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The Great Resignation: Labor shortage or labor strike?

  • Category: New Orleans
  • Posted on:
  • Written By: Johnette Staes, Human Resources Director, East Jefferson General Hospital

“Times have changed.” We have all heard our parents, teachers, professors, elders, friends, and family use that phrase. In March of 2020, we all experienced significant change firsthand. The world was thrust into a global pandemic that we are unprepared for, and it has fundamentally changed the way that we live, work, socialize and view society. These changes have also affected us emotionally, mentally, physically, and financially with the impact that spans both our personal and professional lives.

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A commonality among generations of workers

One of the biggest social and professional side effects of COVID-19 was the shift to remote work for a large number of employees. With the pandemic virtually eliminating the ability to continue shared workspaces, conference rooms, elevators, patronize restaurants, bars, or any space where people gathered, our home offices became our full-time workspace, and our kitchens became our restaurants.

Boomers, Gen Xers, Gen Yers, Gen Zers, Millennials, students, and everyone in between finally had something in common: embracing technology to remain productive, connected, and employed. (#YoureOnMute should have been the phrase of 2020).

Remote work is a win-win for employees and employers

Since the shift to remote work, studies have been conducted and they show that remote work has largely been a success for both the employee and the employer.

The pandemic forced a work environment that has only existed in select industries, and it was, by in large, successful.

  • Employees reported higher job satisfaction.
  • Employers saw increased productivity.
  • Employees were able to better balance their work and personal life.
  • Employers were able to reap the benefits of team members that were happy.
  • Employees spent less money on items like lunch and gas.
  • Employers had reduced expenses due to the lack of overhead such as printer ink, paper, utilities, coffee, and every other expense that comes with running an office.

So what's causing the Great Resignation?

The only constant changes, so as COVID-19 slowed down, employers began calling employees back to the offices. To the surprise of many, employees opted to leave their employers in search of a career that allowed them to continue their new normal of remote work or demanded a pay increase to return to the office thus “The Great Resignation” was born.

Is it a labor shortage or a labor strike?

We are now witnessing understaffed restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. We are seeing record high job vacancies, increasing demand for higher pay and perks, and what many are calling a labor shortage, but is it truly a labor shortage?

As a Human Resources professional, my responsibility is to align the people strategy with the business strategy. The ability to successfully accomplish this lies in Talent Attraction, Talent Acquisition, and Talent Retention. In reviewing data and strategizing on how to attract talent, I’ve surmised that there is no shortage of labor in any industry. On the contrary, there is a large contingency of skilled, experienced labor that is willing to work, however, they are no longer willing to work under pre-COVID norms.

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What we are seeing is an informal, large-scale labor strike and, as Human Resources professionals, we should treat it as such. By definition, a labor strike is a work stoppage, caused by the mass refusal of employees to work. A strike usually takes place in response to employee grievances. How often do we now see limited hours at Starbucks, a closed McDonald’s, or a complete supply chain breakdown?

In my home city of New Orleans, the city administration is grappling with a labor shortage within the waste management sector that has been exacerbated since Hurricane Ida stormed across the state causing billions in damage. Hurricane Ida exposed that “hoppers”, the guys that jump off and on the truck to empty your trash cans, asked for a living wage ($15 per hour) and PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic. They were denied both therefore they quit en masse. Is that a labor shortage or a labor strike? Employees across the country are on strike until we address the grievances. What will your organization do differently to stand out and become a beacon of light to attract, acquire and retain talent that is looking for the Best Place to Work?

What can HR professionals do?

There is no magic wand that will fix this challenge, but it can be addressed with the right leaders, an innovative and creative mindset, and the elimination of antiquated policies and thoughts of what a successful employee or workplace is. Think outside of the box.

  1. Embrace remote work. If your industry can function with remote employees, let them work remotely. It is cost-neutral, at best, a method of increasing employee engagement.
  2. Be flexible. If your industry can implement flex schedules, implement them. Remote work helped employees realize how much time they spent NOT doing the things that made them happy (time with their kids, spending time with significant others, cooking for the family, self-care, etc).
  3. Make culture the most important thing. If your industry does not allow for remote or flexible schedules, make work the best place to be. Food truck Fridays. Sunday Sundaes. Mental Health Days. Bring your pet to the workday. Update your dress code and allow employees to express themselves. Paid parental leave. Spirit Week. There are entire books written on engagement ideas and strategies that seem small but make a big impact.
  4. Review your budget. What funds can be reallocated to provide raises for your team? Can the pay scale be adjusted? Can bonuses be increased?
  5. Reward performance. After your review, your budget, find the money for employees that separate themselves from others whether they are remote or on-site. Your best brand ambassador is your happiest employee.
  6. Accountability. A labor strike should not result in compromising quality for quantity. Hold underperformers accountable and fill roles with people that deliver on expectations and compensate them for it. Your worst brand ambassador is your least productive employee.
  7. Leaders must lead. Make sure that your leadership team leads from the front. Be visible. Be accessible. Be honest. Be flexible.
  8. Diversify and include. Mistakes are made when there is a lack of representation. When seeking to implement change and innovation and to attract talent that will lead you out of the labor strike, make it a point to have everyone represented and able to present culturally relevant ideas and points of view. Your leadership team should reflect the demographics of your organization. Be sure that everyone has a seat AND a voice at the table.

Unprecedented times call for innovation and, as Albert Einstein once said, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change”. Everything has changed. Can your organization do the same?