Looking at the Great Resignation from a Hong Kong Perspective
By Jeff Tang, Partner, People Advisory Services, Hong Kong at Ernst & Young Tax Services Ltd
  • The great resignation is a global phenomenon, yet the reasons for members of Hong Kong's workforce leaving their jobs have characteristics of their own.

  • By reimagining talent management strategies, organisations can create opportunities to strengthen employee engagement, to future proof the city’s workforce.

Since Anthony Klotz, business management professor and organisational psychologist at Texas A&M University coined the term the “great resignation” during his interview with Bloomberg in 2021, employee resignation-related issues have remained in the headlines. Across the globe, not only have workers been quitting their jobs in droves as Klotz predicted, it has also become clear that employees’ relationship with work is now more complex than before. For instance, in January 2022, Dr Galen Watts, a researcher at the Centre for Sociological Research at Katholieke University (KU), Leuven, Belgium, published an article on the World Economic Forum website which explored the great resignation from a sociological point of view. Termed the “passion paradigm”, Watts suggested that successful careers are passion-driven, intrinsically satisfying, and expressive of people’s true selves. As the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted people’s routines and lives, Watts believes it has prompted individuals to re-evaluate the “passion paradigm” and reawakened a deep-seated desire in them to look for jobs which are intrinsically more satisfying and meaningful.

While research on the causes and effects of the great resignation has predominantly been conducted from a homogenous western perspective, in Hong Kong a divergence of factors is responsible for influencing the resignation equation. For example, at the same time as Hong Kong's workforce are asking questions about how they work and live — and how to better balance the two — there is the added factor of people resigning from their jobs because they are exiting the city. Figures from the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department show that more than 113,000 residents have left the city amid an emigration wave over the past 12 months, contributing to a 1.6% drop in the population in total. The number of departures was nearly 1.3 times higher than the amount recorded between mid-2020 and mid-2021, during which 89,200 residents left the city.

While the reasons for people departing Hong Kong can be attributed to a vast array of factors, the exodus of talent cuts across all professions and experience levels, exerting further pressure on an already squeezed talent pool. Exacerbating the situation further, in a relentless pursuit of the city’s zero-COVID policy, stringent quarantine and travel rules have practically severed the supply of skilled labour from overseas. With talent availability posing a challenge, employees are resigning from their current jobs knowing that they will be able to obtain a better offer in terms of flexibility, pay, and benefits elsewhere. This job-hopping movement, referred to by some as the “great reshuffle”, is characterised by workers switching jobs rather than leaving the workforce for good. Keeping this in mind, organisations need to work harder to retain employees with proactive talent management strategies.

From “Lion Rock” to “Lying Flat”

Similar to other parts of the world, work and social disruption caused by the pandemic has resulted in members of the Hong Kong workforce rethinking what a meaningful job entails, what they want out of life, and do their values align with the work they are doing? Blurring the lines further, the impact of the great resignation has coincided with fundamental changes in the structure of the city's economy and related talent needs. Across all industry sectors the use of e-commerce and digital technologies has activated a need for new talent and for existing talent to upgrade their skills. In the midst of unprecedented changes, the demand for new skills has initiated a talent movement not only within industry sectors, but migration across different industry sectors. Increased integration with the Greater Bay Area is also creating a demand for talent to work in emerging areas of work. 

While the change in the future of work demographics offers opportunities and positive outcomes, not everyone is reaping the benefits. Growing inequality, rising costs of living, and sky-high property prices are elevating Hong Kong's traditional markers of success beyond the reach of many, especially the city's younger generation. Arguably the opportunities for upward mobility have become more limited. As a result, studies have shown that members of Hong Kong's younger generation are resorting to “tang ping” – or “lying flat” – a counter-cultural trend which originated in mainland China by disenchanted youths who reject the unrelenting pressure of work with little reward to show for it. 

On the other hand, Hong Kong has a longstanding reputation for demonstrating resilience in the face of economic and social challenges and emerging from them stronger. The city’s brand of resilience is often dubbed the "Lion Rock Spirit", a term used to denote Hong Kong people’s indefatigable attitude of perseverance and solidarity, which sprung from a 1970s TV series portraying the struggles and triumphs of locals living through the era. 

Turning “The Great Resignation” into “The Great Opportunity”

While the specific talent management challenges organisations currently face vary widely, when it comes to talent acquisition and retention, it ultimately boils down to one central question: what is important to the talent that organisations want to attract and retain? More than ever before, employers need to listen and respond to the evolving needs and aspirations of their employees. Lessons being learned from the great resignation have made it clear that today's workforce expect more from their employers. People want to work for companies that show they are listening and responding with empathy. They demand flexibility, a sense of purpose and value from the work that they do, competitive pay and benefits, a positive workplace environment, and opportunities to scale the ladder.   

As an employer, understanding what motivates employees can provide insights that can be used to help stem attrition, and even attract new talent. Organisations need to utilise the tools and levers they have for building and strengthening work relationships. For instance, companies can review the ways they deploy their people engagement resources.  They can start by finding out what motivates people beyond the material benefits of their job. For instance, are a subsidised canteen and company-sponsored activities meeting the expectations and attracting the attention of talent the organisation is looking for? If not, what will? There is no clear-cut solution; instead companies need to consider basing their people engagement resources on their DNA and values, i.e., what they stand for, what they want to be known for, and how this can be aligned with talent needs and their aspirations. Is the organisation proud of its Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) practices? Importantly, the HR function should build a narrative around these strengths and values and make sure they are communicated both internally and externally to potential recruits and through talent marketing channels. 

Although organisations have no control over how the great resignation will ultimately pan out, by approaching the challenge as a unique opportunity to reassess, reengage, and redefine, companies stand a better chance of retaining valuable staff while recruiting the right talent for shaping the future of work.

The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organisation or its member firms.
Looking at the Great Resignation from a Hong Kong Perspective
PR 16 August, 2022