Resolving the Great Resignation – One Employee at a Time

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Fairfax Campus Work Group

We’ve all become familiar with the pandemic-related reasons behind the upheaval in the labor market, as well as the standard-issue solutions like trying to infuse work with purpose or offering employees remote working. While these are practical suggestions, they have not restored stability to the workforce. It is our contention that any broad-brush advice for retaining employees in the current environment will be insufficient. Whether managers like it or not, employees will demand sensitivity and adjustment to their psychological needs as individuals.

In retrospect, Covid-19 was the first major disruption to professional lifestyles since the women’s movement in the 1960s. Just as “women’s lib” triggered backlash from male leaders, the shocks wrought by Covid similarly caused ripple effects – for employees of all genders, races, and walks of life. But – and this is essential – every employee experienced the disruption differently.

The operative concept here is “psychological contract,” or the intangible compensations we derive from employment. If you have worked somewhere for any length of time, chances are you have an unwritten contract with your employer. But no two people’s contracts will look the same.

For example, remote working limited the spontaneous social encounters and standing lunch dates that fulfilled extroverted employees’ psychological needs in the “before times.” Employees who placed great stock in the prestige of their employer would have felt the loss of in-person networking events that gave them the opportunity to impress others by simply handing over a business card. When these intangible satisfactions suddenly disappeared, working life became less appealing. We see this as a main driving factor of the Great Resignation that remains largely unaddressed.

Theoretically, pre-Covid psychological contracts could be restored by pretending the pandemic never happened and requiring full-time presence at the office. However, ignoring the potential convenience and flexibility of hybrid working would place companies at a disadvantage in the war for talent. Employees do not want to choose between practicality and their own psychological needs – they want both, in harmonious balance. It falls to organizations to rewrite psychological contracts for this new era.

Since no two employees will have the same contract, revisions need to happen on an individual level between employees and managers. While this sounds like a daunting task, if you are armed with some information about psychology, it is not at all impossible.

An area of developmental psychology known as attachment theory points to the fungibility of emotionally anchoring bonds. The basic nature of our attachments, as well as our ways of maintaining them, are rooted in childhood experience and thus die hard. But the specific objects of our attachments can be switched. Victoria’s recent book Stuck: How to Win at Business by Understanding Loss explains how leaders and managers can use attachment theory to help team members weather the storm of change. Applying this logic can help repair the psychological contract.

To fill the social void at lunchtime, for example, organizations could offer an opt-in service enabling hybrid employees to arrange lunches or coffees with colleagues living in their area. The “me-time” of the commute could be restored by allowing employees to block off an hour every day for thinking and reflection. Status-oriented employees deprived of self-promotion opportunities could be given the chance to share their accomplishments internally, through corporate social networks or blog posts. These examples illustrate the general purpose, which is to find adequate analogues for pre-pandemic psychological routines and attachments.

Understanding not only what losses employees are mourning but also why opens the door to exploration. You could ask, “Assuming we can’t have an in-person all-hander this year, what else could we do that would generate excitement?” Developing an answer may take time, but starting the process of rewriting the psychological contract is meaningful. It signals sensitivity and a commitment to employees’ mental health.

Together, the information shared during psychological contract-based conversations can also help organizations work out which pre-Covid rituals should be brought back. If employees are nostalgic for in-person team meetings, it may be worth trying to resurrect them. Employees’ psychological contracts will also help you determine which in-person events justify additional expenses.

All-in-all, astute managers should sustain the conversation about psychological contracts into the “new-normal” and beyond. Regular evaluations could include check-ins to make sure needs are still being met and plan necessary adjustments. That way, employees and organizations can build mutually supportive ties capable of withstanding the next inevitable surprise.