating making a change.
What Is Causing the Great Resignation?
In many ways, the timing of the Great Resignation is a direct by-product of the pandemic. Parents (often women) left jobs to manage childcare needs; employees left the labor market due to COVID concerns; older employees retired early thanks to extra savings from being in quarantine or perhaps thanks to skyrocketing housing prices that enabled some to sell at profit; and across industries, countless employees left the workforce from a deep sense of burnout and dissatisfaction. This last reason is most distressing to employers and may embolden those pondering a dash for the door.
After anxious, stressful pandemic years, often with increased hours and blurred start and end times, employees saw the boundaries of home and work blend together. Beyond trying to keep children, partners, and pets from popping into Zoom windows, employees routinely found themselves working past the hours where they would have left for home. Time that was once dedicated to the commute was now being spent working. In short, productivity got a boost, but happiness did not. In a time of great work turmoil and with many employees working remotely for the first time, Americans found themselves questioning what they truly wanted from their lives and their work.
It should come as no surprise that people do not enjoy long commutes or the expenses they raise. Or that employees want to work less and be paid more for their labor—especially with many businesses (including law firms) posting record profits. Newly self-aware of their own value, workers made it clear that they want to feel valued by their organizations. While more money is certainly a plus, employees expressed that compensation was not the key component to on-the-job happiness. More important was the desire to feel noticed, appreciated, and recognized by employers
The confidence inherent in an employee’s desire to be valued is new to many of us, but it is not new to younger generations. Polls of recent college graduates have consistently showed that an organization’s culture and values are considered equally as important to graduating seniors as the compensation offered. Not only does the rising generation want to be recognized at work, but they want their workplace to align with their personal values and take a stand on the issues of the day. A 2021 Atlassian survey, for example, noted that 61 percent of millennial American workers said they prefer companies that take a stand on social issues, and 49 percent said they would quit a job that did not align with their values. (Read the survey at bit.ly/MJ22Atlassiansurvey.)
Today’s workers are thinking more broadly than ever about what they want from work. Many have clearly decided they are not getting it from their current jobs.
How Do Employers Retain and Find Talent?
No employer likes to see its workers jump ship. Yet that is exactly what is happening in unprecedented numbers. The pressure is thus building on employers to both find ways to staunch the bleed of talent and to adequately replace the people lost to the current chaotic jobs market. The good news is that these tasks are not as herculean as they may sound. The solutions, according to many recruiting and retention experts, lie in the problems themselves. All one needs to do is take a look at the reasons employees are either leaving or contemplating a switch.
Consultancies and advocacy groups have uncovered several themes that may combat the exodus. A survey of the growing body of advice for employers suggests two ideas for beating the Great Resignation: giving a sincere ear to employee grievances and then making the investment to tackle those issues head on. It is a two-pronged approach that targets the actual causes rather than merely treating the symptoms.
Experts seem to agree that one of the most effective things employers can do right now is to simply take the time to really listen to what current employees have to say, even if they are already walking out the door. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), better listening on the part of management is key to surviving the upheaval. (Learn more at bit.ly/MJ22shrm.) Yet listening, according to an article in Forbes, seems to be what is most painfully absent during this critical time. (Read the article at bit.ly/MJ22Forbes.) Taking the time to listen is crucial as employers can learn just about everything they need to know to both retain their current talent as well as attract high-quality replacements for those who have already made the decision to leave. No one can address the pain points if they do not know what they are.
Once employers get to the bottom of what is causing dissatisfaction and preventing easy hiring, they can engage in the second of these countermeasures—investing in the necessary solutions, as well as their own talent pool. Whether it is greater flexibility for remote working, meaningful employee recognition, creating new growth opportunities, or even creating new incentive rewards, there are going to be costs involved. Employers will need to decide which loss is greater—the money invested in employee satisfaction and retention or the institutional knowledge and dedication that is walking out the door.
Data shows that once an employee walks, finding the talent needed to effectively replace a position is no easy feat. A survey conducted by Willis Towers Watson last August found that 73 percent of employers were having great difficulty in hiring for open positions. (View the study at bit.ly/MJ22wts.) That is almost three out of every four. The odds of finding solid replacements for folks who have jumped ship have clearly and considerably slipped.
What Are the Opportunities for Librarians?
What is problematic for employers, however, has given some powerful new leverage to those wanting to stay in their current roles as well as those looking to make a move. The Great Resignation, together with the significant organizational challenges to hiring, has resulted in more opportunities than ever for librarians and legal information professionals to renegotiate their positions. The adage that you don’t get what you don’t ask for rings true. For the dissatisfied, it has become a carpe diem moment.
Like everyone else, librarians are renegotiating their remote work flexibility, compensation, work-life balance, location, duties, and even working hours. After a period of reluctance to make these changes permanent, law firms have been publicly embracing the new, emerging normal. Creative and flexible solutions are being found where they never previously existed. This a job-seeker’s market.
In this time of existential reflection, there is an opportunity for real gains and meaningful change on both sides of the table—employers and employees. There are conversations to be had, but what better time to have them than now, when employers are going to new lengths to listen and respond. For those who see a job change as being their best bet for finding greater satisfaction and value, the market is hot, and the competition among those looking to fill positions has never been greater. Perhaps the Great Resignation will become more of a great reallocation and relocation in the end.