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What's Really Behind ‘the Great Resignation’? A Crisis of Purpose

We have entered an era of employee experience, and there are a few things employers can do to make sure they’re ready for it.  

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When I cofounded my business in a stuffy townhouse packed with people and computers, we were driven by a hardcore sense of purpose—to use people data to help businesses make better decisions. I’ll be the first to admit, our own employee experience wasn’t exactly top of mind in the early days. But since then, we’ve seen the importance of employee experience rise both in the analytics we collect for clients and our own company’s growth. 

Now we’re seeing an explosive trend across the world—people are quitting their jobs. For many, now is an ideal time to capitalize on a career change. While some are putting themselves first and yearning for a more meaningful work experience, others are just burned out. 

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This is just one of many cultural shifts precipitated by the crisis, and it’s having a big impact. In April, four million U.S. workers quit their jobs—the biggest spike on record. One survey by Microsoft found 41 percent of the entire global workforce was considering handing in its resignation.

As the leader of an HR data company, I’m used to seeing resignation numbers peak at this time of year. But this time, there’s something different.

Beneath this great resignation wave, there’s a crisis of purpose. 

Seventy percent of people said their work defines their purpose. People whose work gives them purpose are more productive, more resilient and more likely to stay. When their purpose aligns with their employer’s, the benefits are even greater—influencing loyalty and better engagement.

Now, the crisis has put the employer/employee relationship to the test. Workers expect more from their employers. We’ve entered a new phase where leaders must go beyond engagement and get curious about the experience of being an employee at their company. 

This is the era of employee experience, and there are a few things employers can do to make sure they’re ready for it.  

Engagement vs. Experience

Leaders must get a pulse on purpose to see where their team is at. The first thing you can do is shift your mindset from gauging employee engagement to improving employee experience. At first glance, it might seem like these are two sides of the same coin. But, in fact, they’re quite distinct. 

While employee engagement is about finding ways to bolster an employee’s commitment to the organization, employee experience asks questions. It’s a more holistic—and most importantly, human—look at what your employees are seeing and feeling. New research suggests it couldn’t be more critical. When employees have a positive workplace experience, they show a greater sense of belonging, which is associated with a 50 percent drop in turnover risk. 

In short, employee experience means instead of making decisions and then asking your workers what they think of them, you engage your workforce in the decision-making process.

Like all healthy relationships, this starts with communication.

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Practice Continuous Listening

There are many different ways of making people feel heard, but in the age of employee experience, your listening must be continuous. 

First, request real-time feedback from your team. This can take many forms, from surveys to questions embedded in workflow. It’s only by asking questions that you’ll get a true appreciation of what your employees are seeing. But there’s a catch—the quality of responses you get depends on which questions you ask and how you ask them. 

Surveys, for example, should be sent sparingly—only as often as things are changing and when you’re able to respond. Otherwise, people feel badgered, like you’re asking for their input with no real reward for them. 

When you do a survey, ask concise, actionable questions, and analyze the responses for any patterns. If you get similar responses around any one issue, it’s likely you’re dealing with an organization-wide issue. 

Pair whatever insights you glean with higher level data around things like sick time and employee touchpoints, and you’ll have a much clearer picture of where your employee experience excels—and where it’s suffering. 

Once you have some answers, it’s time to start addressing the gaps—all the places where your employee experience is lacking.

Embrace Relational Leadership

Workers on the fence right now are not just looking within themselves but also to their leaders to decide whether or not they stay. Now is a vital time to show strong leadership with clarity and empathy. That’s why this isn’t just the burgeoning era of employee experience, but also relational leadership—the concept of higher-ups taking an interest in forming bonds with workers regardless of their place in the hierarchy.

One thing that’s become clear during the pandemic is that people want to be treated like, well, people. Take the remote versus in-office debate, for example. Stats show that one-size-fits-all solutions are so problematic to many people, it can cause them to consider leaving their job. This is where leadership needs to shine—policies must meet people where they are and make them feel respected. 

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Respect, social cohesion among team members and strength of purpose go hand-in-hand and lead to fewer retention problems.

It’s important to acknowledge this is not just a pandemic issue. The search for purpose won’t disappear when the virus subsides. Millennials and Gen Z are both highly driven by the belief that work should be about more than making money.

With this in mind, leaders would do well to embrace the power of a good story. From the early days of our company, we’ve been focused on using people data to build a more fair and just society. As we enter a stage of major expansion, that story has been key to attracting talented people. If we were focused on revenue, we would be hard-pressed right now to retain our teammates, let alone attract new ones.

To be able to tell a story—however small, however simple—that your team feels is worth their time and energy in pursuing can be a big differentiator. Your employees’ experience in fulfilling that purpose is what will see you through this retention wave and whatever follows.

Ryan Wong is an engineer-turned-CEO of Visier, a business intelligence platform.

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