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Work Shock and the entry-level avalanche

A worrying trend has emerged: recruits – typically Generation Y & Z – are leaving their employers in droves; often within the first 100 days of employment. This isn’t because their employer is a “bad” employer. Often, the opposite is true. The brands (employers) in question are some of the biggest and best in their sectors and their Glassdoor ratings are good. Some have even placed highly in “Great Places to Work”. Why then are newly recruited employees leaving?

A worrying trend has emerged: recruits – typically Generation Y & Z – are leaving their employers in droves; often within the first 100 days of employment.[i] This isn’t because their employer is a “bad” employer. Often, the opposite is true. The brands (employers) in question are some of the biggest and best in their sectors and their Glassdoor ratings are good. Some have even placed highly in “Great Places to Work”. Why then are newly recruited employees leaving?

The avalanche of failure…
The answer is consistent and simple: they can’t do the job they have been recruited to do, which is often a customer-facing service role. What is the consistent reason they leave? Because they buckle under the pressure of an avalanche of failure. They know they don’t know the answers and the customers on the other end of the phone/chat/email pretty quickly work that out too; it’s a painful experience for both parties.

Most of us can cope with being pretty hopeless at something whilst we are learning, safe in the knowledge that before long we will be “smashing it” (to use a phrase popular with the younger generation affected by this phenomenon). The trouble is, it would appear in a great deal of cases that the period between joining and “smashing it” is disproportionately long, and many simply throw in the towel before ever getting close to being mildly competent – let alone “smashing it”.

The world of work has moved on…
The challenge employers face today is a near-perfect storm and, unless employers materially up their game regarding employee training and welfare, this situation is only going to get worse. The reality is that – thanks to Covid-19 – the world of work has moved on at a pace that very few employers have been able to keep up with. Hybrid working and Work from Home (WFH) being perhaps the most significant seismic shifts. Whereas in the past, most (perhaps 70%) of in-role competency was developed “on-the-job” through peer-to-peer learning, modern workplaces are now starved of this vital component.

In a hybrid model – where employees are in the office just two days per week – the opportunity to learn from their peers is now reduced to 40%. This also assumes that their tenured colleagues – with all the workplace knowledge and competence – are actually working in the office on the same days. Mathematically, they won’t always be, so the peer-to-peer learning opportunity is further diluted. If a recruit is 100% WFH then the opportunity for peer-to-peer learning is (in the majority of instances) exclusively digital and usually limited to Slack, Microsoft Teams or Zoom. Better than nothing, but far less effective than face-to-face.

This peer-to-peer learning dilution is compounded by the fact that many firms have – for many years – been engaged in a “race to the bottom” in respect of workplace training costs. “Get them trained as quickly and cheaply as possible”, being the mantra. This looks great in the annual budget round, but many firms have – in the process – lost sight of the objective of the exercise.

The objective is to turn out, role-ready, super-competent and confident employees. The reality in many cases is the complete opposite. The training isn’t competency-focussed – it is far too theoretical and, therefore, recruits fail to translate this theory into workplace competence.

This is particularly true in the case of “required learning” which we associate with regulated markets. All too frequently the training is heavily theoretical and doesn’t require the learner to demonstrate competence but rather complete a short-term memory test at the end of a training module, e.g., Customer Vulnerability.

The analogy I favour is: ‘driving a car’. You can learn the theory well enough, and you can even take a test to prove that you “know it”, but assuming you have had no physical lessons, when you go outside and get in the car for the first time then the outcome is likely to be a manifestation of incompetence: the metaphorical and (probable) literal car crash! Driving, like being an effective employee, is a learned competence, not a box-ticking exercise.

Even when employers do think through the onboarding process and invest in grad bays and academies, much of what is taught is rapidly forgotten, and, without more experienced and competent peers around to help recruits course-correct, much of the hard work and investment is wasted.

Building resilience and capability…
Another legacy of Covid-19 would appear to be the acceleration of digital journeys, with more and more employers finding digital ways to reduce the traffic into customer service hubs. Taking out the value-destroying contact through self-serve solutions – when executed well – works equally for customer and supplier. But the unintended consequence is that, by default, the contact/enquiry that is now hitting the customer service hub is more complicated.

Gone are the days when a recruit could “cut their teeth” on more simple calls, build their confidence and gradually transition into handling more and more challenging and sophisticated contacts. Now, in many instances, the only calls/emails/chats that are coming to the recruit are exclusively more challenging.

Shouldn’t these recruits just knuckle down and get on with it? Is there also perhaps truth in the claim that Gen Y & Z simply lack the resilience of the earlier generations like Generation X? Well, it depends on who you ask. Articles I have read – that are generally written by younger folks – appear to move the resilience argument on, claiming that it is an out-dated measure, and, in any case, there are a list of very credible reasons why Gen Y & Z may well be less able to cope, are more anxious and are more depressed.

I completely accept there may well be mitigating circumstances (growing up during Covid-19 certainly wouldn’t be a positive impact on most people), but I do not accept that the need for resilience is some sort of dinosaur-throwback thing! Resilience is an important and learnable life skill. Regardless of your age, life is going to throw things at you that you won’t like, and you won’t be able to ignore it or cancel it or pretend it isn’t happening.

However – and it’s a very important however – maybe Gen Y & Z really are different to Gen X and are a product of their time, which makes complete sense to me. Maybe they are more sensitive and vulnerable, and labelling them “snowflakes” and almost celebrating the fact that Gen X are indeed better able to endure isn’t likely to be an effective strategy and is more likely to accelerate the pace of attrition.

One should also consider that the employment market in 2023 is markedly different to 1993. The gig economy is booming and accessible to a deep cross-section of the UK labour market. One can sympathise with a Gen Z who would rather deliver Amazon parcels all day, listening to their music, and not have to deal with difficult customers (especially when they will only be armed with a fraction of the competence required to do so). So, traditional employers aren’t the only game in town, even in more remote locations, because Gen Y & Z have very real choices. In some instances, maybe even stepping away from the workplace and staying at home with their parents.

So how should firms respond?
I should acknowledge that many of our customers have already taken action to mitigate this “work shock” thing. But in the first instance, employers need to acknowledge the reality of the problem, take responsibility, and step up and solve it. Because labelling Gen Y & Z as “snowflakes” and expecting them to magically change their generational coding is doomed to failure.

The job to be done is to accelerate the recruit through the competency curve, providing positive affirmation of competence (based on hard evidence) and develop confidence. A confident and competent employee is far less likely to bail-out during the critical first 180 days because they will find they can do the job they have been hired to do – and they can enjoy it. Nobody enjoys consistently failing and falling short of the standard required alongside having that lonely, lack-of-confidence feeling.

At the epicentre of the solution is workplace training and the fact that it is currently failing hundreds of thousands of Gen Y & Z employees. Employers must invest in training solutions that counter the loss of peer-to-peer learning. Ones that are personalised to the individual employee and dynamically home in on the areas of incompetence demonstrated by each individual.

A “one-size-fits-all” approach is too time consuming for a generation with an apparent attention span of eight seconds. It is also inefficient from a workforce productivity perspective – and it is disrespectful of the employee. Not to mention that it doesn’t actually work, or we wouldn’t be seeing the scale of mass attrition we are witnessing today. Solutions that build on the theory and help the employee to translate that knowledge into in-role competence, without the need for a peer, are essential.

And for those who still doubt there is a problem or there is merit in investing in ensuring workplace training is fit for purpose, perhaps consider the findings of the recent Microsoft (one of our larger customers) Work Trend Index Special Report April 2023.[ii]

Firms who invest in appropriate workplace training will not only have more competent, capable and confident employees, they will also have much higher levels of employee engagement and better financial performance prospects.

[i] Forbes, ‘Beyond Money: The Real Reasons Employees Stay or Leave’, available here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/shephyken/2023/07/09/beyond-money-the-real-reasons-employees-stay-or-leave/

[ii] https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/worklab/work-trend-index/the-new-performance-equation-in-the-age-of-ai

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