Almost 4 million Americans decided to leave their jobs in June. Two months earlier, The Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded its highest number of resignations since it started keeping records in 2000.
A year of lockdowns, mask mandates, and WFH has brought about “The Great Resignation,” encouraging many people to take a deep look at their lives and reevaluate where and how they want to work. Those who decided to leave their jobs might have found it surprisingly easy to strike out on their own, thanks to increased hiring for both full-time and freelance work.
The temptation to find greener pastures is especially compelling in the creative industry, where a freelance career is just a resignation letter away. So if you’re a creative manager tasked with keeping your team happy and delivering results for the organization, what can you do?
Why Workers are Quitting
Before worrying about how to keep your team together, consider why employees are interested in quitting in the first place. Chief among the reasons is the ability to work from home—according to a survey from McKinsey, about 30 percent of respondents said they would likely switch jobs if their current employer didn’t offer a flexible work option.
It’s no surprise that a lot of people loved working from home. The reasons range from no commute, to geographic flexibility, to increased family time, to being able to do deep work without the distractions in an office. In Salt Lake City, which has been a magnet for people fleeing larger cities, home prices have jumped 29% in a year, and it’s almost impossible to find a house for sale. Return to office mandates are falling flat, and when push comes to shove, many creatives are choosing not to return to an office.
Additionally, sitting at home for a year really gave Americans a chance to rethink their priorities. Many people have moved, many have undertaken new creative pursuits, and others have found new skills or interests that developed into passions. Whatever the individual reason, many workers in suboptimal job situations reached their breaking point in 2020 and are starting to feel empowered to find the right place for them. With many open jobs and businesses hungry to get back to normal, there are more opportunities to change one’s work situation than we’ve seen in years.
My team is doing what it can to ensure that everyone is healthy, happy, and engaged with work—but sometimes, employees still quit. It happened to me recently. What to do then?
When an employee quits, take their feedback to heart. Then, take steps to ensure you won’t be dealing with a mass exodus on your team. Lamenting the fact or spending too much time wondering what you could have done is sunk cost. It’s time to nurture and retain the rest of your team.
Be Clear About Why Someone Quit
While some details might require privacy due to HR guidelines, do what you can to keep the situation as open and transparent as possible. Share the reasons people quit and talk about them openly. See if others on your team are struggling with the same issues. Be clear about what you are doing to address those reasons and make sure you follow through.
One-on-Ones with Everyone
When a member of my team quit recently, we announced it to the team in a group setting and let them all take a minute to process the news. Then we jumped straight into one-on-one conversations with the team. We talked about people’s concerns, fears, and any other issues they wanted to bring up. We asked them open-ended (but specific) questions, like their thoughts about how the individual leaving might impact their workload—that gave us better answers than simply asking if they had any questions.
Over the next two weeks, we held less-formal one-on-ones to gently tease out any other issues we needed to address internally. We still asked those open ended questions to tease out honest answers in these casual conversations. Where we once had a united view on being in the office all week, we all (including me) talked about how we missed some work from home time. We’ve all adjusted our schedules to be in the office when it makes the most sense and home the rest of the time.
Small, Cross-Functional Team Projects
Establish ways for your team to work together on interesting projects. That’ll build trust and understanding, ultimately leading to a stronger team.
A few members of my team are doing a typography project, a couple of others are exploring animation and motion graphics, and a couple of the developers are writing a new WordPress plugin. None of these projects directly impact our clients right now, but they raise our overall abilities and keep the creative team engaged.
We found teams of two people with similar interests on each of these projects but who haven’t worked on projects directly together before. It’s serendipitous that we have a designer and a developer that were individually interested in motion graphics. We have a freshly graduated designer who matched up with a more veteran UX designer who both needed to hone their typography skills. They were all given a choice to work on it with the note, “only if it sounds like fun,” and we’ve seen more light and laughter in an office that was shocked by the loss of one of our crew.
Treat it Like a New Beginning
It’s not just the creative industry that’s hemorrhaging workers. I talk to my clients every day, and most of them have a similar story of people leaving lately. While it’s tempting to feel sorry for yourself when you’re covering extra workloads and rescheduling projects, it’s also a time to reassess the structure and dynamics of your team.
One client is using the opportunity to completely rethink how their department runs. After a conversation with them, I realized we needed something different in the role we are replacing. Instead of bringing in another lead designer, we’re focusing on a true creative director position—someone who is a great designer in their own right—but who is also interested in growing a creative services team. Someone with a good focus on mentoring, positive critiques, and developing the skills and confidence of other creatives.
Retain Creative Talent
Creative leaders should always look for ways to keep their teams happy and motivated. Whether your team is back in its office or everyone’s settling into long-term remote work, the manager’s job is to focus on keeping your team balanced, productive, and satisfied.
Try the “Back of the Napkin” Brainstorm
The “back of a napkin” is where so many great product and startup ideas first came into being. This simple team building exercise replicates this tiny canvas, giving participants something fun to do while promoting teamwork and creative thinking.
A Good Creative Project
Sometimes, creative teams get sucked into focusing on QBRs, OKRs, and other confusing, goal-oriented acronyms. But it’s good to stop and remember why we’re all here—we are creatives. We’re here for the art as well as the business.
Creatives quit jobs for the same reasons as other workers, like toxic culture and career stagnation, but one of the biggest reasons we leave is boredom. We want to be creative! We want to solve problems, and we want to try new approaches. If a creative employee feels that fire is dimming, they won’t hesitate to make a move.
To stoke your team’s fires, assess the workload of each member. Does everyone have a high-creative project to chew on? Probably not—so this is a good opportunity to create those projects. If you’ve got a teammate doing deep UX work on a complex project, like I do, consider another project that can activate the more creative side of their brain. That teammate is also starting work on a high-concept internal design project.
Creative Team Best Practices
Think beyond this moment and a single project and ensure you are putting good processes in place to support and nurture your creatives. Alice Carleton, Head of People Potential at Ceros, shares the advice to:
- Encourage true collaboration in brainstorm sessions at the start of a project.
- Empower autonomy by being especially clear in your creative briefs so designers can feel confident and motivated by the trust and autonomy that can follow.
- Facilitate open and candid—and always respectful—debriefs following each major project. Encourage everyone involved to share insights, wins, and opportunities.
- Model vulnerability as a creative leader to create safe space to identify key learnings without fear, blame, or politics.
- Provide effective critiques by giving and receiving feedback well. Effective feedback loops have a huge impact on morale and motivation, as well as continuing to level up and do even greater work!
The Office Environment
How and where we choose to spend time together has a lot to do with how much we want to be in the office. My agency recently moved into a new location, and the one thing we all agreed on was that the coffee had to be superb—yes, it was actually that important to us—and that our favorite drinks and snacks had to be on hand all the time. We chose a location that had a lot of lunchtime food options within walking distance.
If you have control over the environment your team works in, now is the time to invest in proper accommodations—the ones that bring delight like excellent coffee and the ones that accommodate your team’s needs, like good chairs, good lighting, and adequate sound abatement.
Staying in Sync
Finally, if you’ll be dealing with some teammates working in person and some staying permanently remote, consider what you can do to accommodate the WFHers. It can be easy to make the remote workers feel like second-class citizens—they don’t get to speak as often in meetings and don’t get those “water cooler” moments that in-office employees have. Ensure that remote workers get equal opportunities, get access to all the latest information, and feel like a connected part of the group.
Bonus Lesson: The Grass Really is Greener
Endings are all genuinely new beginnings. Wish your exiting coworkers well and focus your efforts onward and upwards. While people leaving is always difficult, it can often give you an excellent opportunity to adjust your team for a brighter future.