“We’re looking at the Great Resignation all wrong” – HR leader Yvonne Agyei speaks out on the Great Resignation

Ahead of joining the latest YuLife Presents event on the Great Resignation, Yvonne Agyei, Chief People Officer at materials science company PANGAIA, shares her views on the record numbers changing jobs and proposes an alternative take…

Yugi the Giraffe - 17 January 2022

“Whenever you have big cultural shifts, there's always winners and losers,” says Yvonne Agyei, Chief People Officer at materials science company PANGAIA. “The expectations that the workforce has of business and leadership have changed. Companies that are able to respond to these will be the ones to benefit through the transition we're seeing.”

Across the world seismic shifts are underway in job markets. Dubbed the Great Resignation, or Big Quit, resignations and job moves in the UK have hit a 20-year high, with people voluntarily handing in their notice in droves – citing new perspectives in the wake of COVID-19, or seeking higher wages and better working conditions.

The UK Labour Force Survey (LFS) from the Office for National Statistics showed that more than 1 million people moved jobs between July and September 2021, with both job-to-job moves and resignations up by a third during the same period in 2019, pre-pandemic.

For employers and HR departments, the rapid changes in workforce can be intimidating, and come with a cost. But is the Great Resignation a negative, or simply a wake-up call for businesses to do better, creating workplaces that work for everyone, not just shareholders?

“While the Great Resignation feels like this big trend, if you unpick it, it's a lot of small changes happening at the same time,” says Yvonne. “It's individuals making personal choices for themselves, but put together, it's become this wave. People shouldn't be afraid of it, but embrace what’s happening and lean into it. I see this as an opportunity – and it's the businesses and people who adapt that will come out as the winners.”

Workplace learnings from the Great Resignation

These past two years have brought unprecedented changes for everyone. In the world of work, lockdowns blurred the lines between work and home. The pandemic also offered employers the chance to show their true colours when it comes to workforce wellbeing – some fared better than others.

Some have left their jobs to seek a greater sense of meaning in their work, others to develop their careers. Meanwhile resignations themselves can have a domino effect. “When people see their colleagues leaving, that also gets people thinking about starting to look, or taking a call from a recruiter,” says Yvonne.

“It's the businesses and people who adapt that will come out as the winners.”

With record job vacancies – particularly across the hospitality and retail sectors – workers hold the cards. “Because of labour shortages, there are lots of opportunities available, so it's an employee's market,” says Yvonne, who has worked across big business, including spending a decade at Google. As of December 2021, there were 1.2 million job openings in the UK, according to the ONS – twice as many as the same time last year. So what can companies learn from the fluid labour market?  

“Executives need to show that they care,” says Yvonne, who herself changed jobs during lockdown. “They need to demonstrate that they’re concerned about people's wellbeing. The most effective preventative or retention measures you can take are making sure that people feel connected to the business and to their colleagues and managers.

“Giving days off, limiting working hours – everybody's doing that. The biggest tool you have within your business is that you already have people in the business. So how do you enhance their connection to each other? How do they feel like they are making a difference to something bigger than themselves?”

It isn’t a one-step manoeuvre – a fact reflected in YuLife’s model. Although an insurance provider, its works to ‘give back’ to employees while de-risking their health through wellbeing and benefits.

The benefits of small lifestyle changes don’t just apply to physical health, but mental health alike. And critically, it all contributes to happy and healthy employees – in turn aiding retention. YuLife uses the behavioural science of games to engage employees in healthier lifestyle activities, and with each other. Walking or meditating earns staff YuCoin, which they can cash in for rewards ranging from Avios points to Amazon vouchers – just one example of how technology can support leaders in creating a culture conducive to change.

Agile and empowered leadership is also central to bringing cohesion to teams, something of even greater importance in an era of remote working. “The biggest learning for me, as a chief people officer, is thinking about how we lead,” says Yvonne. “Remote work has put more of an emphasis on how you communicate with your employees. Being much more proactive. Not assuming that people will learn from each other in an office, but being intentional.”  

The modern worker demands flexibility from their employer – and firms need to be prepared to meet them here, or they’ll lose out to another company who is willing to. A global study of 10,000 workers, by business communication platform Slack, showed a significant divide in how executives and employees envision the future of work. Over half of workers surveyed in the Future Forum Pulse said they were open to looking for a new job in the next year – but that rose to 71% among those unsatisfied with the level of flexibility in their jobs.

“Something that needs to change in the world of work is realising that it can’t just all be about work – to look after people, you have to think about what else they have going on,” says Yvonne. From offering flexible working hours through to being location agnostic, companies can personalise approaches to meet their staff’s needs or newfound priorities. “Those types of things go a long way and don't cost you anything. In fact, they engender quite a lot of loyalty. It's about understanding people's personal situations and giving them choice.”

Creating the culture to attract and retain talent

Looking ahead, the Great Resignation can be seen as pressing reset on the future of work, stretching far beyond the current trend, says Yvonne. “I’m looking at a much longer time horizon than 2022. What does this mean five years from now? 10 years from now? What does it mean when my daughters are ready to enter the workforce? It's a massive change in how we think about work, both from a personal level, as well as how businesses should think about their workforce. I think that's exciting and really, really positive. It has such an impact that we need to redefine work.”

“Something that needs to change in the world of work is realising that it can’t just all be about work – to look after people, you have to think about what else they have going on.”

Ultimately this comes down to creating a workplace where people want to spend their time, from nailing the financial basics, through to offering a suite of improved benefits, such as expanded parental leave and enhanced life insurance policies. “Salaries need to go up and you need to pay more to attract people, while benefits and how we look after people are becoming more important,” says Yvonne. “The other piece is continuing to invest in culture.”

In a world where employees increasingly search for meaning in the place they spend a third of their lives, companies need to invest in bringing people together, above and beyond remuneration. Firms need to create opportunities for their staff to interact with each other, even across hybrid working, such as through platforms like YuLife’s app, where staff can compete across their step counts or other physical challenges, while continuing to make small, incremental positive changes for their wellbeing. Partnering with organisations which match your businesses’ values is an added plus.

“Money and pay are important, but I think even more important is that sense of making a difference,” adds Yvonne. “People need to feel connected to the overall mission of the business.” Helping people see the impact they're making means recognising their wins and offering opportunities to move up within the business. “Then it's things like investing in your culture, in bringing people together, celebrating accomplishments – even personal milestones. All of these little touch points make people feel connected to each other and to the business.

“The Great Resignation is a change that's happening, so how do you embrace it and get the positives out of it? Rather than being afraid, or trying to hold onto our workforce, I'd rather create an environment where people want to stay.”

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