In my spare time, I keep bees, and I’ve had my hands full lately preventing a swarm. A swarm is a disaster for beekeepers — half the bees leave the hive and may be gone for good. In fact, much of beekeeping is focused on swarm prevention. Savvy beekeepers know how to read their hives and spot signs of trouble before the swarm happens and the bees abscond.

This morning, as I was inspecting a problematic hive, it occurred to me that there are remarkable parallels between beekeeping and leadership at this moment in time. Employees, like bees, are starting to swarm, and it can be a real disaster for the business.

A notable example occurred when Apple employees wrote a long letter to CEO Tim Cook, in response to his announcing plans to require employees to return to the office on a fixed schedule. They didn’t pull any punches, saying they felt “actively ignored,” that the company’s approach was “dismissive and invalidating,” and that there’s a growing disconnect between the executive team and Apple employees.

Ouch. Those words sting.

Pay attention to the signs

Like bees, employees don’t just wake up one morning and depart. In the case of the hive, problems such as diminishing food sources, poor weather, and various other problems can lead to the bees’ departure. A good beekeeper is attuned to these issues and acts to remedy them.

My point is this – an organisation is like a hive, and a good leader can read the signs and spot issues before employees take action — such as writing letters that grab global headlines — or as many more are likely to do, and simply leave.

Leaders who don’t see these things coming aren’t paying attention. The signs are there for the reading – work quality starts to lag, morale dips, absenteeism creeps upward, normally enthusiastic teams and people dial back their initiative.

And to be clear, I am not sharing a hunch. We saw this coming toward the end of last year and wrote a paper on the looming culture crisis that threatened business recovery. And now it’s here. Multiple recent reports and surveys – including a massive global assessment by Microsoft – indicate that a huge percentage of employees are considering changing jobs. In the case of the Microsoft report, the number is 41%.

What would happen to your business if even a fraction of that percentage of your people walked out the door?

As I said earlier, swarms are disasters.

Things have changed 

So what’s driving the likelihood that a staggering number of people will switch jobs?

Simple. Employees have changed. They are newly empowered, have new priorities, and are confident: the job market currently favors the job seeker. Executives must keep these facts in mind when it comes to tending their human hives. Let’s look at some of the specifics.

First, the experience of the last year has prompted many toward introspection. They have re-prioritised their relationships and well-being and are no longer willing to sacrifice either on the altar of work. In particular, a startling number of women are deciding to leave the workforce.

How are they responding? Some are taking it a step further and taking advantage of this moment in time to change professions.

The reasons spurring people to switch careers are varied. Some are taking advantage of the labor shortage to find more lucrative or flexible working options. Others are seeking more meaningful, purposeful work. A new crop of entrepreneurs is focused on making their hobbies and passions into careers.

Confidential to execs – don’t get stung

If there was ever a time to set aside one’s preferences and assumptions, this is it.

WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani earned himself headlines such as “WeWork’s CEO Insults Employees Who Prefer Working Remotely” from Forbes when he disparaged the engagement and effort of employees who prefer remote work at a recent conference with these words:

“It’s also pretty obvious that those who are overly engaged with the company want to go to the office two-thirds of the time at least. Those who are least engaged are very comfortable working from home.” 

Apple’s Cook also earned the ire of employees when he noted that he “misses the hum of activity” in the office.

Your people have feelings and preferences too and are less likely to abandon them than they were previously. My advice to leaders is this: challenge yourself when it comes to your preferences. Ask yourself “why” and don’t let yourself answer with generalisations and assumptions. Be as rigorous with yourself as you are with others, and require facts and data to back up your opinions. If the facts and data don’t support your position, it’s time to change.

Listen, then ACT

First and foremost, creating a safe space for employee feedback that guarantees their anonymity and protects them from any sort of retaliation is crucial.

From my perspective as the founder and CEO of an employee engagement SaaS company, it is my recommendation to survey your team regularly. Things change, and regular surveys enable you to find your norm – and see when trends start to deviate from it.

However, as important as listening is, it’s nothing without corresponding action. Employees will quickly conclude they’re screaming into the void and stop participating in your surveys if they don’t see any resulting benefit.

Additionally, pay attention to the trends and drivers of change I mentioned above. Strive to build an environment where employees feel a strong sense of belonging. Devote extra attention to understanding the needs of the working parents within your organisation – and find ways to meet those needs. Ensure managers are talking to their people about opportunities for growth and development, so you can channel peoples’ interests – and retain those valuable employees.

This doesn’t have to end badly 

I believe this is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m confident we’ll now see other employees and teams following a similar path and embarrassing their leadership. There are, I believe, many CEOs right now who will be smart enough to be genuinely worried about the fact that this could happen to them. However, there’s an even greater number that are not paying attention and are completely unaware of the fact that this is going to happen in their organization — and it’s going to really catch them unawares.

In the US, people are quitting their jobs at the highest rate in the last two decades. The bees are starting to swarm.

But this doesn’t have to end badly. There is a solution that is swift, simple, and effective.

It just involves taking the time right now – like a good beekeeper would – to lift the lid of the hive and have a bloody good look inside.

How? Run a confidential and completely anonymous survey of your team, and learn whether there is a wave of adverse sentiment building that’s just about to turn into a swarm.

The very act of asking will diffuse tension, and slow any mounting issues. You will also create the opportunity, like in the beekeeping analogy, to take some swift remedial action to stop the swarm from happening.

Even if your employees don’t write an embarrassing “Dear CEO” letter, if double-digit percentages of them leave the company, that will be punishing. It will hurt more than a small sting.

Better still, get ahead of it.

This scenario reminds me of the wise words of one of my first mentors. “Pain weighs ounces, but regret weighs tonnes.” A bit of honest feedback right now could avoid a lot of regret later.

Here’s some help

I’m making our pre-built surveys and full platform available completely for free for you to go in and understand what’s going on and defuse the problem. Register your interest here and a member of my team will assist you in fielding your survey.

Because, as you now know, by the time the bees swarm, it’s too late.