Recently I had an interview with an organisation looking for a new board member. One of the first questions they asked me was how I found serving on boards in so many different sectors. At first glance, the fact that I’m a governor for organisations in health, insurance, technology, manufacturing, infrastructure, property, not for profit and other sectors would seem to introduce way more complexity than any one person needs. But as I recounted to my interviewers: every board faces the same things and, fundamentally, everything one does on a board boils down to people. Every opportunity or threat, every risk or ambition, every strength or weakness has, at its core, people.

That is why I especially like working with organisations that are undergoing or at least contemplating culture change. The way I see it, any organisation that works within the context of possible disruption or threats to its position needs to look to its people and culture to find a solution. I’m lucky enough to sit on a few People and Culture sub-committees and I’m inspired by the good work that goes on to foster an inclusive, diverse, equitable, agile and innovative culture. The Maori proverb, he aha te mea nui o te ao? Māku e kī atu, he tangata, he tangata, he tangata, is my go to in these situations.

So I was interested to read an article by famed consulting firm McKinsey recently. The article relates to the viewpoint of Adria Horn, an executive with a large US corporation and, more interestingly, a lieutenant colonel in the US Army and the veteran of five overseas tours of duty. Horn was giving her own perspective on some writing related to what some have termed “The Great Resignation,” or the post-Covid employee churn that is being seen across many organisations.

A quick aside, while I’m on the subject. The term The Great Resignation has a lovely soundbite quality but it is perhaps a little problematic. It seems to position everything as black and white. A binary term for a highly nuanced and complex world. I’d suggest that there aren’t simply to classes of employees – the stayers and the designers and that this is a broad continuum across organisations with different people at different stages and feeling different emotions.

Notwithstanding the utility or otherwise of the term, the fact of the matter is that, as organizations slowly move into a “new normal” way of working, some people are reassessing their position. Whether it’s going back to the office after a couple of years of work from home. Whether it’s the decision of organisations to push a more permanent hybrid approach to work. Whether it’s the relief of tension that seems to be coming as Covid becomes endemic globally, we’re seeing some big changes in employment.

What is interesting is that many have tended toward simplifying this trend as a case of employee self-obsession – a wholesale “jumping for the shiny new thing” epidemic. Horn had another take on it and it’s a take that is worth considering for anyone who has talent recruitment and retention within their purview. Horn’s view is that not only do employers not understand the reasons behind staff attrition, but employees themselves don’t understand the root causes.

In Horn’s view, the ambiguity that staff feel as they try and adjust to the new normal of work is analogous to what returning soldiers feel after active deployment. As Horn explains, a return from active deployment is hard. While being back to normal should feel great, the normal is somehow different – people have changed, situations have morphed, control has shifted. This leads to a sense of dislocation and discombobulation – where soldiers go through various stages of grief, angst and discomfort. It is why there are high numbers of divorces, suicides, erratic buying decisions and the like post repatriation.

Aaron de Smet from McKinsey drew parallels to these pandemic times, stating that:

Workers have been deployed and redeployed during COVID-19. Many got deployed to home or to the front lines, and then those working from home have been redeployed as they have attempted to return from remote and get back to the office.

Now obviously deployment to a war zone and being forced to work from home are two very different situations. It’s a long bow to draw to suggest that the gravity of the feelings experienced by returning soldiers are on par with those working out work arrangements. But while the severity of the impacts might be different, the way those impacts manifest, and the results that can occur are similar.

But knowing the reasons behind changes in behaviour is one thing. Knowing what to do about it is another and this is where the authors have some advice for organisations. Employers shouldn’t diminish the experience that employees are having – while working from home isn’t analogous to facing enemy fire, people sense of dislocation is real to them, and it is causing them to make decisions that some of them wouldn’t normally make.

The key advice from Horn was for organisations to stop aggressively trying to retain employees. Sure, all organisations should always be looking to ensure they provide a safe, rewarding, fun and respectful workplace, but in terms of employees making changes for seemingly erratic reasons – just let them do it. Employers should set free the staff who want a change but be ready to welcome them back if (and when) the time is right for them. Rather than looking to simply reduce turnover, try and understand that, no matter what you do, in times such as these turnover will increase. Instead of the usual line of “employers who leave should never come back,” understand that after personal and broader societal trauma, some people might need some time out.

In a final statement that would seem to be at odds with orthodox business thinking, De Met wrote that:

It’s much more of a human problem than a typical business challenge… the labor shortage is a significant and challenging business problem—but ironically, it may be that the best thing employers can do for their business right now is to stop thinking of the Great Attrition as a business problem, and instead simply address it as a human problem.

Sage advice and something that employers would be wise to think about.

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He often says that Māku e kī atu, he tangata.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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