The Great Resignation: Why Americans are quitting their jobs in record numbers

by Ryan Plank
the great resignation

In what’s being dubbed ‘The Great Resignation,’ millions of Americans are quitting their jobs in favor of flexible work arrangements. Experts believe that this unprecedented migration of workers is a direct result of working from home during the pandemic. What’s happening in the U.S. may be an early indicator of a wave that will sweep the global workforce.

What’s happening?

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses to close their offices and transition to remote work, millions of people were introduced to a new way of life. For the first time in history, the overwhelming majority of workers were doing their jobs from home. Although working from home brought new challenges, it also proved to have many well-documented benefits.

Millions of people found themselves happier, healthier, and more productive when working remotely. Their commutes were eliminated and they gained more time to spend with family and friends or enjoying enriching hobbies. It completely changed the way that many people view work and life.

As the pandemic recedes in some places and businesses begin pushing workers to return to the office after COVID, many aren’t ready to give up what they’ve gained. The idea of returning to work after Coronavirus restrictions are lifted sparks anxiety and dread for some. Because of this, many workers are choosing to quit their jobs and search for flexible work arrangements rather than return to the old way of living. A record four million Americans quit their jobs in April alone.

An unprecedented shift

When large numbers of people are quitting their jobs, it’s usually a sign that the economy is doing well. It typically means that there are plenty of good jobs to be had and people are quitting to advance their careers, start their own businesses, or retire early. That’s not the case right now.

The pandemic led to the worst recession in U.S. history and the economy hasn’t fully recovered. There are millions of Americans out of work, yet many businesses are still struggling to overcome labor shortages. Experts are pointing to an existential and philosophical shift in the American workforce as the cause of this phenomenon. It’s anticipated that what’s happening in the U.S. could hit the rest of the world as well. Since the U.S. was one of the earliest countries to reopen, odds are this is a leading indicator of a global trend.

What we’re seeing now is the result of the large-scale remote work experiment conducted during the pandemic. Not only did remote work prove to be viable, but it changed the hearts and minds of workers.

For those that thrive in a remote work environment, work is no longer just about paying the bills. Those who are quitting their jobs are prioritizing life over work and looking for ways of working that can exist alongside a fulfilling life rather than in front of it.

So, what does this existential shift mean for the future of work?

The remote future

The current version of The Great Resignation is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Many experts believe that the growing trend of quitting on-premise jobs in favor of remote or hybrid jobs will continue into the foreseeable future.

One recent survey from job site reports that 95% of workers are considering quitting their jobs. A separate study from Microsoft found that 41% of the global workforce is having the same thoughts about quitting this year. Both found flexible work as the cause. Monster reported 89% of workers want to be allowed to work from home some or all of the time, and Microsoft found the same with 70% of workers.

This could bring about a large-scale change in the way we work. If workers control the economy, then remote work will see a boom that implicates many industries. Major organizations will shift to remote-first companies, saving millions of dollars and attracting a broad, international talent pool.

Seeing the successes of new companies that make the transition to remote, more emerging companies will choose remote-first from the beginning. In a not-so-distant future, remote-first companies will dominate the labor market for talent.

Since not every company can go completely remote, those that can’t make the switch will work to create flexible work environments. Different versions of the hybrid work model will become more popular.

Some organizations will have entire departments that operate fully remote alongside other departments that operate on-site. Others will ask all employees to come to the office for certain tasks. This will attract scores of workers who appreciate remote work but still enjoy in-person collaboration.

Businesses that choose not to allow remote or flexible work environments will be left to recruit from a much smaller talent pool. Only those who prefer fully on-premise work environments and live in the area or are willing to relocate will be available to these companies.

That’s one theory, at least.

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A clash of ideologies

Some business leaders aren’t buying it. They see The Great Resignation as more of a passing fad than a lasting trend.

A survey from human resources software provider TINYpulse found that the average HR and C-level leader believes that just 8% of their workers will quit when COVID-19 restrictions are fully lifted. At least 25% of the 770 companies polled believe that none of their employees will quit. In their minds, resuming back to work will be a breeze.

This represents a massive disconnect between what workers want and what employers expect. Even if the reality turns out to be somewhere in the middle, such a clash of ideologies is likely to cause friction and bring a serious reckoning between workers and employers.

Employers that are resistant to the change and underestimate its impact will be caught off guard. They’ll likely struggle to retain their top talent, and then struggle to replace it. Companies that intend to remain strictly on-premise would be wise to strategize a mitigation strategy.

Flexibility comes first

Although remote-first may be the ultimate future of work, hybrid work models are likely to lead the way. The same TINYpulse survey that showed most employers don’t believe their employees will quit found that 64% see the hybrid model as the best approach going forward. Those employers reported that hybrid work leads to better employee retention and optimizes performance.

Another study conducted by Global Workplace Analytics predicts that between 25% to 30% of the workforce in America will spend multiple days per week working from home by the end of this year.

Of course, there are some risks associated with going hybrid. Especially when compared to the benefits of remaining remote. Despite those risks, it will remain a preferable alternative to returning to the office after COVID.

The game has changed

One thing is certain: the global pandemic has changed work forever. The way that we work one, five, and 10 years from now is sure to look very different than it did before the pandemic. The Great Resignation is likely just the beginning of a seismic shift in the landscape of work.

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