Opinion: the impact of this potential talent exodus on any organisation's future performance is hugely significant

By Sarah Kieran and Deirdre O'Shea, University of Limerick

Recent reports have highlighted that between 20 and 40% of employees in the US and UK are considering leaving their current job, a phenomenon that has been dubbed 'The Great Resignation'. It's also hitting Ireland: around 40% of respondents to a survey of around 1,000 Irish employees by the Kemmy Business School WorkFutures Lab said they agreed or strongly agreed that 'my future career lies outside of this organisation’. This was regardless of whether they worked in multinationals, indigenous Irish companies, SMEs or the public sector.

Such widespread sentiment appears to be associated with a growing dissatisfaction with work practices and ways of working, resulting in an unprecedented critique of the world of work over the last year. This includes many different dimensions of work, such as employee voice, diversity, wellbeing and flexible working practices to mention but a few. Consequently, organisations are under incredible pressure to adapt their leadership, management and work practices, though the survey shows many employees feel their organisations are not willing or capable of meeting their needs into the future.

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But meeting these challenges may not be as difficult as organisations might think. While where and when employees want to work has undoubtedly been affected by the global pandemic, the characteristics that make quality jobs and quality work have not substantially changed. Organisational theory has offered a very clear understanding of what constitutes good work design for decades now.

This is conveyed well through the concept of SMART work design. Organisations need to design jobs that offer their employees stimulating work comprised of a variety of tasks, problems to solve and skills to apply or develop; mastery opportunities through providing them with a clear role, regular, critical feedback and a sense of purpose in their job; agency through their ability to control their work, how it is conducted, scheduled and how decisions are made; relational experiences through positive supervisory/peer support and a sense of social worth and tolerable demands ensuring they have the space, time and skills to do their job well, encounter low levels of conflict and emotional demands, and ensure the monitoring of their work is not excessive.

The lockdown experience has given many the opportunity to re-evaluate work and re-emerge with clearer heads and stronger voices, questioning leaders and organisations like never before. Through the SMART work design lens, we can see how the pandemic highlighted some critical aspects of work. For example, the importance of employee voice, around how work is scheduled through the increasing demand for flexible working practices, has been in organisational policy documents for years, but rarely implemented in practice.

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Similarly, the need for a sense of purpose in one’s job, which doesn’t have to be creating a cure for cancer (nor indeed Covid), can simply be about feeling one’s contribution is acknowledged and valued. The need for a job with tolerable demands is one which working through the pandemic has highlighted for many employees, who have worked very hard to ensure their organisation’s success over the last year, frequently under very difficult life circumstances. How their organisation responds now to their desire for change into the future will indicate how much their past and future input is valued.

While it is challenging for organisations to develop new or adapted work practices, such changes are eminently achievable. Re-orienting leaders and managers to lead and implement these new work practices might be more challenging. Let us not forget that leaders and managers are employees too! The KBS WorkFutures Lab survey found that 41% of managers, 24% of site leaders, 39% of regional leaders and 19% of global leaders based in Ireland also feel their future lies outside of their current organisation.

The impact of this potential talent exodus on any organisation’s future performance is hugely significant. While the work practice path is clear and achievable with some strategic input from HR, the broader leadership consensus to move forward with these new work practices requires unwavering support from the CEO, board and shareholders. Transforming work practices will require effort but, while performance measures may be negatively impacted in the short term, they will be significantly outweighed by successful organisational outcomes in the longer term.

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This is the crux of the matter; will leaders and managers be given the time, space and budget to make sense of and reskill for this new world of work by the powers that be? The alternative is that organisations will revert to pre-pandemic work cultures and practices or possibly continue to place unrealistic work demands on employees. This is why the great resignation then becomes a reality and the organisation is left running to a standstill.

It is also of the utmost importance to recognise that one can only participate in the great resignation if one has a job from which to resign! People who take such leaps of faith are to be admired, but they are also fortunate enough to have choices. Organisations, and indeed society as a whole, have a responsibility to those who do not have choices. The need for change in the world of work is as much about the disenfranchised in our society as it is about retaining the highly paid, highly skilled talent.

Many are excluded before they ever get started as the organisations recruitment process screens them as unsuitable due to age, gender, address, ethnicity, neuro-diversity etc. Others are excluded because of an organisation’s set view of what constitutes expertise and experience, the ‘right’ education and the ‘right’ profession, rather than looking more creatively at an individual’s skills, traits and life experience. Those who do succeed in getting jobs can often be excluded from achieving their full potential in the workforce through organisations engaging in precarious, poor quality forms of work and short-termism in how they measure organisational success. While the world of work needs to change, maybe those who can choose to participate in the great resignation are the lucky ones.

Dr Sarah Kieran is a Post-Doctoral Researcher in Human Resource Management at the Kemmy Business School at University of Limerick. She is co-ordinator of the KBS Work Futures Lab. Dr Deirdre O'Shea is a Senior Lecturer and Chartered Work and Organisational Psychologist at the Kemmy Business School at University of Limerick. She is a former Irish Research Council awardee and a member of the KBS Work Futures Lab.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ