Masks and life via Zoom are not the only things people are leaving behind now that headlines about vaccination rates are replacing COVID-19 case numbers. People are ready to leave both pandemic restrictions and their current jobs behind in 2021, according to several surveys.

The numbers range from 26% to 40%. The Microsoft Work Trend Index found that 40% of people want to change jobs this year. A survey of workers in the U.K. and Ireland put the number at 38% and a similar U.S. survey found 26% of workers are planning to leave their current job over the next few months.

It’s easier, of course, to want a new job than to actually go out and get one. J.P. Gownder, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, said managers should be careful when interpreting survey data on intentions, particularly for large decisions like leaving a job.

“Leaving a job often requires some combination of finding a new job and overcoming the inertia of staying with the old one,” he said. “But I think we are at an inflection point at which many people are reconsidering the particulars of their lives and of work-life balance.”

As more offices plan the great reopening, there is still a lot of uncertainty about what the work week will look like. Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice, said that companies should expect a bumpy launch and months of experimenting.

“The re-entry into the new hybrid will be messy and uneven and filled with problems,” he said.

Kropp sees two ways for company leaders to respond to the uncomfortable early days of the hybrid approach:

  1. We know this approach is right so let’s learn from this and get better.
  2. This is too hard and we’re going back to what we’re familiar with.

The risk is that executives will decide that defining the hybrid workplace is too difficult and revert back to old habits. Kropp said that all of the data shows that employees are higher performing and more productive in hybrid work settings.

“The mindset of some folks is that it’s impossible to collaborate unless you’re in the same room with people,” he said. “If that’s what you think, then you have to believe that zero collaboration has occurred over the last 14 months and that’s obviously not true.”

Are more people really quitting now?

The short answer is that it’s too soon to tell, but the number of people quitting in the information sector was up in March. The overall quit rate is back to what it was before the pandemic. The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes the Jobs Opening and Labor Turnover report monthly which details openings, hires and separations. The total separation rate includes quits, layoffs, discharges and other departures.

The most recent report for March 2021 shows job openings were up while the other two metrics were unchanged. The quits rate was similar to the February number at 2.4%. The number of people quitting their jobs voluntarily went up in two sectors— accommodation and food services (+63,000) and information (+16,000).

The quits rate is the number of quits during the entire month as a percent of total employment. The overall number has not changed dramatically over the last five years. The rate was 1.5% in March 2020, 2.3% in 2019 and 2018 and 2.1% in 2017.

Overall, the seasonally adjusted separation rate for nonfarm jobs has been between 4% and 3.5% for the last 15 years while the quit rate has been at about 2% over the same time period, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the percentage of quits to total separations went up every year from 2010 to 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor.

LinkedIn found that the IT industry has one of the highest turnover rates among all industries, sharing the top of the list with retail at 13% turnover in 2017.

In its 2019 Retention Report: Trends, Reasons and A Call to Action, the Work Institute found that the top three reasons for leaving a job were career development, work-life balance and manager behavior. The report also found that voluntary turnover was up 7.6% over 2017 and that preventable reasons for leaving were also trending up.

What’s causing this desire for a new job?

Gownder sees several forces behind this predicted wave of resignation. First, Forrester’s data shows that 53% of employees want to keep working from home. Although Forrester research suggests that 70% of companies will adopt a hybrid work schedule, not every organization will do so and not every job will qualify.

“So a number of people are rethinking office life altogether,” Gownder said.

Second, Gownder noted that the pandemic has created two distinct financial realities for workers, with some people unemployed or behind on rent payments, but other people having increased their savings. People can use this financial cushion to make a career or location change.

“People with means are able to rethink their entire work/life paradigm,” he said. “Some will even want to work in so-called Zoom towns, fully remote in a more rural area, permanently.”

Lindsay Lagreid, senior adviser for the Limeade Institute, said that people have had a lot of time over the last year to think about what role they want work to play in their lives.

“People have been thinking about who built this system of work and why it works for some but not all people,” she said. “People are thinking about sacrifices they had made previously, and hearing, ‘We want to go back,’ but thinking about how ‘back’ didn’t work well for me.”

Lagreid sees this critical thinking about work as part of the conversations about social justice over the last year that questioned many of society’s established systems.

“This has been a deeply reflective experience and it is striking this very moral nerve with people,” she said. “A dismissive and top-down approach is not going to work anymore.”

She sees this transition period as a chance to make work more humane, compassionate and caring.

“The research does not support the ‘OK, on June 14 everyone is back in the office’ approach that we’ve been seeing so much of,” she said.

Lagreid said that she sees a lot of oversimplifying in the hybrid office discussion.

“The way I hear it is ‘Back five days a week 9 to 5,’ or ‘I will never see you again until the end of time,'” she said. “The reality is that for each employee, it will change every day.”

Lagreid said that all the research she has seen shows that productivity for the vast majority of workers has stayed the same or gone up over the last year of remote work.

Kropp sees pent-up demand for changing jobs after months of uncertainty due to the pandemic combined with the hiring that’s going to occur as the economy grows. He expects turnover rates to go up but not at a dramatic rate.

“There’s a risk of significant turnover if we do nothing but there’s a lot that we can do,” he said.

What managers can do to keep more employees from leaving

Kropp said that the first thing employers should do is to eliminate as much uncertainty as possible about the rules for flexible work hours.

“One thing you can do right now to minimize the risk of turnover is to be very clear about flexibility,” he said. “And if you’re not offering flexibility, you’ll have a turnover problem.”

Gownder suggests holding listening tours, focus groups and town halls to understand the drivers of retention and churn and the high points and the pain points of the employee experience.

Before doing any listening tours or surveying employees about what they want, senior leaders have to be frank about what the options really are for the company’s hybrid work options, Lagreid said.

“Let’s not give people a blank canvas and then tell them they only get three colors to color with,” she said.

She said that trusting employees and providing flexibility and autonomy in setting work hours are the best tactics for retaining employees.

“Let employees choose where they can best do their work and be intentional about how you’re going to use time together,” she said. “If your work is collaborative, bring everyone in on Thursday, order lunch, and then do brainstorming.”

Gownder also recommends adopting an “office + anywhere” hybrid work policy with employees in the office one to three days per week.

“Give employees a reason to come to the office, not just mandate it,” he said.

Kropp said companies should be ready to experiment over the next 12 to 18 months to find the hybrid design that works best for their companies. He recommends a set of philosophies as opposed to rigid policies.

“If you create a set of philosophies and principles, then employees know the rules and can adjust,” he said.

He recommends creating a framework for employees to let them know about what sort of work they need to be in the office to complete.

“You don’t want to surprise employees with ‘Oh, I’m supposed to be in the office for that,'” he said.

Finally, managers should think about what makes for a great employee experience because that is a driver of retention.

“Making sure people have autonomy to do their jobs, are given the tools to do so effectively, and understand their purpose in the grand scheme always help retain top talent,” Gownder said.

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