In November 2020, Kerrie Campbell’s contract as Chief Information Officer at Flinders University was up for renewal. She chose not to re-sign.
Campbell was at the top of her game, recognised as a Top 50 CIO in Australia for two years running and the winner of the 2020 Telstra South Australian Business Woman of the Year.
Like many others – in her industry, in the C-suite and across Australia – she had reassessed work and life through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While Campbell says work during 2020 was “pretty intense for IT professionals”, it was not a factor; instead she says South Australia’s six-week lockdown was the catalyst.
“I used to travel quite a bit being a senior executive, both internationally and domestically. Lockdown made me realise some of the things I was missing out on.
“I’d always wanted to run my own company, but never had the impetus to do it. Being home with the family and enjoying that time made me take the leap.”
Campbell is now the co-founder, together with another ex-Flinders University colleague, of the tech startup Imagination Corporation. She has also launched a consultancy specialising in organisational change.
According to the ABS, 975,000 Australians (or 7.5 per cent of employed people) have changed jobs in the year to February 2021. These job mobility figures are the lowest rate on record since 1972.
However, anecdotally, they appear to be masking a growing trend – the Great Resignation.
The reticence to change jobs during the first nine to twelve months of the pandemic now appears to have given way to a significant, pent up desire for change.
Until the next set of participation, job search and mobility figures is released by the ABS at the end of April, this remains simply speculation. But can employers afford to ignore it or its origins for much longer?
Harrison McMillan Managing Director Dani Cuff says, while the specialist recruitment agency is definitely seeing people looking for better life-work balance, employers may need to wear some of the blame.
“I think the way some organisations treated people during the pandemic lacked trust,” she explains.
“For many people that resigned, their organisations have reneged on flexible working, requiring employees to be back in the office nine-to-five.
“Or they’ve stood people down, or they didn’t really trust them to get their work done at home.”
Cuff says the Great Resignation is not about job candidates moving to “bigger and better”.
“One thing we’re seeing is that a lot of people are resigning without jobs to go to,” says Cuff.
She says her clients, both companies and candidates, are dealing with this at all levels of the organisation, right up to the C-suite.
“When we’re recruiting executive positions and we’re talking to candidates, a lot of them have resigned without anywhere to go. They’ve taken a bit of a mental break before re-engaging and looking for work.”
“There’s been a really big shift in candidates’ motivations – from high renumeration, really senior positions and fast paced environment, to wanting to work for mission based organisations with a really good purpose,” she continues.
“You know, working with open and inclusive management, having a good reason to get up and work every day. And, if you’re working from home, that team is so important.”
Finding enjoyment through purposeful and meaningful work is something Kerry Rowlands can relate to.
Rowlands has been with SA Water for eighteen years, including eight years at executive level. She recently resigned from her role as General Manager Customer & Commercial to become Chief Executive Officer at Cancer Council SA.
“I’ve always derived real satisfaction around serving the community. And I think that’s why I stayed at SA Water for so long – because I was able to have so much influence at that senior level to change the outcome for the community,” begins Rowlands.
“It was about probably about this time last year, that I started doing some real searching around what was my next role. My children had been finishing school, and really it was putting that focus back on what is it that I want to do.”
As for so many people associated with the Great Resignation, the search was not about taking any available job or progressing up the ladder.
Rowlands’ desire was for an organisation with “end customers or an end community that it serviced”, based in South Australia, and “making a big difference for the community.”
She says that having begun the thinking months before, when the Cancer Council SA role was advertised, it was a role she could not walk away from.
“I was actually happy to move to general manager level, if I’m being perfectly honest with you. It was more about being impactful.
“Cancer Council SA is an amazing organisation and not unlike SA Water in terms of the values and service orientation.
“Roles like that don’t come up very often, particularly in South Australia, with that strong values alignment. It the real thing that was driving me.”
Rowlands has found the sweet spot for her executive skills and motivation.
“I’ve never worked in not for profit before. Being able to give something back to the community, to bring some corporate skills into and convert strong commercial acumen into this organisation, that has been really welcomed, particularly by the board.
“It is certainly a conscious decision to give back to the community.”
One of Rowlands’ colleagues, also a General Manager, resigned this week to take up the CEO role at Unity Water in Queensland. Rowlands muses that her own new role is highly demanding, yet different in its demands, and affords her “a little more work-life balance.”
“As the CEO, the buck stops with me. But it’s a different level of intent. It’s not that intense pressure that you get from a 24/7 water utility.”
Cuff suggests that the desire to not be ‘always on’ may also be a driver in the Great Resignation.
“We’re seeing a lot more people who are saying, I actually don’t need to work these ridiculous hours or with these ridiculous targets,” says Cuff.
She mentions a couple who quit their jobs and travelled around Australia for six months. Now they are back and looking to rejoin the workforce, but on their terms – “They’re committed to never working more than point-six again.”
This shift of bargaining power from employer to employee is here to stay, at least in the short-term.
The ANZ Australian Job Ads February survey showed an 8.4 per cent increase on the previous month – a new pandemic high.
“If you’re looking at this from a candidate attraction and retention point of view, I think organisations are about to enter probably the hardest 12 to 18 months they’ve experienced in the last fifteen years,” says Cuff.
“We’ve got a higher demand for roles, a low supply of talent. We’re dealing with the Great Resignation, we’re dealing with the job boom, we’re dealing with precarious market conditions.
“Candidates motivations have totally changed. A lot of companies previously had employee value propositions (EVPs), which they rolled out prior to the pandemic. Well, they’re not as relevant now.
“Because what people wanted two years ago is different to what they need now.
She says understanding employee sentiment is the first step in reducing the outward flow of people. She recommends conducting engagement surveys across the organisation to understand motivations, likes, frustrations and more.
For those in the C-suite or one level below, having face to face conversations and “checking in” is her bare minimum recommendation.
“Just sitting down and saying ‘how are you feeling?’, ‘how have you been affected by the pandemic?’, ‘is there anything different you need from a working environment?’”
One generally agreed positive to come out of the pandemic has been an increased openness to flexible working. Cuff says more CEOs are wanting flexibility, but that it is not just about working from home a day or two each week. The definition may be different for each person.
While wage stagnation is a real problem for many working Australians, she says Harrison McMillan’s experience tells a different story.
“We’ve seen with the professional white collar positions, a good thirty per cent increase in salary,” she explains.
“So, if you’re not paying market value, it’s definitely worth doing some salary benchmarking and making sure that you understand your people and align to what they they’re looking for.”
Even with good remuneration in place, something key can still be missing. If companies are to learn anything from the Great Resignation, it is the need for a shared vision.
Going back to Kerrie Campbell and her decision to leave Flinders University – what if anything could have made her change her mind about leaving?
“I think if Flinders had decided to make different business decisions. I may have stayed if I felt that they were being more innovative and brave,” she says candidly.
“I think what happened after COVID is a lot of companies became really conservative.
“Like a lot of other universities, they were scared of losing international numbers and not looking at really unique ways to really propel themselves from where they were.
“They were one of the few universities that came out in a surplus position… but they were making the same business calls as universities that were in large amounts of debt.”
Campbell says once her decision to leave was firm in her mind, there was no turning back.
“In my mind, I just thought, well, I’ve reached every [goal] I can, I’ve changed the organisation in a real way – the way that people work and the way that people feel.”
So, knowing that sometimes it will be too late, the ship will sail and it could be weeks or months before new hires come onboard, what is to be done?
Cuff has some final advice.
“With higher resignation rates leaving gaps in teams, most people are likely to lean in and help in the short-term. But, ultimately, you can’t keep that going for too long, because they will burn out and leave,” she says.
“If you can’t physically hire or train new people fast enough, you could look to supplement them with outsourced providers who can assist and help in those areas.
“During the pandemic, Harrison McMillan launched HM RPO to work alongside an organisation’s HR or recruitment team and be their outsourced recruitment solution to help scale up and down as needed.”