At the start of 2022, Jamie Smith, Exec Chairman of C-Learning wrote about the ‘Great Resignation Wave’ for FE News. He outlined the perennial disgrace of low employee engagement levels and the way in which Covid had provided a potential reset button. The resignation wave may have started as a minor swell – pre-Covid – but it’s now a full-on, raging, ‘humpback’. In surfing parlance, when two waves combine, their increased power makes them notoriously difficult to ride, hence the humpback. Since April 2021, records continue to be broken (the current global resignation rate is nearly 3%) and the wave shows no sign of breaking yet. That’s a 1% increase in the quit rate compared with previous decades. If that doesn’t sound much, consider this: across the United States over 3 million people per month are walking away from their jobs. In the hospitality sector the quit rate is almost 6%. It’s the same picture in Europe and the UK: according to a Randstad survey in November 2021, almost one in four UK workers were looking to move jobs within 3-6 months. 69% of workers feel confident they can find other work easily, with only 16% worried about their prospects of finding another job.
The wave is being driven by mid-career professionals aged between 30-45 and, since a better work-life balance and inadequate childcare are high on the list of demands of disgruntled workers, it’s no surprise that more women than men are quitting. The warnings for the Further Education sector – where the average teaching age is 46 – could not be clearer.
While all sectors are affected, some (notably tech, healthcare and hospitality) are seeing the biggest exodus. Here, hospitality quit rates are double the national 3% rate. Even in rapidly expanding economies in Asia, the resignation wave is still evident. In China, it’s called Tang Ping – loosely translated as ‘lying flat’ – and is a statement of intent among young people rejecting the societal pressure to work unsociable hours.
The other ‘hump’ – the second wave – is less apparent, but just as significant. The ‘Power Of Us’ is now ascribed to a dawning sense of agency among ordinary citizens. There have been more social movements in the past decade, than in the previous century – #blm, #metoo, #XR, #occupy – it’s an ever-growing list. And it owes its impact and speed of growth to a number of phenomena. The power of citizen journalism means that a citizen who is beaten up by police in Memphis, is captured on video, posted on social media, and within hours there are street protests in Melbourne. Democracy may die in darkness, but increasing numbers of people are shining a harsh light on injustices.
Another factor is the demographic : Extinction Rebellion was established by retired academics, the March For Our Lives, led by the schoolchildren who witnessed the horrific mass shooting in Parklands Florida. Age is irrelevant and some fascinating cross-generational movements are now flourishing. Geography is also irrelevant – Google’s translation services now enable people speaking any language to hold a video meeting, and understand each other, learn from previous mistakes, share future strategies. None of this was possible 10 years ago. And the loudest voices, those who are most impatient for change, are sitting in your classrooms. The two largest public demonstrations in the history of humankind were both organised by students: the aforementioned March For Our Lives, was only bettered by the Friday School Strikes for Climate Change. Generations Y, Z and the next one, Alpha, marking anyone born after 2011, are globally networked, ethically conscious and demanding change – whether in the classroom, society or the workplace.
When it comes to the future of work, this ‘humpback’ represents a remarkable shift in the power dynamic between workers and the organisation, leading sparks & honey, a New York based culture company to tell their client CEOs ‘you’re not the boss any more – your people are’. And there’s every chance that this power shift will become irreversible, despite changing market forces.
In the wake of the wave
So what lies underneath the upheaval in the workplace and workforce? What are the triggers for this universal sense of dissatisfaction?
When analysts look for cause and effect, the picture is complex – the demand for higher wages play a part, but mainly in poorly-paid sectors like hospitality. The desire for better mental health care is another factor. Some have just had enough of the daily grind and are making major lifestyle changes, including moving house and/or living more frugally, in exchange for greater freedom. Covid’s lasting devastation left some people with no option but to resign.
For the majority of millennials, however, pay and perks were never the motivating factors. Instead, they wanted two things from their employers: a clear, ethical, purpose, and a healthy culture. Two years of zoom meetings, where how we behave, how we acknowledge deep feelings and shared values, is paramount, has thrust organisational culture centre stage. It’s why I set up the Power Of Us Agency after the success of the eponymous book – developing your culture is ever-evolving, and never a quick-fix.
Since we’ve been working with organisations, we have been surprised by a simple, but potentially devastating, observation: most leaders and leadership teams have no idea what their organisational culture actually is. Even those who have invested in ‘cultural transformation’ programmes have a warped view: they probably were told that it was their responsibility to set the culture of the organisation. So, they took themselves off to expensive retreats, created a set of values, behaviours and expectations, and then issued the edict: ‘We are a (insert buzzwords here) organisation. We invest in our culture because without us, we are nothing’. I recently worked with a government department and asked them to provide their cultural values statement. It began ‘Our people are at the heart of what we do.’ I stopped reading right there because if that’s your headline statement, you really haven’t given this the thought it deserves. It’s also a sure sign that almost none of the workforce have been involved.
Too many leaders practise what we call ‘trickle-down’ culture. If it’s on the motivational posters, it will transfer into our people’s brains. That’s what recently tripped up BrewDog’s CEO James Watt. I interviewed James and he very clearly and articulately laid out the culture at the rapidly-growing craft brewery. Unfortunately, James made the same mistake that many leaders make: just saying what your culture is doesn’t mean that it will be in the hearts and heads of your people. That’s where your culture lives – in the canteen conversations, or the discrete shared emails. And in the case of BrewDog, it was a culture of fear, misogyny and unreasonable demands.
The quest for self-determination
At The Power Of Us Agency, we’ve created a cultural audit tool that we insist is completed by everyone in the organisation, before we work with them. The results never fail to contain some surprising revelations, catching leaders off-guard. But cultural development in organisations has to start with the current lived reality, then identify the culture everyone aspires to, and build from where we are, not where we’re told we are.
Although each organisation will have cultural differences, it’s a reasonable bet that a common area to be worked upon will be autonomy. This is particularly the case in education since external constraints and a culture of compliance have limited the extent to which decision-making can be distributed. Covid, however, has amplified a desire to have more control over your destiny – at work or at home. Autonomy is a key determinant of job satisfaction and personal growth which, when mid-career educators are asked, are frequently cited as personal priorities. Organisations that fail to understand this, and fail to grow autonomy throughout the workforce, will be the ones who lose out in the recruitment and retention of talent.
How to avoid being swept away…
A recent Wired magazine article entitled ‘The Great Resignation is here, and no-one is prepared’, quotes John Goulding, CEO of employee communication platform, Workvivo: “…People want to feel part of something bigger, a company with a great culture of emotional connection, recognition and communication. If a CEO isn’t deliberately creating that culture, they’re bound to fail.”
The first challenge for leadership teams is to actually understand what culture actually is. When I began my career in further education in the mid-80s there were two words to describe culture in colleges: it was either ‘macho’ or ‘toxic’. Neither was exactly a ringing endorsement, and I’m relieved that things have improved since then. However, in The Power Of Us, I felt it necessary to be explicit in defining 8 key elements of culture, based upon the dramatically altered social context, and the priorities of highly innovative successful organisations around the world. They are Trust & Transparency, Engagement & Equity, Autonomy & Agency, and Mastery & Meaning. Paying attention to those 8 aspects of your culture will not only transform your organisation, it enables a nebulous concept to become tangible and visible.
Mark Moorhouse is CEO of the Watergrove Trust, and a keen student of management and leadership theory. He was also one of the first education organisations to implement our cultural audit. His reasons for doing so were both illuminating and instructive:
“ When the goldfish is asked how conditions in the bowl could be improved, they’ll talk about the gravel, they’ll talk about that plant or the little stone arch. They don’t talk about the water ‘cos they can’t see it – ‘cos they’re in it.”
Culture is like water for fishes, or the air we breathe. You only tend to notice it when it becomes poisonous. At the time of writing, two stories are dominating the news headlines: the Government’s so-called ‘partygate’ scandal and a report by the police watchdog into the Met Police force (also at the heart of partygate). The report lists a litany of misogyny, discriminatioan, bullying and sexual harrassment – and counters the habitual response of ‘one bad apple……’ by describing it as a cultural malaise. Similarly, Boris Johnson was humiliatingly forced to address the issue of an excessive drinking culture at no 10. It seems as though leaders (the bad ones, at least) only think about culture when it threatens to sink them.
So, whether it’s about getting ahead of the wave of resignations, holding on to your talented staff or avoiding the rude awakening forced upon BrewDog (and many others). Don’t wait to understand, measure and, above all, be intentional about your culture. Don’t worry about any potentially damning verdicts from your people – instead, find out what they think and invite them in to fix it. That’s what Lou Gerstner, the CEO credited with saving IBM had in mind when he said: “Management doesn’t change culture. Management invites the workforce itself to change the culture.”
David Price is an author, trainer and consultant dedicated to helping organisations make work engaging, purposeful and good for the planet. His book ‘The Power Of Us’ is available on Amazon.co.uk and his cultural agency can be found at https://www.powerofusagency.com