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Human Resource Management

Why Are Employees Leaving Now?

Poole College Professor of Practice Beth Ritter weighs in on the Great Resignation of 2021.

By Caroline Barnhill

“I quit.” – The words being echoed across boardrooms – or Zoom rooms – across the country.  According to the US Labor Department, millions of employees are leaving their jobs. NPR reported that a record 4 million people resigned in April alone. Employers are left scrambling for ideas to retain and attract talent. 

Poole College of Management professor of practice of human resource management Beth Ritter offers some ideas based on learnings from a series of interviews conducted over the last year that tie to some foundational management research. 

In late 2020 and early 2021 as part of semester-ending assignments, I asked students to interview business associates about the impact of COVID-19 on their work and their firms. Engaging outside the classroom with the realities of the virus was very impactful for the students. They heard first-hand about the extreme challenges, from layoffs to rapid growth, for different businesses. Beyond the classroom exercise, the summary interview data offered some interesting insights, too.  

An opportunity presented

The first major observation from the interview excerpts was that work had changed in ways that allowed far more autonomy, independence and meaning for associates. Predictably, there were comments about flexibility – meaning employees could work remotely versus in person – and they enjoyed flexibility in their schedules. However, there were also other significant changes that we observed in the interview data.  

In addition to the many statements about more responsibilities and more work, the interviewees shared the following excerpts about the new ways of working…

“Able to reinvent my role once remote…”

“Shifts of power occurred…”

“Management needed to trust employees more…”

“Solve issues on your own…”

“More surveys from management to gather our opinions…”

“Work on more strategic duties after my other work was streamlined…”

The interviewee statements tie to a model of job design by researchers Greg Oldham and Richard Hackman, whose work identified five drivers of motivating work. The Job Characteristics Model includes skill variety, task identity – meaning the employee completes a whole or identifiable piece of work from beginning to end, task significance, autonomy and job-based feedback. 

Through statements like the ones above, it seems as though in the rapid response to the virus, for many individuals, their “new” work became more motivating. Management did not deliberately design work with the intention of increasing motivation, but for many, that is what happened. It also became an opportunity for employees to redesign their work experience. 

It’s no wonder why many employees may fear a return to “business as usual” – they worry it may ultimately reduce their independence and impact, therefore making the same work seem less motivating. A dilemma for employers will be how they can maintain the same level of autonomy for their employees when they return to offices. If they don’t, it may be a reason for employees to leave.

Now, consider “job crafting” – a concept originally described by researchers Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton. In job crafting, work is individually driven in a way that aligns with personal needs and goals. Their research found that individuals engage in job crafting to experience greater meaning in work, improve work-related well-being and better job performance. So, once again, it seems as though the response to the pandemic allowed employees to job craft or redesign their work – and employers should exercise caution when “undoing” or “unwinding” this employee-designed work if they want to retain their employees. 

The accountability factor

Along with the data around employee independence in work situations, several interviewees also explained that new processes were implemented to help managers and peers learn what others were doing or completing. Excerpts included…

“More accountability to hold others accountable…”

“Tie job descriptions to offer letters and performance evaluations now…”

“Began electronic time tracking to know what others are doing…”

“Increased reporting to clients and employees…”

 “More digital documentation so data is available for others to see…”

In considering this list, there is the kind of process to improve visibility for agility in work and agility in working with others, but there are also processes to control. While managers need to manage work, caution should be exercised in implementing processes that appear to be less trusting of their employees. It is about balance. How much tracking do you implement before your employees feel micromanaged and less empowered?

Three employer takeaways to try  

While these issues of autonomy, job crafting and accountability are just a few of the dynamics at play when considering the “Great Resignation,” here are things to consider as your business emerges post-pandemic:  

  1. Meet with employees to understand what they appreciated about the new ways of working. Ask them to write the new version of their work as a new job description, and iterate with them to create the best version.  
  2. Don’t rush back to old processes but consider keeping the new employee-developed practices and policies that removed layers and handoffs and increased employee autonomy.
  3. Consider why you are tracking? Is it just for timekeeping and payroll? Is it to understand efficiencies? Or is it about trust? Setting clear and measurable expectations is critical. Use the back-to-the-office change as an opportunity to reset and recalibrate expectations.