September 30, 2022

Resignation, Regret, and Lessons Learned

There is a sequel to The Great Resignation known as The Great Regret. There are some lessons that owners can take away from both phenomena to ensure they are doing everything possible to keep employees engaged and attract great talent.

The Great Resignation

The pandemic disrupted almost every business on the planet. The impact on organizations and employees’ lives has been unlike anything most of us have ever seen. As manufacturers, printers were luckier than many businesses because most employees still had to come to work. But that wasn’t the case for a lot of your customers.

According to McKinsey and Company, 87% of employees offered a chance to work remotely took it. The business world learned that 35% of job holders could work from home full time, and another 23% could do so part-time. That’s 92 million people from a cross-section of jobs and employment types who now have the option to work from home for all or part of the week. Your sales and customer service teams are dealing with this now and are likely seeing emails from customer contacts early in the morning and well into the night. You may have noticed that customer expectations have changed as their work hours have shifted. If it was hard to reach a customer before the pandemic, it’s even harder now. Remote workers have embraced buying just about anything over the Internet, and Gartner predicts that by 2025, 80% of B2B sales interactions between suppliers and buyers will occur digitally.

For sales reps, a successful “drop-in” is a rarity and even more annoying for decision makers than pre-pandemic. Today, decision-makers in the office for less than a week find their days loaded with internal meetings and have little time to meet with sales reps eager to find a problem they can fix. Reaching customers will only worsen for reps who can’t use insight to start compelling conversations via email, phone, or LinkedIn.

As remote workers became disengaged from their fellow employees, company cultures, and daily routines, they, in vast numbers, looked outside the company for new opportunities. This massive shift, known as the Great Resignation, saw more than 4 million workers per month leaving their positions starting in mid-2021.

According to Pew Research, workers sought greener grass for a complex set of reasons, but these are the top ones:

  • more money
  • new opportunities
  • they felt disrespected or underappreciated by their employer
  • their child care situation changed
  • they needed more flexibility due to changing work-family dynamics
  • felt their benefits were inadequate
  • wanted to relocate
  • wanted fewer or more hours

As the economy ramped up, more jobs existed than people to fill them. Employers started throwing money at the problem to fill spots, and wages increased. Wage inflation made it even harder for small businesses to compete for talent with larger companies with deeper pockets. Amongst the larger organizations, ever-increasing salaries, hourly rates, and perks continued to lure workers away from jobs they may have held for years had the pandemic not occurred.

For the printing industry, the employees most likely to leave were the good ones. Mediocre or poor performers didn’t have the skills larger firms were looking for or the initiative to investigate other options. They stayed, making it even harder for printing companies to improve productivity, and grow or lure good young talent to the company.

The Great Regret

It turns out that for many participants in the great resignation, the grass was not greener. A recent article in Forbes notes that one our of five employees who left their companies during the Great Resignation regret their decision.

According to Statista, these are the top reasons many of those who switched jobs later regretted their decision.

  • 40% found it more challenging than expected to find a new position.
  • 22% miss the people at their old job.
  • 17% don’t think their new job is what lived up to its advanced billing, with 9% saying that the culture and management are bad.
  • 3% said their new job was not worth the higher pay.

The Big Lesson

The free time associated with the initial shutdowns and the general disruptions to daily lives forced workers to consider what they wanted out of their work-life balance. Many workers had been on the proverbial treadmill for years. They hadn’t taken the time to consider what they wanted from their positions, employers or lives. They ranked a more fulfilling role, a higher salary, greater flexibility, and recognition of their worth at the tops of their lists. Many weren’t getting those things in their current roles and didn’t get them from new jobs either.

Since 2020, I have had many conversations with business owners who lost a great employee or were trying to save one thinking about leaving. Many owners responded to the threat by raising pay, but they didn’t stop to revise job responsibilities. They raised payroll costs but not necessarily productivity or profit.

While money is essential, it’s not the only thing employees are looking for, and many owners have failed to capitalize on the non-monetary things they could offer their employees.

Here are my tips to craft positions that meet the needs of today’s workforce.

1)   Greater Flexibility – in 2021, one of the owners I work with lost a great employee because the owner insisted that he come back into the office. His position as the “data guy” is one where working remotely can improve efficiency. He needed quality time with fewer interruptions, and working from home at the start of the pandemic gave him precisely what he needed. His owner feared that others would want the same flexibility, so he denied the request. The employee loved his job and didn’t want to leave, but he felt he had earned the right to more flexibility. When his owner denied his request saying, “If I let you do it, I’ll have to let others,” he felt unappreciated and left the company.

I have another owner who just landed a great sales rep because of his flexibility. The new hire is also a college football referee. He needs to leave early on Fridays for out-of-town games. This owner didn’t see this request as something that would take the rep away from his work. He was happy to work something out with the employee and now has an incredibly gifted and grateful employee.

I work with another owner who employs a “data/digital guy” with a special needs child. The owner gives him the flexibility he needs to be a great Dad. The employee happily works more hours than required and saves the company money because of his commitment to proactive problem-solving and process improvement.

I coach a senior manager for a company outside the printing industry. A great employee resigned to fulfill his dream of traveling through Europe with his wife before starting a family. He had saved his money and planned to be gone for six months. My client didn’t want to lose his excellent employee, so he figured out a way for him to work remotely in another area of the company for 10 hours a week while traveling. The employee earns money while traveling and fulfills a vital role where the company is shorthanded. The senior manager devised a themed game for the team to track “Jack’s Travel” with pushpins on a map as he moves from country to country. The whole team is having fun with it, and the company will keep its great employee because they were willing to try something they hadn’t done in the past.

Get to know your employees both as workers and as people. Find out if your job gives them what they need to lead fulfilling lives. If they need more flexibility, try to provide them with what they need. A company with a great culture cares about employees as people and productive employees and will look for ways to give employees the flexibility to perform both roles well.

If you are clear about position responsibilities, have open and direct conversations about the flexibility you can offer and what you expect in return. Flexibility can be one of your best tools in retaining and recruiting talent.

2)   Recognition of Worth – Many of the owners I work with have their heads down working in their business and fail to recognize the efforts of their employees. I know they want to do it, but they think they will get to it as soon as they’ve cleared their “to-do” list. Their “to-do” lists are never-ending. Some may think they need to do something big to thank employees, but the big thing keeps sinking to the bottom of the list of things to do.

I talk to employees all the time who don’t think their owners see what they do or appreciate their efforts, mainly because the owner never says anything positive to them. They only hear from their owners when they haven’t done something.

Great employees need to be seen. They need to know that their hard work is recognized, and when they don’t receive validation, they stop caring. When employees stop caring, they are disengaged, make more mistakes, are absent more often, are less happy at work, and are less productive. Disengaged workers cost US businesses $550 Billion annually.

I spoke to a sales rep today whose role is completely disconnected from the position defined by his owner when hired. He has years of expertise in the industry and thought he would be joining a team that welcomed his new ideas about what to sell and how to produce it efficiently. That isn’t happening. He feels his suggestions are falling on deaf ears, and he is frustrated and doesn’t see how things can improve. On a joint call with his manager, the rep was trying to point out that sales were up YOY in his area. The owner didn’t even respond to the statement. The rep was looking for an ‘atta-boy,” and the owner completely missed the chance.

He is a great rep, has tons of successful selling experience, and he’s a flight risk. The owner is busy with a zillion owner worries and doesn’t realize the extent of the problem. This employee is struggling to overcome the inertia of a team that’s been together for years and doesn’t want to extend itself. The new rep doesn’t feel appreciated or as if he is positively impacting the company. The owner had a chance to reassure him he is valued and the problems will be fixed, but he said nothing. Without intervention, this employee will find another position.

According to Gallup, only 32% of employees today consider themselves engaged, and 17% are actively disengaged. This year’s survey also showed a sharp drop in employees who strongly agreed that their employer cares about their overall well-being. Owners who don’t listen to their employee’s concerns or demonstrate an effort to investigate and resolve the problem are saying, “I don’t care about you or what you think.”

Employees of large corporations can argue that they feel like a number, but that should never happen in a small business. Owners and senior managers need to walk around, talk to their employees daily and give every employee one-on-one time throughout the year. Owners should ask their managers which employees are doing a great job and ensure they seek out the employees, recognize their efforts, and thank them.

One of my favorite customers makes it a point to serve every employee on all three shifts when the company has significant events. She works for 24 hours straight but has the opportunity to talk to every employee and thank them for their efforts. She has more than 250 employees, but she does it twice a year because it’s important. I work with a couple of her employees, and they would run through fire if she asked them to do it.

3)   A More Fulfilling Role – This is as close to an ace in the hole as small businesses can have in today’s post-pandemic world. All employees, good and bad, want something from their role. Some may want to fly under the radar and work as few hours to earn as much money as possible. But I think most want to contribute to the success of their companies. The good ones want to grow, learn new things and take on new challenges. Learning something outside of your immediate position is not easy in larger organizations. A customer service rep for a large enterprise who may be interested in starting a new business will not have the opportunity to learn about accounting, HR, or production functions in a large corporation.

Small businesses can offer that to employees interested in learning other aspects of the business. One of the businesses I work with has a bookkeeper who loves the company and wants more hours. The owner can’t give her more bookkeeping hours, but he did need someone to follow up on his lead generation campaigns. He asked her if she would be interested in learning how to do that, and she jumped at the chance. I’ve only coached her for a few weeks, but she is eager, hardworking, and a fast learner. I have worked with many sales reps in my career who aren’t any of those things, so her enthusiasm is a step in the right direction and a big indication of whether she’ll succeed.

Owners need to talk to employees about what they find fulfilling in their current roles and what they don’t. Great questions to ask are:

  • How does what you do daily compare to what you thought you would do?
  • How are you having an impact on the company?
  • What things would you like to learn outside of your current role?
  • What other ways could you help the company move forward?

4)   A Higher Salary – employees always have competing goals. They may love your company and their position but have households and retirement to pay for, so the prospect of earning more matters. But in today’s post-pandemic world, many have also learned that the big paycheck may not outweigh the other important things they want.

As a small business owner, you may be unable to match the salaries offered by larger organizations or desperate competitors. But the more you understand your employees and the needs of prospective employees, the more options you have to put together a package that helps them achieve more of their goals on their terms.

The only way to know what an employee or candidate wants is to ask them about their professional and personal goals. Don’t be afraid if they want to travel through Europe, open a business themselves one day, retire at age 50 or become an NFL Referee. People with goals work hard to achieve them, and you can capitalize on that motivation for your business if you construct jobs that give them a path forward while they help you achieve your goals.

Be open to more options to reinforce your commitment to existing employees and attract great candidates. Seek out employees looking for more than just a paycheck. Capitalize on the fact that you are a small business and have a greater ability to be flexible. Offer a wider variety of professional experiences to employees interested in learning and growing. Finally, demonstrate your commitment to the health and well-being of your employees and their families by helping employees construct jobs that give them room for both.


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