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‘The role that work plays in our lives has fundamentally shifted’

Slack staff researcher Lauren Ruben recently did a deep dive to understand the factors driving the Great Resignation. Here’s what she found.

Posted August 26, 2022 by Eliza Sarasohn

Reading time 8 min

You’ve seen the macroeconomic data behind the Great Resignation: more than 4 million Americans quitting their jobs every month for 12 months straight, historically low layoff rates, and a nationwide demand for workers that still outstrips supply. 

But how well do you understand what’s driving this enduring trend? Do you know what makes your employees feel connected to your company … and what might be pushing them to seek greener pastures? 

Lauren Ruben, a staff researcher at Slack, has been studying what motivates knowledge workers to look for a new job. We sat down with her to talk about key takeaways from her research—and how you can use what she’s learned to sharpen your edge in the ongoing battle for talent. 

Key finding: The pandemic shifted the central role that work used to play in our lives.

Q: How has the experience of living through COVID shaped knowledge workers’ priorities and attitudes towards work?

A: For many knowledge workers, COVID shifted the central role that work plays in our lives, leading many of us to refocus on personal time, family commitments, healthy routines, passions, and hobbies. That doesn’t mean people necessarily expect or even want to work less. But it does mean that work commitments are no longer the organizing principle for daily life.

COVID shifted the central role that work plays in our lives, leading many of us to refocus on personal time, family commitments, healthy routines, passions, and hobbies.

Lauren Ruben

Lauren Ruben, Staff Researcher, Slack

For example, I interviewed a woman who recently left a successful ten-year career in corporate finance to become a freelance designer. She told me she’d always done everything to climb the ranks: long hours in the office, checking email first thing in the morning, late-night phone calls. But when her office shut down because of COVID, she wound up outfitting a camper van and traveling around for a few months, working on the go. She said, “I realized I could have my life, and have my work work around it.”

Another thing that came out of the research is just how determined some people are to not go back to commuting. One man told me he’s using the three hours he used to dedicate to his commute to do yoga and hang out with his family, and he was dreading the “culture shock” of return-to-office.

 

Lauren Ruben and dog Nala
Slack staff researcher Lauren Ruben (taking a break with her dog, Nala) says that after living through a pandemic, “Work commitments are no longer the organizing principle for daily life.”

Q: You reviewed literature on employment trends going back to the 1960s. Do you see these shifting attitudes show up in the data on what factors cause people to leave their jobs?

A: Before the pandemic, desire for career growth—new skills, maybe taking on management responsibilities—was the number one factor employees cited for what drove them to change jobs. The Future Forum Pulse research shows that’s still the case today, so employers concerned about retention should prioritize continuing to offer career advancement paths, despite the economic uncertainty. 

But interestingly, when you break the data out and look at just the responses from people who work fully remote, flexibility shoots to the top of the list of factors—more important than career growth, more important than compensation. I think that’s remarkable. It shows that people who got their first taste of flexibility during COVID are now just totally unwilling to give it up. One interviewee told me, “Once they said they wanted us all back in the office, I knew I had to start looking. I wouldn’t give up work from home anymore.”

Key finding: The Great Resignation has spurred a Great onboarding, but too many companies are underinvested in a quality onboarding process.

Q: More than two in three new hires are currently onboarding either hybrid or fully remote. What’s working with onboarding right now?

A: The onboarding structure varies wildly. Some new hires said they got no structure whatsoever, and it was entirely on them to sift through old files to get up to speed and try to use the company directory to figure out who they needed to meet. On the other end of the spectrum, one worker described a process that included an overview of the company, a 1-week plan and a 30/60/90-day plan, Slack channels to join, learning resources, and even helpful things to bookmark.

But like I say, the levels of structure and support that new employees receive fall across a wide spectrum. And no matter whether your new hires are coming into the office, fully remote, or somewhere in between, there’s a good chance your onboarding process needs work. 

That makes sense. Creating onboarding resources requires heavy and continual upkeep. Onboarding processes and content require a lot of hands-on, manual work to build, and they can quickly become obsolete. In short, onboarding has always been fraught, but remote work has crystallized those challenges and made them much more visible and apparent, because remote workers can’t just tap someone on the shoulder to ask a question, or listen in to a conversation between two colleagues. Many knowledge workers I interviewed told me that sending questions individually over Slack or email can feel high stakes, or like a distraction. 

For example, one told me, “It was really hard to not have someone there that I could turn to and ask questions, especially in the first few weeks when you don’t have anything to do and you’re waiting for someone to tell you what to do.” 

Q: It sounds like many execs might have some work to do to help new employees feel connected to the company.

A: Actually, the learnings from this work made one thing very clear: there is a ton of ambivalence out there about this idea of “feeling connected” to your employer. On the one hand, we live in a culture that embraces the idea of finding meaning and purpose in work. On the other hand, employees are wary that being “too” connected can harm work-life balance or set them up to sacrifice their own needs and well-being to the needs of the company. 

Some workers fell staunchly on one or the other side of this divide, but lots of people felt both. One woman told me, “I am definitely looking for a higher connection. I think it’s good to some extent because you’re giving a third or more of your day to this thing. I also know in the end it’s business; they’ll cut my salary or let me go if they need to. We’re all just working for the man. It’s healthy to have some distance.”

Key finding: Transparent two-way communication is key to fostering connection—but must be handled with care.

Q: What can executives focus on to foster healthy connections between employees and the company?

A: Even when knowledge workers don’t prioritize a sense of connection with an employer, there is a wide expectation and desire to be able to feel trust in a company.

And that’s leading to heightened expectations around transparency from employees. The communication that builds trust feels transparent, authentic, accountable, and shows that employers listen to the employee voice. 

Other ways to build trust through transparent communication include offering rationale plus context behind decisions, sharing and owning up to mistakes, acknowledging areas to improve, being less formal and not overly buttoned up, and acknowledging world events and taking a stance on them.

As you’d expect, that came up in conversations about the decisions that impact employees’ lives, like return-to-office policies. But one junior engineer at a big tech company talked about being in meetings where his managers were talking through the business strategy behind the product decisions they were making. He said, “I feel like I’m actually contributing because I’m understanding what’s behind decisions, and I can keep the bigger picture in my head. So I feel connected.”

Q: Are there particular moments that leaders tend to bungle the opportunity to build connections?

A: Effectively leveraging moments of employee feedback is key in managing employee sentiment, trust, and connection—and many employers don’t get this right. Over my research, employee health surveys emerged again and again as a point of possible contention or satisfaction. Employees felt wary when they weren’t told why they were being surveyed. Then failing to share the outcome of those surveys—what was learned, what will be done as a result—made employees feel as though they weren’t being listened to. And several participants cited the lack of follow-through with employee surveys at their company as a moment of broken trust. 

“Effectively leveraging moments of employee feedback is key in managing employee sentiment, trust, and connection—and many employers don’t get this right.”

Lauren Ruben


Lauren Ruben, Staff Researcher, Slack

Conversely, when leaders made sure to explain what was behind surveys, promptly shared the outcomes, and announced what changes they’d make as a result, employees said that helped them feel connected.

Q: What other factors contribute to building trust? 

A: I heard from so many people about the importance of their relationships with their coworkers. They might feel wary about identifying too closely with their company, but knowledge workers today thrive on strong relationships with colleagues. One woman summed up the sentiment I heard a lot of. She said, “The times I’ve felt most connected was when I was working with a really good team who supported and helped me.” 

Interestingly, this emphasis on colleague relationships shows up in our Pulse data. Since we began surveying knowledge workers in August of 2020, there’s been a steady increase in the share of respondents who say that they “value the relationships they have with their coworkers.”

It makes sense that as our collaboration becomes increasingly virtual, the most tangible thing that remains is our relationships with each other.

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