As the pandemic hit, then dragged on, more and more companies moved to remote and work from home (WFH) structures. Many business leaders and other pundits were quick to dub these arrangements “the future of work.” Unfortunately, though, other than sending workers home and ensuring that their IT groups, quick like bunnies, purchased pallets of laptops, bought a Slack enterprise license, and made the gut-wrenching choice between Zoom or some other telework platform, most organizations did little else to prepare for this important new future. Managers were not equipped with the skills needed to lead humans remotely. Workers were not given adequate communication about what to expect. And course corrections to bumps along the way have most often defaulted to greater control and suspicion rather than more flexibility and understanding. The result, predictably, has been disastrous, helping to spark a 20 million-person departure from the workforce between April and August, with a record 4.3 million splitting in August alone.
What’s been dubbed the Great Resignation has been actually preceded by what I’ve referred to as a “Great Realization.” So many workers have simply concluded that if what they’ve been experiencing is the long-requested and promised future of work, then they want no part of it. That’s because the Zoom economy has brutally impacted the mental health of those participating in it. In fact, a recent study from market research firm Martec, which looked specifically at this issue, cited “a dramatic drop in mental health at all levels” coupled with a decline in job satisfaction and motivation.
This impact to mental health was a principal driver of the mass exodus from the workforce seen between April and August. In fact, according to a just-released study about what’s next for work from YPulse, 27 percent of Millennials who have recently resigned say they did so because their job was not good for their mental health. These workers are struggling with stress and burnout issues brought on, in large part, by WFH structures: things like seemingly endless workdays; a blurring between work and personal time; issues with their boss; and a feeling that they have no voice. In addition, a vast majority of these workers say they miss their co-workers and more than half struggle with Zoom-style meetings — especially introverts, who significantly dislike this form of interaction. And it’s not getting significantly better. For example, in its 2021 Employment and Career Goals Report, published in May of this year, YPulse reported that 47 percent of young people planned to leave their jobs in the next year. That number still stands at 46 percent in YPulse’s just-published October 7 report. There is hope, though — for businesses that deliver future work structures that actually appeal to these workers.
From my findings, one of the biggest problems generally in business, and absolutely as it relates to the Great Resignation, is that most businesses leaders fail to listen to what their associates are actually saying or, worse, ignore them altogether in preference for their own interests. Recent studies from Indeed and Predictive Index have detailed corporate intentions that are not aligned with readily available worker preference data. In regard to the future of work, associates are not saying, “I want to go home and stay home.” When they say, “I want flexibility and I will leave to find it,” they are not saying, “I never want to step foot in an office again.” They are certainly not asking their employers to invest in initiatives that annoy them or that limit their company’s reliance on them. What the majority of workers want are nontraditional workplaces where they have a say. They also want a hybrid work structure, a best of both worlds, that gives them the ability to benefit from being at home and interacting with others in a workplace setting. And small and medium-size businesses (SMBs) are in a great position to benefit here.
According to YPulse, among Gen-Zers, 62 percent want the future of work to look like a hybrid setup with some days at home and some in a workplace. A scant 10 percent of Zers never want to head back to the office. Twenty-eight percent of them actually want to go back full time. Numbers are similar among Millennials, with a higher percentage preferring to stay home, but still the greatest number by far preferring a hybrid mix of remote and office work. And, even more important, a majority of both generational groups believe they would be happier in a hybrid work environment. Too, these workers want more flexibility as it relates to the hours they work, not just where they work. It’s what they’ve meant when they’ve been asking for greater flexibility. They don’t like working for bosses who watch clocks, count hours, or kick chairs. They believe they should be judged by the quantity and quality of their output, not the number of hours that they are “on the clock.” If they need to come late or leave early, they don’t want to be made to feel bad about it or go through any hassle or red tape to take the time off. In their search for their desired future of work, these workers are rejecting work rules that don’t make sense to them, including the definition of “workspace.”
For many of these younger workers, a workspace is no longer confined to their employer’s place of business. For them, a workspace can be the rooftop deck of their apartment building, a coffee shop, their Wi-Fi-enabled vehicle in a parking lot, and even nontraditional spaces in and around their employer’s building. YPulse found that more than half of Gen-Zers prefer alternative workspaces to more traditional office space or even their own homes. Looking a bit deeper, YPulse found that fully half of BIPOC respondents prefer alternative work environments. And not only are these younger workers thinking differently about the future of work, they are thinking smaller.
Younger workers prefer smaller organizations, with the largest percentage of both Millennials and Gen-Zers desiring to work in organizations with between 11 and 200 associates — organizations where they perceive they can make a difference and where their voices can be heard. Not only is this great news for SMBs on its face, but the findings disclosed above are too. Small enterprises are far more nimble than their larger corporate cousins. Smart SMBs are those that react positively to the expressed interests of these young workers and begin to reshape their work structures NOW.
In doing so, these businesses stand a tremendous chance of winning the hearts and minds of these self-displaced workers who are looking for something better, something different … something resembling the future of work they had in mind when they were sent home in the first place, some 18 months ago.