As originally published in The Globe and Mail.

Kristy Carscallen is the Canadian managing partner of audit and assurance for KPMG in Canada. Doron Melnick is partner and national leader of people and change services for KPMG in Canada.

As Canadian companies look with anticipation to the end of pandemic employment restrictions and a return to some semblance of how we worked pre-COVID-19, they need to be prepared for a new relationship with their employees.

While Canada has not seen the Great Resignation wave U.S. companies experienced, the underlying factors leading to an unprecedented number of Americans quitting their jobs are also at play north of the 49th.

In the United States, a record 4.5 million people resigned from their positions in November, 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the last five months of reporting, nearly 22 million Americans have quit their jobs. That's almost 15 per cent of the U.S. work force, and more than all of Canada's.

A deeper look into who these workers are can tell us how much of this trend will migrate north. Those who voluntarily quit their jobs generally fall into two categories:

Frontline service workers and others deemed to be essential to keeping the economy alive in spite of pandemic restrictions. These workers believe the pandemic fundamentally altered something about the employer-employee relationship, creating a sense that they can do better – crucially, in terms of how they are treated both by their employers and the customers they serve.

Remote workers whose experience working from home has reduced the extent to which many put their careers at the centre of their identities – and proven they can be just as productive, if not more, working outside the office. This trend has also seen many Americans move out of large urban centres to the suburbs or smaller communities, further reflecting a refocusing of priorities.

In Canada, some 875,000 jobs were available in February, 2022, but according to a recent StatsCan labour force survey, less than one per cent of Canadians left their jobs in January, 2022. This is on par with prepandemic rates – as it was in the fall, when a labour force survey indicated that average dissatisfaction with a current job had risen, but not in a statistically significant way. Also, according to StatsCan numbers for February, just 7.3 per cent of workers aged 15 to 69 were planning to leave their current jobs within the next year.

A January, 2022, survey from the Bank of Canada paints a different picture. Namely, that 19.3 per cent of workers – fully 12 per cent more than in the StatsCan survey – said they expected to quit their current job in the next 12 months. In the quarter before the pandemic started, that number was 17.9 per cent.

The bank notes the record high number of Canadians planning to change jobs likely reflects a pent-up demand for change in a market of increasing opportunities.

Employers need to be prepared for a Canadian resignation wave

While likely not at the same level as in the U.S., we can expect a significant uptick in the number of Canadians who choose to change jobs in the next year.

So, what can employers do now to keep their people engaged and connected and reduce the risk of high turnover? As with all business problems, we need to understand why employees choose to leave or change jobs and build targeted solutions. Some approaches Canadian organizations should look at include:

  • Reimagine how to structure work in a way that supports your people's professional and personal success. The pandemic has Canadians rethinking the place work holds in their overall lives. An employee is far more likely to want to put in the hours if they know they're not only able, but encouraged, to take time to attend their child's soccer practice in between deadlines. Understanding and supporting what is important to your employees is crucial to inform how employers can design new work arrangements.
  • Give your people the technology to excel. In an increasingly digital world, you can't expect to keep your best employees if they are hamstrung by aged software and hardware. Equipping your people with updated skills and tools demonstrates that you are invested in them, the firm and serving your customers.
  • Purpose matters more than ever. While technology is key, it is equally, if not more, important to show people how these new work arrangements and skills translate to more purposeful workdays, and how what they do contributes to their companies, customers and communities. People want to know what they do matters and helps build a better society. They want to make an impact.
  • It doesn't have to be all or none. Weariness from the realities of the pandemic along with a re-evaluation of the place work holds in their lives has many believing that leaving their job is their only option. While reduced or alternate work arrangements exist, they are often viewed as a compromise, not a choice. We need to break the bias to create new paths for all people to find the balance they need to achieve what's important to them. Organizations need to offer more options that are viewed as viable career paths – right up to the leadership. More flexible work options are a must to attract and retain staff. Flexibility needs to be an empowered choice right from the start – not a compromise or afterthought. For instance, KPMG actively promotes policies that encourage workplace flexibility as well as mentoring and sponsorship opportunities for career advancement regardless of an employees' work arrangement.

There is much for Canadian organizations to consider if they hope to retain employees and keep them engaged so they can ward off the same Great Resignation fate as in the United States. They need to build new models that engage and prevent their employees, especially millennials and Gen Z, from departing when the old definitions of how work gets done and career development no longer fit.

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work.

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