Smart employers know there’s no going back to the way it was

Pilita Clark: Hard to know precisely what is causing the ‘Great Resignation’

When a British pilot named Paul Green lost his job last year, he did what so many other airline workers have done since the pandemic shattered their industry: something entirely unexpected.

Green set up a consultancy to teach business executives how to use skills he had honed in the cockpit to manage stress and make decisions under duress. Frontline NHS workers turned out to be his first clients. Like a lot of the pilots who have suddenly found themselves driving trucks, stacking supermarket shelves or opening cafés, Green hopes to eventually return to the flying career he had wanted since boyhood – but not as he did it before.

“The lifestyle of flying was not nice,” he told me last week. “I’m married, I’ve got two children and the amount of time I was away from home, missing significant parts of my children growing up, was a real dilemma.”

Perhaps it's not surprising that the white-collar professional and business services sector endured one of the largest increases in resignations in the US

Ideally he hopes to find a way to mix part-time flying with the new business he runs from his home in Somerset.

“Flying is what I love doing. But I think the big thing for everybody right now is, at what cost do I want to follow that dream that I once had when life can be better on the other side?”

He does not appear to be the only one asking such questions. There are growing signs that employees around the world want a change after 15 turbulent pandemic months upended working life.

A record 4 million Americans quit their jobs in April, the most since the US Bureau of Labor Statistics began publishing such data in December 2000. More than 40 per cent of the global workforce is ready to resign at some point this year, Microsoft research has shown. Just under 40 per cent of UK and Irish workers say they'll do the same this year, or once the economy is stronger.

Overworked

Will they really? Who knows? Likewise, it is hard to know precisely what is causing what some are calling the Great Resignation. Pent-up demand could be one factor. People who stayed in jobs they loathed during last year’s chaos might feel braver about moving this year. Burn-out might be another reason.

Most of the 31,000 workers in the 30-odd nations covered in the Microsoft study said they felt overworked and 39 per cent felt “exhausted”. They were spending more than twice as much time in Microsoft Teams meetings, which were lasting an average of 10 minutes longer, and sending billions more emails to customers.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the white-collar professional and business services sector endured one of the largest increases in resignations in the US.

The big question is whether these exits, coming on top of widespread labour shortages, suggest that a fundamental power shift between workers and bosses is under way.

I’m sceptical. The sudden dearth of staff has arisen as restaurants and hotels have all reopened at once. Let’s see what life is like once Covid-19 restrictions end and economic activity returns to a steadier path.

Even in the battered airline industry, flight school enrolments are ramping up again, especially in markets where recoveries are taking hold, the L3Harris and CAE aviation training groups told me last week.

For every older pilot who drops out, in other words, there is likely to be at least one hungry newcomer in an industry that British aviation consultant John Strickland rightly says has an endless number of people “desperately” keen to enter it.

Office desks

Saying that, the airline industry is unlike many others. Employers who think they can order staff back to their office desks as if nothing has changed since 2019 may be in for a shock.

Last week the Bumble dating app group said it was giving its staff a week off to recharge. The HubSpot US software group is planning a Global Week of Rest for its workers from July 5th. Many employers are introducing flexible, hybrid systems of working as they reopen. That’s smart.

A lot of managers have just spent 15 months building what McKinsey senior partner Bill Schaninger calls “a goodwill reservoir” with employees. As he told a workplace conference last week, that reservoir should not be wasted with “a foolish desire to return to what was” - Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021