New Brunswick

Why employees hold the trump cards in post-pandemic workplace

The pandemic that upended almost everything is finally making its way out the door. But we're about to find that it saved one of its greatest upheavals for last.

Facing 'mass exodus' of burned-out workers, employers must adapt or perish, experts say

A new post-pandemic trend is emerging, with burned-out or disillusioned workers across a variety of sectors worldwide leaving their jobs — sometimes without having another job lined up, associate professor of human resources Nita Chhinzer says. (University of Guelph)

The pandemic that upended almost everything is finally making its way out the door, but we're about to find it saved one of its greatest upheavals for last.

The workplace — one of COVID-19's first strikes — has already been dramatically changed.

But as economies begin to emerge from 18 months of lockdowns, two things are becoming clear: employees are holding the cards, and employers who don't accept that will lose the game.

Employers in Europe and the United States are already seeing workers quitting their jobs, either because they're burned out or because they're re-evaluating their lifestyle.

The trend has now become noticeable in Canada as well. 

In an interview with Information Morning Fredericton on Monday, University of Guelph associate human resources professor Nita Chhinzer said the numbers of workers exiting the workforce are climbing, and she warned employers to brace for a potential "turnover tsunami."

Employers don't want the mass exodus. They don't want that kind of disruption. It's harmful to employers who are trying to recover.- Nita Chhinzer, human resources associate prof at University of Guelph 

"Generally, the trend in Canada has been that 12 to 13 per cent [of workers] quit per year," Chhinzer said.

"But recent statistics over the last couple of weeks have shown that 20 per cent of people are actively looking for a job."

And the numbers indicate that will get worse in the months ahead, she said.

A "mass exodus" of workers is coming, Chhinzer warned, and only the employers that can adapt to either keep their current workers or offer what new employees want will survive it.

Kevin Stoddart of KBRS executive recruitment firm says the balance of power has shifted from employer to employee. (Submitted by KBRS)

An employees' market

Kevin Stoddart thinks of the employee-employer relationship as a pendulum.

"The power swings back and forth based on market conditions and supply and demand from employer to employee. And right now," he said, "it's skewed towards the employee."

Stoddart, co-owner of the Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette executive recruiting firm, is witnessing that power swing first-hand. 

Employers who just 18 months ago could use wages and advancement opportunities as lures are now finding that flexibility, work-life balance and being able to work from home are the "competitive advantages" employees are looking for.

The power swings back and forth based on market conditions and supply and demand from employer to employee. And right now," he said, "it's skewed towards the employee.- Kevin Stoddart, co-owner KBRS executive recruitment firm

"During the interview process, the employee gets to ask 'What does it look like to work here and how flexible are you?' " Stoddart said.

"That's a question that employers have largely never been asked since the beginning of time. But they are now."

Stoddart's advice to employers hoping to woo new talent is "be ready to adjust."

Chhinzer shares that sentiment, noting that many workers are now looking for more than just a paycheque and are willing to walk away if they can't find it.

As for retaining existing employees, she said, the simplest solution is to find out what is making them think about leaving — and then fix it.

"It comes down to finding the trigger for the quit," she said.

"Is it because people feel isolated? If so, maybe you want to try to address what's causing them to be isolated. Is it because people don't feel supported at work? Should they be given training and development opportunities?"

If it's a case of an employee just "needing a break" rather than leaving permanently, employers should be prepared to be flexible there as well, reassuring a valued employee that their job will be there for them when they are ready to return.

As for employees who are worried about asking for such leeway, Chhinzer stressed that good employers will understand and adjust.

"Employers don't want the mass exodus. They don't want that kind of disruption. It's harmful to employers who are trying to recover," she said.

"But they're also really afraid that they're going to lose some of their best employees. So it's a great time for employees to feel empowered to have that conversation about whatever is causing them to think about leaving."

A particular challenge for Atlantic Canada

The shifting workplace rules have been a boon to Atlantic Canada's real estate sales and population numbers.

In the past few months alone, thousands have left Ontario for New Brunswick, in many cases ditching their pricey Toronto homes but keeping their well-paying Toronto jobs.

That has deepened the potential future employee pool considerably.

But it has also upped the stakes for its potential future employers.

"You have these Bay Street employees whose employer is saying you can keep working remotely, perhaps forever," Stoddart said.

"So now you have these highly paid, upwardly mobile professionals in the community of their choosing, oftentimes their hometowns, which is good economically because they're spending locally … buying houses and groceries and cars and whatnot."

The downside, he said, is that Atlantic Canadian employers are now competing with their counterparts in bigger urban centres for existing and future employees.

"And that's hard to compete with because generally the wages are higher and the opportunities are greater in those larger firms," he said.

"So a local small business owner in Moncton is now competing with Toronto for talent, all because of COVID and the way that business has pivoted." 

The big question is: is this forever?

Neither Chhinzer nor Stoddart think so.

Chhinzer thinks people are "reacting to the last 15 months and forgetting the relationships they've had for 15 years."

Stoddart thinks the pendulum will land "somewhere in the middle" eventually.

The employer-employee power balance may have changed during the pandemic, but the rules of capitalism and economics haven't, he said.

"Productivity is still the number one measure of success. And that needs to be maintained. … Otherwise, the employer doesn't grow. They don't expand. They don't hire that next new young professional. And in the end, we all pay the price for that."  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marie Sutherland is a web writer with CBC News based in Saint John. You can reach her at marie.sutherland@cbc.ca.

With files from Information Morning Fredericton

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