“We’re hiring” signs are ubiquitous. What’s going on, and how can learning leaders help?

Millions of American workers have quit their jobs in the past few months; at the end of August 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 10.4 million open jobs—and a record 4.3 million people left their jobs in August. People resigned or decided not to return following a COVID-19 layoff or furlough for a variety of reasons:

  • Some moved to new opportunities in a “job hunter’s market.”
  • Some still have small children at home and cannot find or afford childcare.
  • Others are leaving fields with historical issues like unpredictable schedules, low pay, or lack of benefits—or working a single job rather than return to a patchwork of multiple part-time jobs.
  • Workers are resigning from companies with “toxic” workplace cultures.

Many left their jobs even before finding new ones; a McKinsey Quarterly article by Aaron De Smet, Bonnie Dowling, Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi, and Bill Schaninger cites research by McKinsey & Company that found that 36% of respondents who had quit jobs in past six months did not have a new job lined up.

In the face of “the great resignation,” corporate leaders are desperately seeking strategies to hold on to valuable employees and recruit new ones. McKinsey says that many companies’ leaders are struggling to stem the tide of resignations because “they don’t really understand why their employees are leaving in the first place.”

These leaders might start by taking a long, hard look at their organization’s culture.

Culture is the essence of the company

Writing in Forbes, Biggby Coffee co-founder Michael McFall said, “For years, I misunderstood the centrality of company culture, mistaking it as a ‘nice to have’ when it was actually the very essence of my company. Today’s workplace reorientation will force many of us to evaluate our company culture, recognizing it as damaged or broken after a pandemic year.”

Both research and anecdotal evidence support McFall’s statement: A FlexJobs survey found that nearly three-quarters of respondents would turn down or leave a job in a place they perceived to have a “toxic” culture, and 57% would not accept or would leave a job with “a lack of healthy work-life boundaries.”

What makes a work culture “toxic”?

Microsoft research found that 54% of workers feel overworked, according to Forbes. Workers face high levels of stress outside of work as well, leading many to feel burned out and exhausted. Women are bearing the brunt, with one in three considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers, compared with one in four a year ago, finds the 2021 McKinsey and Lean In Women in the Workplace report.

In addition to feeling overworked or burned out, workers want to feel valued—and too often, the employee-employer relationship feels transactional, according to the McKinsey study: “The top three factors employees cited as reasons for quitting were that they didn’t feel valued by their organizations (54%) or their managers (52%) or because they didn’t feel a sense of belonging at work (51%).”

Other research cites unrealistic expectations around productivity and work hours or circumstances, poor communication, and lack of flexibility as characteristics of a toxic work culture.

Flexibility is a hallmark of positive work culture

Women in the Workplace reports that “More than three-quarters of senior HR leaders say allowing employees to work flexible hours is one of the most effective things they’ve done to improve employee well-being over the past year.”

For many workers, flexible hours and the ability to work remotely are essential: In the FlexJobs survey, only 3% of the more than 4,600 respondents wanted to return to fully in-person work; 58% wanted fully remote work. Many would quit their jobs if required to return to full-time on-site work.

Workers seek connection, purpose

Investing in “human” aspects of work culture can help with employee retention, according to McKinsey: Employees “want a renewed and revised sense of purpose in their work. They want social and interpersonal connections with their colleagues and managers. They want to feel a sense of shared identity. Yes, they want pay, benefits, and perks, but more than that they want to feel valued by their organizations and managers. They want meaningful—though not necessarily in-person—interactions, not just transactions.”

These elements are the foundations of a strong workplace culture. And they are things that leaders—including or especially learning leaders—can contribute to building.

How L&D can impact workplace culture

Learning leaders can be instrumental in leading the transition to a positive workplace culture. Creating a positive culture and an organization where employees want to stay and build careers “requires companies and their leaders to truly understand their employees,” according to McKinsey. It requires creating a sense of community, where employees experience a connection to their colleagues and have the flexibility to address their individual needs and concerns. Start with the strategies outlined below.

Focus leadership training on new skills

Pre-pandemic skills like coaching or mentoring and the ability to build and motivate a team are still important, but they are just the beginning. Leaders must show empathy and compassion as they seek to motivate their teams. Leadership training needs to focus on these essential soft skills.

In addition, managers who were accustomed to in-person work environments need new skillsets to manage their remote or hybrid teams; these skills range from becoming expert at using online collaboration tools to developing resilience and the ability to manage change.

Emphasize relationships

An organization that responds to employee dissatisfaction only by addressing pay or benefits sends the message that their relationship with employees is purely transactional. While equitable pay is important, employees also crave connection. Organizations can help create a stronger culture and more connected employees by aligning benefits and incentives with employees’ needs.

This often means giving employees a lot of flexibility, perhaps around the hours they work or where they work. Empowering employees to work remotely or on a hybrid schedule helps them with a top concern: family care. An organization that brings workers back to the office touting commuter or parking benefits will sound tone-deaf to employees who cannot find childcare or are worried about exposing elderly or frail relatives to COVID-19.

Provide development opportunities & career paths

Upskilling and reskilling workers, as well as expanding opportunities for internal job moves, are high on many learning leaders’ priority lists for good reason: Even pre-COVID, employees were more likely to remain at companies where they had development opportunities and career paths that led to lateral or upward moves.

Providing the training and opportunities that enable employees to move to new roles or advance within their current roles shows that your company appreciates their work; it is a way to acknowledge their improvement in skill level or their success at taking on new challenges. This creates a culture where employees feel valued.

Foster a ‘continuous learning’ culture

Development opportunities that employees feel that they cannot take advantage of will do little to improve your workplace culture or employee retention. Learning leaders are instrumental in creating and promoting a strong learning culture, one where the time employees spend learning is valued.

They may be adding new skills, updating existing skills, exploring skills that could take them to new roles—whatever their goals, employees should feel safe asking for time to learn and supported in their efforts to spend time learning.

Create a sense of community

A community is a safe space. Leadership can increase feelings of safety be recognizing that there are multiple dimensions to workplace safety and creating training and resources around all of these:

  • Physical safety, with flexibility around working at the office as people contend with COVID-19
  • Emotional safety, which may require building trust among colleagues with drastically different attitudes toward COVID safety
  • Psychological safety, which starts with empathetic leaders and extends to policies, training, and norms that allow workers to express their concerns and be heard

Network with other learning leaders

Shifting learning culture or adopting new training strategies can be an uphill climb; learning leaders do not need to undertake this challenge alone. Share what works, and explore the strategies and skills required to navigate the needs of today’s ever-changing workplace with your learning leadership peers.

The Learning Guild’s Learning Leaders Alliance offers a vendor-neutral global community for learning leaders who want to stay ahead of the curve and for aspiring leaders seeking to build their skillsets. The Alliance Membership package includes access to monthly networking and learning opportunities, exclusive digital events, and content curated for today’s modern learning leader, as well as opportunities to attend in-person learning leadership events held around the globe. Join today!