New research from the Harvard University Growth Lab revealed an unexpected employee retention trend: those who worked in environments where their skills were complemented by coworkers—rather than duplicated—stayed at their jobs longer.
Employee turnover is an issue that plagues associations and other nonprofits. While there are many suggestions for reducing it—everything from workplace wellness to digital onboarding—most of those solutions are aimed at the individual worker.
However, new research from the Harvard University Growth Lab suggests the real answer lies in a holistic view of the workplace and all of its employees. In “The Value of Complementary Co-Workers,” published in Science Advances, Growth Lab Research Director Frank Neffke, Ph.D., found that the value of workers isn’t dependent on their individual skills, but rather on how their skills complement those they work with. When employees were teamed with those who complemented their skills, creating what Neffke called “coworker synergy,” they stayed longer at their organizations.
“An increase in coworker synergy is associated with a decrease in the likelihood that a worker switches establishments and with an increase in his or her likelihood of reaching long tenures,” Neffke wrote. “The implied effects are sizable: Moving from the 10th to the 90th synergy percentile coincides with a 2.5 percentage point (pp) lower switching rate, against an average switching probability of 13.7 percent and with a between 9.2 and 12.0 pp higher likelihood of long tenures.”
Employees who have the same skills as their coworkers—”substitutable” skills, in researcher lingo—have “higher switching rates and a lower likelihood of reaching long tenures.”
Neffke’s research has implications for both employers and employees. For employers, the message is clear: figure out the mix of employees you need and hire those with complementary skills.
Neffke offers pointed advice for employees. “You can look at the team, and ask, ‘How do my skills relate to the skills of others on the team?’” Neffke said. Your goal is to have complementary skills.
Prospective employees should ask questions to determine synergy when interviewing for a job. “When you go to an employer, instead of just asking about the job, ask, ‘Who will I be working with? What are they good at?’” Neffke said. “Then, you have to ask yourself, ‘Are these people who would benefit from what I know, or do they know exactly what I know?’”
Neffke’s research found complementary workers earned more, as they had specialized skills their teammates didn’t have that allowed the business to complete its work. However, the research did turn up an unexpected twist. One might expect that working in a small organization would increase a person’s chances of having complementary coworkers, but Neffke found the opposite is true: Larger establishments tended to have the most complementary workforces, whereas there was more substitutability at smaller workforces.
“If I am working at a large establishment, I can concentrate on the things I’m really good at,” Neffke said. “I cannot specialize in a team that has four or five people. I will need to do things I am less good at.”
While being in a workplace where workers have complementary skills helps the employer and employee, it’s still not the norm in many industries.
“It is very important to know who you work with, and to understand your relationship with your coworkers,” Neffke said. “These things pay off once you find very well-matching jobs.”