The ‘Great Resignation’ of 2021 is still causing businesses in the UK big problems. For many organisations employee retention rates have hit an all-time low as employees continue to review career trajectories in pursuit of a better work/life balance. For the labour market the recent pattern of movement equates to 1.3 million unfilled jobs and a decreased ‘active workforce’ (meaning less people want to work) is the same pre-pandemic capacity, post pandemic.
Here the fallout has been predominantly populated by the over 50s who have taken early retirement or have not returned to work for other reasons. According to a poll conducted by Aviva (Autumn 2021), around 60% of employees were planning on a career adjustment by either learning a new skill or switching jobs and sectors. Surprisingly, the survey revealed that the under 25s were most likely to seek change, and those aged between 25-34 were most inclined to retrain for a completely different career.
In July 2022, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) noted that recruitment concerns were at a record high. Of the 5,700 firms surveyed by the BCC, 61% were actively recruiting, and of those recruiting, 75% were experiencing difficulties in attracting potential staff. Whilst the BCC suggested construction, production, manufacturing and hospitality industries are among those experiencing the most recruitment and retention issues, it seems that almost all sectors have been impacted by the ‘great resignation’.
According to a research paper published by the Commons Library (December 2021), between March 2020 and September 2021, 11.7 million employees were furloughed under the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. The scheme safeguarded jobs by allowing businesses to pause or slow trading during unprecedented times, and when employees returned to work many did so with less enthusiasm than before.
For some, being furloughed created the first career break since childhood where creativity and self-reflection was socially permitted for a prolonged period, and this had a direct impact on attitudes towards work and existing roles. Here research has found that many people want to feel more fulfilled by their chosen professions and are willing to take risks by giving up established careers to find something that reflects their values, talents or hobbies. Staff retention normally occurs due to a variety of factors including rewards, work/life balance, the physical working environment, and organisational cultural fit, but these can all be addressed with careful planning and often minor adjustments to organisational and operational employee policies, and recruitment strategies.
At Mackman Research, we too have experienced issues regarding recruitment, and our clients across all sectors are seeking help to secure staff and effectively recruit. Since October 2020, our research agency has recorded a surge in demand for employee surveys, organisational insight, culture health checks, and stakeholder engagement research. We note that businesses, charities, and Government departments alike are increasingly recognising the value of ‘inward looking’ insight, and this is particularly the case for those organisations who have identified post-pandemic growth potential.
Pre-Covid, Mackman Research would be approached to conduct numerous customer satisfaction surveys or competitor research projects. Historically employee surveys were commissioned by large enterprises, either as stand-alone pieces pre/post-merger or at a particular point of cultural change. During the past 2 years however, large corporates have been joined by small and medium sized organisations who have begun to mirror external customer and competitor surveys with internal employee surveys to create a rounded view. Finally, the experience and perception of employees has been recognised as having equal significance to that of customer satisfaction. Such a shift in focus is not only necessary but also overdue and calls for employee experience (EX) to be a welcome addition to any research agency's services.
With this new appreciation for employee research, we have found that many employees do not fully understand their employer's aims and objectives and misrepresent this very ethos when interacting with their own customers. Here a mismatch occurs where intended marketing messages get lost in translation, customer service levels drop, and brands become damaged. The ripple of miscommunication can impact on staff performance and may eventually add to feelings of discontent amongst employees. Whilst this pattern pre-dates the pandemic, the recent years have bought about a climate of reflection resulting in ‘the great resignation’.
Whilst it may seem impossible to cater for changing personal desires that are reflective of lockdown crafts, businesses can address the needs of their existing employees and keep an eye on the expectations of an ever-shifting labour market with regular research. For example, your current workforce is likely to understand why your company has retention issues and could also help you to identify why you are experiencing difficulties in attracting new staff to you organisation. Unearthing the views and opinions of staff can seem a little daunting, and it is important to understand that the purpose of employee research is not to completely reimagine the working environment, or to answer to every single gripe.
Instead, the aim of employee research is to create a space where staff can express their thoughts and feelings, and share their experiences or observations with you, their employer. Much like any other form of research seeking to gather information, employee research simply enables you to explore aspects that may or may not attract others, that may make your staff content and loyal, or that may help you to build a thriving and productive business culture.
If your research budget allows, it is best practice to perform detailed research using both quantitative and qualitative methods. Here, research must contain several phases where each one builds upon the other to form a 360° view of the problem or investigation landscape. This can be achieved using a layered approach that begins with a broad overview and ends with a qualitative employee survey. A 360° view creates a comprehensive recruitment and retention audit that will enable you to identify reasons why recruitment is problematic, or why you find it hard to hold on to staff for more than a few years. Each research phase should inform the next by answering the questions that are revealed along the way. With each step you will aim to gather more and more detailed insight as you gradually unpick threads.
Starting with an expansive overview, it is worth conducting a literature review of recent research findings to collate existing data produced by surveys and white papers to understand current sector trends. Here an evaluation of findings should explain migration patterns between job roles and career pathways and enable you to identify why your sector or profession is more susceptible to movement. A literature review is a complex task and will need time to complete depending upon how extensive you wish your search to be. Allocating time to a literature review depends upon the research budget, and outcome timescales. It is also a relatively academic exercise and often requires an expert to perform a literature review that is more than a simple summary of themes.
Once a literature review is complete, the findings should not only reveal specific employee traits, but will also identify areas that employers must address, such as gaps between employee and employer expectation and sentiment. A literature review is a broad overview and will require ‘drill-down’ research to later unpack themes and patterns. Here the research will begin to take a more qualitative approach so that organisations can get to the heart of the problem and find out exactly why recruitment or retention is experiencing difficulties.
To build on the broad insight that a literature review creates, you will need to include competitor research to determine how others entice new recruits to their organisation, seeking to find out how they describe the role, what their expectations are, and what benefits or rewards they offer. Here, you can perform searches of recruitment sites in the first instance, making sure to include your top 3 competitors to gather detail surrounding their use of key words and phrases, job titles, salaries, training opportunities, and career pathways.
If you haven’t identified the top three competitors, then begin by thinking about the businesses that your lost employees have moved to and look at those businesses’ recruitment pages. By viewing recruitment advertising, it will be easy to see the differences in messaging between you and those who are successfully recruiting. An HR consultant will also help you to shape the rewards that your organisation offers, making sure that they fit with your overall business strategy.
Finally, yet crucially, a survey of existing employees will help you to identify ways in which you can improve staff retention. Employee surveys can form part of an overall culture health check but can also exist as stand-alone pieces during turbulent times. Staff surveys don’t just focus on how satisfied staff are in their roles but can also reveal who else they perceive to be excellent employee based on past experiences or knowledge sharing amongst peers. In addition, it is important to understand what other brands they have the most affinity with and why, as this will help you to review your own internal brand culture and possibly enable you to develop a team ethos.
Depending upon the scale and scope of the research project that you have chosen to undertake, your efforts will yield data. Data can be confusing, and it is easy to waste hours by following themes that are insignificant or impossible to act upon. Hence, data analysis is a specialist skill that requires practice and experience to ensure that the right crosstabs are made, and that the most is made of meaningful data. As you instruct your data analyst, you must therefore remain focused on the projects aims and objectives so that you deliver research findings that can be acted upon.
For some, research can reveal issues in areas where you least expect them and the daunting task of unpacking findings or delivering outcomes can make the entire process seem unappealing. To overcome any scepticism or fears, it is worth referring back to the aims and objectives of the research project as a reminder and guide. By adopting this perspective, you will be able to remove yourself from feelings of personal criticism, and instead consider feedback to be constructive, enabling you to move your recruitment and retention forward.
It is important to understand that all feedback is good feedback and constructive criticism will help you to develop a healthy organisational culture, itself a key component to the creation of a thriving business.
Once research findings have been presented and disseminated, it is time to amend recruitment and retention strategies. Included in your new strategy may be targeted messaging, refreshed reward and benefit systems, or even new roles and responsibilities within your existing team. With new insight, employers and employees can begin to reshape their employment packages, adjust the delivery of their internal brand culture, or amend recruitment campaigns to be more in line with the reality of their organisational culture and experience of working life.
The pandemic increased the propensity to change careers in the hope of finding a better work/life balance or simply a more rewarding role, and whilst some may drift away from your sector, others will move towards it. The great resignation may still be in flux, but organisations can soften the blow of a revolving labour market by taking notice of trends, monitoring competitors, and listening to current employees.
Research will provide the evidence and guidance that organisations need to secure new recruits whilst nurturing existing employees. Often the simplest measures are the best, and employees will appreciate the fact that you value their opinion. Importantly, employee research allows employees to become stakeholders, and this has added self-esteem value as well as giving employers unique insight into the actual experience of working in your sector for your organisation, and within a particular team or department.
Much like any research exercise, labour market and employee research should not just be called upon during times of crisis. It is best practice to repeat employee surveys on a bi-annual or annual basis to maintain awareness of changing patterns, influences and needs. Continuous monitoring of external and internal customers (staff) will reduce the need for reactive and dramatic change, and will enable you to make subtle proactive adjustments to attract and retain the very best.
Dr Gemma Mackman
Dr Gemma Mackman is co-founder and Research Director of the Mackman Group. Her professional career has given her a broad knowledge of business practices, an appreciation of good customer service and experience of a diverse range of sectors. Gemma is also a member of the Market Research Society and has completed research training provided by the Economic and Social Research Council.More About Gemma
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