A tsunami of post-pandemic employee turnover is forecast for the foreseeable future. Why so? Is your company at risk? And what can you do to stop it?

Even with the arrival of the COVID-19 variants, workplaces are starting to establish and navigate their new, post-pandemic normal. Yet there’s another rising issue with which employers must prepare to contend: post-pandemic employee turnover.

According to the 2021 Employee Engagement and Retention Report, commissioned by the Achievers Workforce Institute, 52% of employees in North America will look for a new job in the near future. Meanwhile, the 2020 Eagle Hill Consulting COVID-19 Workforce Burnout Survey found that one in four employees plans to leave their job once the pandemic is over. For millennials and employees with children who are enrolled in virtual school, that number jumps to one in three.

Yes, multiple media sources and professional associations have referenced a “turnover tsunami” looms for all types of positions, across industries and at every organizational level. So, let’s take a closer look.

What’s fueling post-pandemic employee turnover

At the height of the pandemic, everyone seemed to hunker down. Amid business closures and industrywide downturns, and with the ensuing widespread layoffs or reductions in salary and benefits, uncertainty reigned. Frankly, many people were thankful to have a job, period.

For those who were lucky enough to hold onto their jobs, moving to a new position at a different company – the unknown – felt too risky. After all, no one wants to be “last one in, first one out.”

For others, the pandemic presented personal challenges – such as caring for sick family members or dealing with one’s own illness, or taking on extra childcare responsibilities while working from home – that made it an inopportune time to pursue major changes in one’s professional life.

So, what has shifted in the last several months?

Certainly, after a year of staying put and waiting to see what would happen next while often living in survival mode and under extreme stress, there’s pent-up demand among employees for making a positive change. These employees likely are unhappy with some aspect of their job or how their employers handled impacts of the pandemic on their workplace.

Achievers’ 2021 Employee Engagement and Retention Report cites the three most common reasons for employees switching jobs:

  • Better compensation
  • Better benefits
  • Improved work-life balance

Additionally, the pandemic has exacerbated employee burnout. People simply want to do something different in a new environment.

Many people feel less connected to and engaged with their companies. With increased remote operations, many organizations have neglected their workplace culture or have allowed frequent personal interactions and employee recognition to decrease. As a result, employees’ sense of loyalty may have diminished.

Now, the conditions are right for people to make a move to obtain a more advantageous working situation. Generally, confidence is higher because:

  • COVID vaccines are widely available. Even with new COVID-19 variants rising, there’s still an overall sense that the worst of the bulk of the crisis is behind us.
  • Kids have largely returned to in-person schooling, and personal obligations have eased.
  • There are increased job openings and lower labor force participation – it’s simply a supply and demand issue. Companies need employees, and so the balance of power is tilted in employees’ favor.
    • The pandemic spurred some older employees to retire early.
    • The pandemic-induced SHEcession pushed many employees, primarily women, into scaling back their participation in the workforce or quitting entirely. Many of these workers will have a prolonged absence from the workplace – and some may never return.
    • Extended unemployment benefits have deterred some previously laid-off employees from pursuing work immediately. Some companies now offer bonuses and other perks to entice candidates.

Furthermore, as workplace norms have shifted to embrace remote work and flexible schedules, employees have had an opportunity to reassess their priorities and preferences. As many company leaders contemplate what their return to normalcy looks like, their decisions may affect employees’ desire to change jobs. Unpopular decisions will drive higher turnover.

For example, employees who have become accustomed to working remotely may expect the same level of flexibility going forward. If company leadership demands that their workers return to the office full time, those employees will probably look elsewhere so they can continue to enjoy this benefit.

For how long will this heightened turnover persist?

It’s anyone’s guess.

As long as there are fewer people participating in the workforce and more open jobs, employees will continue to jump ship for new opportunities.

The warning signs of post-pandemic employee turnover

Obviously, an uptick in the number of employees submitting their two weeks’ notice indicates that something is amiss. However, ideally, you’d have some advance warning so you can try to correct the situation and retain the employee.

Here are some warning signs that an employee might be at risk of quitting due to pandemic-related factors:

  • Poor or lacking communication between leaders and employees
  • Increased absenteeism or generally withdrawal
  • Expressions of stress
  • Dips in productivity
  • Noticeable problems with a manager’s performance, or complaints about a manager (Remember: Employees leave bad managers, not jobs.)
  • Employees seem overworked
  • Displays of boredom, or lower levels of innovation and creativity
  • Reduced sense of purpose – not knowing the strategic organizational goals, not understanding how they fit in and not grasping what’s meaningful about their role

How to prepare for and address post-pandemic employee turnover

If you know post-pandemic employee turnover is likely to happen, you can better protect your organization and blunt its impacts.

Here are nine steps you can take to better retain employees, especially after the pandemic:

  1. Research how your company’s salary, benefits and level of flexibility in working schedules compare to other companies in your industry. Make sure your practices are generally in alignment with others to reduce the risk of employees leaving to work for competitors.
  2. Pay attention to your team members. Check in with them regularly to see how things are going. Watch out for their tone and cues – if you’re able to talk to them in person or on videoconferences. Listen to their concerns. And don’t forget to provide positive feedback and recognize them for good work.
  3. Regularly communicate with your team, especially as your company makes decisions about the post-pandemic future. Engage employees in the decision-making process so they feel valued and know that you’re considering what’s best for them, too, as well the company. Once decisions are made, be open and transparent about them.
  4. Assess how flexible your company can be for employees without negatively impacting your business. The ability to continue working remotely, or at least work on a more flexible or hybrid schedule, will likely be a sticking point for many employees in deciding whether to quit. Consider carefully whether your team members truly need to come in to the office to perform their job. Ponder whether your employees were effective during the pandemic, and if they can assume greater autonomy over how and where they work. Showing employees that you trust them to make those decisions can be an important retention tool.
  5. Perform periodic “culture audits.” This could be as simple as talking to people in your organization to as formal as issuing employee surveys. You want to maintain a pulse on the mood among your workforce. What are people thinking and feeling? What do they like and dislike about your culture? What other feedback can they offer?
  6. Continually remind employees of your organization’s purpose and how they support this mission. As you solidify plans for the post-pandemic future, explain to employees how they fit into your plans.
  7. Establish a mentorship program and career counseling. Employees need to know that they have a path upward with your company and the potential for longevity.
  8. Have a succession plan in place. Knowing how an employee can advance upward in your organization, and being able to discuss the potential for internal mobility of employees, can help you maintain strong employee engagement. It’s also helpful to have already identified who can take over certain roles in the event an employee leaves.
  9. Guard against the hidden costs of employee turnover. When an employee leaves your company, the institutional knowledge they take out the door can be devastating. Be sure to have employees document their work processes and any special knowledge they have related to their role. Make information sharing and cross-training part of your culture so you’re not overly dependent on any one person.

Summing it all up

In the global pandemic’s wake, many employees are stressed, burned out and possibly disillusioned with their company’s pandemic practices. Consequently, they may be more eager to make a move to other opportunities. Meanwhile, the job market is very much tilted in employees’ favor: Open jobs are up, labor force participation is down. But, with the right steps, employers may be able to help mitigate the problem.

Whether its turnover or necessary changes to how business is carried out, the pandemic may well continue to reshape the workplace. To prepare your business for such challenges, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to managing change.