Attention On Retention: Strategies for Boosting Employee Retention in a Tough Time

A changing workforce requires a new approach to employee retention if organizations want to keep their top talent in a business climate facing new uncertainties.

In almost any job market, the best employees have plenty of options. That means associations must compete with a range of different employers, many of which offer better compensation and benefits packages that can entice top talent to leave.

This spring, the coronavirus outbreak created new uncertainties for business operations that will likely affect the employment landscape, making workforce stability in organizations perhaps more important than ever.

Bottom line: If an association wants to hold onto its top talent, it has to give employees options and make sure they feel valued—in ways both big and small.

Flexibility Required

Today’s workers want and expect flexibility—and one way that many organizations meet that need is by offering remote work options.

Although remote work became a forced new normal in response to COVID-19, flexible options will remain important to employees after business as usual resumes.

For instance, Mighty Citizen allows staff to work from home as needed. However, since many of the marketing agency’s employees work directly with clients, the company had to figure out how to make sure staff were in the office enough for meetings. The solution was to have most people work from home on Thursdays.

Even if telecommuting isn’t a sustainable option in ordinary circumstances, you can offer employees a little more freedom with their time, such as choosing their hours. Because the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering (SAMPE) doesn’t offer a telework option, Christine Locke, director of marketing, membership, and education, gets creative in how she handles meetings, taking her staff outside to picnic tables, or to Starbucks, or to get dessert together after lunch. “It helps break up the monotony of the traditional being in the office each day,” she says.

Employees also value flexibility in their time off. One retention strategy that has worked for Mighty Citizen is giving employees 3.5 hours per month, separate from their PTO, to use for appointments and other personal needs.

“We realized that there’s a lot of things people need to take care of during daylight hours,” says Vice President of Client Services Carly Hohl, PMP. “If you want to attend your kid’s school event, or you have a nail in your tire, we wanted to give people the space to do those things.”

It’s a simple thing, but according to Rachel Clemens, Mighty Citizen’s chief marketing officer, it’s the perk employees appreciate most.

Some organizations are also rethinking their leave policies to help retain employees. Mighty Citizen recently rolled out a parental leave program, which offers six to 12 weeks of paid leave for a birth or adoption. Flexible holidays can be another option. If someone doesn’t necessarily want to celebrate Columbus Day, for example, they can take another holiday “to address their needs and what they bring to the workplace as individuals,” says HR consultant Mary Ellen Brennan, SPHR, SHRM-SCP.

Mighty Citizen knows that its retention strategies are working: In an industry where the typical turnover rate is 30 percent, only two of its 30 employees left the firm in the past year, both to start new careers. And eight have stayed with the company for five or more years.

What Do Employees Want?

Choosing a retention strategy that will work best for your association involves “listening to and responding to employees and understanding what they’re looking for,” says Brennan.

Clemens recommends inviting employees to suggest new benefits or policies that they’d like to see, whether through a regular staff survey or some other tool that allows you to easily gather ideas. You don’t have to try them all, but you might find that something simple can boost morale and make people happy, she says. For example, Mighty Citizen has breakfast tacos for staff every Monday—an idea that originated in one of its staff surveys.

Mighty Citizen started using surveys to invite staff to submit feedback anonymously, in case they weren’t comfortable sharing it with their managers, Hohl explains. “This also allows us to look at patterns over time,” she says. “For example, have people consistently been feeling like their workload is too high for the last three quarters? Or was quarter two just an anomaly?” The organization takes these quarterly surveys seriously: It has put several staff suggestions into practice.

Associations need to establish their employment brand and think about it like a marketing professional would.

One of Locke’s retention strategies at SAMPE is to sit down with staff when someone leaves the organization, in sort of an exit interview for the people who stay.

“In a lot of ways, people start to feel a little vulnerable about their own situation, and maybe they start reflecting on why that employee left and how it is going to impact their job,” she says. “I take it as an opportunity to take something that can be perceived as a negative experience, somebody leaving, and try turning it into more of a positive experience—by acknowledging the pain of the employee moving on to another position outside of the organization, and just talking through what it means to them.” Taking this step allows a manager to find out what people are worried about and provide some reassurance.

“There is a flight risk once one person leaves,” Locke says. And this happened recently: While talking to a staff member after someone else left, Locke found out that the person “was reaching a point of being a bit burned out, so while we were talking, it occurred to me that she’d be a perfect candidate for a position we were going to be opening up in a few months.” Locke ended up transitioning the employee to the new role, so she held on to one of her best employees instead of losing her.

Polishing Your Brand

Your strategy for retaining employees says a lot about your organization’s brand—and it’s something to keep top of mind as you go about adding new policies and benefits.

“Associations need to establish their employment brand and think about it like a marketing professional would,” says Brennan. They should “think about how they communicate to both current and potential employees about what it’s like to work at the organization and what they’ll get out of it.” This includes highlighting benefits and the best parts of your culture.

Brennan also recommends giving employees a total compensation statement annually. This statement “lets them know: This is everything that we’re putting on the table for you,” she says. “Not just your salary, but all of your contributions for benefits, the value of your vacation and other leave,” and similar information. Associations should follow this best practice “so that you keep your employment brand in front of the employee at all times.”

If rethinking your retention strategy seems like a daunting task, heed this advice from Mighty Citizen’s Hohl: You don’t have to go big right away. Start small and make adjustments as you measure the results. It’s worth the effort, because losing a talented employee can hurt, and replacing them eats up precious time and resources.

“We know that there’s an expense to losing people, both from a monetary standpoint and a staff morale standpoint,” Hohl says. “We want to do everything we can to keep people here and keep them happy.”

(Martin Barraud/Getty Images)

Allison Torres Burtka

By Allison Torres Burtka

Allison Torres Burtka, a longtime association journalist, is a freelance writer and editor in West Bloomfield, Michigan. MORE

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