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What can leaders do to boost employee retention?

By Rowena Millward, Co-Founder, Principal, MacMORGAN Next Practice Growth

  • Statistics show that for the year ending February 2022, 22 per cent of professionals changed jobs.
  • Engagement is still the accepted measure of employee health today, however, the needs of employees and their expectations have evolved
  • Post-pandemic flexibility within a framework and a whole life approach is required to meet individual and organisation’s needs.

The Great Resignation was one of the biggest after-shocks of COVID-19. While during the early days of COVID-19 employees were grateful to keep their job, in the post-pandemic era the market has seen a massive growth in resignations, known as ‘the Great Resignation.’ Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that for the year ending February 2022, 9.5 per cent of employed people changed jobs. Among professionals, this was a massive 22 per cent, despite the overall market retrenchment rate at 1.5 per cent being the lowest on record.

It seems contradictory that at a time of high change and job insecurity, more people than ever are resigning. So what is behind this trend? What are people really looking for?


Lockdown created a mindset shift: At scale

One of the biggest mindset shifts came from the disruption of our pre-pandemic lives. Between juggling work, families, inevitable curve-balls and everyday life, there was little time to stop, and consider what it is that people actually want. Lockdown led to people asking questions such as ‘am I satisfied with my life choices? Do I have the right balance for me across work, family and life? Is this what I really want?’

Adding to this were high levels of burnout, with a 2021 study reporting 77 per cent of employees in Australia and New Zealand experienced burnout at least once in the prior 12 months, adding to the conviction that their life choices were not right.

So, the burning platform for change was there and more people responded by resigning, but do people really know what they want? And do employers really know how to help?

Before we can answer that, we need to recognise the seismic shift in how people perceive work, and how they are motivated pre and post pandemic.

The new employee motivation

While engagement is still the accepted measure of employee health today, the needs of employees and their expectations have evolved. The pre-pandemic model of engagement as the driver of motivation placed responsibility with the employer. Inherent in this model was the reality that work and life were largely separate, and that most work happened in a controlled office environment. Employers focused on how benefits, skills development and career progression would engage and motivate employees. In that environment, employees positively responded to engagement initiatives.

Post-pandemic however, the focus and ownership has shifted. Employee motivation is based on work and career as part of a whole life approach. They are more than willing to be responsible for outcomes, but not how they deliver them — they want individual flexibility on how they do that. They expect employers to empower them (not just engage them), as they look to navigate their whole life, not just their career. If employers choose not to support them, then there are plenty of different options to consider — new jobs within their current industry or even new careers outside of it. To summarise using an old expression, people are now working to live, rather than living to work.

So what can leaders do to improve retention?

Flexibility within a framework and a whole life approach is required to meet individual and organisation’s needs. By helping employees define and then implement work by design, you will empower them and build commitment and loyalty.

Do this by:

  1. Providing employees with education that empowers them in identifying what is important across their life. Work is part, but so is family, community and personal growth. For example, what are their personal values and priorities in the next 12 months? How can work support their personal goals? Is the culture inclusive, allowing the whole person to thrive?
  2. Ensure your workplace has the right technology and culture to empower hybrid work. Flexibility is an expectation, but a major pain point is ensuring flexible working is easy to implement, so employees are still set up for success. Talking it, but not empowering it will create frustration and be seen as disingenuous.
  3. Provide leaders with the education and tools to have the right conversations with their employees. If an employee resigns without any prior conversation, then this is a sure sign that managers are not encouraging employees to have the right conversations, and upskilling is required.
  4. Ensure voice of the employee is visible and actioned. In a high change environment, qualitative feedback will be more valuable, as your previous engagement surveys may not be asking the right questions for now.
  5. Engage employees to co-create solutions. The future blueprint will require flexibility within a framework. Make them part of the future solution by collaborating on how their needs and the company needs can be met.

While the pandemic created the question ‘what do I want in my life’, employees don’t necessarily know the answer. Don’t hide from this question, help them answer it and empower them to live it.

Rowena Millward can be contacted at 0408 769 029 or by email at

Material published in Governance Directions is copyright and may not be reproduced without permission. The views expressed therein are those of the author and not of Governance Institute of Australia. All views and opinions are provided as general commentary only and should not be relied upon in place of specific accounting, legal or other professional advice.

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