How to Deal with the “Great Resignation”

It’s important to realize that autonomy—not flexibility—is they key driver of performance and well-being in hybrid work.

People are leaving their jobs in historic numbers. This “Great Resignation” is causing all kinds of disruptions. Jobs are going unfilled and supply chains are slow and breaking down. Because of everything employees have experienced during the pandemic, their expectations have drastically changed.

But the Great Resignation is not the only “R” word. The pandemic gave workers time to Rethink. Reimagine. Reset their lives. Many employees have discovered this is an opportunity to find meaning and money. In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson notes in his article, “The Great Resignation is Accelerating,” “Running a company requires people and parts. With people quitting and parts missing, it must kinda suck to be a boss right now.”

In September, my Leading Edge article emphasized how flexibility was the name of the game for leaders. While I believe this is still true, people are interpreting “flexibility” differently. To some, it means “getting work done from anywhere.” To others, it means “you can work from home a few days a week.”

As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says in a recent Microsoft report based on surveying more than 30,000 workers in 31 countries, “employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity much more broadly—inclusive of collaboration, learning, and well-being to drive career advancement for every worker, including front-line and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today. All this needs to be done with flexibility in when, where, and how people work.”

3 Steps to Provide Autonomy

Holger Reisinger and Dane Fetterer believe autonomy is the key. Their Harvard Business Review title says it clearly: “Forget Flexibility. Your Employees Want Autonomy.” Based on asking 5,000 knowledge workers from around the world, their “data paints a picture of the future of work that is based on flexibility by way of autonomy.” They concluded that hybrid working strategies should not be dictated by specific policies. Defining flexibility by stating where and when to work is likely not to be accepted by the majority of workers.

Because autonomy is an intrinsic motivator, it is “an indispensable component of motivation and a key driver of performance and well-being,” Reisinger and Fetterer says. The pair outlines three steps to take in providing autonomy in hybrid work:

  1. Establish principles, not policies. Set guidelines for best practices that are not as restrictive as policies.
  2. Invest in competence and relatedness. Continue to invest in skill development so workers feel confident and empowered to work autonomously. Build a culture where remote workers feel a sense of belonging.
  3. Give employees the tools they need to work autonomously from anywhere. Make sure workers have the technology tools (i.e., headset, video camera, keyboard) to enable them to work from various locations outside of the office.

Communication Is Key for Employee Satisfaction

The new reality can be overwhelming for bosses. But I have always believed that employee satisfaction is a prerequisite to customer satisfaction. While you won’t be able to satisfy everyone all of the time, now is the time to focus on paying attention and listening to employees. If you conduct an employee survey, don’t ignore it. Report back on what you heard and what will be done.

In this new world, you can’t communicate too much. Use a variety of methods to communicate (in person and via e-mail, Zoom, text, etc.). When you think you have explained what is going to take place enough, say it again in a different way. It is not possible to over communicate if you are thoughtful and intentional.

Jann E. Freed
Jann E. Freed, PhD, is an author, speaker, coach, and leadership development consultant. Her forthcoming book is “Breadcrumb Legacy: How Great Leaders Live a Life Worth Remembering” (Routledge Publishing, 2023). For more information, visit