Rather than drawing a hard line on returning to the office, use these seven strategies to retain talent.
In the midst of worrying about how to retain talent in an ultracompetitive job market where job seekers are more in control of job offerings, leaders must ask whether workers are truly willing to quit if required to return to a physical location.
At first, your immediate reaction may be that that concept is sensationalized journalism. However, the data says otherwise.
According to Microsoft research, 41 percent of global workers are considering the possibility of changing employment within the next year. The reasons: burnout, the desire for more job autonomy, and being forced to return to the office.
In April, CNBC reported that 4 million US workers quit - the highest number ever recorded that resulted from employee choice and not corporate mandate.
And those workers are not the bottom 10 percent either. They included high-potential, well-qualified employees who are now part of what is referred to as "the Great Resignation," a term that Texas A&M University management professor Anthony Klotz coined.
While some C-suite executives, including those at Twitter and Facebook, are giving staff the option to permanently work from home, many executives have been taking a firm stance on the return to the office - with negative results.
In May, Catherine Merrill, CEO and owner of Washingtonian Media, dismissed working from home as a viable option for employees. She said her rigid approach was meant to defend the benefits of collaboration, culture, and creativity when people work side by side.
The result: Staff went on strike for a day. Later, Merrill revised her stance and said employee safety is top of mind.
In July, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman declared that employees who were unwilling to return to the office could expect a salary reduction. Yet, after the bank's impressive second-quarter results, he softened his tone.
Apple CEO Tim Cook likewise offered a more flexible approach after his original return-to-work decree was met with significant internal opposition. Google has also backtracked on its strict approach.
What is the truth?
Results of a May Harris Poll shows that three-quarters of US employees prefer a remote work environment (40 percent remote and 35 percent hybrid). And Slate reporter Alison Green conducted an independent survey to determine whether workersâ€™ threats to quit held weight.
Her conclusion: "I heard from an enormous number of people who say that they'll definitely quit if their job requires them to return to the office."
Costs and culture
There are significant costs associated with replacing talent - upwards of 50 percent of an employee's annual salary, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). That includes recruiting, onboarding, and replacing organizational intelligence the exiting worker retained.
Airing on the side of conservative leadership, the phrase "Protect your culture" is associated with making a strong bid for employees to return to work. But culture is not just about the workplace. That is only one part.
The organizational culture begins with its core values and then revolves around norms, traditions, and rituals in how people are treated and the ability for the culture to interact with one another.
Although in-office workers are easier to observe and they can assemble quickly in one place for impromptu celebrations, don't forget that culture first and foremost reflects employees' values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. As those values shift, so must the organizational views of the leaders most responsible for keeping culture intact.
That assumes, though, that leaders value listening and responding appropriately to staff's expectations while at the same time managing consumer demands for delivering products and services in the marketplace.
Turn I quit into I stay
Retaining talent is not an exact science; yet, leaders can build and sustain cohesive cultures. Those are safe workspaces that offer employees a place where individuals can belong, are valued, and share mutual commitments.
Cohesion has long been studied as a causal phenomenon, meaning that when cohesion is present, companies achieve performance and attain engagement.
Author and speaker Simon Sinek claims that when employees are fulfilled they tend to love their jobs. Nancy Lockwood reported in a SHRM Quarterly Review that employees with the highest level of commitment perform 20 percent better and are 87 percent less likely to leave their organization, which indicates that engagement is linked to organizational performance.
So, although leaders may be powerless when employees choose to quit, they can commit to these seven actions to help retain talent.
Listen and adapt
Pay close attention to the staff chatter. What are employees saying to each other? What types of questions are they asking? How are they engaging in conversation and work-related duties?
One surefire way to gain insight is to conduct one-on-one sessions with workers to see how they are coping with the security and safety issues concerning the pandemic and how that is playing into their perspective for returning to work. When employeesâ€™ feel their safety is at risk, they will not be able to self-actualize and be fully engaged in contributing to their success or achieving the organization's desired outcomes.
Understand that today's workers, across all generations, have a different mindset. It's not your grandpa's workforce anymore.
Employees are seeking autonomy and clear direction for work requirements. They want to have meaningful employment that gives them purpose and enables their passions to flow, and they want to do so from the comfort of a remote location.
It is important for staff to have collaborative work environments where they can exercise their voice and make a difference in what they do. That means leaders must offer that same concept whether individuals are working remotely, in person, or within a hybrid context. Executives who are willing to adapt to changes in the workplace have a significant opportunity to retain talent because they put others before themselves when making decisions.
Multiple tools for improved communication—such as Microsoft Teams, Webex, and Skype for Business—exist within a company's corporate culture. Those tools link employees and ensure that workflows are seamlessly connected from one department to another.
Such software programs enable employees to interact and share ideas and working documents regardless of their physical location. Plus, when individuals can connect visually, digitally, or in person, the result is increased creativity, enhanced performance, and improved team relations.
Conduct stay interviews
During planned one-on-one activities, ask employees a series of questions aimed to determine why they like working at the organization. Use open-ended, nonleading questions to stimulate dialogue that gives each individual an opportunity to express what excites them about their work and what keeps them engaged day after day.
Two of my favorite questions are: What is it about coming to work here that has you turning off the alarm and jumping out of bed? What can I do to help you be successful here?
Build team dynamics
Put the right activities in place depending on whether you are developing skills (team building) or promoting team bonding (relationships).
With team-building activities, the group is working on skills such as communication, negotiation, problem solving, or strategic thinking. Team bonding is enhancing the relationships between team members. You can have team bonding with team building, but team bonding alone does not build team skills.
One of my favorite team-building activities involves three groups with three individuals in each group, two blindfolds, and a tennis ball. The individual without the blindfold is the seer who cannot speak; one of the blindfolded players is the voice who cannot see; and the third player is the mover who relies on the seer and the voice to complete a task.
The object is for the seer to communicate instructions using HR-appropriate touches to the voice, who must then deliver the instructions. Together the individuals must lead the mover to locate the tennis ball. Other participants observe the three groups and then debrief their observations and reflections concerning communication skills.
Determine a unified approach and guidelines regarding where employees can work. Calibrate leaders' mindsets, then apply that level of thinking throughout management.
Guidelines should include code of conduct; work hours for client or consumer-facing activities; dress code; on-camera and on-screen protocols; elements for meetings, huddles, debriefs, or required and timely communications; and security, confidentiality, workspace setup and equipment needs. Clearly state expectations for performance, remote workspaces, and other corporate objectives.
Promote growth, development, and advancement
Employees are looking for development or advancement. According to a 2021 Indeed article, employees will leave their job if there aren't opportunities to learn, grow, and earn a promotion. Ensure you have practices and strategies in place to offer growth opportunities to all employees, regardless of work location.
Infuse unexpected fun
Having a lighthearted atmosphere even though employees are working intensely improves the chances staff will not burn out or become disenfranchised with the company. Incorporate ways to have fun and connect; however, use humor sparingly and within good taste.
Some of my clients, for example, hold weekly all-hands-on-deck virtual coffee chats with senior leadership. Others grant access to online meetings five to 10 minutes early to enable participants the opportunity for friendly banter. And some conduct an end-of-day debriefing.
Each of those activities is designed to encourage communication and give employees an opportunity to connect and feel as though they have a sense of belonging and value and enable them to share in mutual commitments.
Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.