11:27 AM

Will They Stay? 5 Trends Shaping Employee Retention After COVID-19



Steve Cadigan, author and global talent strategist, shares what employers need to do to keep the people they need.

For companies that survived the past year and a half, the last place they probably thought they’d end up is in the middle of the Great Resignation. Forty percent of people are considering quitting their jobs, and the highest number of voluntary resignations ever has already been recorded. In September, even with 8.4 million people unemployed, there were 10 million open job positions nationwide.

Many people blame the pandemic for this upheaval. Some people are reluctant to go back to work out of fear for their health. Others, flush with savings, are holding out for the right opportunity.

But according to Steve Cadigan, COVID-19 has simply accelerated several workplace trends that have been in place for many years. A talent strategist and company culture expert, Cadigan has helped build world-class teams at leading organizations for the past 30 years – most famous for scaling LinkedIn from 400 to 4,000 employees in 3.5 years.

Cadigan is also the author of Workquake, Embracing the Aftershocks of COVID-19 to Create a Better Model of Working. This book explores the seismic shift in what employers need and what employees want in today’s world.

Here are five trends that Cadigan sees shaping the employer-employee relationship – and what employers need to do to create better models of working:

1. The Great Resignation Is Actually a Great Career Migration.

The pandemic has made employees re-evaluate their entire lives. “People are reframing their reality. It’s not just work; it’s everything,” Cadigan said. And when it’s about work, many employees, used to working remotely, now want more flexibility and autonomy. They’re committed to take control of their professional journey.

That’s why there’s a disconnect between the number of unemployed and available positions, because many jobs offered no longer fit with what employees demand. It’s also why we’re seeing more business startups than ever before, despite a very uncertain economic environment. “Employees are seeing the world differently,” Cadigan explained. “And when they see it differently, of course they’re going to make different decisions.”

2. Employees Have More Choices Than Ever.

The average tenure of employees at a single employer has gone from 4.7 years in 2014 to 4.2 years today. And for those ages 25-35, the average tenure is only 2.8 years.

While some may claim these brief tenures among younger workers have something to do with millennials’ or Gen Zers’ short attention spans or lack of loyalty (despite data showing they actually value connectedness), Cadigan argues there’s another reason behind these short stays. “As a candidate, you have more information, more data and more insight to make the most informed choices of where you want to go than in any time in history. And people are acting on that,” Cadigan said.

With access to sites like LinkedIn or Glassdoor, people can easily see what other positions are available and, more important, what they don’t have in their current positions.

3. Job Security = Movement

Today, the shelf life of a skill is five years. To stay in the same place, doing the same work and not learning anything new, actually makes a person less marketable.

However, by switching jobs, Cadigan said, workers encounter more people, more opportunities, and more skills to acquire. For today’s workers, loyalty is to one’s own learning, not to one’s company.

4. Retention May Be Overrated.

Human Resources professionals have been conditioned to focus on employee retention. After all, turnover can be extremely costly for organizations. Also, in certain industries like healthcare or other regulated environments, employees’ experience matters.

However, if you look at some of the most high-performing companies in our economy – think Amazon, Microsoft, Apple or Google – the average tenure is less than two years.

These companies don’t do a great job at retaining workers, yet they are doing the most innovation. One reason? People are constantly moving in with new ideas and hungry to learn new skills.

5. People Create Value. We Need to Value People.

When Cadigan asks executives what are their companies’ most important asset, they invariable say “their people.” But when pressed, they reveal that they don’t invest much in their “people systems.” They may spend a lot on systems for accounting or capturing sales leads, but not on systems that help develop their workers.

It’s critical to lead with people first, not technology. To drive home the point, Cadigan gives the example of the way many companies talk about digital transformation.

Employers often start this conversation by bringing up an employee’s readiness or capabilities for handling new technologies. To an employee, this suggests they’re being targeted for automation. “But what if instead I told you we’re implementing ways of doing work that can help you be more impactful, that allow you get home in time for dinner with your family, and you’ll have greater job satisfaction, would you be interested?” Cadigan asks. The point is, technology is just a means to helping employees thrive and be better in the future.

Exploring new models of working

So, what can employers do in this new world where employees are willing to jump ship to find new skills?

First, according to Cadigan, they must acknowledge that the future is more uncertain than ever. Ten-year forecasts are rarely relevant. In this environment, companies must learn to make decisions fast, adapt quickly, and seek out a diversity of talents and experiences in their new hires.

Then, leadership needs to undergo an Operating System Upgrade. What does Cadigan mean? Simply, leaders need to be open to experimenting. Work has become so highly individualized that old models don’t fit the pace of a highly fluid world of work.

To experiment, leaders need to explore different models of working. Cadigan cites three examples:

  • Consulting: For firms like McKinsey or Deloitte, junior-level staff are expected to stay for a few years, gain invaluable experience, and then leave for top business schools or advanced positions in the industry. This turnover actually makes these firms even more attractive to new hires.
  • Hollywood: In the TV and film industry, teams are assembled on a per-project basis, bringing together workers that are ideally suited to do the job at hand.
  • Spotify: At this music app company, employees rotate every two years so they can continue to acquire new skills.

To truly care for employees in a post-pandemic world (when we eventually get there), employers must care about the entirety of their careers, not just when they work for them. “The better we make people, the more likely they are to stay,” said Cadigan.