Editor’s Note: Rosabeth Moss Kanter holds the Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School. Former chief editor of Harvard Business Review and founder/director of the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative, she consults for companies worldwide and is the author of 20 books, most recently, “Think Outside the Building.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
To attract workers in today’s tight labor market, companies are touting better workplace amenities. Amazon is running ads about the company’s pay and benefits. Levi Strauss is offering to cover travel costs for workers seeking abortions. Airbnb is allowing its employees to permanently work remotely. This is a workers’ paradise in the making.
That said, not all companies are offering better pay or benefits. And many managers are so fixated on hiring that they neglect the people still with them. That can prompt their current employees to start noticing those greener pastures elsewhere, too.
That’s one reason March quit rates hit an all-time high of 4.5 million.
In recent focus groups I held, successful mid-level managers and professionals from varied industries shined a light on why it’s been so difficult for companies to retain workers. Even those satisfied with their careers to date said they would leave for higher pay and better work-from-home options. But they also made clear that willingness to stay with the current employer is also a matter of whether their direct managers can deliver on five other factors beyond the paycheck that keep people happy, productive and on the team.
The pandemic forced many people into remote work, whether they liked it or not. Large numbers found they liked a lot about it.
Now, increasing numbers of people demand the ability to choose when, where and how to work. But, at times, remote work can be offered with so much rigidity that it feels constraining. For instance, one employee I spoke with said that at their company, people were given two work-from-home days and told that they must stick with them no matter what. They also could not come in for half a day at the office. This made the employee feel like remote work was just another set of disempowering rules.
In contrast, a major airline reduced turnover when it was the first to offer a website to flight attendants that enabled them to swap schedules. Workers clearly felt empowered by having more control over their own work life. Companies must give people choices that match their unique work and life needs.
People crave predictability. Surprises make it harder for employees to plan their lives and have peace of mind. When constant change is inflicted on them, without a chance to anticipate it or participate in decisions about it, people get anxious and passive, and dream of escape.
Top executives sometimes wait for a full plan to be developed before announcing workplace changes to employees, either because they don’t want to be criticized or aren’t sure they will end up doing everything they announce. But constant open communication helps people feel valued and helps them plan for change rather than be shocked by it.
Even pleasant surprises are still surprises. For instance, workers who get unexpected spot bonuses sometimes feel that they don’t know what to count on when calculating their future compensation; they’d rather have a predictable total package.
Dead-end jobs quickly lose their appeal. And that can make a new job seem like the only way to get a fresh start and move to the next step.
People thrive when their value is acknowledged by getting more responsibility, recognition and stature, such as a bigger title. Giving them the opportunity to add to their skills enhances their value and self-worth. Managers must support people’s desire for next career steps by helping them find training and advancement opportunities without inadvertently pushing them out the door.
Workplace friendships alone are not enough to retain workers, but their absence propels faster exits. People need to feel they fit in. Establishing employee resource groups of similarly situated people (e.g., working parents or Black women in tech) shows that the company cares and can provide a safe space for sharing experiences and tips. The value of solidarity can show up in retention.
But companies should beware of disgruntled people finding like-minded peers. That can result in protest letters, unionization drives or amplified complaints. It’s important for them to listen to grievances early and address them head-on.
Jobs that convey a sense of purpose and meaning are more likely to exercise an emotional hold on people. Whether or not the company overall thinks it stands for social responsibility, people want to see that chance to make a difference in their immediate work experience. They need to feel there’s a connection between their company declaring it is reducing emissions and a true reduction of plastic waste they see every day. Giving employees a chance to choose a cause and join a company volunteering program also helps increase loyalty.
Conventional wisdom holds that the best way to improve employment circumstances is to get an offer from a new company. That shouldn’t have to be the case. Managers who want to retain people should act as if they are just now hiring them. They should treat them like fresh faces and welcome them again to the company, and enhance their loyalty while taking advantage of their experience. Of course, managers need the same treatment from the layers above them, because they themselves might feel neglected and ready to bolt for the next pasture.
The best labor pool could be the one companies already have. They should treat their people as a precious resource and give them what they want from work. Rewarding them will reward the business.