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Great Resignation or Great Redirection?

The Great Resignation is on all of our minds, but do we really understand its significance?

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The other day, my Uber driver told me the pandemic enabled her to quit bartending. She hadn't been considering leaving her 15-year career slinging drinks when the bar's doors closed. But she learned that a combination of varied jobs would make her even more than the bar, minus the drunks and exhausting schedule.

Being a fan of great bartenders, and a consummate eye-roller when someone behind a bar knows less than I do about making a solid Manhattan, I wondered what it would take for her to bartend again: Better benefits? Pay? Greater scheduling freedom or influence in bar decisions? Service jobs have historically been underappreciated and undervalued. But now, with an odd tip of the hat to the pandemic, this woman knows she can have a better quality of life. So, what would that bar have to do to get her back?

The Great Resignation is happening, but what does it mean? People are leaving certain jobs, and in some companies and industries, that has been en masse. It seems that people who have labored in jobs or companies they haven't loved, that have demanded too much and taken a toll on well-being and happiness, have stepped back and assessed the landscape with fresh eyes. These people are reconstructing their lives and placing more importance on families, friends and their passions. They are realigning their values and priorities.

Related: The Great Resignation Is Quickly Becoming the Great Revolt: 5 Actions Leaders Should Take Now

Resignation as a factor of recognition

All this Great Resignation talk has many panicking and being reactive. We definitely shouldn't ignore it, but we should seek to understand what is happening and why. And what the implications are for the future. The truly historical event is the revolution in how people conceive of work and its relationship to other life priorities. Even within that, there are distinctively different categories.

We know service workers in leisure and hospitality got hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic. These people unexpectedly found themselves jobless, unsure how they would pay their bills and survive. Being resilient and hard-working, many — like my Uber driver — found gigs doing delivery, rideshare or other jobs giving greater flexibility and autonomy. These jobs also provided better pay than traditional service roles. Now, with their former jobs calling for their return, this group of workers has the ability to choose for themselves what they want.

When Covid displaced office workers to their homes, they were bound to realize it was nice to not have that commute or the road warrior travel. It was equally nice to have time for their interests and their kids. In many cases, going back to the office has become a sacrifice. Some employees decided they just want a job, not a career and will scale back their investments at work. That's okay, by the way, and doesn't mean they won't work hard or care about their jobs. But they won't make their job priority number one.

Some are considering what their overall employee experience had been in that job, at that company, pre- and mid-pandemic. How were they treated, managed, rewarded and inspired? And if the scales seem imbalanced, with more negatives than positives, these employees are flat-out more comfortable and confident taking a leap and changing jobs, companies and even careers.

Related: A Record 4.5 Million People Quit Their Jobs in November: Report

Workaholics no more

We spend a third of our waking lives at our full-time jobs, but now, people are starting to rethink this. Americans have historically been proud workaholics, obsessed with their careers. U.S. working families spent 11 more hours on the job in 2006 than they did back in 1979, and work-family conflict grew higher than in any other developed country.

With more options than ever, and a pandemic tailwind, workers are concluding it may be possible to work and earn a living without selling their souls to a company. With a new sense of self-determination, hours commuting and burning the candle at both ends no longer seem worth it — if they ever were.

During the pandemic, my Uber driver wasn't the only one who turned to the gig economy and found new opportunities. The number of independent workers and new business applications skyrocketed. Of the 51 million people who now call themselves independent workers, 7.1 million of them are making that work through social media and the creator economy. Almost 40 percent of them manage to do it full time.

Desire for purpose and meaning

In all of this personal re-examining, another priority will likely start emerging in a big way. Employees, having leverage and choices, who are socially and/or environmentally conscious, are going to factor in mission and purpose more than ever. Why not work for a company that stands for something? Or one that delivers on promises about carbon emissions, eliminating child labor or social justice? How about a Best Places to Work company? Why not go there?

It stands to reason that employees will take such elements into consideration, as well as pay, benefits and work flexibility. But, people are going to keep bailing unless companies can dial back the stress and demands they impose on their employees. Companies also must provide employees with more autonomy and a greater sense of purpose.

Related: It Might Be a Company-Ending Mistake to Go Back to the Office

Swipe right on Company X

To engage employees now, companies must capture hearts and minds. If the hiring process were a dating app, your company has stiff competition. How will you show up, set yourself apart and grab candidates' attention? What is the employer brand that wins the day in this post-pandemic world? And what will it take to get the candidates you want swiping right with frequency?

Covid sparked a challenge to the workplace status quo. We have a great chance to shape how we respond to that. Understanding the reasons and the differences between types of work and workers is paramount and gives us focus. In the end, this can be a truly positive change. But that's only if we shake off the reactionary panic and embrace how the shift in work preferences will, if met, help drive greater employee engagement and satisfaction.

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