Broke? Unengaged at work? At least it’s raining. Must be January. Matt Henkes looks at some retention issues for the new year, how leadership can affect engagement, and the value of saying thank you.
No one likes January; it’s cold and wet, and having spent all their money over Christmas, people back to work after a nice, festive break are unlikely to be feeling enthused about starting the whole soul destroying rigmarole of the working year all over again.
January is statistically the month when people are most likely to begin looking for another job. That general post-Christmas malaise can be a hard beast to shake and unless you deal with it properly, it can weigh down heavier than a vat of turkey curry as key employees up and leave for pastures new.
While the retention and engagement problem isn’t necessarily confined to this grim time of year, it does become more acute around now. That’s why it is a great time to take action, implementing new initiatives and taking action to address negative feelings among your workforce before it’s too late.
John Sylvester, executive director, P&MM
Granted, HR and executive teams can be equally affected by the dark January skies, but it’s their job to lead from the front. John Sylvester, executive director at the motivation and rewards specialists P&MM, feels that strong leadership at this time is crucial. The golden rules are: strong vision, clear objectives and clarity of strategy.
“You’ve got to know what you’re doing, where you’re going and what you want people to do, and communicate that effectively,” he says.
The oppressive, ‘here we go again’, feeling can be countered by simple changes that marshal people’s enthusiasm in a specific direction. There’s a certain argument for changing things just to give people a fresh challenge, perhaps by restructuring a little bit or implementing a new initiative, just to add some variety.
360 degree feedback
Modern HR encompasses many of the skills necessary for internal communications and marketing. Logic holds that people would prefer to be engaged in their work and, given the opportunity, will put their efforts into driving the business forward. But in order to do this, they need to know exactly where the firm is heading, what its intentions are and, most importantly, what their place in the wider scheme is.
Stephen Gates is the managing director of Denplan, a healthcare company honoured in The Times’ Top 100 Companies to Work For list last year for strong leadership. He says it was ‘humbling’ to be honoured on the basis of feedback from his team. He sees one of the most important roles of leadership as breaking down what can often be quite complex issues into simple statements that everyone can understand at first glance.
At one point, the firm’s five-year strategy was summed up by a single piece of paper with a picture on it. “It’s much more difficult than it sounds,” he says. “We’re all very good at producing long strategy documents that sit on a shelf and never get read, but it’s damn difficult to distil it down to its essence.”
Gates is more active than this, however. He cites a significant part of his success as a leader to making himself visible and approachable as a company head. Several days of each month he spends visiting sales staff and sitting in with office workers – and not, he says, to ensure they’re doing their jobs properly.
“I’m fortunate in the sense that I’ve now done this often and long enough that people understand they know their job much better than me,” Gates says. “Secondly, I’m not actually there to catch them out. I’m there to learn and see if we, as a company, can help make their jobs easier.”
Much can be learned from a non-intimidating but revealing approach, rather than simply asking what a person’s job is. What management think the job involves might be quite different from the reality because of unnecessary hoops or lengthy and confusing processes. “You can’t get that information unless you spend time listening,” says Gates.
Can’t get no satisfaction
The HR team is crucial in this aspect. Satisfaction surveys can tell you a lot about the issues and concerns within your workforce once, perhaps twice a year. But few measurement tools can be as effective as an HR department with its finger on the pulse of an organisation.
Nick Thompson, European research director, Kenexa
This may sound fluffy; however, it means keeping tabs on the day-to-day conversations going on within the business – what issues are happening? What are people concerned about? Where are you, as a company, not making life easy for your teams? These are the nitty-gritty factors that will rarely be uncovered in a company-wide survey.
That said, this kind of relationship requires trust. Nick Thompson, European research director at retention specialist Kenexa, warns many organisations make the mistake of simply assuming the workforce knows their feedback is being taken seriously and used to make positive changes.
“The assumption this information somehow permeates down to the employee population is clearly flawed,” he says. “One of the most powerful ways of improving levels of engagement is to remind employees what you have done with their feedback. It shows you are listening and it shows things are changing.”
Ultimately, though, even someone who is engaged with the company strategy could still be wooed by a competitor with a superior benefits package. Last year saw a steady growth in the use of corporate reward schemes. Sylvester believes that a structured recognition scheme offers the best “bang for your buck”.
But even if you can match like-for-like, there is still another powerful tool at your disposal – the simple act of saying thank you. The value of having success recognised ranks very high on the motivational scale.
Equally, if people are performing well but aren’t recognised, it has the opposite effect. Sylvester adds: “It’s that very simple idea that a small gesture can go a long way because it provides people with positive reinforcement when they’re delivering against what the organisation expects of them.”