I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the #GreatResignation, so when an article about abandonment rates at The conversation written by Jay Zagorsky came across my inbox, clicked on the link and read it. Although the article delves into the numbers and puts them in historical perspective, I was very interested in Zagorsky’s thoughts on ways employers can reduce turnover. Some methods are obvious starting points: increasing compensation, improving benefits and providing better working conditions. In our current climate, better working conditions include hybrid options and flexible working hours. Other retention strategies are less clear cut and involve providing a sense of purpose.
Of course, Zagorsky doesn’t write about the higher education industry sector. It covers all sectors. However, I know that my colleagues are facing some pretty significant labor shortages, and I’ve heard many stories from university and college leaders who have lost employees over the past two years. Some of them relate to employees who were hired during the pandemic. For many of us, it has been difficult to make sense of newly hired employees who moved into new roles during our work-from-home period and were used to working in a face-to-face environment in their previous positions.
Zagorsy’s article led me to some good harvard business review parts about it:
According to Carucci, employees leave or consider leaving because:
They did not feel their work was valued by the organization
They lacked a sense of belonging at work
When I read that, it resonated. This matches what I have heard from people in higher education. Coincidentally, I had also just finished reading Dacher Keltner The paradox of power and I think there is an interesting connection between these two HBR articles and Keltner’s book. Keltner emphasizes the importance of relational work done by leaders — specifically, the everyday forms of gratitude and appreciation that can make an employee feel valued. When people feel seen, appreciated, and valued, they are more likely to view you as an authentic leader and not just a positional leader or title-only leader. It always has been, but now more than ever, people need to know that leaders and managers value them and their contributions.
For many of us, it has become difficult to focus on relationship work during these times. The majority of our interactions are done on zoom; we run from one zoom to another, and we are completely exhausted. We want to be nice to each other by ending meetings early, and while that’s nice, so is spending a few extra minutes checking out the human in the zoom zone.
Occasionally, the person I’m checking in with doesn’t want to be relational – they seem bored or impatient when I ask how they’re doing. I try not to read this too much and look for signs of sleep deprivation and general irritability and let them know how much I appreciate them and their contributions. I also want them to know that I care about their whole life, not just about their productivity at work.
Carucci sums it up well: “Taking an interest in an employee’s entire life reinforces their sense of belonging and their belief that they matter. Rather than worrying that these personal interests might distract from work efforts, smart managers realize that by taking an interest in the whole employee, you ensure that they bring the same creativity and the same energy to their daily work.
We also need to be more creative in helping people feel like they belong, and fostering a sense of belonging among employees has become harder to achieve in these difficult times. This is especially the case for our women and BIPOC staff and faculty and creating a culture of belonging will take more work and intentionality from managers and leaders. According to Carucci, employees are more likely to feel like they belong when they feel like they have a common goal. In higher education, many of us are here for the students, and focusing on our students’ success can help create that space.
According to Cook, the greatest risk of leakage with the current big departure concerns our employees aged 30 to 45. You might want to check with your team members and start with the ones behind that big quit.
Our work at the academy is both isolated and isolating and with many of us sitting in offices on campus behind closed doors, that feels even more true. In Boston, it’s cold and with sub-zero wind temperatures, outdoor dining is on hold, as are cafe walks, and our COVID case rates are among the highest in the world. We hope that we will have reached or exceeded the peak of Omicron and in a few weeks, when the weather is warmer, we hope that the case rates will drop and that we can be together again to share a cup of coffee. Until then, we have to find ways to make Zoom work for us.
Mary Churchill is the former Chief of Policy and Planning for Mayor Kim Janey of the City of Boston and current Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives and Community Engagement at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education and Human Development . She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis and ICF Certified Leadership Coach.