Season 1: Finding and keeping great people

Siphiwe Moyo

An antidote to the great resignation: How to keep great people

Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, I’ve seen a lot of prophets.  I must admit, though, I’m prone to drama. So, I enjoy the drama associated with prophecies. They are mainly dramatic. And false. However, one forecast that wasn’t false was about the coming of the great resignation.  

“The great resignation is coming,” proclaimed Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M University. He coined the term ‘great resignation’ in a Bloomberg article of 10 May 2021. However, he’s also surprised that he coined that term – his words, not mine. It’s like when you ask someone you thought would never agree to go out with you on a date. And they say yes, and now you don’t know what to do. 

The great resignation refers to the higher-than-usual number of employees voluntarily leaving their jobs since late 2020 and early 2021. About a year later, after that first interview, as if to confirm his prophecy, Klotz resigned from A&M to take a job in the UK at University College London’s school of management.  

So why are people resigning?  

1. Pandemic-induced reflection: 

Researchers are still studying the causes and impacts of the Great Resignation, but the 3rd most popular South African (after Nelson Mandela and me) – host of the Daily Show, Trevor Noah’s resignation gives us a clue.  

On his announcement that he will be leaving the Daily Show, he says, “It’s been amazing, it’s something that I never expected, and I found myself thinking throughout the time, everything we’ve gone through … and I realised after seven years my time is up.” People have been thinking throughout the pandemic. Many of us started reflecting on how much meaning and contentment exist in our lives. It made us think about the value of our time and how we spend it. People want more from their lives than spending all of it at work. This collective experience has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine what we want from our working lives. Hence the resignations. 

2. Autonomy: 

Another big reason people are resigning is autonomy, according to Klotz. He says, “Autonomy is a fundamental human need,” says Klotz, and when people get a taste of it for months on end, they do not cede it easily.  

I was helping a Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed company, trying to figure out how to halt the great resignation. They’ve recently implemented a return-to-office policy and are seeing massive resignations. We concluded that it is not fundamentally that people are opposed to working in the office – the big issue is that they want autonomy and to do things that make sense. They want to decide to work in the office or at home based on how their day looks. Some weeks they do work in the office the whole week. Take away autonomy; you have grumpy people who end up leaving. 

Is the great resignation prevalent in South Africa? 

I recently attended and spoke at the Institute of People Management (IPM) conference on 17 and 18 October 2022 in Sun City, South Africa. I missed Sun City. But I digress. The IPM conference is one of the country’s most prominent gatherings of senior Human Resources professionals. It’s no surprise that we discussed the great resignation. It would have been weird if we didn’t. My conclusion from what many HR professionals are saying is that the great resignation is currently underway in South Africa for the same reasons that it is happening worldwide, but there are additional South African nuances.  

  • South Africa’s Great Resignation is ring-fenced in the professional and specialist roles that are scarce skills in the market. Most unskilled and semi-skilled employees are staying put. It makes sense – we have a huge unemployment problem. 
  • Some skilled South Africans are leaving their jobs for opportunities abroad.  
  • A massive increase in commuting time exacerbated by power cuts makes remote work even more desirable.  

Is there anything leaders can do to halt this, or should we all raise our hands in collective despair? Yes, there is something we can do – leaders must design the best company to work for on earth and redesign jobs. It turns out that’s not too difficult to do. Let me suggest three things. 

Three things we can do today to keep good people: 

1. Design/redesign jobs to make them interesting 

  • Offer employees the flexibility to try new jobs/tasks within the organisation. 
  • Implement job rotations; they keep things interesting. 

2. Trust people 

  • The biggest driver to the great resignation is that people have seen that it is possible to work with each other based on trust and will leave any organisation that wants to reverse the gains realised during the pandemic. Tell people what they need to do, and let them figure out when and how to do it. Then hold them accountable for results. 
  • Netflix’s approach for many HR-related issues is five words – “Act in Netflix’s best interest’. And people do. When people feel trusted, it gives them autonomy, and they reward that trust. 

3. Make people’s work more meaningful  

  • Encourage a certain level of job crafting that helps to make work more meaningful. Job crafting is an individually-driven work design process which refers to self-initiated, proactive strategies to change the characteristics of one’s job to better align the job with personal needs, goals, and skills.  
  • People will stay if they believe what they do is meaningful, but not all jobs feel intuitively meaningful. As leaders, we can help by connecting what people do daily to higher-level values. Instead of saying we are a bank’s home loan department, for example, remind people that we help people acquire and build homes. The latter is more meaningful. 

We have an opportunity to create workplaces that do not induce anxiety – workplaces where people can do fantastic, meaningful work surrounded by good empathetic human beings. Let’s seize this moment.