Jenny Baker
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The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice

Apryl Brodersen, Metropolitan State University of Denver; Sarah Layman, DCI Consulting Inc.; and Tara Myers, American Nurses Credentialing Center

“The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice” is a TIP column that seeks to help facilitate additional learning and knowledge transfer to encourage sound, evidence-based practice. It can provide academics with an opportunity to discuss the potential and/or realized practical implications of their research as well as learn about cutting-edge practice issues or questions that could inform new research programs or studies. For practitioners, it provides opportunities to learn about the latest research findings that could prompt new techniques, solutions, or services that would benefit the external client community. It also provides practitioners with an opportunity to highlight key practice issues, challenges, trends, and so forth that may benefit from additional research. In this issue, Cameron Klein, James Longabaugh, Sheena Lyons, and Lisa Wager highlight key factors that have impacted employee commitment/intent to stay over the course of the pandemic and into the Great Resignation. The goal is to start a conversation about areas for potential collaboration between academics and practitioners to help establish evidence-based recommendations.

Retaining Employees Amid the “Great Resignation”

Workforce Science Associates (April 2022)

Lisa Wager, Cameron Klein, James Longabaugh, and Sheena Lyons

 

 

 

 

 

Dire predictions and broad speculations about the “Great Resignation” have saturated the headlines and popular press, warning of impending issues of employee turnover, leaving organizational leaders to scramble with limited direction as they also deal with a once-in-a-lifetime global health pandemic and mounting pleas for social justice, inclusion, and equity.

Over time, different reasons have been hypothesized as the cause of the Great Resignation. Early on, when countless organizations went fully remote in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many posited that it was the lack of early socialization and onboarding of “pandemic hires” that led to skyrocketing voluntary turnover rates. Later, many pointed to the fact that people became accustomed to working remotely and, because of the shifting way in which people are able to work, they have more options to work remotely with competitors if their current company required them to return to the work site.  A more traditional notion is that the demand placed on workers, such as nurses, fast food workers, and other “essential employees” is an acute driver of voluntary turnover. Other reasons point to the current inflation level, which is rising faster than wage improvements. Thus, the rationale suggests, people are leaving one job to do similar work at another company for a little bit more money or to accommodate their lifestyle preferences.

Employee turnover comes with an immense cost, which SHRM estimates to be between 90%–200% of an employee’s salary (Fox, 2012), hitting both the talent landscape and organizational bottom lines.  With a lot on the line, it is important for employers to connect science and practice to make the best decisions about how to proactively retain employees.

To help bridge this gap, Workforce Science Associates (WSA)—a research organization based in Lincoln, Nebraska that specializes in studying organizational engagement, employee experience, and talent assessment—has leveraged its considerable database to answer pertinent questions regarding employee commitment trends, and why employees choose to stay. For example, how has employee commitment varied during the pandemic? What have been the greatest influencers for why employees have stayed loyal to their employers? Which of the theories highlighted in the press hold the greatest merit? In this article, we examine employee commitment trends over time, along with several drivers of employee commitment. We conclude with some research-driven suggestions for organizations seeking to retain their employees amid the Great Resignation.

Commitment Trends

Leveraging data collected from over 115 million survey responses collected between 2018–2021 across 400+ census survey projects, WSA recently sought to understand trends related to retention and turnover amid the pandemic by examining employee “intentions to stay”—an important precursor to employee retention. Among the key research findings, WSA saw employees’ intent to stay increased substantially to 63% favorable1 in 2020, up from 60% in both 2018 and 2019. This increase is not surprising given that the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020 and brought about significant uncertainty and insecurity. It is likely that employees felt even more committed to staying than in the past due to this uncertainty, a trend witnessed during other major crises (e.g., 9/11 terrorist attack and 2008 economic collapse). As expected, though, as time went on—and perhaps employees felt like they had weathered the storm and gained some clarity about their priorities and the path forward—employees’ intent to stay dropped back to prepandemic levels by the end of 2021, at 60% favorable.

Specifically, when we break the data down at the biannual level from 2019 through 2021 (Figure 1), we see that employee intentions to stay subtly increased during the second half of 2019 and first half of 2020, and then spiked during the second half of 2020 to 64% favorable. Employee intentions to stay subsequently declined in 2021, ending the year at 58% favorable. This indicates a 6% difference over the course of just one year, reflecting the state of the workforce as being an employee’s market.

Figure  1
Source: Bi-annual average employee intent to stay scores. WSA’s Benchmarking Database.

Given the headlines around the Great Resignation and the all-time high number of resignations and worker shortages, one might have expected to see the percent favorable even lower than 58% at the end of 2021.  To gain further insight, we broke the data down by industry (see Table 1), where we see the picture changes a bit based on context.  Specifically, in analyzing employee data representing the five largest industries within the WSA Benchmark Database (finance & insurance, manufacturing, professional, scientific, & technical services, and retail trade), plus healthcare, we see cross-industry increases in intentions to stay in 2020 but variability in whether these increased, stayed the same, or decreased from 2019 to 2021.  Table 1 provides intention-to-stay observations and trends by industry. 

Note: Difference between 2020 and 2021 is statistically significant at p < 0.05.

Table 1
Intentions to Stay: Industry Observations and Trends

Industry

 

 

Percent favorable

intention to stay

Industry summary

2019

2020

Δ 2019
to 2020

2021

Δ2020 to 2021

Δ2019 to 2021

Finance &
insurance

64%

71%

+7

64%

-7

0

An increase in 2020 might be related to the industry boom in 2020 as well as the fact that the nature of the role allows for the majority of employees in this industry to work remotely

Manufacturing

59%

61%

+2

59%

-2

0

U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show a similar story with quit rates increasing from 1.5% in 2020 to 2.6% in early 2022.  Most jobs were onsite during the pandemic so increases could be related to job security or other factors.

Professional, scientific, & technical
services

62%

64%

+2

63%

-1

+1

Intention to stay has seen minimal changes in this industry, but BLS data indicate a different story showing quit rates in December 2020 (2.8%) were lower than December 2021 (3.5%).   

Retail trade

55%

58%

+3

60%

+2

+5

Counter to expectations, intention to stay has increased year over year while annual quit rates have increased (3.1% in 2020 to 4.2% in 2022). Hire rates of a traditionally high-turnover industry may explain the optimistic sentiment we are seeing as it may be coming from a large portion of newer employees. Across all industries, first year employees have an 8% higher positive sentiment toward staying than average.

Healthcare

60%

62%

+2

54%*

-8

-6

*Data were limited and not definitive compared to other industries reported but trending is reflective of what is seen in a very stretched, frontline workforce having endured the worst of a pandemic.

 

With this enhanced understanding of global and industry-based trends in mind, we turned our attention to better understanding top drivers of employees’ intentions to stay. Part of this examination focused on perceptions before and after the key March 2020 dividing line between prepandemic and the current state of the workforce.  Insights gained are provided in the subsection below.

Key Drivers of Employees’ Intent to Stay

Using the WSA Benchmark research cited above, we examined data across hundreds of organizations to identify key retention drivers and whether these changed during and/or following the height of the pandemic.  What we found, surprisingly, is that there are few differences in key drivers of retention (i.e., those ranked in the “top 10”) between prepandemic and up through the end of 2021 when it comes to employees’ intent to stay at their organizations. It appears there are a handful of universal and timeless factors that are important to employees when they think about their commitment to their employers (e.g., recognition, trust, career growth). We did, however, observe that the relative importance of the key drivers differed across time periods, as is illustrated in Table 2, and that three new drivers emerged.

Table 2
Rank Order List of Commitment Drivers Pre and Post March 1, 2020

Rank

Before 3/1/2020

After 3/1/2020

1

Recognition and feel valued

Feel career goals can be met

2

Trust & confidence in senior leadership

Trust & confidence in senior leadership

3

Open & honest two-way communication

Recognition and feel valued

4

Future vision, hearing motivating message

Future vision, hearing motivating message

5

Support to adapt to org changes

Open & honest two-way communication

6

Job makes use of talent/skills

Link between work & company’s vision

7

Diverse perspectives are valued

Support to adapt to org changes

8

Managers/leaders are role models of values

Job makes use of talent/skills

9

Link between work & company’s vision

Behavior of leaders consistent with values

10

Opportunities for advancement

Ideas & suggestions count

*unique drivers are listed in bold

Key insights we drew from Table 2 are expounded upon below, starting with drivers that remained consistent over time, followed by factors that decreased or increased in importance before and after the March 2020 dividing line.

Drivers That Have Remained Consistent Over Time

Recognition/Feeling Valued

Prior to the pandemic, the most important factor affecting employees’ intent to stay was feeling that their contributions were valued and that they were acknowledged for helping the organization be successful; this has remained a strong and consistent motivator throughout the pandemic (ranked as the #3 factor post-March 2020).  Relatedly, perceptions that employers make use of an employee’s unique skills also made the top 10 list both before and after March 2020.

Trust/Confidence in Senior Leadership/Open Communication

Trust in senior leaders and believing leaders are making the right decisions for the company is another critical component that has not deviated in its importance throughout the pandemic (ranked as the #2 most important factor in both time periods), highlighting the impact strong leadership can have on employee commitment. Interestingly, employees’ confidence in senior leaders to make the right decisions has increased markedly from 68% favorable prepandemic to 76% after March 2020 suggesting that many employers rose to the occasion with regard to communication and transparency during these unprecedented times.

Future Vision/Motivating Message

Another area that has remained constant in driving employees’ intent to stay is related to being motivated by the employer’s vision. Sharing an inspiring vision to all levels of the business continues to be paramount, despite a shaky economy. Simply put, employees’ intent to stay is often greater when they know (a) where the company is going, (b) how it intends to get there, and (c) how they’re own personal work aligns to the strategy and vision. 

Adapting to Change

The pandemic brought a whole new meaning to what the word “adaptability,” as many employees had to learn to work virtually nearly overnight. For others, new policies and practices dictated how work could be performed and how they would interact face-to-face with customers.  Not surprisingly, employees’ perceptions of being supported by their employer through organizational change made the top 10 list both before and after March 2020.   

Shifts in Drivers Before and After March 2020

Although many drivers of intentions to stay remained consistent before and after March 2020, we also observed a few interesting changes.  For example, prepandemic, the belief that an employee’s company values diverse perspectives was a prominent driver of intentions to stay. Yet, even with the social unrest that continues to highlight disparities, this particular driver did not rank in the top 10 after March 2020, contrary to what we might have expected.

In addition, although in the past direct managers have had a substantial impact on employees’ intentions to stay, it now seems that senior leadership behaviors are having a greater impact on employee commitment than the direct supervisor. 

Last, post 2020 we see a brand new factor, not previously in the top list, as the #1 ranked factor driving intentions to stay: “Feel career goals can be met.”  Whereas prepandemic, “opportunities for advancement” was ranked as the 10th most important factor, post-2020, we see employees focusing more specifically on their career goals and ensuring that they are working at an organization at which they can achieve them.  

Conclusion

Data informs action and allows us to move away from mere speculation and media hype to supported conclusions and data-driven recommendations. Having reviewed the data, what have we learned about the Great Resignation and how can it inform practice?

After the predictable increase in intentions to stay during the height of the pandemic, we saw intentions-to-stay levels were significantly lower in 2021. Essentially, what went up, did come down, and the current state suggests indeed that individuals’ commitment to stay with their organizations is on a downward trend. This up and then back down pattern was largely consistent across industries. Though the employee experience has differed greatly from one industry to the next, most of the industries we analyzed saw increases in commitment in 2020 followed by a sharp decrease in 2021, with the exception of the retail trade.Key drivers of intent to stay were generally consistent over time, with some differences beginning to emerge. Specifically, the importance of career growth and meeting career goals has arisen as the number one most important driver of intentions to stay, and more than ever, employees want to see that their senior leaders are living up to the values of the company. Value and recognize their employees consistently for their efforts and how they are contributing their skills and talents to making the organization successful and achieving the organizational vision;Encourage leaders to build trust through communication, transparency, and showing employees they care; Build confidence and inspire purpose by sharing the organizational vision, the strategy to achieve it, and communicating how every role and employee is important to achieving organizational goals;Support employees through change by equipping them with the right tools, training and team/manager support to enable performance as well as a healthy sense of well-being at work; and Offer employees opportunities to learn and develop to enhance their career growth, achieve their goals, and advance within the organization.

Note

1 Percent favorable refers to the percentage of employee respondents who indicated “Agree” or “Strongly Agree” to “intention to stay” sentiments

References

Fox, A. (2012, July). Drive turnover down. HR Magazine: Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM)https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/Pages/0712fox.aspx

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022, March). Quits levels and rates for total nonfarm by state, seasonally adjusted. U.S. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/jltst.t04.htm

Workforce Science Associates LLC. (2022, January). Workforce Science Associates benchmarking database reflecting employee sentiment from over 116 million employees from 402 projects across 142 countries (2018-2021), H12022. Lincoln, NE.

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