This is part 2 in a series on the Great Resignation, the trend of American workers voluntarily leaving their jobs in the wake of COVID. On Saturday, we examined the reasons behind this mass exodus. Today, we'll examine what employers need to know to retain the post-COVID employee.

FARGO — In her 27 years in the staffing field, Jill Berg has never seen anything like it.

Job openings everywhere — and so few people who want them. "It's unbelievable," says Berg, the Spherion Staffing CEO/president who runs five offices in the Dakotas and Minnesota. "These are the most crazy times I have ever seen in my life. It’s just been a nightmare … when you think about the statistics of 48% of workers are planning to leave their employer in the next 12 months, that’s a pretty scary statistic."

Berg has met with CEOs and college presidents around the state and all are scrambling to fill vacancies. Some attribute the workforce shortage to the number of older employees who opted to retire early rather than battle the health risks or the office politics around COVID. Some, she believes, have found it more lucrative to collect unemployment and child-tax credits than to work lower-wage jobs. Many have tasted the freedom of working remotely, and refuse to give up their fuzzy slippers and dog-walking coffee breaks to return to corporate culture.

Even then, Berg says many aren't satisfied. She cites a recent Spherion study that shows 93% of CEOS indicate they're willing to allow some kind of remote work going forward. "The employees are saying that's not enough. I want more," Berg says. "Their value is so high that no one can find anybody."

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Welcome to the latest "long-haul" symptom of COVID: the shift of power in the American workplace. For the first time in decades, employees are in the catbird seat.

While some believe this is a reflection of a workforce that has grown increasingly less productive and more entitled, business media platforms like Forbes and Inc., are rife with interviews from business leaders who say this discontent stems from a "top down" problem: CEOs who earned enormous bonuses while their frontline workers barely got cost-of-living raises; workplaces that promoted toxic narcissists over competent hard workers; loyal employees who found themselves jobless amid panicky COVID-induced cutbacks; employees who felt increasingly dehumanized in a massive corporate structure; parents who weren't supported when their child care fell through, or female workers who still are paid less for doing the same job as men.

This discontent has bubbled beneath the surface for quite a while, they say. COVID was just the final ingredient to make it boil over. As the economy ground to a halt, people had time to examine their lives and ask if they were on the right path. An article in Forbes says this collective self-reflection resulted in the mass exodus known as "The Great Resignation."

Lorna Borenstein, founder of Grokker, an on-demand, online health and wellness tool for employees, writes in a Forbes commentary that "there is no question that a global reckoning is coming. There’s a clear mismatch between what employers are offering and what employees are seeking, and workers have the bargaining power. While most leaders can appreciate the implications, they aren’t taking them seriously enough."

Borenstein writes that the smartest organizations will see this as an opportunity to evolve with their workers. The key isn't to rely on the wacky gimmicks that corporate America long assumed were the hallmarks of a "great culture": fridges stocked with free energy drinks, beanbags and pingpong tables.

No, today's employees want an authentically caring culture.

"People at all levels want to work for companies that value people’s mental health, their lives outside of work and their need for connection with one another — things that until now were considered luxuries but are now critical to drive loyalty and win the war of workforce attraction and retention.”

— Lorna Borenstein, CEO/founder of Grokker

How to do this? Read on.

  • Flexibility and autonomy. The genie is out of the bottle. Employees have experienced remote work — and while it wasn't a great experience for everyone —they aren't ready to give it up. While remote work isn't possible or ideal for everyone, many people respond well to being trusted complete their work without someone hovering over them.

"Overload," a book co-authored by University of Minnesota sociology Prof. Phyllis Moen, underscores this. "Overload" examines how modern expectations of professional work — 24/7 availability, doing more with less — are triggering employees' chronic stress, underperformance and high turnover.

The feeling of not having control over one's workload, or where and when work is performed, often drives resignations, Moen said.


The final piece, Moen told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is supporting employees' personal lives. This is not only important for mid-career workers with families but also younger workers, who see little reason to be loyal when employers won't respond in kind.

How important is flexibility? A recent survey by Bankrate found that 56% of workers indicated they'd prefer remote work or adjustable working hours. That even outnumbered those who said they wanted higher pay (53%).

Although one might assume the nation's lowest-paid workers — those making under $30,000 — would rank higher wages as their top concern, the majority (52%) still listed flexible work hours as their top priority.

"I think sometimes we’ve seen employees leave employers to make $1 more, and money has always been a key there," says Phil Davis, workforce services director for North Dakota Job Service. "But I think flexibility, and balancing that work and personal and family life together, is needed in order for that employer to stand out.

  • Avoid elitism when supporting employees. In her Forbes commentary, Borenstein reminds employers that demonstrations of caring shouldn't be reserved to only our "professional" or white-collar employees. "Every employee — including the lowest paid, front-line and entry-level worker — desires a fulfilling, life-affirming work experience. Everyone should expect a workplace where they feel a sense of belonging with their coworkers and do work they feel good about, for which they are paid a fair wage," she writes.

"Unlike 40 years ago, lower-paid employees cannot afford to buy a home or pay for college tuition on their income. In fact, a full-time minimum-wage worker can afford a one-bedroom housing rental in only 7% of all U.S. counties," Borenstein writes. "If you hope to attract and retain them, you need to offer valuable, non-financial remuneration that makes their paychecks go further, such as scheduling flexibility, free on-site child care and well-being resources that support their everyday self-care needs.

"This isn’t a romantic notion," she adds. "People will work hard because they have to make ends meet, but they’ll work harder if they know they’re valued and cared for."

The key to employee retention is to build a culture of caring, belonging and inclusion at all levels of an organization, not only among the "professionals" or a select few, Lorna Borenstein writes in a Forbes commentary. 
Contributed / Canva
The key to employee retention is to build a culture of caring, belonging and inclusion at all levels of an organization, not only among the "professionals" or a select few, Lorna Borenstein writes in a Forbes commentary. Contributed / Canva

  • Make trust a two-way street. In "The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work," author Charles Feltman preaches how two-way trust is essential to individual, team and organizational success. A workplace with trust issues will show marked deficits in creativity, productivity, innovation and loyalty. Likewise, its workers will demonstrate high levels of fear, anger, resentment, resistance, pessimism, blame and judgment.

A workplace built on Feltman's tenets of trust will value characteristics like reliability (ability to follow through on commitments, keeping scheduled meetings, not overpromising or sugarcoating), the practice of care, and sincerity. Research supports this. A study conducted by Florida State University found that of individuals who recently changed jobs: “39% said their leaders failed to follow through on promises, 37% said they didn’t get credit for their hard work, and 31% said their leaders were absent or not present.”

  • Show people you have their back. According to Feltman, you can do this by understanding employees' passions and frustrations, sharing the decision-making process, acknowledging their critical life events, practicing transparency and demonstrating advocacy.

  • Realize the importance of 'the 3 C's': Numerous studies show that communication, collaboration and connection are important to employees, but it can be challenging to foster those attributes in a remote setting, Berg says. "Many individual contributors get energy from being around colleagues even if they don’t depend on them to complete their job," says John Eades, CEO at LearnLoft. "Remote work has eliminated the opportunity to engage with colleagues daily, thus creating a ‘Meaningful Interaction Bubble.’ Leaders must be proactive to ensure individual contributors get enough interaction to maintain energy and purpose in their work.”

Stephen Baer, chief creative officer at The Game Agency and The Training Arcade, tells Forbes that this sense of connection can be built through activities like virtual yoga classes, positivity chat boards, podcast discussion groups and competitive online games.

So can regular meetings with both teams and individuals, as well as hybrid work arrangements with periodic, in-person meetings and projects.

  • Remind employees their work matters. Especially now, employees need reminders that their contributions are important and purposeful. "Right now, people are searching for meaning and purpose," says Anthony Klotz, the Texas A&M associate professor who coined the term, "The Great Resignation." "Organizations can help remind people of how their job contributes to the wellbeing of the world. I think purpose-driven leadership does work. Over the last 18 months, a lot of organizations have been firefighting—rightfully so—but they've gotten away from reminding employees of how their jobs create meaning and purpose in other people’s lives and their own lives—the pro-social piece. I tell leaders, it’s time to take purpose-driven leadership seriously, because you can help employees make sense of ‘What am I doing for eight hours a day?’"