'Great Resignation' or just greater expectations?

Digital HR strategist Ian Cook explains why he thinks the so-called 'Great Resignation' may be more about changing employee expectations than excessive quitting.

The work world is changing — but maybe for the better.

In the wake of the pandemic, a steady stream of people have changed job titles, industries, or joined the growing freelance movement. (LightField Studios/Shutterstock)

A steady stream of people have changed job titles, industries, or joined the growing freelance movement in recent years. But those shifts affect more than individual resumes — they may also be redesigning how, where and when we work. 

This shift, dubbed the 'Great Resignation', the 'Great Reshuffling' and the 'Great Negotiation', is a symptom of a changing labour market, says Ian Cook, a digital HR strategist.

In the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, he says workers are demanding a reset — and employers need to be ready to throw out the playbook. 

Cook spoke to Spark host Nora Young about how the work world is changing, what this means for the traditional work model, and what might take its place moving forward. 

Here is part of their conversation. 

The pandemic obviously put a strain on people across industries, what role is that playing on the kind of labour force shifts that we're seeing?

I think it's the absolute trigger. A lot of people have asked me, "What's the one thing?" and my constant response is, "It's not one thing, it's actually at least four."

The four are different expectations of work. Ad nauseam, we've talked about the Gen X millennial, a different generation. What happened through the pandemic, with the retirement wave is those people are now in positions of leadership and senior leadership. So the proportion of people whose value set is aligned to the millennium, who are now making decisions about how work happens, is radically different. That creates conditions for change. 

The second is changing expectations for how I engage with work. I used to be able to only go to work for somebody who was within an hour of where I lived. That's all broken, I can now work for anybody. The volume of remote jobs doubled and became equivalent to the in-person versus remote. 

Then, the younger people looking to accelerate careers are on a bit of a catch-up and mid-career professionals going like, "You know what, I have been grinding and grinding and grinding, do I really need to do that? Could I actually work in balance in a way that supports my broad aspirations in life? How would I make that happen?' And then a bunch more people accessing gig work. 

A lot of what we've heard about, in terms of this job movement, feels largely tied to workers with financial stability and the opportunities to move sectors, retire early, take financial risks. What does all this mean for workers in low-wage sectors or shift-based jobs that maybe can't offer flexible hours?

I think they need to question whether they can offer flexible hours. So I think the same holds true from an employer perspective. There are certainly a portion of people who maybe fell into hourly paid work, because it was there, that's what they knew, but over the pandemic, have had that kind of shock to say, 'You know, I can do better than this.' And so they've dug into free online learning, they've changed career paths. 

The wage growth and the hourly population is actually the most substantial because employers are experiencing an absolute lack of people because of how things have been pushed. So I think employers actually need to pay as much attention to, "Why am I running the shifts the way I'm running them? Why am I running this process where I treat people as a commodity? Because actually, that's not serving my business well."

So I don't think they're immune to the employer perspective, and I think the populations in that group are becoming more aware of the influence that they can exert on building working conditions that work for them.

Ian Cook is a digital HR strategist and the vice president of People Analytics at Visier. (Visier)

Beyond the short-term stuff that we're seeing, what makes this more consequential this time? Are these changes capable of redesigning the traditional work model?

Yes. A number of people thought this was a blip caused by the pandemic. But when you look at the underlying availability of people, there just aren't enough people. The long and the short of it is, the work that needs to be done and the kind of work that needs to be done, the availability of people to do it, the balance has changed. There is no clear path by which, suddenly, a flood of people will come in with exactly the skills you need to do exactly what you want. There is no army waiting over the hill to solve this.

If you were going to paint me a picture of what the future of the work world may look like, I realized we're talking about a lot of industries and a lot of sectors, what do you see?

What I hope to see and what I think all indications are, is of a more balanced approach to, I call it, co-creation of working environments. If employers think they're going back to, like, "I've got all the cards, and I'll just hide them from my employees and hope they show up and work hard," I think they need to give their head a shake, because the options for people to go and work for somebody else who doesn't behave that way are there and will only grow.

Written by McKenna Hadley-Burke. Produced by Nora Young and McKenna Hadley-Burke.

This Q&A has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Ian Cook, click the 'listen' link at the top of the page.