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Beware, workers are about to pivot with their feet

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Kirstin Ferguson

October 18, 2021

The workplace is going through a Great Realignment because of the pandemic, which has made many employees rethink what their jobs mean to them.

Australian boardrooms and business leaders appear to be watching, and waiting, for the Great Resignation to hit.

This phenomenon, predicted by A&M University Texas Associate Professor Anthony Klotz, has already led to record “quit rates” among US employees, and, experts say this inevitable wave of resignations is due to appear in Australia in March 2022.

Research released last month suggested 40 per cent of Australians are thinking about leaving their jobs in the next 12 months. As we emerge from the pandemic, is the Great Resignation yet another workplace disruption we need to deal with?

I believe the answer is no. Or at least, not yet. What we are experiencing is what I call the Great Realignment.

Just as Australia has carved its path through a global pandemic, so too we can navigate our way through this period of intense change.

For the first time in generations, the pandemic has led to a fundamental rethink by employees of their relationship with their employers.

The last 18 months have amplified the need for employees to find meaning and purpose in their work. These so-called “pandemic epiphanies” have led employees to wonder: Why would they want to work for you? What purpose does your organisation serve? Why can’t I choose how and when I work? Why can’t work fit in with my life rather than the other way around? What does success even look like for me now?

Focus on the how and why

By focusing on resignation rates, we are spending energy bemoaning the outcome rather than searching for the cause. Once the Great Resignation hits it is all too late.

Instead, we must mobilise modern leaders in our organisations, many of whom will have shown themselves to be exemplary leaders of people through the challenges of the pandemic, and focus on how and why employee thinking has irrevocably changed.

Not just in general, but how and why employee thinking has changed in our organisations.

This is the tremendous opportunity offered by the Great Realignment, a chance to understand and adjust (or realign) expectations with your employees – together.

There is no doubt this seismic shift to the way the employer/employee power dynamic has operated for generations is going to be tough for traditional leaders to embrace.

I predict not all traditional leaders will make it through the Great Realignment and those who insist on leading as they have always done will end up having an epiphany of their own through their Great (forced) Resignations.

These traditional leaders are easy to identify. They have most likely been rewarded for technical brilliance throughout their careers but lack the ability to put people at the centre of their decision-making.

They are the leaders insisting everyone returns to the office, irrespective of individual wishes, in the vain hope life returns to the way it was in February 2020.

These leaders believe anyone who works from home cannot possibly be as productive as the person sitting right outside their office where they can keep an eye on them.

There are also traditional leaders who think that updated workplace policies (on their own) will address any concerns about things like flexibility.

As we know, many companies such as Amazon, Atlassian, Telstra and Deloitte are offering their employees endless options for working in a post-pandemic workplace, but unless new policies are accompanied by a shift in the way traditional leaders espouse, communicate and value the way the policies are utilised, they will fail to benefit those they are intended for.

Shifting mindset

Australia’s Productivity Commission has already warned that there is a risk that those who work from home may be overlooked for promotion, opportunities for collaboration and networking.

The Great Realignment can only be solved by modern leaders who put people and purpose at the centre of their decisions and who not only appreciate, but also catch up to the shifting mindset of their employees. Modern leaders have the greatest chance of leading their organisations to success and ensuring they are a leader their employees will not want to leave.

For modern leaders to successfully navigate the Great Realignment, they must be able to balance their ability to lead with their head and their heart.

Sounds too soft? Get with the program. Having the technical capability or intellectual ability to do a job is one thing but having the values-led purpose and emotional capacity to lead someone else is quite another.

The Great Realignment will bring this into sharp focus and it is modern leaders who will be the essential tool in retaining employees who might otherwise be attracted to work somewhere else.

As Gallup research suggests, it takes more than a 20 per cent pay rise to lure most employees away from a leader who engages them but it takes next to nothing to poach someone who is disengaged.

The modern leaders who will guide organisations through the Great Realignment will have the curiosity to listen deeply and openly to what their employees need and to how their attitudes have changed as a result of the pandemic.

This does not mean a quick employee pulse survey about whether employees want to work from home a certain number of days a week.

Being a modern leader means listening to the sense of purpose employees are seeking from their work and testing whether the current purpose of your organisation aligns with their values.

Modern leaders will need humility to seek out the ideas and contributions of others and appreciate that there will be new ways of working as a result of the Great Realignment.

Modern leaders must be able to lead with empathy and appreciate that for their employees, working is only one part of their lives (and most likely not even the most important part).

Leading with empathy means respectfully listening to the diverse views of others and seeking out those experiences and perspectives which are different to their own and understanding that it is in those differences where the real value lies.

For generations we have organised our lives around our work but now, in the midst of the Great Realignment, modern leaders need to embrace the changing way employees think about work to protect their organisations from even greater upheavals and unwanted interruptions in the event the Great Resignation arrives.

There is no one else to look at but the leader in the mirror if your employees walk out the door over the next 12 months. Be the modern leader your employees are looking for; it is time to lead with your head and your heart.

Dr Kirstin Ferguson has a PhD in leadership and culture and was the only Australian to be named as one of the top 30 international leadership “Thinkers to Watch” in 2021 by Thinkers50. She is a company director, former deputy chair of the ABC and co-author of Women Kind: Unlocking the Power of Women Supporting Women.

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