John McFarland is the SVP of client development at Vensure, an employer services company. Views are the author's own.
As the economy emerges from the pandemic, many companies and their staff are looking at continuing the remote work style they refined during the lockdown. In some cases, this is motivated by the cost-savings and often increased productivity the companies discovered in the process. Employees have appreciated the extra time and flexibility the arrangement gives them, and few have missed their commutes.
But the implications for employee retention have rarely been considered, much less carefully thought-through. So let's do that here.
The high cost of low engagement
Many companies lucky enough to need more staff during this period — or those that had to replace personnel — have discovered they can locate remote talent anywhere in the country. This expanded pool of qualified candidates might lead some to believe that retention is not as important as it once was. But even with the right people, the costs of employee turnover remain a potential drag on company finances.
The costs of onboarding a new employee can be onerous, even if they're not obvious. Then there is the lost institutional knowledge that the company must pay over time to replace. There may also be a hit to customer goodwill if their favorite employee decides to move on. And there can be a domino effect; if employees see other employees leaving, they might begin to question their own future with the company.
In short, employee retention is as valuable and essential as ever. But in a distributed workforce, it can also be harder than ever to achieve.
The biggest threat to staff "loyalty" in this situation actually lies with management. Without seeing individual employees daily, it's easy to forget about them — not as employees, but as people. Management needs to make an extra effort to connect with their teams. This applies up, down and across the organization. Routine updates from HR are no substitute for the casual conversations people can have in-person about shared interests.
Remember: Communications need to go both ways. Saying that your "office door is always open" only works if you're in an office. It's much harder in a remote context for employees to share a concern without making too big a deal of it. This makes it incumbent on managers to check in with employees in a non-threatening way. The idea is to give employees every opportunity to share frustrations or concerns without suggesting that something is wrong. Or even that the check-in is inspired by anything more than sincere interest is the employee's job satisfaction.
When personnel get personal
This points to the key in employee retention: personal connections. This doesn't mean technology and systems aren't important. In fact, having the necessary systems in place to facilitate more fluid employee interactions is critical for maintaining or even improving personal connections.
With these systems in place, intentional efforts need to be made to both connect employees to the company in a personal way and connect employees to one another. These interpersonal relationships are critical to retention. That was true before the burgeoning remote workforce, and is even truer now.
Intentional communications can be as simple as a personal note recognizing a significant milestone in the employee's life or an otherwise insignificant accomplishment in their work. Some other communications require more planning. For example: facilitating a virtual company "mixer" that allows employees to "hang out" together in a non-task-related context.
These don't need to be elaborate or expensive events; the more informal, the better. The idea is to foster the personal connections that often bind employees to a company by connecting them to one another. This can be a particularly welcome benefit for people who are otherwise at home most of the time.
On the other hand, a traditional retention technique that may have outlived its usefulness is awards and company-wide recognition programs. Without the traditional team dynamic where workers share a physical space, staff are not as likely to be inspired by seeing "one of their own" getting kudos for being particularly good at their job. The one-to-one approach suggested above is likelier to make a more profound impact with individuals.
The new distributed work style has proven to be a boon to companies and employees alike during the year gone by. But its long-term viability for company success will depend significantly on how well companies can devise and execute new forms of proven employee retention techniques.
Those that succeed will have even happier employees and healthier balance sheets.