Wars of Attrition and Workplace Idealizations

Finding the proper incentives to retain staff Nikhil Oumade Singh

“When a general, unable to estimate the enemy’s strength, allows an inferior force to engage a larger one, or hurls a weak detachment against a powerful one and neglects to place picked soldiers in the front rank, the result must be a rout.”

“Rout” is the final of the six calamities that may befall a general, as outlined in “The Art of War.” The first calamity, “Flight,” is defined as “Other conditions being equal, if one force is hurled against another 10 times its size, the result will be the flight of the former.” Comparatively speaking, when it comes to customer service representatives versus large numbers of incoming customer calls, conditions are not equal. The latter is larger, but the former is trained, most likely at the company’s expense, which becomes a sunk cost should the war of attrition drive that employee to another company.

Ultimately, what I will suggest in this article is promotion of better compensation and better working conditions through increased flexibility for the more basal tiers of office work (which does not mean lower, simply more fundamental, for there would be no numbers for us to crunch if there weren’t people administering these policies). In a recent study (n = 1612) conducted at a large tech firm, hybrid work was so valued by employees randomly selected to take part in it that the rate of attrition was reduced by 33%.1

Better compensation

Like the company, the employee is waging a war of attrition, albeit personal, between means and needs. Before considering wants, the employee is concerned with putting food on the table and a roof overhead. And the price of everything has gone up, so naturally, we will find that the labor cost has as well.

And just as much as the first gear in a car provides the most pulling power, a competent employee on a new job might learn the most in the first part of their first year. Therefore, remuneration ought to be allocated to reflect the value of experience. If an employee’s salary does not increase beyond inflation, then the value of accrued experience is subdued. As a result, the employee might become frustrated and move on, at which time the employer could pay for a training session for a new employee. Or perhaps, they could pay an employee that training cost on top of their salary and retain an employee who’ll accrue years of experience.

I am writing this article with customer service representatives as an example. My mother worked such jobs, so I can note with authority that these are often the hardest-working employees in a given business. And these positions experience a high turnover rate—often for no other reason than insufficient pay to keep one’s head above water. That alone will make an individual seek new means to make money, even if those means are risky.

Better working conditions

In my observation, people simply want to do their job and provide for themselves and their family. Many will sacrifice their bodies and psyches for the majority of their life so that they can attempt to find pleasure or peace in later years. Others, still, are only content if their lives are improving or they are working toward such. What most people dislike is feeling trapped or alone. In a post-pandemic era with an increased work-from-home world, social isolation has become more endemic and, what’s worse, its effects were felt most sharply by those already suffering due to social inequality.2

A limited in-person return to office or 100 percent remote could result in fewer close co-workers to commiserate with. However, misery loves company, as does joy, because pain shared is pain divided, and joy shared is joy multiplied. People, in my experience, like company (unless on the road, because no one likes traffic)—unless the company in question is agitated customers disturbing the peace of what used to be your home and has now also become your office.

Personality & passion

There are various reasons to appreciate working from home or in the office, just as there are varying personality types who will gravitate to each. A company will require both to be successful.3 Both the career-driven, whose sights are set on the heights, and those whose ambitions lie outside their job but will actually get much of the hard work done.

Ideally, it would be wise to determine what drives such employees underneath their professional surfaces, not just because their passions may inspire your own even further, but because (as Machiavellian as it sounds) it will help inform you on how their ambitions might contribute to the company’s ends. At the very least, if you come to know what drives someone, you will come to understand how to fuel them. And neither should we forget that as much as work may be necessary for us to persist, it is often that which is explored outside of it that makes life worth living.

It is an unfortunate and often unspoken maxim that the harder you work, the less you will be paid. And to add insult to injury, in my observations, there is the human tendency to enjoy being able to look down on others. For instance, I have heard housekeepers say that the worst part isn’t the work itself. No, the worst part is the way they are treated for doing a job. So, how about instead of paying people for their work, employers pay them their worth as people? It was once said by Pulitzer Prize winner Pearl Buck, “The test of a civilization is the way it cares for its helpless members.” Is it not the same for the most vulnerable members of a company?


I believe rising living costs will necessitate employers paying employees more or losing them to the narrow crossings of a tight labor market. The same strong labor pool will be positioned to make demands of employers, and for someone who makes enough money, the next thing that they will want is some of their time back. Some more of that sweet freedom! And now that generations have seen that working from home is indeed an indefinite possibility for certain roles, those who yearn for such freedom or what it would allow them to do will be drawn to those roles.

To embrace workforce changes and simultaneously retain employees and enrich their lives, employers might consider the increased cost of, say, call center labor to be an investment into creating genuinely stellar customer service. Exceptional customer service, of course, is one of those attributes that cannot be conventionally advertised but is more often known by word of mouth. Certainly, it will take a couple of years of displaying exceptional customer service before it permeates the collective consciousness of the markets operated in; all the more reason to start sooner rather than later.

With the notion of getting to know the person who lives beneath the professional clothes worn to work, companies should genuinely love their employees. This can undoubtedly be seen in a proper final notation from “The Art of War:”  “Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.” Or as the lead character in the 1994 version of the film “Richie Rich” says, “Happy people make for better workers.”

Nikhil Oumade Singh, ASA, is an investments analyst with RBC Insurance in Mississauga, Ontario. He was born and raised in the Caribbean (Trinidad & Tobago) before moving to Canada to pursue degrees in Actuarial Science and Statistics from the University of Waterloo.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

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