The Great Resign: Covid shifted the workplace balance of power and opened real opportunities for best employers – Edafe Onerhime

The pandemic years led to a multitude of new phrases, like ‘social distancing’, ‘new normal’ and ‘doomscrolling’. Another, the ‘Great Resign’ has been making headlines, but what is it and what does it mean for Scotland?

Working from home during the Covid pandemic made many people reconsider their work-life balance (Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire)
Working from home during the Covid pandemic made many people reconsider their work-life balance (Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire)

Around May 2021, I moved from the public to the private sector, just as the Great Resign was coined.

It upended the balance of power between work and workers. Large numbers of workers across all industries have been resigning and there has been a rise of so-called anti-work movements. But this is not a movement that is uninterested in working, people simply want a better way to live and work.

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The pandemic revealed this was possible, and it is not idealism to have choices in how we work, such as working from home, working in a community co-working space or hybrid working.

Almost overnight the pandemic showed us that things we ask for at work are not impossible, they were simply undesirable for some employers.

For some workers, this created resentment or a realisation that these choices always existed. The Great Resign is a reaction to this realisation about the power workers have to choose, to push for inclusive working cultures and to seek out companies that trust their employees enough to work without unnecessary presenteeism.

As a technology leader, I’ve witnessed first-hand the ups and downs of recruiting, retaining, and replacing talented workers. There truly is a sea-change happening, and if we don’t adequately respond we will lose talent and Scotland will lose out to nations that take a worker-focused approach.

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We were told we would “build back better” from the pandemic but instead we are building back to the past: Scotland could be encouraging businesses to learn from the pandemic and create inclusive and attractive working environments, but it seems this opportunity is being lost, day by day.

The Great Resign is a global phenomenon with consequences for Scotland. Researchers in the UK found resignations rose sharply in 2020 and continued to exceed their pre-pandemic levels at the end of 2021.

Workers mostly resigned to move to new jobs. In the tech sector, open positions remained unfilled for longer than usual. This led to companies rubber-stamping large pay rises to retain professionals in demand. Companies face global competition as remote-only working becomes more common.

And this is where Scotland could be leading the way. We should be pushing for companies to attract the brightest and the best by making our working cultures flexible, high-quality and equitable. Not only will this attract the best workers but there is a higher chance that the applicants who apply will also be from more diverse backgrounds.

The anti-work movement isn’t some Generation Z phenomenon; instead, it is driven by the fatigue felt by people of all ages and backgrounds. Some of those burned out by the pandemic and the current global outlook are going further than the Great Resign. They’re asking critical questions about the nature of work itself and the economic systems that underpin it. They’re shying away from toxic culture, which research by MIT Sloan cites as a key driver of the Great Resign.

The anti-work movement began as a subculture and now includes support for universal income, job switching, changing toxic workplaces, and organising employees, be that unions, strikes, or worker empowerment. The movement embraces everyone from service workers to professionals and business owners. The rise of unions in the US and worker co-operatives in the UK is highlighted as a victory for the anti-work movement.

As a hiring manager, I’ve found that a key motivator for switching roles is divergence between the reality of work and what we want work to be. Not everyone seeks a career, but everyone deserves what I’ve coined as CARE: Challenge that’s meaningful; Autonomy with a support system; Reward in recognition of performance; and Engagement around clear purpose.

We spend enough time at work, that at worst we should find it tolerable. At best, it should be how we fulfil our purpose, while getting paid for it.

I started my career in the 90s, and I have too many experiences of toxic workplace cultures as a Black lesbian in northern England. I have witnessed people crying in bathrooms at work because of unacceptable behaviours.

Whilst we may have come a long way from that time, we have not come nearly far enough. The equality and diversity work happening across the labour market is well-intentioned but needs to mature. It is inadequate in responding to the needs of today’s workers and the issues highlighted by the Great Resign.

Diversity programmes are great at raising awareness, but not so great at implementing action. Do employers actually have the competency and the processes in place to support “diversity” and the first black woman, disabled person, trans person or migrant they employ? If we are still celebrating “firsts”, we have not moved on as far as we should have. And failing to do the real work here is costing employers. We need to remind ourselves that this is still a worker’s market.

Research by Wharton management professor, Michael Parke, shows that when you can express emotions safely at work, this supports high-performing teams – teams that have an enhanced ability to solve problems and come up with great, implementable ideas. If we want high-performing teams, then we need cultures which feel safe for workers.

This is not news; we have been talking about diversity making “good business sense” for decades. The pandemic has put a spotlight on this and, crucially, made people realise their power to choose and challenge. People took the slogan “Build Back Better” to heart, they are looking to do that in their own lives, and it’s time for Scotland and employers to do the same.

Edafe Onerhime is executive director at JPMorgan Chase. This article presents her own opinions and is not representative of the company’s. She is writing as part of the Pass the Mic project

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