For people lucky enough not to have been let go or furloughed during the pandemic, there’s been a lot of talk about a surge in voluntary employee turnover these days. The data show that this isn’t just a matter of fake news or gotcha headlines.

One of the most startling statistics I’ve seen in recent months is that about three million women have left the workforce as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.[i] There were a host of reasons for this as lifestyles and family dynamics shifted. For one, women were disproportionately the ones to leave their careers and step up and step in as full-time caregivers and at-home teachers.

Some employees had less pragmatic and layered reasons for leaving. Weeks of lockdown offered time for introspection that didn’t exist in the rat race of pre-pandemic life. Some people re-evaluated their career paths. Others decided to pursue their dream jobs. Still others wanted more meaningful work. Our workforce survey suggests that half of workers think an organization’s ethical, sustainable and moral values will become more important after the pandemic passes.[ii]

The hidden reason for employee turnover

Many public service organizations know the challenges of attrition and a more fluid workforce very well. Yet as much as these shifts impact them, organizations are hard pressed to control workforce changes that are tied to larger cultural, social and economic forces. In addition, they are fighting stereotypes. I think that many people’s views of working for public agency are influenced by assumptions about too much “bureaucracy” and too little innovation and career opportunity. It’s like rowing against the tide.

However, I think there is a hidden driver of turnover that employers can curb if they take action to respond. What’s this secret reason that employees are leaving? Monotony.

While remote work has its benefits—from no commute to more time with the dog—it has its downsides too. Especially the longer it goes on. Without in-person connection, employees can feel like they’re in the movie Groundhog Day. Every day blends into the next. They feel isolated and unmotivated without social interactions. A survey of US workers reveals that 63% say that the negatives of remote work outweigh the positives—and one in three has considered quitting.[iii]

There’s also this idea that in a period in our lives where we can’t change the day-to-day of life at home, one change we can make is to our job. In this case, monotony translates into scratching an itch—leaving a job solely for the sake of change. 

Time to double down on employee experience

If employers ignore this hidden driver of turnover, they’ll struggle to hire new talent and retain skilled people. That’s why I’m calling on public service organizations to think outside the box to counter monotony by improving the employee experience.

Pioneering private sector organizations are already taking action, which I expect will create a ripple effect of expectation among the entire workforce. While public organizations have more limitations here, their workforce is open to change—42% want their agencies to adopt new methods and processes for creativity and innovation.[iv]

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This is a complex issue, and I don’t have all the answers. But I have been thinking about three areas where public service organizations can act to address the problem. The goal? Increase employee engagement and satisfaction while improving retention.

  1. Health and wellness eclipse everything else

In my last blog, I mentioned a recent Accenture study[i] that focuses on employees’ expectations for their employers to fulfill needs beyond financial benefits. In fact, 57% of public service workers expect their employer to make them “net better off” by meeting fundamental human needs.[ii] Helping employees feel positive emotions and maintain mental wellness is one of these needs.

The pandemic has brought the issue of mental well-being in the workforce into sharp focus. It’s important for organizations not only to provide services, but to create a culture where employees don’t feel stigmatized or fear retribution for seeking out these services.

  1. Teams matter more when people are apart

I read somewhere that the most common reason that people stay in their jobs is the people that they work with there. In my view, the loss of face-to-face camaraderie and collaboration is a major contributor to the feeling of monotony that people have now that many of us are more than a year into remote working. The good news is that organizations can invest in virtual team building to recreate that lost connection.

There’s been a booming sub-industry of companies that provide remote team building exercises. There’s everything from a little friendly virtual competition through gaming to virtual corporate happy hours and cooking lessons. What better way to connect than to have fun together?

  1. Variety is the spice of life—and work

Another way to break through monotony is to provide employees with opportunities to learn new skills. Considering how the pandemic pushed all of us to dig into our jobs in new ways, I’m not surprised to see that 64% of public service workers say that remote work has made them consider the need to upskill or reskill.[iii]

Job rotation programs are an interesting way to expose workers to new skills and help people feel refreshed and reinvigorated. Employees are very open to this possibility. About half of public service employees say they would like the option of taking a sabbatical or secondments as a form of reward or recognition after such a disruptive period.[iv]

The power of experience

With the return to work still in flux, it’s an ideal time to move beyond “how things are always done” to create employee experiences that make people feel fulfilled even when they aren’t together in person.

Let’s continue the conversation. Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and stay tuned for upcoming blogs.

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[i] Accenture, “Care to Do Better,” 2020 at https://www.accenture.com/us-en/insights/future-workforce/employee-potential-talent-management-strategy

[ii] Accenture Public Service Career of Choice Workforce Survey, 2020

[iii] Accenture Public Service Career of Choice Workforce Survey, 2020

[iv] Accenture Public Service Career of Choice Workforce Survey, 2020

Ryan Gaetz

Managing Director - Consulting, Accenture Workday Education & Government​ Lead

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