February 28, 2011

The Coming Retention Crisis

Forecasting Trends

Picture this. Take your best employees and overwork them by cutting back on other staff and support because of budget constraints. Don’t give them a raise for a year or two. Give them less fulfilling work to do since that’s all there is in the current economy. Don’t promote them because you can’t afford to and there are no openings anyway. Take away their friends and colleagues or diminish their access to them with layoffs, reorganizations, and policing (or at least discouraging) social network usage.

If this sounds like a bad idea, it is. This is the unfortunate situation many organizations are in and the pressure is building for what can only be called a crisis for retaining staff in the near future. Some companies are seeing this coming; for instance in November, Google decided to give an across the board 10% raise to its employees. While not everyone can afford to do this, action must be taken or else people will simply be biding their time until things pick up and they can go somewhere else – and all signs point to that happening now.

Here are five areas to be thinking about, many of which you can address without breaking the bank and certainly at less cost than losing your best people:

  1. Space: Are people working in spite of their workspace or being supported by it? Does your allocation of space align to how people spend their time – for instance, do people spend most of their day collaborating, while you are flush with often empty individual workspace and starved for meeting space? Does your space reflect your brand and inspire your people? Reorganizing your space and rebranding it could help address these and other questions.
  2. Services: Do employees have the support services they need? Are the services they are to provide customers well designed? It’s tragically common for customer-facing staff to be put in awkward or awful  positions; for instance, on a flight not too long ago, the front third of the plane was empty since these were premium seats so it became the flight attendants’ job to police people moving forward during the flight, explaining to people dozens of times why they couldn’t sit in an empty seat. Good service design considers the interactions between customers, information, environment, and staff without satisfying one need at the expense of another.
  3. Technology: Do your people have the technology they need to do their jobs? Are you avoiding all technology investment even when some efforts could shortly pay for themselves by making people more productive? There are a lot of free or low-cost tools out there and these can be piloted with a small group to mitigate the risks and select the best one. For instance, a common problem is virtual collaboration without simple screen–sharing technology (webex, go to meeting, lync etc)
  4. Process: Are there processes you are using now that are getting in the way – perhaps they are simply legacies of days past?  For instance, maybe there are internal transactions or communications that need not be paper-based rather than digital. Another key area is to run better meetings (and likely have fewer of them) as this can either be a drain on people or a boost, depending on how they go. If they have a clear purpose and agenda, are well facilitated and documented, and have good follow-up, they can help you move ahead and keep people engaged. If not, they can be a waste of time and blight on your people.
  5. Culture: Does your organization have a clear sense of purpose that is shared by employees? Do your employees have a sense of ownership over their work and know how it fits in to something larger? Are they engaged? There is a mounting volume of resources on these topics; for instance, Bill Taylor and Polly LaBarre frame this as “not just a company, but a cause” in Mavericks at Work.  A good starting point is to know where you are in terms of employee engagement, using something like the Gallup Q12.

Though many of these issues are mainly a matter of devoting the time to them, answering some of these questions will indeed have a cost. But this cost likely pales in comparison to losing your best people as the economy picks up.

One of the smartest things I’ve ever heard a leader say was that after his tech company’s coming IPO, his best people would effectively become volunteers so unless he created a great work environment, people would have no reason to stay on. There’s a bit of this in our current situation – we need to think about all the different ways to keep people engaged and give people as many reasons as possible to stay.

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