But are they listening?
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The global health pandemic has greatly impacted the way America does business. Everything from unemployment rates to flexible work schedules have undergone a coronavirus-induced transformation. The very notion of going back to what we once thought was normal has evoked strong market reactions and that volatility is most visible in fluctuating workplace expectations. While some offices have gone completely remote, in-person roles have been mired by health risks and labor shortages. And while businesses that rely on the digital economy and knowledge work have thrived, brick-and-mortar companies have experienced layoffs and shutdowns. This tension has increased employee burnout and overwork in every field from nursing to drop-shipping. Yet some senior leaders seem confused about what to do about employee outcries for long-term work-life balance reforms.

As Nicolas Creel, an assistant professor of business law at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Ga., explains, businesses are already being strained with soaring supply chain prices, giving them next to no room for an increase in other costs without having to pass those costs off to consumers via price hikes. "So it isn't too surprising that so many employers are trying to hold off on increasing employee pay or benefits—that's a long-term cost increase they will have to deal with even after the supply chain issues level out," he says. "Most companies are probably just trying to hold out as long as they can by working their current employees more, hoping that as the inflationary pressure from supply chain issues fades, they will then have room to increase employee pay." 

But employee resistance to this survival-based model has come in a variety of forms. The most politically charged is the notion that people are willfully staying unemployed or underemployed, due to the abundance of pandemic assistance programs, many of which expired in early September. Research shows that, while some lawmakers and employers say that federal aid is discouraging people's return to work, there's much more to the story. Job seekers report searching tirelessly for opportunities, but never hearing back after applying through algorithm-driven employment sites. Others say that available roles in food service and the gig economy, in particular, expose workers to significant health risks, without the guarantee of adequate health coverage. Over the past year, various demographics of employees have expressed a variety of sector- and identity-specific concerns about employer compensation and expectations in this new environment—but employers don't seem to be listening. 

There are many intersecting subsets of disgruntled employees

In 2020, the New York Times published an article stating that C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, says "we should go ahead and call this a 'She-cession,'" since so many women have been pushed, nudged, or forced out of employment due to pandemic-induced constraints on child care, transportation, and larger market factors. Worse still, according to McKinsey, a global management consulting firm, among women of color who appear to be gaining greater representation in corporate America, burnout is reaching unsustainable levels. The report says, "Women are even more burned out now than they were a year ago, and the gap in burnout between women and men has almost doubled. In the past year, one in three women has considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their career—a significant increase from one in four in the first few months of the pandemic."

Although these structural inequities predate the pandemic, U.S. workers are holding fast to personal boundaries in ways that were unthinkable before 2019. Whether they want to or not, employers need to adapt their work-life balance priorities toward four major remedies that just might keep employees around. 

Requiring in-person work feels like micromanaging to younger, tech-savvy workers

The pandemic has taught us that the generational tech divide isn't a valley, it is a chasm. Not only have tech companies grown during this economic downturn, but its employees have adapted best to COVID conditions. While many managers and company leads are asking for an eventual physical return to work, this is igniting a firestorm of animosity from younger employees, women, and employees of color. Directed, in-person work implies a lack of trust and feels like the newest way to micromanage otherwise autonomous workers.

"Most Fortune 100 CEOs are largely boomers and men," says Trav J. Walkowski, partner and CPO at Employmetrics. He cited Apple's Tim Cook (60), Microsoft's Satya Nadella (54), Alibaba's Jack Ma (57), Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffett (91), UnitedHealth Group's  Andrew Witty (57), and ExxonMobil's Darren Woods (57). "When these CEOs went to college, around the late '70s or early '80s, it was possible to pay for [their education] by working a part-time job," he says. However, a lot has changed since the mid-'90s, when many of these CEOs likely first became managers, Walkowski explains. "This is the reason so many employers have not adapted—their age," he adds.

A Conference Board survey reported on in a recent New York Times article says that many Americans share Walkowski's sentiments. The data is clear: "55 percent of millennials, defined as people born between 1981 and 1996, questioned the wisdom of returning to the office. Among members of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, 45 percent had doubts about going back, while only 36 percent of baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, felt that way."

Younger employees tend to see remote work as the most effective and efficient way to complete work, and being asked to go in-person, without an express business reason to do so, feels like getting called into the principal's office for not turning in your homework—even after you've aced the test. Being required to work in the office can be frustrating on a variety of levels.

Employees feel that their time and dispositions are policed in the office, whereas their deliverables are the focus of remote work. Also, while working in person, younger employees may feel they carry the unseen administrative burden of implementing, suggesting, or troubleshooting tech platforms for employees who have a steeper digital learning curve. While much has been written about how millennials have changed American workplaces for the worse, it is often written from the boomer perspective. Millennials and their younger peers are now saying that it is time for more senior workers to adapt to the technology of the times. Walkowski says that this includes preparing all workers, including older ones, to skill up in the tech needed to do their jobs remotely, rather than defaulting to a universal in-person stance. For these reasons and more, employees prefer to choose when to come into the office, rather than being directed to do so. Supervisors should take heed. Their most tech-savvy employees are a major flight risk—and, according to Gallup, Gen Z and millennials now make up 46 percent of the full-time workforce in the U.S.

A job title isn't the most important part of an employee's identity

"The thing employers can do for workers is treat employees like whole people, not widgets," says Pamela Loprest, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute's Income and Benefits Policy Center. "We have families, lives outside of work, and are whole people. Mandatory overtime and inflexible work schedules, among other things, make it easier for the employer. The employer gains some profit margin, but they lose a lot of value in employee productivity and loyalty."

These days, entrepreneurial advocates like Marie Forleo are normalizing being multi-passionate. Not only can salaried employees monetize small businesses through digital platforms like never before, but the deaths, health scares, and mental health crises of the pandemic have left many people feeling like life is just entirely too short to suffer at a job that doesn't love you back. 

Employers must come to the realization that their greatest competition isn't another big box store or a multinational company. Former employees are becoming successful CEOs and homemakers because they have options outside of work. Aggressive online investing and passive real estate are among some of the income-generating activities that the pandemic has popularized. Time and geographic freedom are no longer aspirations held over until retirement. Employers would do well to realize that their employees have many talents, personal obligations, and financial options vying for their attention. Long gone are the days when a job title is the most important part of a person's identity. 

Employees need better compensation packages: Pay, benefits, and paid leave

Employees are resoundingly demanding pay equity first, and then cost-of-living calibrated compensation. Tamica Sears, an HR consultant and executive coach with more than 15 years of experience, says that many employers lack the self-awareness necessary to understand the part they play in fueling The Great Resignation. "There is this false narrative that people just don't want to work, when in fact, it's more like people don't want to work in toxic environments for compensation that barely lets them survive," says Sears. "People with the mindset that a CEO should make 300 times the amount of their average worker seem to have a harder time understanding what daily life looks like when their average worker makes $12 an hour." In fact, Ohio State produced data from earlier this year estimating that at least 27 million U.S. workers don't earn enough to "survive in today's America," meaning that they can't afford basic necessities like food and rent. 

Employees are not signing up in droves to sit among the working poor. In the vacuum left by the erosion of union power, individual employees and advocacy groups are fighting for wage equity, paid leave for family care, and affordable health care coverage. In Sears' experience, "when someone has a child, their life changes significantly, and having an employer that doesn't offer parental leave, child care benefits, or other family-friendly benefits, influences the employee's ability to return to work." She says that employers run the risk of completely alienating parents, especially primary caretakers. "There has been an exponential increase in the cost of having a child, diapers, child care, hospital visits; they all cost far more now than most people can afford. So when employers don't offer family-friendly benefits that take these costs into account, they lose employees," she says. Research has shown that female workers (and the households they support) are weighed down by the gender wage gap, which only worsens by race and ability. The Great Resignation is a sign that they are voting with their feet, by migrating to entrepreneurship and employers that will deliver compensation gains and better work-life balance.

DEI efforts and work-life balance align on pay parity 

Amidst all the struggles to keep employees in seats, most corporate offices are taking a hard look at their ability to recruit and retain women and people of color. In this way, pay parity—across race and gender—is a concrete employer-driven action that directly improves work-life balance and DEI efforts.

Loprest says that flexible work schedules can be important for women in certain kinds of work and can provide work-life balance, especially for women with children. "Flexible work schedules also are relevant for women who are working in jobs that present a work schedule ahead of time, often in retail. Scheduling laws are being passed to have those time commitments early enough to secure child care, and to also allow flexibility and ways of trading schedules that make sense," she explains. 

But paid leave is equally important. "We have the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows for unpaid leave for certain workers," Loprest says. "You don't get fired if you need to take leave, but you also don't get paid. So for a lot of women, FMLA falls short of being able to make work-life balance work, or even just make life work."

The 19th, an independent, non-profit newsroom reporting on gender, politics, and policy, recently reported on the drop in Black women's unemployment with a healthy skepticism for why that might be. "To be counted as out of the labor force, people have to be unemployed and not looking for work at all. About 91,000 Black women left the labor force last month, the biggest month-to-month drop this year. But their employment-to-population ratio—a figure that measures the number of people employed compared to the working-age population—went up," the report reads. And while some Black women—like all women—have decided to stop looking for work, Black women have become pace-setters in launching startups. This is despite limited access to capital and revenue generation, in comparison to non-Black entrepreneurs. Why are so many Black women willing to leave their salaried careers?

The landscape of social media influencers shows an abundant number of BIPOC women, like Teri Ijeoma and Ronne Brown, teaching other people—women and people of color, in particular—just how much they can make by going into business for themselves. Fundamentally, that value proposition is easy to believe because the gender and racial pay gap are so wide to begin with. Black women make just 63 cents to the dollar of their White male (non-hispanic) colleagues; Native American women make 60 cents and Latinas just 55 cents. Women and people of color, especially those who identify as both, are losing faith in their ability to achieve financial stability from a 9-to-5 job. 

Talent management expert and HR consultant Melanie Haniph says that The Great Resignation has shown women of all races and backgrounds that they have many opportunities to deprioritize their day jobs. "They can engage in entrepreneurial pursuits or join the gig economy. Employers that don't recognize this reality (and the need for benefits and flexibility to support female and male employees) may find themselves in a retention crisis and risk losing women at many levels of their organization," she explains. Employers should put real effort into closing the gender and racial wage gaps, which often fuel higher rates of debt in everything from consumer spending to student loans.

"Higher pay can go a long way toward work-life balance," Loprest reiterates. Better pay can keep women—especially moms and sole breadwinners—out of cycles of poverty. Better pay can fund important support services, such as child care—in the hours, location, and quality you need—and health insurance, so an employee can get preventative and emergency care without fear of being fired or a costly bill. Better pay can be a very convincing recruiting and retention tool across all employee demographics, but—since this recession is hitting women hardest—reforms that reverse the She-cession are needed most urgently.

We can't afford to lose any more female employees

Because women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, the national economy simply can't afford to see female workers depart in droves. But a combo of layoffs, caregiving roles, burnout, chronic under-earning, and structural disparities are encouraging women in that direction. "We want to have a certain economy to have strong families, for what that means for the next generation," Loprest cautions. "It is important that women have opportunities to make living wages, do well, and improve in their careers—for themselves and their families. When we lose this many women who feel they are unable to participate in the labor force—as the pandemic showed us in an unprecedented way—our economy definitely suffers."