This time last year, agency employees were holding tightly onto their jobs, hoping to ride out 2020’s Covid-fueled layoffs unscathed.

Fast forward to today and the scenario is flipped. After a year and a half of being locked in, racial and political strife, and serious soul searching, employees are far more nonchalant about their careers — and, in some cases, work altogether.

In turn, staffers are walking off the job in unprecedented numbers, leaving agencies scrambling for talent at a time when business is up — and being short-staffed really hurts.

“This year has been extraordinary. I have never seen anything like this,” said Monday Talent CEO and founder Jamie McLaughlin, who specializes in comms industry recruiting.  “There is not a day that goes by without an agency reaching out to me.”

The PR industry is far from alone in feeling the pain of the Great Resignation, the phenomenon of people quitting their jobs in droves. In August, 4.3 million Americans walked away from work, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet the problem is still very personal for the comms industry, which is aiming to understand the reasons beyond the exodus. What is it going to take to recruit and retain talent?

Industry leaders cite several factors at play — a hot job market, working from home, and burnout among them — nearly all of which stem from the Covid pandemic, and how profoundly the experience changed the way people think about their careers. 

With the luxury of being in demand, professionals in the PR business are also taking more risks, both within and outside the PR industry. These include testing new professions. Others are pausing careers altogether — leaving fruitful jobs with no clear future plan.

And it's not just disgruntled workers who are taking the leap. In July, a global study from Zeno showed even individuals happy on the job would jump ship for the right opportunity.

People are seeing work differently compared to a year ago, said Rowan Benecke, US president of financial services firm Cognito. “Work is now something that you do, not somewhere that you go,” he said. “That’s empowered people to think about what work means to them and what kind of work is important to them as opposed to just having a job.”

And they're fatigued. “Most people aren’t resigning for the sake of it but because people are burning out because there is very little separation between work and home,” McLaughlin said. “It’s just not sustainable.”

Cognito, which so far this year has had a 60% staff retention rate, has responded to the problem by beefing up its self-promotion through digital campaigns, while finding ways to better engage job seekers and employees alike.

“While marketing to clients and new clients continues to happen, there is now a much bigger focus on marketing to your staff — those you want to retain and grow and keep and develop, and those you would like to hire,” Benecke said. The effort started showing signs of promise this summer, when Cognito experienced an uptick in candidate inquiries, he said.

Lisa Moehlenkamp, FleishmanHillard’s chief talent development officer and chief of staff, said the talent shortage has prompted the agency to look beyond recruiting from traditional sources. That includes launching Project Open Door, an initiative aimed at restructuring the firm’s talent recruitment processes with a focus on hiring more diverse talent. The agency also partners with organizations such as ColorComm, Reaching Out and the Human Rights Campaign to pique diverse candidates’ interest.

All of which leads to employees having more power when it comes to hammering out terms of employment. Traditional drivers like competitive pay and perks are not necessarily enough.

A study from Weber Shandwick’s United Minds released Wednesday finds employees also want to keep the independence and flexibility they have had during Covid, as well as feel appreciated and fulfilled.

The survey of 2,800 people in seven countries showed being treated fairly and feeling supported, secure and included regardless of role or background are of primary importance. So is having a positive work environment and “meaningful fun.”

Yet whether meeting employees’ changing expectations is feasible remains to be seen, McLaughlin said, as agencies are still figuring out what work is going to look like once offices reopen.

Companies, for instance, are putting a premium on flexibility, but the idea of going wholly remote is losing steam. Salaries will likely be scaled in line with where employees live.

“There always has to be winners and losers,” McLaughlin said. “Not everyone can call all the shots all the time."