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Katrin Kircheis

KiKa Training Limited

Managing Director and Learning Consultant

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Talent retention: giving employees what they want (part two)


In the race to attract and retain talent, employers need to consider their company culture and how others perceive it. Here’s how to read their responses and make the changes needed to make your organisation a great place to work.

My last article looked at some of the aspects of working environments that put off prospective employees or make existing team members want to leave, as well as highlighting the red flags people watch for.

Once you’ve identified the issues, the next step is to start making cultural changes within your organisation to address them. The best place to start with this is to ask your employees – find out what’s important to them and what you can do to keep them on board.

To understand your employee’s values, there are a few key questions to ask which we’ll outline below.  

Why did (new) employees accept your offer?

Did they simply need money and a job, or did they see it as an opportunity, having specifically wanted to work for your company for a particular reason?

Why did they leave their previous job?

Did you ask for an honest answer to that question and honour it?

Too many employers are quick to condemn candidates who give honest answers to this question.

For example, when a candidate tells you they left because their previous management were incapable of offering and communicating a clear strategy, do you condemn them because you’re unsure you are able to offer this and fear they might leave your organisation for the same reason? If so, this is a problem your business needs to solve, not the applicant.

Everyone craves autonomy and purpose – we are all professional adults, capable of making our own decisions about how we reach our goals.

All too often candidates cannot be open about the reasons for leaving a previous job because they think that if employers are aware they had problems with a previous company, they might be labeled a troublemaker.

Employers need to stop thinking this way and ask (and be prepared) for the truth. If you know the truth, you can set yourself apart from the companies that keep losing their talent and provide your employees with what they are craving. This way, you’ll be able to attract new talent and keep it in house.

(If you’re interested in some extreme examples of people having to leave a job because management was not cooperative, read Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, a true story about a Silicon Valley start-up, or watch the associated HBO documentary The Inventor).

How much autonomy do your employees believe they have over their tasks and time at work?

Are you asking them to be in by 9.30am at the latest and telling them they can’t leave before 5pm? How is that an effective use of people’s time?

Everyone craves autonomy and purpose – we are all professional adults, capable of making our own decisions about how we reach our goals. After all, we do so every day outside of work and so far we have survived.

As long as employees have the tools and support that they need to achieve them, they don’t need a manager constantly looking over their shoulders.

When you do an employee audit, you can find out more about what you expect from them and what you offer in return.

Ask yourself: what is your unique selling point (USP) to attract talent? (The answer is not benefits such as health insurance or gym memberships).

People expect these business benefits and end up wanting more. A long list of benefits should not be your core strategy.

Instead, your approach should be to stop disempowering employees, so you don’t have to keep empowering them.

Give your people autonomy and purpose, and they will be more engaged.

How to put employees back in the driving seat

Maintaining a sense of autonomy and purpose among your employees is a project that takes time and work. To help you get started, here are some things to think about.

Give time and space to passion projects

Set aside time for workers to spend on any project they want, as long as it is not related to any ongoing projects in the company.

They can choose whom they want to work with and how they spend that time, but they also need to deliver results at the end. Many features Google offers today were born that way.

You can start by setting aside 10% of their working time for this (which equates to just one afternoon in a full time five-day work week) and scale it up to 20% later.

Take steps towards giving up control and extend freedom for people to do great work.

This may sound like a lot, but when you consider that on an average eight-hour workday, employees spend just 2 hours and 53 minutes doing productive work, you might find that structuring their time this way enables this figure to increase.

Either way, you will see how this converts regular downtime into more productive outcomes.

You might also find that people might come up with new ways to make communication in your organisation more effective or produce solutions to make their teams more efficient.

Rethink your approach to rewards

The traditional approach to rewards is to use them as an incentive, i.e. ‘if you achieve X, then X reward will be given’.

If/then rewards are typically expected once employees have completed a particular task. Eventually they become something that employees expect and their performance might actually suffer as they focus on the reward rather than the task at hand.

Instead, organisations should look to encourage a culture of peer-to-peer ‘now that’ rewards, i.e. ‘now that you’ve achieved X, we’re giving you X’.

The difference with these is that they’re more spontaneous and can be awarded from colleagues to other colleagues at any time, rather than being handed down from management.

The idea is that employees receive recognition from their peers for doing something exceptional.

When employees aren’t expecting a reward, they can fully focus on the task at hand – but the times when they do receive them will be more special.

Focus on results

Take steps towards giving up control and extend freedom for people to do great work.

One way of doing this is to work towards creating a ROWE (results only work environment). This is where you provide people with clear goals, tools and support to achieve these and then let them be.

Yes, that’s right – leave them to get on with it! Transfer autonomy to your employees over the how, when, where and even with whom they work and judge your employees on the results they deliver, not the time they spent at their desk.

Play ‘whose purpose is it anyway?’

Ask your employees to (anonymously) write down one sentence to answer one simple question: ‘what is our company’s purpose?’

The answer should not just be the copied purpose from your vision and mission statement, but what employees genuinely think you’re doing.

Then, collect everyone’s answers and read them out – are they similar to each other, is everyone aligned to a common purpose or are they all over the place?

If there is a gap between your employees’ perception and your company’s reality, you need to close it.

If people don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing, how can you expect them to be motivated to do it?

Level with them

The long and short of it is that candidates and employees want to be treated like adults.

We don’t want to have to sugarcoat our reasons for leaving earlier jobs and we don’t want to be misled about working conditions.

We don’t want to see ‘competitive salary’ and ‘fast paced environment’ in job descriptions.

We know this means you’ll underpay us and we will be working under a lot of pressure with the very real possibility of unpaid overtime – while we can’t complain because you included a coded reference to it in the job description!

What employees do want are clear goals to work towards, along with the tools, support and freedom to achieve them in whichever way they believe is best.

If you give employees these things and measure them on their performance, and only on that, they will have no choice but to perform or risk losing their jobs.

If, however, you’re not providing proper training and access to information, or don’t communicate clearly what you expect from them, measure them predominantly on the time they spend at their desks, they will not want or be able to give you their all.

Interested in this topic? Read Employee experience: the five practices that will create a more ‘human’ workplace.

Author Profile Picture
Katrin Kircheis

Managing Director and Learning Consultant

Read more from Katrin Kircheis