Woman quitting job hero

How the Great Resignation May Lead to the Great Revitalization

As a growing number of companies experience the exodus of critical talent, there’s reason to suspect this trend will only add to global delays in logistics and longer waits to obtain basic goods and services. But while the short-term may feel like manager hell, business leaders should be optimistic about the positive long-term benefits from all this quitting.

Think of this: Every organization dealing with the challenges of the Great Resignation and simultaneously trying to grow the business will find ways (not without great pains) to attract new talent if they are to survive. This surge of new hires can play a vital role in igniting massive organizational learning throughout the global economy, the kind that makes companies more capable of swift adaptations. Furthermore, the boundary-spanning or swapping of knowledge that takes place as the workforce shuffles and resorts itself can lead to important innovations.

Organizational learning refers to the capacity of an entity to learn how to do what it does. But let’s not pretend organizations are human and can learn and acquire knowledge. It’s teams of individuals within the organization who use individual skills and talents to collaboratively figure out how to get stuff done.

When we say, “the Atlanta Braves really know how to play baseball,” what we mean is the aggregate of the players, coaches, managers, and support staff know how to work together in such a way as to maximize individuals’ skillsets to advance the strategy of the organization. When new hires are brought on board, typical onboarding methods are designed to acclimate them into the existing work culture. But that assumes organizational learning only goes one way.

In the real world, new employees are not passive empty vessels. They bring unique capabilities, perspectives, and experiences.

Boards of directors recognize this when they hire outside talent for executive leadership positions and urge those individuals to make their mark on the company. But organizational learning happens in groups of individuals and that means companies must figure out how to bring out the best of all newcomers’ knowledge, skills, and abilities to add value to the legacy culture. As this happens, the culture will evolve.

A former colleague recently told me about her experience as an administrator at a large education-related organization. Two months into the job, she put in for a special assignment. She believed her wealth of experience directing such programs in prior jobs made her an obvious choice. However, another colleague with more seniority, but none of the external experience, was assigned to lead the project. No one explained to her why she didn’t receive it or worked with her to explore how to use that knowledge from prior work to advance the organization. Feeling passed over and unseen, she left the organization later. “They didn’t want my experience,” she said.

While there’s ample guidance on best onboarding practices—to include our research at the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp)—that help organizations assimilate new hires to organizational culture, there are surprisingly few resources that cover how to best elicit and leverage the whole person—apart from those skills and capabilities for which they were hired—to foster a learning organization. Below are some evidence-based practices to help organizations do this.

Marie Kondo the existing culture (then promote/hire those who best represent the new)

One of the foremost practices of culture renovation is to first decide what to keep from the legacy culture. What sparks joy among your employees and customers when they think of the company, its story, and values? For Wells Fargo, the history of the 170-year-old-company, including its iconic stagecoach deliveries, has long been a staple of the organization’s brand. Although this is a company of 250,000 employees, the organization enjoys strong community, low attrition, and a reputation as a workplace where employees could start, grow, and retire from a lifelong career.

But as the company expanded its financial products and services to more than 29 countries, it has worked to strike a cultural balance that underscores the important history of the organization and new worldviews and mindsets.

For example, Wells Fargo’s signature stagecoach serves as an important symbol of its history; these vintage vehicles can be found in branches around the globe—a reminder of the company’s role in connecting people to banking, mail, and travel in the 1800s. At the same time, Wells Fargo is seeking to evolve the culture with a targeted effort to bring in new employees from a variety of backgrounds with new ideas and perspectives.

“As we have grown and really wanted to focus on making sure we represented diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and ideas, we have also been more targeted toward opening the doors and bringing in people from various backgrounds, not only the various diversity dimensions but people with different thoughts, ideas, etc. There are lots of new folks joining the organization, which I think is very healthy,” said Carly Sanchez, Head of Global TA strategy and Delivery, during i4cp’s October Talent Acquisition Next Practices Monthly event. “It is always important that we are reflecting the communities we serve and as we know, those communities are shifting and changing. So, we need to do that too.’’

Onboarding: It’s about relationships and making critical network connections

An influx of new hires provides an opportunity to break down silos and hierarchies that have stymied innovation and organizational development. Based on more than 20 years of studying networks and individual performance in more than 300 organizations, Babson College Professor Rob Cross has found that those individuals who initiate, engage, and refine specific kinds of relationships in the first 90 days and continue to prioritize network development throughout the transition are far more likely to thrive.

New hires who understand their position in the network can better leverage what they know through who they know to help foster innovation. But new employees’ networking activities should not be left solely to the employee.

To move teams with new members from storming to norming more quickly, organizations can purposely orchestrate networking to help colleagues learn to meld their skills and institutional knowledge with new employees’ skills and external experiences to better advance the organization.  

In addition, companies that orchestrate networking across the organization at all levels can strategically create “fast movers”—those who become more productive quickly. Those individuals are far more likely to stay and report higher job satisfaction and engagement. These networking opportunities can be done virtually in today’s hybrid world of work.

This i4cp onboarding tool kit (a member-exclusive resource) addresses successful practices, including sample onboarding check-in discussions, surveys (recommended at the 30, 60 and 90 day milestones), and other tactics to facilitate the meshing of new talent with the existing organizational culture.

Remember that starting a new job is one of the hardest employee transitions to make. New hires must simultaneously engage in technical, cultural, and political learning while navigating with a minimal foundation of knowledge about the company from which to start. Setting up a list of key organization influencers who are assigned to impart specific knowledge to new hires can help new employees get up to speed quickly as well as breakdown silos.  

Onboard the new hire’s whole self

Helping new employees feel they can bring their whole selves to work is a big part of DE&I discussions to foster inclusive cultures. But it’s also an important practice that supports organizational learning and agility. 

The average U.S. worker spent 1,152 hours at work in 2020 (out of 8,760 possible). That’s too much time to spend with colleagues you don’t care for or who you believe don’t care for you. It’s important for direct supervisors to check in often with new hires, not only for status updates or to provide directions, but to get to know the new team member. These interactions, whether online or in person, can help the employee internalize what former experiences to herald that might facilitate the business strategy.

Attracting and hiring quality candidates is not cheap. Further, during this process, copious amounts of data are collected. That expensive information, however, is rarely carried over to later professional development and career mapping efforts within the organization. Savvy organizations compile this data into skills databases.

Our recent workforce readiness study found that high-performance organizations are more likely to catalog information beyond what employees have accomplished and skills and knowledge they have by including elements such as career aspirations, personal interests, and even hobbies. This helps HR develop a more complete talent profile as well as managers and AI algorithms to identify potential career pathways, adjacent skills, and new opportunities to engage employees and retain them.

What is included in your skills databaseBuild organizational range

Following the explosion of yet another test rocket due to engine failure, @MadOverlord, a self-described game designer, hacker, and Japanese anime business mogul asked SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on Twitter why they only lit two of the rocket’s three engines during landing. “Why not light all 3, do the flip, then pick the best two and turn off the other?” he tweeted.

Musk responded, “We were too dumb.”

The SpaceX rocket explosion highlights the Einstellung effect, a psychological term describing our tendency to use familiar methods to solve problems. The exchange on Twitter was a reminder that it often takes an outsider to come up with a seemingly simple solution that wasn’t obvious to veteran and expert employees.

Great disruptions such as unwanted attrition afford an opportunity for organizations to reinvent. As employees leave organizations amid the Great Reshuffle, they will take the skills, perspectives, and opinions they learned from their former employer to their new one. Even if they changed to an entirely new industry, they bring with them range, which is increasingly associated with innovation and excellent performance. Unlike specialized skill sets, range skills transfer to new environments and those well-endowed with range can make unlikely connections across industries that lead to new breakthroughs.

Finally, it’s easy to see how new hires can contribute new ideas that lead to breakthroughs, but what might be more difficult to understand (particularly in the throes of filling vacancy after vacancy) is that all of this quitting is good for the company too. These individuals were ready for new experiences and maybe even stymied innovation. Wish them well and stay in touch. They may return someday with broader perspectives, new skills and ideas that further expand organizational knowledge.

Whether you call it the Great Resignation, the Great Reshuffle, or the Great Revitalization, strategic approaches to evolving the culture, rapidly expanding new hires’ networks, and encouraging them to contribute may turn today’s labor woes into your organization’s next major breakthrough.   

Katheryn Brekken, Ph.D., is a senior research analyst at i4cp

Katheryn Brekken, Ph.D.
Katheryn Brekken, Ph.D., is a senior research analyst with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). Prior to joining i4cp, she served as an assistant professor of research with the MGM Resorts Public Policy Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Public Policy and Leadership, where she continues to lecture. She has worked closely with government and corporate leaders to develop and evaluate education and training programs and as a policy advisor. She has over 15 years of experience in public affairs and has testified before legislative bodies on matters of higher education and workforce policy. She is published in various academic journals including Politics & Policy, Community College Journal of Research & Practice, and State and Local Government Review. She received her Ph.D. in Public Affairs from UNLV.