How to retain your ‘A’ employees in a remote world
By Jack Burton
Handling the sudden transition into the remote workplace over the last several months has been a journey marked by a stream of new expectations for employers and employees alike.
Having a stable of skilled, performance-driving talent to lead your team down this uncertain path is key, but a look into shifting employee attitudes suggests that this changing terrain may also threaten to take their talents away from your company.
At a glance, the unpredictability of the current economy and job market appears to have significantly halted the cycles of turnover and onboarding.
July data from the Conference Board of Canada shows that four in 10 companies have implemented hiring freezes, while nearly half of companies included in the report claimed a decrease in voluntary turnover — the lowest Canada has seen in years.
A closer look at the attitudes of employees, though, tells a different story.
Shifting employee attitudes
A national survey conducted this summer by Hays Canada assessing employee attitudes in the pandemic era found that nearly half of employees are seriously thinking of leaving their current position, while research from Robert Half in May shows that 47 per cent of Canadian office workers have experienced a shift in attitude towards their work due to the pandemic.
The Robert Half data also found that 60 per cent of those experiencing an attitude shift now feel more inclined to look for work at other organizations that value staff during unpredictable times, while 29 per cent want to leave their role to pursue a more meaningful or fulfilling position.
“COVID made everyone reflect on what is really important to them,” said Travis O’Rourke, president of Hays Canada in Toronto.
“I watched clients leave institutional organizations and move into start-ups, or switch their focus to philanthropy and real-estate investment.”
These trends indicate more than just potential turbulence when it comes to employee attitudes.
Should these shifts manifest in your top performers leaving, it could also spell instability for both the workforce and overall company operations in the middle of an indefinite and unprecedented adjustment period, where structure is already hard to come by.
Effect on culture, bottom line
A major area that these departures threaten to disrupt is overall company culture and employee attitudes, a hindrance that could lead to losing additional members of your team.
“One very important point is the fact that one person’s departure can trigger others to follow,” warned O’Rourke, adding the possibility that, “maybe that first person has plans to take key staff with them.”
And even if the departure of a top employee manages to leave one’s workforce intact, the attitudes of their former co-workers do not go uninfluenced, said Koula Vasilopoulos, district president of Robert Half Canada in Calgary.
“(It’s) important to consider the impact such a departure will have on remaining team members who may question how they will be personally impacted and how their current and future work environment may change,” she said.
When top-performing talent leaves, the disruption has the potential to extend even beyond the employee level and into the area of external clients and customers.
At best, these departures could necessitate some organizational reshuffling, said Vasilopoulos. At worst, it could trigger key clients and accounts to take their business elsewhere, should the measures to preserve that relationship in the absence of their former liaison not properly be in place.
The departure of one’s top-level employees is a loss that impacts multiple facets of company operations: losing success-driving talent at a time when their skills are most needed; creating low morale (or potentially even additional departures) amongst your workforce; and a scramble to restabilize client relations.
What measures, then, should be taken to avoid this unfortunate, high-impact situation?
The strategies for fostering a retention-oriented work environment within the limitations of the remote workplace begin with companies placing an internal focus on leadership and communication, said Allison Cowan, director of human capital knowledge at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa.
“Leadership is critical right now, especially operating with a remote workforce,” she said.
“Communication should be a priority for organizations. This includes managers checking in and making sure employees have what they need to be productive, engaged and successful.”
When organizational leadership takes the responsibility to clearly communicate expectations and regularly check in on the well-being of their employees, a culture of flexibility and understanding emerges.
Considering flexibility, well-being
Cowan said this flexibility is integral to retaining talent, as it allows employees to feel respected and valued during this period of stress and uncertainty, along with minimizing the need for them to have to choose between their vocation or their home life.
“Given that some of the reasons people leave employers include employees looking to balance responsibilities at home, flexibility can be a key to retaining employees,” said Cowan.
“As many Canadians are managing a complex return to school this fall, it will be important to understand the impact on individual employees. Listening to the unique needs of employees and providing flexible work arrangements to support them can go a long way to building loyalty,” she said.
In building a remote-work culture aimed at retaining top talent, the need for understanding and acceptance regarding the impact of the pandemic on the lives and attitudes of one’s workforce is echoed by Louise Taylor Green, CEO of the Humans Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) in Toronto.
“Employers need to acknowledge that employees have gone through highly variable experiences during COVID-19, which may have fundamentally changed what they want from work,” she said.
Yet, despite the human resource limitations imposed by COVID and the remote workplace, employees can get what they want from work, said Green, no matter how much their attitudes may have changed — so long as their employers step up and approach this situation as a work-culture wake-up call.
“To retain high-skilled workers, employers need to activate all the levers of their talent strategy to enable business performance,” she said. “Now is the time to modernize talent acquisition, total rewards, performance management and talent development strategies in order to facilitate business recovery and talent growth.”
Jack Burton is a freelance writer in Toronto.
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