The Great Reveal

The Great Reveal

by Heather Kinzie

f I had a nickel for every time I told a client, “That resignation was avoidable,” I would have a lot of nickels.

Many pundits have claimed that COVID has caused “the great resignation.” I disagree. While COVID has disrupted a variety of issues around the globe, I believe much of the existing turnover was avoidable. The data offered prior to 2020 from the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), Quantum Workplace, Gallup, Aon Hewitt, and similar reporting agencies all suggest that significant workplace vulnerabilities have been prevalent for years. COVID simply served as “the great reveal.”


Prior to 2020, about 60 percent of surveyed employees were burned out and 30 percent were feeling unusually high levels of stress at work. For the previous 10 years, data suggests nearly half of the workforce worked more than 45 hours per week. Finally, data suggests that while many employees expected their employers to support a balanced work/life environment, a large percentage felt they were denied reasonable consideration to meet the proposed objective.

For years, I have seen many employers blur the space between work and personal time. Some leaders tell employees to respond to inquiries after hours. Some reward employees who consistently work extra hours but fail to address why so many hours are needed. Some model unhealthy boundaries by consistently giving up their vacation time to deal with work issues. Some use guilt or shame to intimidate employees who dare ask for time off.

COVID did not create employee burnout; it simply revealed those leaders who had been failing to reasonably manage the problem.


Few humans love ambiguity when it comes to work. Whether it be goals, rules, expected outcomes, or feedback, most of us find comfort in certainty. But data suggests that for far too long, proactive, thoughtful communication has been absent in our workplaces.

I have yet to find an employer who communicates too much. Many leaders identify goals and standards in a vacuum and assume team members understand their expectations. Many fail to make time for follow-through or feedback. Some leaders consistently change direction or priorities but fail to communicate the reasons for doing so. Other leaders are inconsistent in following their own rules, thus leaving the team confused about what is right and wrong.

COVID didn’t create uncertainty in the workplace, but it certainly revealed the immense vulnerabilities caused by poor, misaligned, and inconsistent communication.


We are inherently social creatures. For centuries, we have traveled, hunted, and thrived in social groups. When we are separated from our networks, we suffer. Data gathered between 2017 and 2019 suggests that about one-third of the U.S. workforce did not feel they had positive social connections at work. Moreover, more than three-quarters of remote workers did not feel they had positive relationships at work.

My experience tells me that leaders inadvertently deter social connections. “Get back to work,” “Enough of the chit chat,” “Do that on your own time,” and similar commands can be heard in almost every setting. Adding to this is the subtle discouragement of getting to know people on a personal level. Whether it is the avoidance of discussing family or cultural issues or the caution expressed regarding discussing health and wellbeing, many employers unintentionally create the feeling that while at work, only work can be discussed.

Safety protocols during this pandemic certainly demanded that we physically separate from others. But for years in many workplaces, social separation already existed. COVID simply revealed the incredible cost of a disconnected workplace.


The desire for flexibility is certainly not new. Long before lockdowns and forced remote work, data suggests that employees wanted to feel empowered regarding work design and execution.

Throughout the years, I have noticed that some leaders respond positively to such requests, but many others hold steady to tradition or comfort. They do not relinquish an ounce of control or are not open to new ideas regarding how, when, and where the work is done. They do not proactively assess who is best suited to do the work or refuse to discuss how the work might need to change to rise and meet the times.

COVID may have accelerated the need to adapt, and some employers were well prepared for the change. But the pandemic definitely revealed those employers who were and continue to be trapped in inadequate paradigms.

Insufficient Pay and Benefits (Total Rewards)

Reporting agencies have been assessing workforce opinions regarding pay and benefits for as long as I can remember. Data suggests that, between 2015 and 2020, paid time off benefits had not changed much, and that about one-quarter of the workforce was dissatisfied with this benefit. For the same time period, data suggests that healthcare coverage had remained somewhat constant but increases to monthly premiums had often been passed on to the workforce. More than three-quarters of the workforce were rightly dissatisfied with this trend.

The U.S. federal minimum hourly wage has been $7.25 since 2009, and fewer than 15 states have minimums of $12 or more. Given the fact that in 2020, the federal poverty level was set at $26,200 for a family of four ($12.60 per hour for full-time work), well over half of our country has numerous workers who need two jobs to stay above the poverty level. This is shameful.

COVID is not to blame for insufficient pay and benefits. It has, however, revealed those employers who are more interested in exploiting, rather than valuing, their employees.

Now What?

The curtain has been pulled back, and the great reveal has hopefully opened our eyes. What should we do? My proposed solutions are pragmatic and reasonable; any leader should be able to immediately effect improvement.

Burning Brightly

When it comes to decreasing or preventing burnout, I think the best ideas come from employees. That said, consider asking questions:

  • What activities are we asking of you that appear to have no value in the overall scheme of things?
  • What activities could be done at another time or in another way?
  • Would it be helpful if we established some core hours, but then were a bit more flexible to accommodate your personal obligations?

Really listen to their answers, try to find compromises when you can, and offer some alternatives when you are able. Then, to make sure that expectations are clear, talk about them!

  • Talking about customer expectations might uncover why time in the office is needed, or it may unveil unique ways to conquer the work.
  • Talking about colleague expectations may help discover scheduling solutions, cross-training opportunities to ensure back-up help is secured, etc.
  • Talking about leadership’s expectations might expose why some work solutions are not financially viable, where risk outweighs the benefit, etc.

I realize leaders have a lot to do, but I am just as certain that open communication is critically important. Consider meeting with your team to ask questions such as:

  • What, if anything, concerns you about _____?
  • What issues have come up this week that you’d like to discuss more?
  • I’d like to revisit the decision to _____. What information do you believe may help steer me in the right direction?
  • I’ve considered ______ and I have decided to _____. What might you need from me to move forward with certainty?

Displaced workers, hybrid work environments, and physical distancing while at work exasperate disconnection. That being said, the following may help encourage appropriate bonds.

  • Start meetings with a quick discussion about how an activity intersects with or is dependent upon another. Encourage the team to make other connections. These ice-breakers, when done regularly, serve as knowledge and empathy connectors for a team.
  • Encourage consistent but brief (three to five minutes) sharing or storytelling. Whether work-related or personal (to a point), these brief moments can spark curiosity and compassion, and enable a sense of belonging.
  • Normalize asking for help. You could model this behavior yourself or, when a member summons the courage to ask you for help, ask them if they would feel comfortable sending their request out to the group. When people feel supported, and, subsequently, needed, a culture of group development begins to form.
  • Encourage “phone a colleague” or “buddy” activities throughout the work week by suggesting that certain individuals meet online, meet for coffee, or otherwise work on something together. This enables connections and encourages employees to recognize each other as more than just workers.

In an everchanging work environment, flexibility and compromise are needed. Obviously, leaders need to be open to new means and methods of doing the work, but it takes more than just an open mindset. Leaders need to actively enable adaptivity. Consider mindfully engaging with your team in this way.

  1. Identify and articulate the desired outcome.
  2. Ask questions such as: Is the old way the only way to reach the outcome? What are some other paths worthy of consideration? What challenges might we face if we choose another path? What are the potential gains if we choose another path? What parameters/boundaries need to be in place to enable success?
  3. Based on these discussions, collaboratively select a path.
  4. Clarify roles and expectations and identify a follow-up date.
  5. Follow up accordingly.
  6. Repeat if needed.
Rewarding Rewards

When compensation and benefits (total rewards) are no longer competitive or sufficient, leaders must effect change. I typically suggest that leaders:

  • Expose and scrutinize the current state. Has leadership intentionally kept pay and benefits minimal? Why? Do valid reasons still exist? Has leadership been open to employee concerns regarding pay and benefits? Why not?
  • Develop or update the total rewards philosophy and reveal it to the workplace. Do you want to lead the market? Do you want to be in the middle of the pack? Do you intentionally want to lag the market in some benefits but lead in others? Why?

Once a reasonable and transparent total rewards philosophy exists, everyone can help develop aligned and meaningful recruitment and retention strategies.

  • Request that Human Resources and/or a third party assess the market, compare to the total rewards philosophy, and adjust wage schedules and benefit packages accordingly.
  • Survey the current workforce to discover three to five pay and benefit issues they believe are most important. Cull the least important to free up funds to increase or improve the most important.
The Great Reveal
COVID will continue to disrupt organizations around the globe. It is futile to wait it out and hope things will return to “normal.” I cannot think of any organization or industry that can effectively return to the way things were in early 2020. Too much has changed, too much has been learned, and too much has been revealed. That said, I suggest we look around and look within, and construct a future framework that enables our organization’s and our team’s success.
Heather Kinzie
Heather Kinzie serves as the chief operating officer for The STRIVE Group. With more than 20 years of organizational and workforce performance experience, Kinzie offers consultation; facilitation and mediation; content development and training; and coaching to clients around the country. She oversees a team of experts who utilize a broad, systematic, and collaborative approach to analysis, problem solving, and consultation. Recognizing the critical importance of leadership, communication, and effective collaboration among teams, Kinzie is committed to helping clients improve communication, engagement, and organizational performance.