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Losing Talent – What Can We Do?

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Brian McDonald, President of MOR Associates.  Brian may be reached at [email protected].]

Engagement at work in the U.S. declined in 2021. Just over one-third of employees (34%) were engaged and 16% were actively disengaged in their work and workplace, based on a sample of 57,022 by Gallup.

The percentage of Pandemic-driven economic, workplace, and mental and physical health challenges have hit healthcare workers and managers particularly hard. Gallup also reported a significant increase in manager burnout in 2021.

Retaining critical talent is a top priority goal. Even more so during a time when there is an attractive job market. People are also reflecting on where works fits in their life and questioning the purpose associated with all the hours they are investing.

Losing skilled staff can be a setback.  We risk burning out staff with additional tasks while endlessly recruiting for open positions. As more people leave, this cycle can become a downward spiral, jeopardizing the organization’s morale and the very ability to deliver.

Creating a highly engaged workforce is one way to counter the potential loss of people.  Here are five strategies designed to enhance employee engagement along with increasing the commitment individuals experience to their work.

  1. Evolve the social compact. Recognize the social contract has evolved over the years as have employee expectations. This was altered even more so as many people pivoted to remote work during COVID. It is time to update the social compact between employer and employees, adapting management’s role while doing so.
  2. Connect work to meaning. People are more likely to expend discretionary effort when they believe their contribution and the mission matter.
  3. Communicate what’s important.  Communicate what work is important and communicate in a way individuals know their work and their well-being are important.
  4. Coach more.  Coach individuals to create trusting relationships with colleagues, instill appreciation for what they do well, and support opportunities for people to learn and know they are valued.
  5. Cultivate an inclusive environment. Make teamwork and collaboration are the norm.

We’ll now explore each strategy in more detail.

1. Evolving the Social Compact
Gallup has documented in numerous employee engagement reports what people value in the workplace. In the historical social compact, the individual would spend 40 hours a week on the job in exchange for a paycheck. Work was a place you went. The supervisor or manager would be in charge. Your annual review let you know how you were doing.  People are more interested in the purpose their work is contributing to, along with the potential for them to continue to grow.

The Past The Present
My Paycheck  My Purpose
My Satisfaction  My Development
My Manager  My Coach
My Job  My Life
The Workplace  My Flexibility & Autonomy

During the past few years there have been some fundamental shifts in how people think about the part work plays in their life. Prior to COVID most people thought of work as a place. You commuted to work on a set schedule. Today work is defined for most knowledge workers as an activity. The age-old question, “What time are you leaving for work?” has been replaced for many today with, “Do you need to be on-line today?”

During these past two years many people have had the flexibility to figure out when they will accomplish their work. As employees worked remotely, they also experienced far greater autonomy while proving they could be as productive or better than before. Eliminating time spent traveling to and from work gave people back as many as 10-15 lost hours during the week. It also reduced the stress associated with commuting.

2. Connect Work to Meaning
Meaningful work makes a difference.  As last week’s Tuesday Reading by Laura Patterson outlined, people are looking for meaning in the work they sign up to do. “Purpose is the belief that you are working toward something larger and more important than yourself. Purpose is believing that what you do has an impact.” Finding purpose in all the hours people toil has risen on the list of what individuals are looking for in their work.

At MIT during a professional development series, participants from finance had an opportunity to visit other parts of MIT. In one instance engaging with faculty in a lab, in another instance listening to Ph.D. students doing research on the brain, and in another sitting in a session where senior leaders were presenting. These employees who spent their days doing journal transfers, procurement and accounting saw how their efforts were supporting MIT’s mission. This exposure let them connect the dots and see how their efforts contributed to the Institute remarkable contributions to research and teaching.

3. Communicate What’s Important
Many employers have already redefined the manager’s role to underscore the need to communicate more consistently given a more distributed workforce. In early 2020, nearly half of employees strongly agreed that their supervisor kept them informed about what is going on in the organization. This figure has since slipped to 36%. During the extended uncertainty accompanying the pandemic people were anxious to know what was going on. The need still exists to consistently communicate to staff.

During COVID there was also a greater awareness of the need to be more empathetic when interacting with individuals who are going through different and in many cases difficult situations. Employees appreciate this understanding from the manager/coach.

4. Coach More
Do less traditional managing. Adopting a coaching approach helps engage individuals and demonstrates an interest in their well-being. Coaching is a mindset change where the manager is focusing on the individual’s contribution, offering encouragement, providing feedback, supporting their growth and well-being. Gallup found employees who receive daily feedback from their manager are three times more likely to be engaged than those who receive feedback once a year or less. Gallup has discovered that a person’s manager is the primary factor in an employee’s engagement and, ultimately, their performance. Managers account for 70% of the variance in team engagement.

The pivot to remote work proved most people are quite capable of being self-managed. Yet all these years organizations have had managers assuming the responsibility for seeing that the work was planned, and results delivered. With the right work design, communication and focus, people will accomplish the needed outcomes under their own self-direction.  This work design functions most effectively when managers realize their value is taking on the communication and coaching role. People still need to know the direction and the priorities.

Coaching involves more inquiry than giving direction. Questions serve to engage employees.  In the current environment it is recommended coaches spend time listening and learning what is important to each staff member to better appreciate what they find rewarding and what contributes to their staying. Questions such as:

  • What do you find most interesting about the work we are doing?
  • What do you personally enjoy the most in the work you do?
  • What do you find challenging about the role or the work?
  • Are there things you would like to learn?
  • How can I support your success?

5. Cultivate an Inclusive Workplace
Leadership needs to create the climate where people feel welcome. Where they feel they belong. Where they can be their authentic self while doing their best work. As leaders it is our responsibility to create the environment where everyone feels respected, and we can employ our diversity as a strength.

Retaining the talent needed to fulfill the mission and goals your organization has signed up to deliver is on the critical path. What can you do to ensure people have meaningful work they see is connected a greater purpose? What steps are needed to develop the mindset, skillset and toolset managers need to be effective in this constantly evolving and increasingly challenging environment?