When we talk about the progression of COVID-19, we often talk in terms of waves. The first wave, the second wave and so on. Parallel to this thinking, we’ve seen narrative waves take over the media and public consciousness. Last year it was the “she-cession,” as women and caregivers exited the workforce en masse. This year, it’s the “Great Resignation.”
If you attended the 2021 HR Technology Conference, you already know that this cringe-worthy turn of phrase would make for a dangerous drinking game, based on the number of times it was repeated throughout the week.
The problem with the Great Resignation is that it goes deeper than the blatant abuse of branding. It’s distracting from a much larger issue – there’s a labor uprising taking place. Now, usually, when we think about uprisings, our minds wander to images of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, newsies singing about “papes” or soot-covered workers striking in the streets.
In the words of Gil Scott Heron, the revolution will not be televised. What’s happening with today’s workforce is less overt but just as real, and here’s why: The pandemic forced the collective realization that we can’t continue to work under the conditions we’ve created. Read that again.
We created these conditions – conditions that left workers with few choices and even less autonomy. Employers expected engagement with minimal benefit to employees beyond basic survival. The global health crisis only exacerbated an already dire situation – to the extent that some workers had to choose between their health and safety and paying bills. It’s a modern-day struggle akin to the battle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat.
So why are we overlooking what’s really going on? For one thing, we keep hearing from the wrong voices. Much of the Great Resignation storyline quotes the C-Suite, rather than workers, organizers, recruiters or HR professionals.
Case in point: A recent spate of articles that featured insights from Dropbox CEO Drew Houston. The coverage pointed to a speech Houston gave about the end of the 40-hour workweek, where he said, “The workplace will now be wherever work happens, and the workweek will be whenever work happens best for each person.”
There’s a lot of context missing here, with Houston’s comments geared toward knowledge workers, the folks who can work from anywhere, anytime and don’t apply to trade or service industry jobs. But worse, these comments intentionally exclude the majority of the workforce impacted by the so-called Great Resignation, and that’s a problem. No wonder there’s a revolt in progress – subtle as it may be.
A recent Vox piece attempted to reframe the resignation narrative, citing Tim Brackney’s opinion that we’re experiencing a “great mismatch” in terms of desires, experience and skills. Brackney is president and COO of a management consulting firm, and while his take gets us a little closer to what’s going on, it’s not quite right. If Houston was too narrow, Brackney is too broad. At the conference, Marcus Buckingham presented the “Great HR Reset and Reinvention,” while Ben Eubanks called it the “Great Reprioritzation.”
The reality of this moment is somewhere between these expressions, representative of the need to disconnect work from life. Does that make this the “great disconnect?” No. The disconnect has existed for decades, the struggle to separate our work from our worth is nothing new – the pandemic is simply the agitator.
So, while women are giving up their careers, men are opting out of college and people everywhere are checked out or burned out, all the C-Suite can talk about is how people resigning affects their organizations. Further complicating matters is what candidates know and understand about the use of technology in the workplace, particularly in hiring.
Headlines like “Automated-hiring systems are excluding many people from job discussions at a time when additional employees are desperately needed” are contributing to the idea that it’s us vs. them, employer vs. employee, recruiter vs. job seeker. Some within talent acquisition are rallying against this – likely why we heard little about AI at this year’s conference. There’s a need to connect and protect, and that requires more humanity.
How the world worked before 2020 is no longer relevant, and most employers are struggling to come to terms with that. At the core of what’s going on, the problems remain the same. It’s that disconnect that’s growing faster. In practice, the technologies we use for recruiting, retention, culture, engagement, experience and so on are all good and well if people’s needs get met. If we fail to establish a solid base, the entire structure will fall, and fixating on the Great Whatever feels like one more wave that will wipe us out.