By Courtney Clark
One thing is clear this year: the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the workforce, possibly forever.
Employees began resigning in droves early in the pandemic – dubbed the Great Resignation – and filling vacancies has been tricky ever since. Employee retention numbers still look bleak, and leaders are left wondering how to hire and maintain enough talent to complete the work that needs to get done.
One answer might lie in the concept of “adaptability.” Adaptability refers to a person’s willingness to change and adjust to the situation at hand. And many of us struggle with it. In a 2021 study I conducted of employees, 74% of respondents said they don’t feel able to “learn as they go” when presented with a challenge. That kind of cognitive inflexibility can easily make people feel more frustrated and less resilient.
When the word “flexibility” is mentioned in conversations about employee retention, it’s usually used to describe a workplace culture that accepts work-life balance. Employees can be flexible about when they arrive at work or leave, as long as they get their work done. Employee leave time could be less stringent, or work from home policies could be generous. Flexible policies are among the key perks leaders are told to use to attract and maintain team members.
But to really address the systemic employee retention issues, maybe the concept of flexibility needs to take on a broader meaning. Maybe the *humans* involved in the system need to be more flexible, not just the system.
By increasing individual adaptability in both team members and leadership, organizations may find their employees are better able to handle change, stress, and uncertainty without needing to quit. With increased flexibility and adaptability (what I call ReVisionary ThinkingTM), what previously seemed like brick walls for an organization can turn into navigable staircases.
Adaptability Counteracts Burnout
Burnout is a legitimate reason for employee turnover. Employees who are burned out are often not able to complete tasks or solve problems as well as non-burnt-out employees. But to adequately address burnout, we have to first address a fundamental misunderstanding about what burnout isn’t.
Most people incorrectly assume that burnout comes from being too busy (I admit to being one of them, before I did the research!). We tend to use “busy” and “burnt out” interchangeably to talk about stress. But they’re two very different concepts. Burnout specifically refers to a feeling of disengagement with the situation. It’s a shutting down that happens when your brain gets too overloaded. Burnout can certainly COME from being busy, but you can be busy without being burned out. The difference lies in motivation.
When employees feel motivated, they have a sense of purpose in their work. They understand how their tasks fit into the bigger picture of the problem their organization solves. These motivated employees don’t need to cling to “the way we’ve always done things,” because they understand that sometimes change, while uncomfortable, is necessary to move the entire organization forward.
On the other hand, employees who are stuck in their ways are more likely to experience burnout. The changes of the past 2 years feel overwhelming and unsurmountable.
In my 2021 study, we found 1 in 3 employees struggle to stay motivated when facing a challenging new problem. Those are the employees most at risk of burning out, because they don’t have the mental reserves to adapt and get on board with the “new normal.”
Adaptable Teams Have Adaptable Leaders
The onus for being flexible isn’t all on the individual contributors, though. Leadership plays an important role in building adaptability into the fabric of a team’s culture. A team can’t adapt unless they have an adaptable leader.
At some organizations, employees say they *would* have been comfortable with change, or even excited about it, but the change was handled in a way that meant the team wasn’t set up to succeed. Often, employees are being asked to change without being given the tools TO change. That may mean information, time, technology, or other resources were lacking, making the desired change nearly impossible. And in many cases, the transformation’s eventual failure is blamed on the employees’ inability to adopt the change, when in fact the change was doomed from the start.
Leaders who successfully lead through change make sure their employees have all the resources they need. How do they do that? They ask. They interview team members and other stakeholders to make sure the systems are in place to support the change as best as possible. The other secret bonus of asking? It’s only human nature to support what you help build. When leaders ask for input on the front end of the change, it’s more likely that those lower on the org chart will feel a sense of buy-in.
The Adaptable Employee
Higher pay and flexible hours will contribute a lot to workforce retention. Employees will naturally go where they are appreciated and rewarded.
But as we work to fill the workforce gaps, we should take a strong look at adaptability as a factor. Adaptable employees will be able to weather the uncertainty of our current situation. They will find purpose in their work, no matter their place in the company hierarchy. They’ll roll with the punches this year and beyond.
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