To Retain Employees, Give Them a Sense of Purpose and Community

Leaders determined to stem the tide of talent defections during the Great Resignation could be surprised to learn they’re barking up the wrong tree by simply throwing money or perks at the problem. The author spoke with six human resource executives from companies reporting that their organizations are not experiencing higher-than-normal attrition. Among the many insightful perspectives shared, three practices appeared to be universal across these companies. First, build a culture of solidarity. Then, let employees co-create the workplace experience. Finally, coach your managers on how to genuinely care for others. The author offers several ways to put those practices into action.

Most employers are anxious about the mass exodus happening from today’s workplaces. Widespread conjecture about what’s behind “the Great Resignation” ranges from people wanting more work flexibility and higher-paying jobs to simply being utterly exhausted from pandemic burnout. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 15 million people quit their jobs since April in the U.S. alone. Microsoft’s recent research suggests that 41% of workers across the world are thinking about quitting their jobs.

That means 59% of workers aren’t thinking about quitting. What can we learn from the organizations that are retaining their employees in this environment?

I recently spoke with six human resource executives from companies reporting that their organizations are not experiencing higher-than-normal attrition. I wanted to find out if there were any common patterns that shed light on what it really takes to retain talent in such a volatile time. Among the many insightful perspectives I heard, three practices appeared to be universal across these companies.

Leaders determined to stem the tide of talent defections by simply throwing money or perks at the problem could be surprised to learn they’re barking up the wrong tree. If you’re genuinely committed to retaining your talent, you’re going to have to dig a bit deeper.

Build a culture of solidarity

The last 18 months have sharply awakened our innate hunger for meaning and purpose. Forced into self-reflection during extended WFH, workers have questioned the value of their work and the sense of meaning it provides. On top of that, the isolation of the pandemic has intensified our desire for authentic belonging. Recent research from McKinsey confirms that these two factors are playing a substantial role in the current spike in attrition. The top two reasons employees cited for leaving (or considering leaving) were that they didn’t feel their work was valued by the organization (54%) or that they lacked a sense of belonging at work (51%).

One HR executive I spoke with shed light on the importance of both:

In our organization, we’ve emphasized both purpose and belonging because they must go hand in hand. We want people to feel like everything they do matters not just to the organization, but to each other. We want people to feel a shared sense of purpose as well as fulfillment in their own purpose. We refer to it as solidarity.

All of the HR executives cited purpose as fundamental to a culture that retains top talent. My own research bears this out. In my 15-year study of more than 3,200 leaders, when purpose was activated in actions, not just words, an organization was three times more likely to have people treat each other fairly and serve the greater good.

One important factor that jumped out at me among the HR leaders I spoke with was that they all emphasized that their cultures of solidarity were established long before the pandemic struck. One said, “If you didn’t have a purposeful culture, you definitely were caught short. And if you were, there’s no quick panacea to fix it. But for goodness’ sake, don’t waste another minute waiting to start creating one.”

When I asked what practical things their organizations had done to manifest cultures of solidarity, they offered the following ideas:

Make personal aspiration a routine part of manager conversations.

While many organizations are busy purpose washing to create the illusion of meaning, genuinely purposeful organizations embed solidarity right into management practices. Create simple approaches that teach managers how to shape meaningful conversations, asking how their people are progressing with their professional or personal aspirations.

One HR leader told the story of a manager whose team member had a side hustle as a beekeeper. During one-on-one conversations, the manager made a point of asking, “How’s the honey business going?” Taking interest in an employee’s whole life strengthens their sense of belonging and belief that they matter. Rather than worrying that such personal interests might distract from work efforts, smart managers realize that by taking an interest in the whole employee, you ensure that they bring that same creativity and energy to their day jobs.

Spotlight lived purpose in action.

Employees’ connection to your organization’s purpose is as unique as the employee themselves. Acknowledging when someone personally embodies your organizational purpose provides wonderful reinforcement and reminds others to be intentional about doing the same. One HR leader got emotional telling me the story of an employee who did just that:

We’re in healthcare [pharmaceutical], so everything here is about patients. One of our employees, whose mom had recently lost a long battle with cancer, volunteered at a local hospice center, and advocated to our corporate philanthropy group to donate funds to upgrade the facility. And they did. That kind of thing happens regularly here. Our corporate communications group did a video interview on the story so our 40,000 employees could feel good.

Double down on social connection for remote workers.

The isolation of working from home has fractured our sense of community. Fostering belonging requires creative efforts to help people feel connected without adding to “zoom fatigue.” Worse, because we’ve lost many of the spontaneous interactions that can happen in common gathering places, remote work has narrowed our digital interactions to almost entirely with the colleagues we work with most, further fragmenting our organizations. One company paid for coffee gift cards for employees to reach out across team boundaries and make connections with new colleagues, broadening their networks and helping them maintain a wider organizational perspective.

Let employees co-create your workplace experience

According to the McKinsey research noted above, many employers are mistakenly assuming the primary motivations behind mass departures are employees’ desire for higher-paying jobs or greater work-life balance and flexibility. But those factors weren’t nearly as important to people as employers thought, compared to the more relational factors like a sense of belonging or having trusting teammates. That said, employers who mishandle the design of workplace experiences may be asking for trouble.

While nearly 60% of employees in the McKinsey survey said they were unlikely to look for new jobs, it doesn’t mean they won’t start. Sixty-four percent of employers expect the current level of attrition to stay the same or increase in the next six months. And with more companies offering remote work opportunities that don’t require people to relocate from homes and communities they cherish, poaching talent will be easier. One HR executive told me, “I’ve heard horror stories from my peers at other companies botching the transition to hybrid work with irrational one-size-fits-all mandates and policies for return-to-office requirements. All that does is signal to your employees that their needs don’t matter.” Another said:

This is a time to listen to your employees to understand their deeper needs. You can’t have the same policy for a single mom with young children as you do for the older, extroverted employee going stir crazy at home. The organization should set parameters for what’s best for the business, and then allow local managers to use as much discretion as possible, engaging their teams in how best to meet the requirements of the business while also meeting the needs for flexibility on the team.

Here are the practical ways these organizations are involving their employees in creating a positive workplace experience:

Have flexible policies clearly tied to the business.

It’s critical that any policy you put in place has a direct tie to the customers you serve. If your WFH policy offers minimal or no flexibility and your justification for requiring everyone to be back in the office is something vague like, “It’s better for our culture if people are physically together,” expect people to resent — and likely resist — it. If you want to minimize disappointment, tie whatever guidelines you put in place to how you serve customers and how you make or deliver products or services, and demonstrate how certain forms of collaboration are measurably enhanced by in-person work.

Enhance solidarity through ownership of policy.

People feel greater ownership over policies they help create, which strengthens adherence across the organization. Further, when others don’t adhere, peers are more likely to graciously call it out. One HR leader said:

Our leadership team crafted a set of broad guidelines around the minimum degree of in-person collaboration we felt was needed to ensure our customer responsiveness and speed to market. We trained department heads and managers on how to interpret those guidelines for their respective work, and then empowered them to use their discretion. We gave them tools to engage their teams in defining practices they felt were fair and flexible while still adhering to our corporate guidelines. It’s worked beautifully.

Design development into everyday experience.

Instead of making career and professional development a “separate” experience, build learning and advancement right into people’s roles. One organization started a program they called “Walk in their shoes,” intended to strengthen connections between employees from different parts of the organization. It consisted of weekly peer-mentoring sessions between people in adjacent functions that regularly worked together. The HR executive from that company told me, “Our initial intention was to make sure cross-functional collaboration remained strong despite remote work. What we hadn’t planned on was how much people would learn in the process, changing how people perform their own jobs, and opening lateral career paths we hadn’t considered.” Building on the unexpected success, they now offer job shadowing of higher-level jobs and training programs taught by those who’ve completed rotations. It’s become a regular part of the company’s career-development efforts.

Coach managers on how to genuinely care for others

“If there’s anything the last 18 months have taught us, it’s how impactful even the smallest acts of kindness can be,” one HR executive told me. The pandemic has created a greater appreciation for our shared humanity, offering endless opportunities to care for those who are struggling. But in the workplace, it’s not always natural or comfortable for managers to express care — they may feel awkward or unclear on boundaries. But demonstrating care doesn’t have to be intrusive, and not every employee will want or need the same degree of care.

Another HR leader reflected, “Our people are really hurting. They’re tired. Showing compassion had to become central to our leadership almost overnight. We’ve empowered our managers to step up: sending meals to people’s houses, helping with rent or childcare, or allowing someone to cry when they reach their wits’ end.” For leaders today, empathy and care are now table stakes. Here are some ways to enable leaders at all levels to do it well:

Encourage gestures of kindness and support.

Give managers discretion and resources to offer small acts of care as the need arises. Gift cards for food-delivery apps, handwritten notes of appreciation or concern, and acknowledging moments like birthdays or anniversaries all send messages that you see people as more than workers.

Model vulnerability to make it safe for others.

Many people will keep a positive game face, hiding their struggles, not wanting to ask for help. For some, it’s pride. For others, they don’t want to burden already stressed teammates with their concerns. When others see you asking for help or appropriately acknowledging difficulties, it shows them it’s okay for them to do so.

In the McKinsey research cited above, when asked, “Are you experiencing higher-than-normal voluntary turnover?”, 47% of employers said no. If you’re fortunate enough to be in that group, don’t assume things can’t shift. Find out what it is that’s keeping people with you and do more. And if you’re not in that group, look deeper at why not. Stop throwing money or superficial perks at the problem and start shifting your culture to one people are thrilled to work in instead of one they can’t wait to leave.

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