Despite an uptick in cases, and concerns about new variants, many of us are starting to feel like the COVID shutdown is somewhere near an end. We’re either ready to make plans to re-enter our old workspaces or form new hybrid teams, but we just want to get on with it. Unfortunately, you can’t let your guard down yet; there’s another problem on the horizon, and it might cause as much short-term chaos as the move to working from home. It’s a huge wave of turnover that could seriously disrupt your team.

If you’ve ever lived in an earthquake-zone that happens to be near an ocean, as I did for over half my life, you are aware of the dangers of a tsunami. Basically, it goes like this: There’s an earthquake, a few aftershocks, and within hours (just as you think things are calming down) there’s a warning about something completely different. There is a good chance that a wall of water is going to hit land and create at least as much damage as the original quake. It might not even be anywhere near the original fault line, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to worry about it.

Some of the changes will be inevitable, and we just need to prepare for them. Others are avoidable, or can at least be foreseen and mitigated in advance.

Why do experts expect a wave of employee turnover just as we all return to work? Here are a few of the reasons, and how to prepare your organization:

There was a sharp uptick in turnover before the pandemic.

It’s easy to forget that in 2019 and the beginning of 2020, the number of people voluntarily leaving their jobs was growing fast. There were a number of reasons, including a demand for more work flexibility, working from home, and sharp demand for increased benefits and perks after a number of years where things were flat. When the pandemic hit, many people focused on keeping the job they had rather than testing the waters elsewhere. With all the changes in the household and uncertainty, a bird in the hand was worth holding onto. Now, as people see light at the end of the tunnel, they are betting it’s a good time to test the grass and see if it’s actually greener elsewhere.

The remote work genie has left the bottle.

Pre-pandemic, remote work was growing at 25% per year. Working from home, or at least having the option more often, was the most requested perk among office workers. Still, many organizations refused to allow people to work from home for all kinds of reasons. The last 18 months has shown that while some of those fears were legitimate, many failed to create the kind of apocalyptic havoc people expected.  More than that, many roles thought to be office-dependent coped perfectly well with changing location. Even people who were perfectly happy in the office got used to not having to commute, dressing down most of the time, and being able to split household duties with their partner.

It is like the old World War I era song lyric: How Will You Keep Them Down on the Farm Once They’ve Seen Gay Paree? People will request/demand at least some of that same flexibility. Organizations that can’t or won’t comply will find people voting with their feet.

People have had 18 months to reexamine their personal goals and priorities.

Most people don’t take time to seriously think about their careers and personal priorities—they’re too busy running from morning to night. But circumstances have allowed people more time than ever to examine what’s important to them. What do they want to do with their lives? How do they want to balance family and personal time with their work life? Do they really want things to return to normal, when that normal wasn’t great to start with? Switching phases of the pandemic is a natural time to make important changes if you need to make them.

Some people want to return to work, only to find it’s not there.

There are a lot of people who have survived working from home, but can’t wait to get back to a social, in-person workplace. But many organizations have decided to go full-time virtual, or shrink their office space, or turn to a hybrid workplace that won’t be the same as the office they left. These people will seek employment elsewhere

Some people don’t want to return to the old workplace.

For everyone who pines for a return to normal, there’s someone else who likes working from home and doesn’t want to go back. There are lots of reasons for this, ranging from personal satisfaction to continued fear of infection, but if forced into a work situation they find uncomfortable, they’ll vote with their feet.

There are a lot of companies competing for your people.

It’s inevitably true that when people get comfortable in a situation, they immediately start to complain about it and think about other opportunities. Ordinarily, this kind of daydreaming is hard on engagement, but there used to be barriers to changing jobs that just don’t exist in an increasingly virtual world. If you can’t create a culture of meaningful work, rewarding social interactions, and competitive benefits, don’t be surprised that people start to look around for new jobs.

As you can see, there isn’t a single reason people will change jobs. That means organizations need to reexamine their entire culture: benefits, pay, work culture, and balancing the needs of the business with those of their people. 

Have you spoken to your people about what they really want over the next few months? How prepared is your organization for a wave of voluntary turnover?


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

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Wayne Turmel has been writing about how to develop communication and leadership skills for almost 26 years. He has taught and consulted at Fortune 500 companies and startups around the world. For the last 18 years, he’s focused on the growing need to communicate effectively in remote and virtual environments.

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