The Great Resignation: How Both Sides Can Benefit

The Great Resignation Photo

Throughout the pandemic, personal burnout, COVID-19–related illness and anxiety, as well as childcare and transportation constraints have collided with larger trends in wage stagnation, border closings, and uneven social safety nets. The result has been a professional awakening: People are not only rethinking how and where they work—but also their relationship to work in general. And many people are feeling empowered to simply call it quits.

Different shades of the Great Resignation trend can be found around the world. In the United States, 4.5 million people quit their jobs in November 2021 alone, a slight decrease from the 4.2 million who gave notice in October 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Twenty-seven percent of 18- to 39-year-olds say they’ve resigned from a job in the past year, and a staggering 46% of this demographic report they plan to resign within the next year, according to a 2021 YPulse survey. In the United Kingdom, there were nearly 435,000 more job vacancies in September–November 2021 than during the pre-pandemic period of January–March 2020, according to the U.K. Office for National Statistics. Additionally, in Southeast Asia, most companies surveyed by Mercer reported they were experiencing higher turnover rates, particularly at the midcareer level.

“The tight labor situation is real,” says Vidhya Abhijith, founder of tech firm Codewave in Bengaluru, India. “Remote work eliminated geographical boundaries, and people can now explore opportunities anywhere. The rate at which people are moving on, from companies big and small, is definitely higher.”

That’s true even for employees who might not be actively looking to switch companies. “Poaching is a big problem for professional positions, including project managers,” says Andy Challenger, SVP of global talent firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, in Chicago, Illinois, USA. “This talent is being lured away from their current jobs, and with remote options freeing up workers to take recruiter calls, many more are answering.”

By the time an employee gives notice, it’s often too late. For organizations looking to elevate their pandemic-era retention playbook, the time to act is now. And for project talent looking to move up or explore other opportunities, this moment can be a call to action.


1. Support Autonomy and Work Flexibility

Global edtech firm Symplicity Corp. has ramped up retention efforts in the past year, starting with an assessment of what resonates with employees in different places. “One constant from all regions is an increased desire for flexible work arrangements,” says Mel Hennigan, the company’s VP of people, Washington, D.C., USA.

Offering remote or hybrid options puts a company ahead of competitors with rigid in-office requirements. But the most attractive firms, in terms of talent, know that choosing where one works is just a start. “The more that a company can create autonomy for its employees—whether through work-from-anywhere policies or lower utilization targets that allow for more creativity and free thinking—the more they will be enabled and empowered to find greater purpose in their role,” she says. “That leads to happiness in a job, and that freedom to find purpose is one of the things I believe many project managers are now looking for in project roles.”

“Fostering true autonomy often requires a mindset shift from management,” says Abhijith. “Organizations are being forced to shift from an attendance-tracking mindset to an outcome-based mindset. I’d urge project leaders to consider reinventing traditional performance management.” This ensures that the focus is less on hours worked and more on achievements and deliverables.

“Having a flexible understanding of what it takes to deliver great work requires leadership and an open culture that not only believes in new ways of working, but actively works to maintain that openness,” says Kierstin Gray, PMP, program director, Argodesign, Brooklyn, New York, USA. “That’s what I believe many project managers are now looking for in project roles. The question is whether companies are willing to deliver on that need.”

2. Invest in Growth Opportunities

When vacant positions are limiting what a department can get done, it’s understandable to focus on finding and training new hires—stat. But training and developing seasoned talent can be a powerful way to get those people to stick around and galvanize new ways of working. “We’ve certainly noticed that companies have more willingness to invest in training,” says Ernesto Spruyt, founder of Tunga, a company in Kampala, Uganda, dedicated to providing tech jobs to young Africans.

Upskilling employees—whether it’s building up their agile knowledge or fine-tuning their power skills as part of leadership development—isn’t a new concept. But more organizations are using education and training to win the talent war. In September, Amazon vowed to cover 100% of the cost of college tuition for its 750,000 hourly employees in the United States. Similarly, Whirlpool Corporation launched an educational reimbursement initiative that extends to graduate and executive programs.

At Transport for NSW, a government transportation agency in New South Wales, Australia, managers recently rolled out initiatives to implement an agile framework and business agility training across the technology and engineering teams. “I hope it will stimulate our staff and keep them engaged and happy,” says Sandeep Mathur, PgMP, director, active transport portfolio, data and analytics, Milsons Point, Australia.

In Africa, Spruyt says most training opportunities are currently aimed at workers with less experience, but “the training focus will probably gradually expand from the junior level to the midcareer level,” he says. “Career development opportunities are one of the key components to employee engagement right now.”

3. Redefine Culture by Listening and Responding

Culture has always mattered. But during a talent crunch it can be the make-or-break factor that ensures people want to stick around. Before the pandemic rewrote the norms, a noteworthy work environment might have centered on table tennis or free catered lunches. But “people’s behaviors and needs are changing—and the role of a manager is changing,” says Nelson Jose Rosamilha, PMI-ACP, PMP, executive director, Digital Mode, São Paulo, Brazil. “Just like you’d customize your service or offering to hold onto customers, managers need to do the same for workers.”

Seek employee feedback to reassess what really matters to them by asking these questions: Do team members crave mental health resources or wellness offerings? Does the company’s approach to recognition and rewards feel stale? Is now the time to invest in a mentorship program, or would employee resource groups do a better job at cultivating an atmosphere of trust and belonging? “All of these can make a big difference to an employee’s quality of life at work,” says Abhijith. “And employee experience is a critical key performance indicator for organizations—a KPI that needs to be continuously measured, reviewed and improved.”


1. Feel Empowered to Speak Up and Advance Your Career

What’s on your 2022 professional wish list? A pay raise? A promotion? Or even a whole new job path? Take-charge project professionals can seize control of their careers. “Workers are, in effect, calling the shots right now,” Challenger says. “Companies are desperate to keep their people and are more willing to make accommodations to do so, including granting promotions and raises.”

Some organizations might give a salary bump proactively, as they look to keep pace with inflation and fend off passive recruitment. But frequently those conversations must be initiated by the project manager. “Preparation is paramount,” says Challenger: Update your résumé or CV so it reflects your recent responsibilities, contributions and accomplishments. But also spend time developing an elevator pitch for what you hope to achieve in a more senior role,” he suggests.

Make sure your efforts are strategic. Symplicity Corporation’s Hennigan says project professionals must be more than empowered when they speak up about their contributions. “Quantify it and get credit for the value you are bringing to the table,” she says. And the conversation should include more than detailing past wins or current responsibilities—it also needs to focus on the future. “Vocalize what you’re looking for in your employment relationship,” Hennigan says. “Many employers can respond with a value proposition once they know what drives the talent’s motivation.”

2. Ignore the Usual Job Titles (for Now)

From digital transformations to pandemic-related initiatives to an increased focus on change management and organizational agility, “business as usual” might feel like a thing of the past. But that seismic shift can mean big opportunities for project professionals who are focused less on the traditional organizational chart and more on what the company needs right now.

“Finding alignment between what is in the best interest of oneself and what’s in the shared interest of the organization is key,” says Abhijith. “Find that intersection and offer yourself unapologetically, shattering boundaries of the current role or project.”

“One smart way to figure out organizational strategies and pain points is through conversation,” she says. “Proactively reaching out to leaders in the organization in order to diagnose areas the org needs help with that you might be able to significantly serve—that can help you stand out and negotiate better.”

3. Build a Bigger Comfort Zone

“Project managers can often be I- or T-shaped in their skill set, meaning they have deep knowledge in one domain, or deep knowledge with some expertise or experience in adjacent domains,” says Gray. But project management talent who can complement that deep expertise with a broader toolbox will be far more distinctive—and better positioned to advance, she says.

Not sure where to start? Follow your curiosity. If you’re interested in coding, become a project manager who knows how to code. If you’re interested in marketing strategy, become a project manager who understands product development and business strategy. “By becoming a multitooled project manager, you not only broaden your opportunity horizon, but you make yourself unique in a competitive market” she says.


 Digital Exclusive article developed for Project Management Institute, Inc. by content writer Kate Rockwood.

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