In the YOLO Economy, no one is wrong about their feelings

With the recovery in full swing, companies need to listen carefully and address systemic issues before burnt-out employees jump ship.

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We’re All Ready to Move On from Something

When we look back on the pandemic, March 2021 will be remembered as The Month Things Started Getting Visibly Better, with the U.S. adding nearly 1M jobs and unemployment dropping to 6%. And if my LinkedIn feed is any indication, April will go down in history as The Month Employees Realized They Could Quit Again.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) warned of a “Turnover Tsunami.” According to SHRM, more than half of North American employees plan to look for work in 2021, with a quarter ready to quit ASAP. In the New York Times, Kevin Roose argues that we’re in a “YOLO Economy,” with exhausted millennials “flipping the carefully arranged chessboards of their lives and deciding to risk it all.”

At some point over the past year, everyone hit a wall. A friend confessed that one of the silver linings of remote work was no longer having to leave their desk to cry. And they’re not alone: a MetLife study of 2,651 employees found 34% reported burnout, up from 27% last April. A year of uncertainty has left the workforce profoundly unmoored from their pre-pandemic selves and unusually open to radical life changes. For many, embracing the new normal will mean saying goodbye to their old job.

Unfortunately for their employers, most of them will quit without warning. Companies that piled on extra responsibilities will learn what every employee already knows: no one gives notice until they give notice. Instead of playing whack-a-mole with individual cases, leaders will need to give HR the power (and the budget) to address systemic issues: the kinds employees usually don’t share until an exit interview. But waiting until an employee quits to learn what you could have done to retain them makes as much sense as getting an oil change after your car breaks down. 

The Stay Interview: A Premortem for Turnover

On top of exit interviews, proactive teams will often run stay interviews every 6-12 months. In the same way that premortems anticipate project failures in advance, stay interviews dig into the reasons why employees might leave before they check out.

“Stay interviews conducted by third parties, where the employee feels more able to be authentic in their responses, express truer risk factors related to why employees would consider leaving.”

Turnover ‘Tsunami’ Expected Once Pandemic Ends, SHRM

Stay interviews are usually done by managers, but companies that are serious about preventing turnover should consider bringing in a third party. A professional researcher can help centralize the feedback and spot patterns that individual managers or HR business partners can’t see. And remember, speaking up isn’t easy. As one expert noted in the SHRM article linked above, “Stay interviews conducted by third parties, where the employee feels more able to be authentic in their responses, express truer risk factors related to why employees would consider leaving.”

By asking employees structured questions about why they stay and what might cause them to leave, HR can flag systemic issues before they lead to turnover. Questions like “What was something you had to unlearn after joining our team?” or “What do you think our company really doesn’t understand about working here?” can inspire employees to share revealing stories they’d never bring up unprompted. And those stories have the power to influence leaders by giving them a specific, concrete view of the cost of inaction. In other words: they create empathy.

Empathy is a Skill, Not a Superpower

Empathy is having a moment. As Google’s Chief Innovation Evangelist said recently, it’s “the skill of the future… putting yourself into their situation, to really understand how they really think and feel, helps you come up with better solutions for your employees.” With world-class product designers hailed as “unicorns,” empathy sounds like something you might find in an enchanted wood, next to a sleeping elf.

Companies that jump into solutions without taking the time to understand how employees feel risk wasting time, energy, and political capital solving the wrong problems.

But no matter what self-proclaimed empaths try to tell you, empathy isn’t some magical superpower. It’s caring + understanding. And while caring is easy (for most), understanding is tricky, especially with people who don’t share as much in common with you.

HR leaders are no stranger to empathy. It’s a big part of why they go into the profession. But consoling an employee after a personal loss is different than understanding what it’s like to work in their role for a day. We’ve all lost someone close to us at some point; few of us know what it’s like to close a 5-figure sale or keep a web server up 99.9% of the time (that’s nine hours of downtime a year).

Sadly, the tools HR relies on for feedback often belie employees’ real needs. Surveys barely scratch the surface, with no way for HR to ask clarifying questions to rushed answers. Focus groups rarely produce honest feedback, with employees forced to voice concerns in front of coworkers or bosses. And all too often, anonymous Q&As devolve into gripe-fests that put leaders on the defensive in front of the whole team.

Relying on benchmarks or peer advice is an expensive shortcut. To truly address the systemic issues driving turnover, leaders will need to step back and give HR the space to understand what employees care about most. And companies that jump into solutions without taking the time to understand how employees feel risk wasting time and political capital solving the wrong problems.

You Can’t Put a Price on Compassion

Taking the time to build empathy before making decisions that affect employees is good business, but it’s also the right thing to do. Tech favors those with a “bias for action,” and the phrase, which started at Amazon, has become its own kind of gospel: fail fast and make better mistakes tomorrow. But while consumers can live with the occasional bug in a product they use for an hour a day, this approach is harder to justify with employees who spend half their waking life at work.

With understaffed HR teams increasingly working with algorithms instead of coworkers, it’s easy to forget that employees are people—people with families, hobbies, and rich inner lives that often go unnoticed and unacknowledged at work. Empathy is not a math problem. And even if most of us aren’t crying behind the webcam, it’s never been more important to know how employees are feeling.


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