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Finders keepers: Retention for the year ahead

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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.

“You’ve got to know what you’re doing, where you’re going and what you want people to do, and communicate that effectively.”

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.

“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.”

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.”


Looking after your business and its people





  • Consider the needs of both the business and employees. Achieving a balance between the two will help maintain a stable working relationship between employer and employee.

  • Review the current company benefits scheme. Decide what needs to be changed and what can remain the same.

  • Involve staff. Involve staff in agreeing working patterns in line with the ebb and flow of business. Show workers that their needs are being considered by conducting an internal survey. This will give you, as an employer, an insight into exactly what your workforce require, making the review process a little easier.

  • Achieve a benefits balance. Try to achieve a balance between offering the more traditional benefits, such as a pension scheme and the ‘softer’ benefits, such as flexi-time and duvet days.

  • Have clear policies on benefits and fully brief line managers. Explain the details of the benefits to line managers and ensure that they implement the organisation’s policies fairly.

  • Improve recruitment processes. When recruiting new talent, ensure that recruiters emphasise the benefits opportunities, setting them out in a clear manner so that prospective candidates are fully aware of what the company can offer them.

  • Measure results. Establish benchmarks for recruitment, retention and absence, and measure these regularly to establish the effect the new scheme has had on the workforce.

  • Count the cost. Estimate the cost of implementing new benefits as it is important to recover the investment.

  • Review. Review on a regular basis how the benefits operate to ensure that operations are not compromised, all staff have equal opportunities and expected business improvements have materialised.

  • Allow for change. In your policies, ensure there are provisions for future change to meet developing business needs.
  • Source: Croner

    3 Responses

    1. Starting the new year
      My pleasure Matt, to be in some way associated with such good commentary as in your article.

      And as a suggestion for yourself, rather than bemoan your rain, think of us struggling with a drought situation, hoping there will be rain in the next month and save local farmers having to consider selling up. I do appreciate that where you are they might still be considering the same action for the exact opposite reason.

      Also, take the opportunity to design an umbrella which will withstand the elements come-what-may……to implement at-home activities which will adequately replace those that may be impossible at the moment…….help work out processes to minimize future excesses of precipitation and/or utilize that extra water.

      Best of luck.

    2. Thanks Mr Rhodes
      I apologise if my rampant January cynicism caused offence. Thank you for your comments.

      And thank you for reemphasising the point that business leaders and managers should take positive action, especially at historically low times of engagement, like January, leading from the front. As this recent research suggests, these ‘old hat’ ideas could still do with a greater uptake.

      Staff can become disengaged for a multitude of reasons. The start of the year is a great time to mix it up, bringing new challenges to the workforce, and I especially like the idea of challenging employees to think out a problem over the holidays.

      But having been rained on for 29 of the last 30 days, had my umbrella destroyed by icy wind and my morning stroll to work transformed into a life or death Siberian odyssey; I suggest that getting enthused about the New Year might be a slightly different prospect in the UK as somewhere enjoying the height of summer.

      Positive regards

      Matt Henkes

    3. The New Year
      One of the most negative beginnings to any new year is to follow the “spin-doctor” approach by convincing everyone this is a God-awful time at work. Witness the opening of this article….”unlikely to be enthused”….”soul destroying”….”rigmarole”….”the working year all over again”. A bit like counselling as an aid to workplace difficulties.

      Managers must get it into their heads that such language will deliver – always. And worst of all, by using this language once, like to discuss the next year in this context, it becomes a constant.

      So we are inclined to address all issues in this way. When bringing a change in the workplace, how often do we hear the intro as something like…..”Well here we go again with another change, before the last one has even bedded in!”……or; …..”Another edict from on high, so here we go!”….and worst of all….”Well this looks interesting, when they never even talked to us!”…etc.

      This article is very good, in fact extremely good, because I have taken the intro to be a reminder of the crucial role any manager plays, that of setting the example. It sure caught my attention, so if that was the intention, then well donw.

      Then it goes on to remind us of those simple but successful tools managers can use. The ‘unfortunate’ aspect here is that nothing’s new. I mean ‘unfortunate’ in that many will read them and discard them because they might appear to be ‘old-hat’, instead of looking at the results they bring. Why are not these tools stressed and insisted upon in the modern management thinking and teaching? I suppose because our modern thinkers and teachers feel they will not stand out from the crowd unless they come up with something different.

      I well remember an old-time manager who finished every year with something to think about over the Christmas break……always something to stretch the thinking. I of course I remember how most if not at times all in the team, would return full of ideas as to how it might work; or how it might best be introduced; or whatever. To those who read this and say, “But we need a break away from work, and the last thing people should be doing is thinking of work when they should be holidaying.” I say…”Rubbish!!!” Show me the person who is stressed by doing or thinking about something they enjoy, and I will ask which planet they just came in from.

      Get enthused about your new year, even though we are basking in sunshine ‘down under’while you wear out your brollies. Leave the negatives to the naysayers and dickheads of the world. Cheers.

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