Workforce 2022: What IS the New Normal?

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Workforce 2022: What IS the New Normal?

By Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden

In a nation weary but not yet free of Covid there is growing consternation, largely in C-suites, over the perceived need to return to “normal”, to life as it used to be; to herd millions of now remotely domiciled (free-range) knowledge workers back into the corporate coop, be it caged or cage-free.

The Great Resignation

Simultaneously, fresh data suggests that the Great Resignation, as it has become known, is not over. Indeed, the highest “Quits Rate” (voluntary resignations as measured by the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics) has occurred over the last 12 months from March ’21 to March ’22, with 4.5 million resignations in March, ’22 alone.

It’s likely we’ll witness the migration of yet more talent over the near term. In fact, recent data suggests that many of the “great resignators” are, fasten your seatbelt,  re-resigning and returning to, guess where? Their old jobs. Of course, that only works if management at the old place can see someone’s prior resignation as something other than a sign of disloyalty.

That being the case, let’s try to understand it a little more. But first, let’s understand this: The resignation level and pressure applied to coerce workers back into a collective workspace are, at some level, cause and effect conditions.

If someone’s inclined to quit anyhow and is told that failing to fall in line and do something they don’t want to do, or are currently uneasy about doing, will harm their career chances, I can hear workers in large numbers responding to the effect that, “You haven’t worried about my career for some time. I’m managing it myself now, thank you.” And a “Great Resignation” rolls on.


Workers surveyed by Fortune and ResearchScape in March, 2022 suggest that they are 10% LESS likely to be in their same jobs in 12 months, than those surveyed a year prior. As further confirmation, 11% of surveyed US workers say they are “not at all reluctant to leave their current jobs.” That’s more than 18 million people who are currently sitting on the fence.

Should the U.S. plunge into recession as some project, this theory may be put to the test sooner rather than later as worker preferences collide with cold, hard economics imposed by rising costs and a slowing economy.

Relational to Transactional 

Over the last six years, the workspace has morphed from a relational to a transactional (less predictable, less stable) construct. This is not confined to the employment arena. People in general (most of us) have taken a giant step back from the major institutions in our lives… government, churches, marriage, parenting, and employers.

This has no doubt been heightened by more than two years of dealing with a major pandemic by a society with a very low tolerance for hardships of more than a few weeks at a time. In that period, though, the level of trust in organizations of any kind – government and otherwise has fallen, leaving employers as the single greatest institutional repository of trust. And a lot of organizational leaders have noticeably stepped into the breach. Go figure.

As for reasons underlying the Great Resignation, not surprisingly, 53% of respondents in the Fortune/ResearchScape survey cited “More $” as their primary rationale for desiring job change. (TRANSACTIONAL)

31% cited “Career Advancement” as the leading reason for change. (TRANSACTIONAL)

23% cited “Leadership or Poor Relationships with their managers” as the primary reason to change jobs (RELATIONAL)

Most of those who’ve had the opportunity to try out the Work From Home model to some degree generally like it.

Yet, 83% said their employer is headed in the right vs 17% (wrong) direction, suggesting, I suppose, that for the most part, they’re not leaving mad, but they’re still considering leaving.

Free Range vs. Cage Free vs. Caged: So What?

We see two overarching forces at work:

1.    Many of the central arguments for compelling an absolute “return to work” including the fiscal justification are shaky at best. For example, many senior leaders grudgingly admit that real workforce productivity not only hasn’t gone down with Covid-inspired remote basing, if anything, it has gone UP! Witness record levels of corporate profitability. And let’s face it, the idea of having a shrunken real estate footprint to provide office space, parking, (and don’t forget the toilet paper) for all these people is enticing, as is the ability to recruit from a much larger (perhaps cheaper) supply of talent elsewhere across the globe.

2.    What’s really driving this urge is the fact that probably 2/3 of the American management cohort is, from a leadership standpoint, unskilled beyond being an eyes-on, work distributing ‘supervisor’ – a “straw boss” if you will. “Hey you, do this.” Most front-line managers were neither hired for nor trained to use real leadership skills in directing and motivating others to “get the wash out.” Hence, it’s threatening to have that crutch removed from one’s tool kit and be expected to supervise (their term) people that they don’t have real-time eyes on, who are doubtless taking a longer lunch break than HR rule 52A prescribes.

Now What?

Whatever path you choose, we strongly recommend that you resolve to treat your teammates (all of them) with consideration and respect… as the adults you thought they were when you hired them. If some aren’t deserving of even that modicum of consideration, separate them from the herd, but do it respectfully.

Be honest about “The Why” – Why is it truly necessary that we return people to a common workspace? If we can’t articulate that notion with something as blunt and bright as a crayon, it’s not going to float. Lose the notion that somehow, by executive fiat, we can command this into existence, because we can’t. We can command people to be present, for a while, but we can’t command engagement. It’s a simple high school physics problem – there are more of them than there are of us, and for the foreseeable future, they’ve got plenty of alternatives.

Consider instead the path being taken by PricewaterhouseCoopers Chair Tim Ryan. Recognizing talent’s desire for choice, the “Uberfication” of work, and what he projects as a protracted tight labor supply, Ryan, in a recent conversation with Fortune CEO Alan S. Murray, noted that his firm intends to go the other way by offering its teammates far greater choice over their schedules, work location, learning & development initiatives, and indeed the arc of their careers (see Murray’s Fortune CEO Daily 5/6/22). Ryan just might be onto something.

Our advice is that you LEAD! Put people first; Share goals (top 3 priorities always); Amp up the Listening & Humility; Train and incentivize leaders to LEAD!, Celebrate Wins, Show people how and why their work matters; and Seek Commitment over Compliance. Repeat, Commitment over Compliance.

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