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I have been thinking quite a bit lately about the Great Resignation, so when an article on quit rates at The Conversation written by Jay Zagorsky came across my inbox, I clicked the link and read it. While the article does a deeper dive on the numbers and puts them into historical perspective, I was most interested in Zagorsky’s thoughts on ways that employers can reduce employee turnover. Some methods are obvious places to start: increase compensation, improve benefits and provide better working conditions. In our current climate, better working conditions include hybrid options and flexible work schedules. Other retention strategies are less clear-cut and involve providing a sense of purpose.

Of course, Zagorsky isn’t writing about the higher education industry sector. He is covering all sectors. However, I know my colleagues are facing pretty extensive labor shortages, and I have heard many stories from university and college leaders who have lost employees during the past two years. Some of these involve employees who have been hired during the pandemic. For many of us, it has been challenging to provide a sense of purpose to newly hired employees who took on new positions during our work-from-home era and were used to working in a face-to-face environment in their prior positions.

The Zagorsky piece led me to a couple of good Harvard Business Review pieces on this:

According to Carucci, employees leave or consider leaving because:

  • They didn’t feel like their work was valued by the organization
  • They lacked a sense of belonging at work

When I read this, it resonated. This is in line with what I have been hearing from folks in higher ed. Coincidentally, I had also just finished reading Dacher Keltner’s The Power Paradox, and I think there is a nice link between these two HBR articles and Keltner’s book. Keltner stresses the importance of the relational work done by leaders—specifically, everyday forms of gratitude and appreciation that can make an employee feel valued. When people feel seen, appreciated and valued, they are more likely to view you as an authentic leader and not just as a positional leader or a leader in title only. This has always been the case but, now, more than ever, people need to know that leaders and managers appreciate them and value their contributions.

For many of us, it has become difficult to focus on relational work during these times. The majority of our interactions are on Zoom; we are running from one Zoom to another, and we are flat out Zoom exhausted. We want to be kind to one another by ending meetings early and, while that is nice, so is spending a few extra minutes checking in on the human being in the Zoom box.

Every so often, the person I’m checking in with doesn’t want to be relational—they seem annoyed or impatient when I ask them how they are doing. I try not to read too much into this and look for signs of lack of sleep and general irritability, and I let them know how much I appreciate them and value their contributions. I also want them to know that I care about their whole life, not just their work productivity.

Carucci sums this up nicely: “Taking interest in an employee’s whole life strengthens their sense of belonging and belief that they matter. Rather than worrying that such personal interests might distract from work efforts, smart managers realize that by taking an interest in the whole employee, you ensure that they bring that same creativity and energy to their day jobs.“

We also need to be more creative about helping people feel like they belong, and fostering a sense of belonging for employees has become more difficult to achieve during these times. This is especially the case for our women and BIPOC staff and faculty—creating a culture of belonging will take more work and intentionality on the part of managers and leaders. According to Carucci, employees are more likely to feel like they belong when they feel that they have a shared sense of purpose. In higher ed, many of us are here for the students, and the work of centering the success of our students can help create that space.

According to Cook, the greatest flight risk with the current big quit is our employees between the ages of 30 and 45. You might want to check in with the people on your team and start with those who are driving this great resignation.

Our work in the academy is both isolated and isolating, and as many of us sit in offices on campus behind closed doors, it feels even more so. In Boston it is cold, and with wind-chill temperatures below zero, outdoor dining is on hold, as are coffee walks, and our COVID case rates are some of the highest in the world. We are hoping we are at or past peak Omicron, and in a few weeks, when the weather is warmer, hopefully the case rates will be way down and we can be together again sharing a cup of coffee. Until then, we need to find ways to make Zoom work for us.

Mary Churchill is the former chief of policy and planning for Mayor Kim Janey in the city of Boston and current associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis and an ICF certified leadership coach.

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