The Great Resignation … by Remote Workers

Remote work options were supposed to keep employees engaged and loyal. The latest jobs data shows it isn’t quite working out that way.

The Great Resignation. It’s been the headline of the day and the topic that looms large at any company trying to snap back to business quickly. The question is, which group is bolting the fastest?

According to many business leaders and human resources pros, the largest pool of employees quitting is those doing remote work. That comes as a surprise to some who were hoping that allowing workers to stay at home this past year and a half would increase people’s satisfaction in their roles when the time came to return. Instead, many are apparently preferring to test the job market even when they are not asked to return to the office.

Unresponsive managers and a failure to develop relationships with remote workers are primarily behind the exodus, says Nathan Blain, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s global leader for optimizing people costs. “Many employers have not done a good job keeping remote teams engaged,” he says.

To be sure, many of the remote workers who are quitting are at firms that require them to return to the office. In all, the total number of those leaving or thinking about leaving their work is at a record level. About 4 million people—roughly 2.7% of all workers, including remote workers—quit their jobs in April, the highest level in about 20 years. Moreover, recent surveys show that anywhere from 25% to 40% of workers are actively looking for a new job, leading economists to seeks labels for the trend, from the “Great Resignation” to the “Turnover Tsunami.”

Some experts speculate that the pandemic gave people time to ponder life-balance preferences or a career switch. But data suggests remote work simply by itself is playing a role. Many of these workers were hired during the pandemic, and one recent study shows 62% cite poor job matches for quitting, while 58% were unhappy with training and performance challenges. Dan Kaplan, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s Chief Human Resources Officers practice, says the data underscores the feeling among remote workers that they don’t have the support or relationships to be successful.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Flexible schedules, no commute, and the ability to live anywhere were supposed to help keep people engaged and loyal. But at the same time, the memories of last year’s historic layoffs and pay cuts are still fresh in people’s minds, says Evelyn Orr, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute. She says that while leaders had little choice given the pandemic, the sheer magnitude of layoffs left people feeling like they were at the mercy of their employers. However, with companies now scrambling to hire workers, people are taking more control of their careers. In that regard, Orr likens the short tenure of remote workers to career nomads: high-performing people who proactively move from job to job. “Neither group is content to stay in one place,” she says.

With many companies moving to a hybrid or fully remote schedule for some positions, the high turnover rate among remote workers foreshadows major talent issues for companies, says Jacob Zabkowicz, a Korn Ferry vice president and general manager of the firm’s Recruitment Process Outsourcing (RPO) practice. While the shift to remote work opens up wider recruiting opportunities, it also makes it harder for leaders to get remote workers aligned to the company’s values and culture and to build trust and loyalty with them. Leaders will have to rethink retention programs and find new and innovative ways to incorporate remote workers into the culture, Zabkowicz says. Offering sign-on and retention bonuses will only go so far, and if companies try to tie people down with them for too long, they could backfire.

One suggestion, he says, is to have remote workers come to the office for a week once every quarter to meet and socialize with managers and other leaders. Another is to put together off-site meetings between remote workers in the same city, state, or region so they can develop their own network of relationships. He also advises companies to continually gather feedback from recently hired remote workers to improve virtual onboarding and integration experiences.

Even with all that, “it is still going to be inherently more difficult for companies to keep remote employees in the future,” says Zabkowicz.