Illustration by Fanny Luor
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Work Culture

Is the Great Resignation a vibe shift at work?


Published on May 09, 2022

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When the now-viral story about the imminent “vibe shift” was first published, my co-workers and I were equal parts fascinated and terrified. To be honest, our reaction was similar to Marc Maron’s take on turmeric: Really? We have to care about this now, too? 

Maybe our collective shrug was kind of a vibe shift in itself. Nothing against fashion trends, but they’ve been off my radar for a while. Two years ago, I had to care about office wear. Now, I’m just contemplating a fresh pair of sweat pants. And a lot of us like it that way.  It’s not that we don’t ever want to dress up when we reunite in person; we just don’t want to do it every day then commute to an office to do work we could do at home. 

My remote work revelation has been: I prefer working at home but meeting in person. When I finally get to meet my co-workers who were hired during the pandemic—and live on the other side of the continent—we’ll get to brainstorm together in a different city, thanks in part to a more flexible work policy

So for me, the vibe shift is: I’m looking forward to a team meeting in a way I never did before. 

Our team has been thinking (and writing) a lot about what work means now. And judging by all the recent TikTok mic drops, the idea of enduring a job just to pay the bills isn’t always the default anymore. Now more people are prioritizing work that gives them passion and purpose in exchange for their time and energy.

But the Great Resignation has so many conflicting narratives, it’s hard to tell what’s really happening. Is it ending or still going strong? Are resignees regretting their decision or thriving in their new roles? Early reporting focused on essential workers walking out in a blaze of glory. Then came the counter narratives and constant reframing. 

My remote work revelation has been: I prefer working at home but meeting in person.

Whether you see it as a Great Reflection, Reshuffle, Re-engagement or Realignment, there’s no doubt that this is a watershed moment for workers, as employers posted a record 11.5 million job openings in March, even as 4.5 million more workers quit or changed jobs. But there is disagreement over whether the movement is fueled more by frustration or opportunity. 

The longer it continues, the more the Great Resignation seems to be evolving into a multidimensional movement that’s part of a larger cultural vibe shift—one that may be more optimistic for workers.

Not walking away—moving forward

According to a recent Pew Research report, some workers who left their jobs last year may never return to the workforce, but more than half actually changed their field of work. 

With the growing interest in entrepreneurialism, the shift may be more about aspiration than resignation. “People aren't giving up—they're saying I think I can do more. I think I can be more,” says Whitney Johnson, author of Smart Growth: How To Grow Your People to Grow Your Company

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Johnson calls out signs that we’ve just entered a new era of reinvention. “Psychologists have said that periods of tremendous stress, like a pandemic, often lead to a period of exceeding growth. They call it post-traumatic growth.”

One of the most important things we discovered about ourselves during the pandemic is that we’re more resilient—and capable of change—than we realized.

“We were all forced to learn in ways we hadn't learned,” Johnson says. “The older we get, the more we can insulate ourselves from ever doing anything new, but we flexed that muscle of 'I just did another new thing today.’ All of a sudden, we found ourselves pumping the iron of, ‘I actually am better at learning than I thought I was.”’

Employers are willing to evolve, too

Though a lot of the first reporting on the Great Resignation focused on exhausted essential workers, the momentum of the movement is fueled by more than frustration.

“If you believe, which I do, that growth is our default setting, we're also forming new neural pathways,” says Johnson. “The neuroscience bears that out. If you've got a toddler who's learning how to walk, they’re going to have moments where they're fed up and frustrated. But that doesn’t mean they don't want to figure out how to walk and then run.”

“People aren't giving up—they're saying I think I can do more. I think I can be more.”—Whitney Johnson

So it’s also helpful to look at what compelled some essential workers to stay, even as they were pushed to the absolute limit. Johnson thinks what kept them going was the deep sense of purpose that initially drew them to a field such as healthcare in the first place.

And when an employer understands that purpose is the key motivator, they can stop focusing on how to prevent resignations and start offering what employees are searching for elsewhere. 

“If I understand that people want to grow, that's going to affect how I'm going to recruit,” she says. “That's going to affect how I'm going to develop people. It's going to affect how I retain people.”

A rising tide of optimism

A few weeks ago, reporters described a vibe shift of optimism at Coachella—the product of more things opening and fewer restrictions. Even during turbulent times and an ongoing pandemic, people are finding joy in reuniting. This somewhat hopeful spirit is returning to workplaces, as well.

“Two weeks ago, I worked with a company called Chatbooks,” recalls Johnson. “For the first time in couple of years, they had the entire company together on site for a week. I was there to speak to the company for that. There was such a sense of energy, communion, and joie de vivre because they were together.”

Johnson believes companies have an incredibly important opportunity right now: to be thoughtful and deliberate about how they reunite employees so those moments feel more like a celebration rather than an obligation. And now that those reunions don’t necessarily have to happen in a conference room at the office, it’s easier to make them feel a little more joyful.

“We've just expanded our portfolio in terms of where, when, and how we work,” she says. “We have more tools for working together in the office, at home, and hybrid, and I think that's great.”

Jumping to new S curves

Earlier this year, Johnson wrote about the potential for what she calls “the S curve of Learning,” which is the trajectory workers follow as they gain new skills. 

Growth is slow and effortful at the outset, known as the launch point. That phase is followed by rapid upward progress as people acquire new skills and overcome setbacks: a stretch I think of as the sweet spot. At the peak is mastery—when work becomes easier, but the curve flattens because there is little left to learn. When that happens it’s time to jump to the bottom of a new S Curve, put in the effort, and experience the thrill of climbing again.

In a time of massive shifts, change, and upheaval, Johnson says having an entrepreneurial mindset makes you more comfortable with the messiness of being at the launch point of a new S curve. 

“You don't need the certainty,” she explains. “So a person with that mindset is going to be able to traverse this time period more effectively, whether they're in an organization or not.”

And right now, the windows of opportunity are especially wide open for people at the top of their S curve. If you’re on the precipice of trying something new, but you’re not sure exactly how to start, you’re not alone. But your first leap doesn’t have to be the biggest.  

“What I generally encourage people to do is some baby step types of things,” says Johnson. “Practice doing new things. Set a few ridiculously small goals. Just give yourself a way to experiment for a month. Make one phone call or one email outreach a day. Allow yourself to just play and explore and see, is this interesting enough that I want to pursue this more?”

“Practice doing new things. Set a few ridiculously small goals. Give yourself a way to experiment for a month.”

And if the idea of reward isn’t strong enough motivation, try raising the stakes.

“The way you raise the stakes is not by thinking about what good things will happen if you do it,” Johnson says. “You tip it on its head and use loss aversion theory. We're 2.2 times more motivated by what we lose than by what we gain. So if you're thinking of doing something new, ask yourself: What will I lose if I don't do this?“

It’s not just the vibe that’s shifting

One of the most interesting changes to come out of the Great Resignation is a shift in the balance of power. 

As offices have been reopening, there’s been tension between employers and employees over how much time, if any, workers will be required to be on site. But as the strong demand continues, high-performing workers—especially younger ones—know they have the upper hand. And this bodes well for their ability to persuade companies to allow more work flexibility.

“If you insist that everybody's in the office, the quality of labor and your labor pool shrinks,” says Johnson. “So the workers will ultimately win.”