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Woe for the CHRO - some unsettling return to work stats from Qualtrics and Visier

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer July 9, 2021
HR has gotten quite challenging recently and it’s going to get even rockier. Unplanned attrition is set to skyrocket and the workload of the CHRO may become untenable. Here’s a peek at the way forward.


Lately, several firms have conducted surveys of workers. These surveys want to know things like under what conditions would employees return to an office and not work from home. The data has been very interesting to read and it remains to be seen if employers/executives are taking these findings seriously. I also have very real doubts as to whether employers realize the scale of the potential problems to come and the effort needed to mitigate them.

One study, conducted by software firm Qualtrics, definitely got my attention. There are several headlines in their results. Some of these include:

  • 50+% of managers, directors and executives will be looking for new jobs within the next twelve months
  • Nearly half of the broader U.S. workforce is planning a similar move.

HR analytics software vendor Visier even has a name for this phenomenon: Resignation Wave. Others have called it the Turnover Tsunami or the Great Resignation. Visier’s recent report found that resignations tend to rise in the summer months – even during the pandemic. It also noted:

Healthcare and High Tech are the two sectors that are driving the upward trend. Finance and Manufacturing are yet to see an increase. For healthcare, there are two prevailing theories: First, after 14 months of incredible strain on the industry, burnout may be a factor in increased resignations. Second, healthcare employees who may have been considering resignations in prior quarters could have delayed the move due to the pandemic, this theory suggests that there is a pent up demand for increased job movement in healthcare.

Visier fully expects the number of resignations this summer to exceed last year’s resignations.

Another study I read said that 43% of the workforce is looking to change jobs very soon.

While those numbers are indeed sobering, the reasons for the increased flight risk are enlightening. Qualtrics also noted that firms failed to offer professional development/training/mentoring to employees during the pandemic. In fact, women got less than men (see chart below).


Now all of this unexpected worker mobility is coming at a time when many firms are still understaffed and unable to fill their open positions.

What executives should be contemplating

Executives that are beating the drum loudly that employees must return to the office may be the most out of tune with current events. These executives will likely make any of their firm’s post-pandemic workforce issues only worse and cause more unplanned attrition.

Coming out of the pandemic, smart executives realize that:

  • Their employment brand likely took a hit during the pandemic, especially if they had layoffs, withdrew job offers, cut people’s benefits or hours, were inflexible with employees who had to home school children or care for sick spouses/dependents.
  • Retaining the talent they already have should be a major priority for the near-term as refilling any new openings will be difficult and costly.
  • ALL executives and managers will need to more attuned to the needs, wants and challenges their employees have. Failing to do so will undoubtedly trigger more flight.
  • Flexibility, listening and meeting employees halfway, and more may go miles in keeping them from leaving the firm.

The new data from Qualtrics shone a light on the missed need re: professional development and training. If employers did some soul searching they would undoubtedly realize that they put people’s careers into neutral for the last year and a half. Now, employees want to not only restart their professional development, they want to get their careers to where they would have been otherwise. This means:

  • It won’t be enough to restart training. People want to recover the ground they lost during the pandemic.
  • Mentoring will be a key executive activity if people are to be retained; however, time appears to be one thing many executives and managers don’t have these days. No time for mentoring will exacerbate more voluntary attrition.
  • HR executives and operational leaders need to have answers as to where each employee should be in their career development and what the firm will do to make that happen fast. Think of this as an exercise in career planning/succession planning/career development but on steroids. Could your firm’s leaders do this and do they have the time for it?

Woe to a CHRO

No one likes being taken to the woodshed but I suspect a number of Chief HR Officers (CHRO) are going to be facing a tough grilling by the board and/or executive committee of their firms. Why? A CHRO that can’t fill today’s open positions can’t possibly find even more people to help the firm fuel its out-sized growth plans.

Think about it, today, a CHRO must find:

  • Replacement employees dues to planned attrition (e.g., retirements)
  • Replacement employees for those whose careers didn’t move or progress during the pandemic and are now leaving in droves (see above)
  • Net-new employees to help the firm grow and met new operational goals
  • Net-new employees who possess critical new skills (e.g., machine learning algorithm and big data analytics) absent within the firm today

And, at the same time, that CHRO must also:

  • Repair the company’s recruiting brand
  • Convince operational and other leaders to change the way they interact with employees so they don’t make the resignation wave worse
  • Develop new recruiting channels/sources
  • Figure out how to get everyone’s career back on track (or caught up to date)
  • Etc.

By my reckoning, that workload isn’t just a lot, it might also be an impossible task. If there ever was a time that a CHRO needed a mentor, CEO support, unlimited budget, extra staff and more, it’s now. The CEO/CHRO relationship was looked at by a recent joint SHRM/Chief Executive survey. Talent retention & upskilling strategy was identified as a top 3 issue CEOs want CHROs to focus on.

Listening to employees will be a key to-do. In a conversation with Qualtrics’ Julia Anas, she pointed out that annual polling of employees or having an annual review conversation is simply not enough. She’s right. How can any company know how vulnerable its workforce is to this new attrition wave if they aren’t speaking with their employees frequently and in-depth?

Julia also reminded me that companies must make the re-attracting of its workforce to the firm a priority, too. If a company takes its employees for granted, they’ll leave the firm. I once had a boss who wanted to know how much time I was spending with my top performers versus those whose performance was flat or declining. In that instant, I realized that I was letting a couple of low performers suck up too much of my scarce time at the expense of those who were the future of the firm.

In today’s employment market, every employee deserves the time and attention of leaders. That’s especially the case for firms who absolutely must retain everyone they have today. At a minimum, all managers/executives should be spending meaningful time with their best and brightest people.

Sadly, it’s doubtful that any CHROs are reading this article as they are likely too busy with the work above.

My take (and tips)

No one (or firm) can escape the changes impacting the job market. The only thing one can do is get proactive and try to minimize the effects of these changes.

A good firm and its CHRO today need a solid work plan. That plan would likely contain these steps:

  • Create a great surveying mechanism to measure:
    • The pulse of their workforce. This is a continuing task not a one-time event. Great CHROs will supplement this data with their own in-person discussions with a variety of employees.
    • The tendency of their workforce to stay or leave.
    • What exactly workers want/expect from their employer.
    • Which workers are most likely to leave soon (e.g., which demographics are most vulnerable)?
  • A great strategic IT plan that:
    • assesses their current status.
    • identifies and prioritizes needed changes.
    • determines what new technologies may be needed.
    • ascertain how processes should be reengineered to reduce friction, non-value-added activities, etc.
  • A great talent plan that:
    • Assesses how vulnerable their firm is to a big increase in resignations.
    • Calculates the realistic talent shortfalls they may soon face.
    • Determines which executives/managers need to show greater flexibility in dealing with worker needs so as to avoid unnecessary attrition and what change management or training actions should be taken.
    • Identifies how to get employees caught back up on training and other career development tasks.
  • Develop new approaches to recruiting that: 
    • Identify how the recruiting processes and technologies should work so as to delight jobseekers.
    • Identify new sources of talent.
    • Create a low-friction, fast approach to hiring.
    • Rethink how existing employees could be promoted upward to fill open positions immediately.
    • Re-visit the company’s use of alumni/former employees to fill key open positions fast.
    • Assess viability of contingent workers for specific roles.
    • Replace/supplement existing recruiting technology.
  • Get executive & operational support for:
    • New recruiting processes and methods.
    • Ways to support existing employees in areas like remote work, schedule flexibility, career enhancement and more.
    • New metrics for retention.
    • Flexibility in policies re: paid-time-off, work from home, etc.
    • Plan to reach out, frequently, to all employees, especially top performers.

(If you’d like to learn more re: Qualtrics, this first person Harvard Business Review piece by Qualtrics founder Ryan Smith is an interesting perspective on its history.)

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