Going back to the way we worked isn't going to work


As employers plan to bring employees back to the workplace this summer, there's a problem: Many don't want to come back. One in four employees plans to leave their place of employment as the pandemic winds down, according to multiple surveys. What's behind this change, and what can employers do to attract and keep qualified workers?

The "long tail" of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many employees to re-evaluate their overall life trajectories, including their work lives. The daily commute to a 9-to-5 job isn't worth it anymore for a lot of employees. Some 42% of current remote workers say that without long-term remote work options, they will look for another job, according to a Prudential survey of U.S. workers. And, more than ever, several surveys report that workers say flexibility and life/work balance are more important to them than compensation and benefits.

To further complicate the landscape, boomers are retiring earlier than expected. In fact, boomers retired at twice the rate from 2019 to 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. Many have experienced the freedom and satisfaction of working remotely, and the re-evaluations of their lives have demonstrated that leaving the workforce is a possibility, or at the very least going part-time or signing on in a consulting role.

This exodus presents formidable challenges. Companies are forced to actively recruit, most often competing against a wealth of options for each employee. Each of those new employees must be onboarded and trained, costing the company time and money. Finally, the crucial knowledge accumulated by boomers and even Gen Xers is lost, unless the company finds a way to capture, catalog, and disperse it. The Work Institute's 2020 Retention Report estimates the cost of all this turnover for companies across the U.S. at $630 billion. That works out to approximately $15,000 per employee.

Millennials have often been misrepresented as entitled, demanding employees — more so than previous generations. The truth is, they are often exceptionally hard workers who have little problem being at the workplace. They crave the social aspect as well as the structure it often imposes. However, these younger workers also desire flexibility. They want to feel that they are supported and encouraged by their employer. And they want to work for a company to not only make money but also to make a difference in regard to social issues and climate change.

A Bersin & Associates research report calculated that it costs four to six times less to "build" a strong employee than to "buy" one. So, creating a more employee-centric culture can help your organization thrive. Retaining employees and attracting new ones require that you focus on two areas of your business: the physical workplace and your culture.

Physical: Zoom fatigue is real, and there will be enough employees who will choose to return to the workplace. How much flexibility can you accommodate? Will you need to create workstations that employees can use temporarily whenever they come to the office, rather than offices earmarked for specific employees?

Cultural: Creating a culture that gives employees support and encouragement to thrive is essential to retaining and attracting talent, whether your employees are on the factory floor, in an office, or working remotely from home. What you do to hone your culture can also affect your ability to bring remote workers together as well as how you configure a physical workspace. At the same time, how can you foster a great culture that accommodates a combination of both in-person and virtual employees?

It comes down to defining what is truly important to your employees. What do potential hires need in order to see you as a place they want to work and stay? Can you structure your business to accommodate the needs of a partially remote workforce and the varying requirements of new employees, particularly millennials and Gen Z? Listen carefully to what they need. And make sure your employees know that you're actively listening.

This year and 2022 could be volatile years. Whether your employees are working on the front lines or remotely, the nature of work and what the workplace needs to be is shifting —and it's an ongoing challenge. You don't want to get left behind and miss huge opportunities to make changes that will position your company for a stronger future. Leaders need to take stock and reflect on what works and what does not. Relying solely on "old ways" may have been what built your business, but they could prove to be one of your greatest liabilities in a post-pandemic culture.

We believe the workplace is a place to inspire collaboration, not where we inspect work or productivity. We want employees to want to be in the office and not to feel like it's a punishment. Building a strong culture can seem entirely too daunting. Doing it right is worth every effort. And if our society has learned one thing over the past year, a one-size-fits-all solution fits no one.

Josh Trent is executive vice president with the Minneapolis office and Susan Bailey is senior vice president with the Troy, Mich., office of Marsh & McLennan Agency. Susan can be reached at susan.bailey@marshmma.com and Josh can be reached at josh.trent@marshmma.com.

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