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HR in the Family

HR in the Family: Where two generations of Oldham Family HR professionals — Lynne, Whitney and Wallace — talk through intergenerational perspectives on some of the biggest issues facing HR professionals.

This is the first installment of HR in the Family…. first up -- the great resignation.

As long predicted, the “Great Resignation” is upon us. Companies of all sizes and in all industries are facing an unprecedented turnover in their staff -- from their front-line workers to their most senior executive suites. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in July 2021 alone, more than 4 million Americans quit their jobs with the greatest increase, more than 20% in people 30 to 45 years of age. Today’s conversation explores what led to the recent exodus (with the caveat that, yes, this is a point of privilege) and how we’ll find our way forward.

Whitney: I believe the Great Resignation is linked to something very much outside of our societal norms -- the idea of freedom from the status quo and a new focus on revolutionary self-care.

Lynne: I agree – over the last 18 months we’ve become accustomed to working through the cracks of life, rather than living through the cracks of work as we have for so many years. It has felt good, and people are intoxicated by the notion of true work/life integration -- they will not stop until they can find an employer who gets this. Or they may choose to get off the W2 employment path altogether!

Employees’ newfound desire and demand to be free can be scary for companies. In a pre-COVID world, many leaders believed that productive work had to be accomplished at a desk in an office, on a schedule set by the boss, but we have rung a bell that cannot be un-rung. To get through this, employers need to listen to their employees’ needs and wants and design work systems that can accommodate them.

Whitney: I lovingly refer to this millennial generation as the “rise & grind” generation. It’s the notion that burnout is a permanent state and that to improve your station in life you must have a “side hustle” or be consistently on the move -- on the grind -- to get to that next status check point - a house in the burbs or an apartment without roommates.

The stark reality was that for most of us, our lives revolved around our work and the thankless hustle of it all. But the pandemic made us realize that it didn’t have to be that way. We could achieve balance. We could seek pleasure in activities and hobbies. We could truly care for ourselves and our loved ones outside of those four cubicle walls.

When companies started demanding we return to the office, it’s no wonder that many balked and those who could, quit, while others are still looking for their next ‘perfect’ company where they can maintain their new schedules and preferred lifestyle.

Wallace: I don’t think people running after the next ‘perfect’ job is going to work out for everyone. Rather than quitting, people should be taking advantage of the equity or goodwill that they have built up with their current employer and “cash it in” for self-improvement and additional work life balance.

This is why people running after the next thing in the Great Resignation isn’t always going to work out for the best. When I have “equity” in my role -- my manager knows my worth and doesn't “sit on my shoulder” -- I have much more autonomy every day. When I let them know what I’m working on, particularly anything outside the scope of my day job, i.e., starting an Employee Resource Group work, speaking on a panel, etc., they don’t feel the need to check up on me every moment.

Maybe the good news is, as people leave, there will be more opportunities for people like me who have built that trust and equity to get a promotion or a new role. Some of the competition has been leveled by people leaving.

Lynne: You guys remember how it was when you were teens. I worked for a major bank in NYC where the days were super long. I would leave the house by no later than 7:30 for at least an hour-long commute via bus from NJ to the NY Port Authority, followed by a walk, in rain, snow or sun, to our building.

Most days I worked from 9 am to about 7 pm, dashing out to catch one of the last express buses of the night -- otherwise the commute increased by a factor of 50%. And, of course, if I missed that window, the bank offered dinner and a ride home via a black car which meant working until 8:30 pm. When I think back to the countless family events that I missed, I envy the young mothers and fathers of today, even though, of course, I know that this pandemic has taken a high toll on them. But it just wasn’t how we were wired back then. Work, work, work… at any and all costs. That’s all we knew.

Whitney: The idea that you are more than your work, more than your perceived drive, and more than the dollars in your checking account is kind of a radical concept. Can we hop off the hamster wheel and explore the possibilities of this newfound freedom?

Being home, we’ve spent less, consumed less and, by eliminating our commute, we’ve had more personal time. When those three changes were combined, I believe something radical happened and the status quo that needed to be maintained suddenly seemed almost pointless.

Lynne: Maybe that explains the data that shows that many women who left the workforce have yet to return (“Millions of Women Haven’t Rejoined The Workforce – And May Not Anytime Soon”, NPR June 2021). I hope it’s not that they have not been welcomed back by the employers they left now that they are ready to return.

Wallace: Looking at pre-pandemic engagement data, people didn’t understand their part in the “big machine” of their company’s strategy or how their role interlocks with others on their team. In a hybrid world, how will we ensure that people don’t feel like their work is siloed? Especially with brand new employees. How do we ensure that they feel connected to the company’s larger vision/purpose?

Lynne: At Zoom, we’ve been very focused on on-boarding new employees more effectively. During the pandemic, we brought on thousands of employees who never have been to a Zoom office or met their managers in person, so we created an onboarding experience that was not about the products but about our values – an emotive day-long experience about living Zoom’s values. And we are continually reviewing our program to continue to improve that first day experience and to focus on what it means to be a hybrid worker and a manager of hybrid workers. We still have a lot to learn here.

Wallace: Infatuation with working from home may fade, but it will depend on everyone’s specific circumstances -- startup vs. more mature company, introvert vs. extrovert, people with kids at home or solo, etc. For example, when I worked in a mature company/industry, the expectation was that you were always expected to be at your desk from 9 to 5 or you were not working. There must be something in between the forced work-from-home that we’ve all been doing and what I’ve experienced. What that looks like will be different for everyone. So how do employers not only wrap their heads around this new world but also accommodate…even welcome it?

I believe this is going to take a new level of transparency and trust between the employer and the employee. Things like, how am I doing in my role. Employees should be able to raise their hand when they are not hitting their goals/numbers to get the help they need without retaliation.

I recall at one employer where I was busting it out with a record number of requisitions. But during a performance discussion my manager indicated I was simply “meeting expectations”. That forced me to re-examine all the effort I was putting in at the expense of my well-being. I was 40 pounds overweight because I was working incessantly. I decided to alter my approach and make myself a priority. Unfortunately, there wasn’t more trust and transparency in the relationship I had with that manager – I never disclosed how our discussion impacted me.

Whitney: What I love about my work at Peloton is that we are trusted and respected to attend to our responsibilities as team members and employees. We are given the space and ability to manage our own time and tasks as we see fit.

Lynne: To build trust, we’ve found that while listening to our employees is critical, so is effectively communicating with them. People are not happy when we make them guess whether and when they will need to be back in the office or change our plans without communicating to everyone immediately. Autonomy is a critical motivator, and employees feel empowered if they are part of the decisions that affect them. And happier employees are not only more productive, but they are also less likely to consider leaving.

Whitney: I just hope we can continue to recognize and reward our employees who produced under the most stressful of circumstances ever seen in the modern workforce. Many have not seen or felt any reward for those efforts, making it incredibly easy to land on the question we’ve all asked ourselves many times: “what is this all for?”

I believe employers need to loosen the reins. There needs to be an elevation and new regard of the employee and their wants, needs and desires.

Wallace: Agreed! Companies should still have high standards for their employees, but they also need to ensure that there is proper recognition of those who are going above and beyond. Higher standards don’t mean ignoring employee’s desires, but it may mean that giving autonomy may not be “one size fits all.”

Lynne: It’s clear that the world of hybrid work is definitely not one size fits all and it is not even clear that offering maximum flexibility will stave off the Great Resignation at your company. What is clear is that we can’t go full steam ahead without asking the questions. Companies that don’t try to get to the root causes of why employees might be wobbly in their seats AND develop customized solutions to address their issues will be at great risk of being viewed as the “out of touch” employer from whom employees want to flee. The demand for talent is stronger than ever and we can’t attract the best talent if we’re not paying attention to what will both attract people to join our companies and keep them here for the long term.

Lynne Oldham began her human resources (HR) career in 1987 with a role in benefits administration. Since then, she has held just about every HR role available. Today, she is the Chief People Officer of Zoom (NASDAQ: ZM). Her daughter, Whitney, started her career in the public relations and digital media space before taking her first HR role in her 30’s at Peloton (NASDAQ: PTON). There, she is a member of their Global People Experience, Enablement & Development team. Lynne’s son, Wallace, began his HR career just after graduating college. He has worked as a recruiter in the financial services and consulting industries before recently joining DoorDash (NYSE: DASH).

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