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‘DIYers’: How the Great Resignation Created the Worker of the Future

A new class of highly-skilled workers has emerged: Prioritizing flexibility and a sense of purpose over full-time employment.

An emerging group of knowledge workers wants flexibility above all else. These highly-skilled professionals are snubbing typical jobs and reshaping the way work gets done.

Even as salaries surge, employees find two factors in short supply: flexibility and meaningfulness of work. They are among the biggest reasons people leave their employers.

This new group of knowledge work DIYers tends to balance multiple clients while setting their own hours. And they’re largely in search of work that aligns with their passions.

Tech companies love to disrupt, transform, and revolutionize. But for the past decade, there’s one thing they’ve barely changed: how they build their teams. 

These companies know the rules of disruption better than anyone. Stick to the status quo too long, and someone else will arrive with a better approach. That’s happening right now when it comes to hiring. 

The traditional hiring process of adding full-time employees one by one is slow, costly, and rigid. It also leaves little room for freelance contributors, who tend to get boxed out at the first sign of budget trouble. Amidst a strange swirl of constant layoffs, low unemployment, and plenty of open jobs, this old-school model seems ready to give way to something better.

Enter the “do-it-yourselfer.”

The term, coined by McKinsey in a 2022 report about the Great Resignation, describes an emerging group of knowledge workers in the prime of their careers who “wants flexibility above all else.” These highly-skilled professionals are snubbing typical jobs and reshaping the way work gets done. They tend to balance multiple clients while setting their own hours. And they’re largely in search of work that aligns with their passions. According to the report, the change is already underway. The question is, how quickly will companies adapt? 

DIYers are snubbing typical jobs and reshaping the way work gets done.

Here’s what founders and hiring managers need to know about this new class of worker. 

1. Two factors are driving people to quit (hint: it's not money)

The social contract of traditional employment used to go like this: Workers sacrificed some independence for a steady paycheck and health insurance. Clock in, clock out, maybe get some free granola bars along the way.

But over the last few years, the social contract splintered. Even as salaries surged, employees found two factors in short supply: flexibility and meaningfulness of work. In fact, they were some of the biggest reasons people left their employers, per McKinsey’s research.

The data points to a new kind of iron triangle guiding decision-making. Professionals are weighing compensation against flexibility and meaningfulness. The companies that provide a balance of all three could gain an edge—even if that means rethinking their reliance on full-time roles.

2. Some DIYers may never return to traditional employment

LinkedIn used to be a place for overly-online Boomers to share unnecessary business parables. Now? It’s a bulletin board of bad news. Every day, it seems like another tech company announces layoffs and another wave of unemployed professionals are forced to ask for help finding work.

Thus far in 2022, over 500 startups have combined to fire more than 71,000 people, per the Layoffs.fyi Tracker. All this turbulence significantly cuts down on the appeal of just finding another job. 

“It’s not just about setting your own hours or picking your assignments,” said Peter O’Leary, a longtime engineering executive who now works as a consultant for tech companies. “It’s about taking back and controlling the narrative about yourself.”

McKinsey’s research suggests the promise of career advancement has lost some shine. For the group of workers McKinsey calls "Traditionalists," career development and advancement are still the primary incentive. When these workers quit during the Great Resignation, they tended to jump back into full-time roles. For DIYers, on the other hand, career advancement doesn’t crack the top half of their most important criteria when seeking work.

Additionally, some people in the DIYer cohort have found that nontraditional positions shield them from workplace issues that full-time employees deal with daily.

“When I’m freelancing, I know exactly what my role is and what I’m expected to deliver,” said Carleen Pan, a fractional COO and product strategist. “The narrow focus keeps me away from the culture or things that could become toxic.”

Toxic culture is the biggest factor pushing employees out the door during the Great Resignation.

This benefit holds more weight than you might think. Earlier in 2022, research published in the MIT Sloan Management Review found that a “toxic culture is the biggest factor pushing employees out the door during the Great Resignation.” In fact, they realized that issues like bad management and a hostile environment toward diversity and inclusion are 10.4 times more likely to influence attrition than compensation.

3. But if the DIYers do return, it'll likely take a strong mission to bring them back

Part of the DIYer allure is that flexibility works both ways. They can take on fractional work for multiple clients to protect themselves during a downturn. However, they may still be open to a full-time role—under the right conditions. 

"There are different ways for a company to be mission-oriented. You don’t necessarily have to be solving climate change."

For people in search of meaningful work, one of those conditions is a compelling company mission. But that doesn’t mean you have to be Patagonia or Charity: Water to coax someone back full time.

“There are different ways for a company to be mission-oriented. You don’t necessarily have to be solving climate change,” Pan said. She pointed to healthcare and fintech, where a lot of companies have interesting missions focused on using technology to make a positive impact on niche areas like compliance.

Alongside a great mission, these individuals also want to have a stronger sense of how their work furthers that mission.

On this front, McKinsey offered a few recommendations:

  • Offering modularized work, or “discreet meaningful tasks that can be accomplished independently.”
  • Managing outcomes instead of activities 
  • Letting workers and their teams “dictate for themselves when and how the task gets done.”

4. The Great Resignation is showing no signs of slowing down

Once disruption reaches a critical mass, it’s nearly impossible to go back to the way things were. Judging by the data, we should expect more turnover, attrition, and DIYers to continue across the globe.

The overarching takeaway from McKinsey’s report can be summed up with one word: unrest. Roughly 75% of respondents believe “it would not be difficult to find a job that pays the same or better.” Many people are switching industries. Some are leaving the workforce entirely, confident they’ll be able to jump back in seamlessly if they need to.

And if a recession ultimately occurs, that would only accelerate these changes. Consultants and freelancers tend to thrive in recessions—when companies look for ways to cut overhead—which could make it even harder to nudge them back to the traditional workforce. In many ways, the DIYer model is ideally suited to where the economy is headed. 

As Harvard Business School professor and bestselling author Clayton Christensen once put it, “Disruptive innovation can hurt if you are not the one doing the disruption.”

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