After the Great Resignation: What workers need to know to navigate the 'Great Onboarding'


Real question. Is there anything the past two years didn’t turn on its head? For many of us, the pandemic triggered a reassessment of what’s most truly important – both personally and professionally. Just because you’re not planning on chucking it all and living off the grid (with a Wi-Fi connection and a few devices, of course) doesn’t mean you aren’t rethinking what you want from your worklife.

And if you are, you’re far from alone. In fact, as part of what’s being called the “Great Resignation,” record numbers of people have left their jobs. Last November alone, some 3% of the U.S. workforce resigned from their current gig.

But this great reshuffling isn’t just about quitting. It’s important to ask, what’s next for millions of workers who changed jobs, or even careers, during a pandemic-fueled workplace shift? What does it all mean for employers, employees, and the future of work?

Phyllis Moen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who studies workplaces, says there’s no going back to the old, pre-pandemic normal. She and co-author Erin Kelly, an MIT professor, detailed the ways modern professional work was broken in their 2020 book, Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It. Now, she says that while the new normal is still being written, it’s already taking shape, driven, in part by workers with more leverage. “This is the first time I’ve really seen the power shift to the employee,” she says.

Changing jobs, changing expectations

If you’re like Marcia Walker — a market research director based in North Carolina who switched jobs early this year after seven years at her old job — new remote-first or hybrid work formats bring with them brand new opportunities.

Walker says she’s always excelled in positions where she can work where and how she chooses, and now more jobs offer such flexible work arrangements. “In my case, I was getting recruited like crazy,” she says. “Even though I’ve always worked with global companies, the number of companies that were willing to have me work for them without having to move to a center of gravity, like a local headquarters, was astonishing.”

As Walker’s experience shows, even for those moving to new but similar roles, the environment and approach to flexible work may be very different. And that may present an opportunity to develop new ways of working, that suit you, that are more human-focused.

“This is an exciting time to live and an exciting time to work,” Moen says. “We’re unstuck, and for the next several years, this is a great time to help make the world a better place and help make work a better place.”

For example, Christina Boyd-Smith, an executive coach in Minnesota, says she’s seeing more clients reshape their work lives to fit their lifestyles instead of the other way around. “I have a number of tech entrepreneurs in my business,” she says. “They are wealthy, under 30, and mobile. They live in multiple cities, and they change jobs because they’re going where the excitement is or where they feel like they’re going to be best used.” In other words, they live where they want to and work in positions they find most fulfilling, with the size of the paycheck a secondary consideration.

The experience of some of Boyd-Smith’s clients aside, flexible work and greater job satisfaction don’t have to mean globe-trotting and job-hopping. It can also mean making adjustments to existing jobs. “I don’t make the assumption that leaving is always the best option,” Boyd-Smith says. “Sometimes, changing your perspective so that you’re not burning yourself out can make you more happy and fulfilled in your current job.”

Changing that perspective means getting clear on what exactly you need based on where you are in life and the kinds of risks you’re willing to take in pursuit of your next dream job. That calculus is different for everyone, which is precisely the point of flexible work. Getting close to retirement age? You may want to prioritize pay over mobility. At the start of your career and have no kids? You may take the opposite approach.

With such needs clearly in mind, you may get more of what you want simply by opening up to colleagues and managers about them.

Navigating the new workplace

In the emerging, more flexible workplace, it is important for everyone — leaders and rank and file — to communicate clearly and openly. As Moen and Kelly’s research found, good dialogue is key to making positive workplace adjustments.

In their book, Moen and Kelly recommend that employees consider key areas such as:

  • When, where, and how you do your best work. With this in mind, negotiate with managers to adjust how often you come into the office — if at all — the times of day you’re available for meetings, how fast you respond to email, and more. Moen and Kelly found that open dialogue on these topics leads to happier workers. “A sense of control and support at work are critical resources for managing work stress,” they say in their book.
  • Blocking out time without meetings, email, or other interruptions for focused work. Here too, managers need to get on board to manage expectations for when and how quickly employees respond to requests and tasks.
  • Deleting low-value work from your schedule. A good entree into this discussion, the authors say, is to couch it in terms of the time and resources you can save for more productive work. For example, consider how often you really need to report on work in progress as opposed to getting the job done more quickly without having to document every step.
  • Declining unnecessary meetings. At a company the authors studied, employees routinely double-booked remote meetings, selectively tuning in only when called on while they tried to do other tasks at the same time. More actual work got done after they began selectively accepting meeting requests.
  • Changing work schedules to fit family and other outside obligations. Moen and Kelly say it’s especially critical for men to make these requests to help normalize them, as women are too often penalized for doing so.

Moen says modern communications technology makes all such negotiations easier than ever since it allows us all to remain in contact any time, anywhere. “Technology is key,” she says. “We could not have seen this great move to remote work without these technologies, and they’ve only gotten better.”

But that same flexibility can also present problems and must be managed appropriately by both leaders and doers to avoid burnout. “I like the European idea,” Moen says. “Some companies say do not answer emails beyond a certain time or on weekends.”

Boyd-smith sees this dance getting easier over time as people adjust to flexible work arrangements. “I do think people have gotten better,” she says. “They’ve learned some things over the course of the last two years about how to have that integration between work and life.”

For building lasting relationships, Walker has hit on an approach honed over years of remote work. She asks colleagues for their mailing addresses and sends postcards, handwritten thank you cards, and even books that come up in conversations to strengthen connections. “There is something about having a physical object as a memento of that person,” she explains.

Creating the future of work

But will all this last? Or will it go the way of Gangnam Style? Moen says the only constant is change, but things will continue to change for the better, for workers and their employers.

“What COVID has done is open people’s eyes to options, and maybe there are options that we haven’t even thought about yet,” she says. “We’re recognizing that things can indeed change. That’s a recognition by employers and employees. And the smart employers are using the technological tools and the management tools that open up opportunities.”

That means the future may be bright ahead for your work life. Save the dream you had about screaming down a desert highway, blasting Gangnam Style until retirement. Or not. The point is you have options.

“This is an exciting time to live and an exciting time to work,” Moen says. “We’re unstuck, and for the next several years, this is a great time to help make the world a better place and help make work a better place.”