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Leave or remain? Winning the employee referendum

Six simple things that employers can do to keep their best workers


The question of ‘leave or remain’ may have dominated the European conversation for more than three years, but the self-same debate has been quietly occupying the workplace for decades. The pursuit of the perfect employer – the one you swear you’ll never leave – is, for most of us, an ongoing endeavour. Too often, just when we think we’ve found our dream job, something somewhere changes and we end up at the polling booth of our own personal referendum, faced with the killer question: ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ Our decision to trigger the employee equivalent of Article 50 will normally be influenced by our experiences with our current employer. The fact that we’re even considering ‘leave or remain’ suggests that something isn’t quite working. So where did it all go wrong? And what could that employer do to put it right and persuade us to stay? Moreover, what does this ‘perfect employer’ actually look like?

The answers to these questions will be unique to each of us. But the commonalities undoubtedly hold the key to employers’ ever-present challenge of talent retention. In a changing world, where new technologies and opportunities are redefining the modern workplace, and where the mythical ‘war for talent’ sees its combatants armed with new weapons, workforce expectations are shifting. Models of employment are changing and employees – from Baby Boomers to Gen Z – want different things from their employers.

Retaining talent in a highly competitive but rapidly evolving business environment is a major priority, a moveable feast and a perennial challenge. Certainly, rather like political negotiations, there isn’t a quick fix and you’ll never keep everyone happy. But with a long-term strategy, a willingness to innovate and a commitment to the vision, it may just be possible to convert Leavers into Remainers.

Staff attrition

The business impact of high staff turnover can be damaging. While departures are inevitable (and, in some cases, welcomed), extreme staff attrition has a detrimental impact on productivity, profitability and business continuity. It can disrupt workforce morale, compromise the customer experience and, when the most skilled talent leaves, weaken a business while strengthening a competitor.

The financial impact of staff turnover is also significant, with the cost and risk of recruiting (and training) replacements potentially huge. While the impact of high attrition on an employer’s brand is unquantifiable, research shows that 75% of all jobseekers consider a company’s brand reputation before applying for a job; 50% staff turnover is not a good look.

The message is therefore clear: high staff attrition is an indicator of poor company culture, while losing top talent can be highly damaging. So how can you avoid it? Here are six simple suggestions that might make your best employees less likely to leave.

#1: Be flexible

“Flexibility is the future of retention,” says Angie Wiles, Founder and Head of Collectivity, The Difference Collective. “The working world has changed; that era where the older generation went to school, went to work and then retired is disappearing. Most of us will likely journey through a series of careers, influenced by evolving aspirations, expectations and opportunities. Advances in technology will redefine our career options and establish innovative ways of working as the new normal. The evolution will by no means be led by millennials alone. We all want it.

A recent study by YouGov and McDonald’s showed that more than half (57%) of British workers would like to see the end of traditional 9-5 working. In truth, it’s already happening. The smartest companies are retaining their best talent by embracing more flexible models of working that harness modern technologies and attitudes. These models, like the one used at The Difference – which brings together senior independent healthcare communications consultants to work together virtually on projects – enhance productivity and give employees greater control over how and when they work. Proactive employers are also providing flexibility in the breadth of work they give their staff, providing opportunities to experience different types of projects and learn new skill sets.

But flexibility is not a free-for- all; more agile models are underpinned by clear rules of engagement that assure work is delivered on time and to the highest quality. And they’re also supported by unequivocal trust between employer and employee. That trust is a powerful but vital component. It empowers people – giving them an autonomy, latitude and ownership that motivates talent, drives workplace happiness and inspires loyalty.”

#2: Give the work meaning

“Attracting, engaging, developing and, crucially, retaining talent should be the highest priority for every business,” says David Hunt, CEO, Havas Lynx. “It’s certainly critical in healthcare communications. A few years ago, the brightest and most creative minds didn’t seem to want to work in pharma – they appeared more attracted to consumer industries or disruptive innovation. Today, the calibre of people the industry attracts and the quality of the creative we’re producing is astonishing. Why? Because the best creativity emerges when talent is inspired – and it’s inspired when organisations unite behind a worthwhile purpose.

The most successful healthcare communications organisations attract and retain talent when they focus on producing work that has a positive impact on society. That’s a powerful purpose and a huge motivation. But delivering it means ensuring that – along with the people – the science, strategy, creative and technology are all pointing towards that same goal. Ultimately, retaining talent is about giving work meaning. And it’s about consistently, collectively and passionately committing to that meaning – right from the very top of the organisation – so that people take pride in their work, enjoy it and go home and talk about it.”

#3: Help managers manage – buddying and mentoring is key

Across all industries, there’s an understandable focus on staff turnover and widespread efforts to achieve ‘good’ retention rates. But is this always a good thing? There are important nuances to bear in mind. “We all know you
can’t run a business on 50% turnover, but low employee turnover can also be damaging,” says Liam Mulvihill, European HR Director, Commercial Solutions, Syneos Health. “Civil service organisations with gold-plated pensions, or companies that are the dominant employer in one region, can have turnover of under
3% – but this can lead to a harmful lack of new ideas or innovation. Overall turnover is misleading. The real measure of success is to track ‘regretted’ turnover: high potential or high performers. Retaining these requires a determined focus on a range of issues. One of the most important is good line management. The old adage that people leave managers, not companies, still holds true. CIPD data reveals that a third of the UK workforce will leave their current employer because of the relationship they have with their line manager. Investment in management development is crucial. But it’s equally important to hire the right managers in the first place. Deep industry experts don’t always make the best managers. Supplementing managers with a good buddy or mentor framework can help establish open and effective team communications that nurture and retain talent.”

#4: Choose purpose over process

“We’ve all heard the mantra: great companies start with a ‘why’. It’s a philosophy that inevitably cascades down to the workforce,” says Angie Wiles. “Employees are motivated by a clear sense of purpose – an understanding of their company’s shared goal and how they contribute to it. Organisations with high staff turnover – the ones that haemorrhage hard-earned talent and gift them to their competitors – are often driven by ‘process’ rather than purpose; they focus on chasing numbers, maintaining corporate dictats and leadership by email. There’s no substitute for authentic engagement and impassioned, involved leadership. When a workforce unites around a defined, common goal – and employees can see where they fit into the vision – the most talented workers are motivated, inspired and incentivised to deliver their absolute best. That’s the power of purpose. Achieving our goals will always require a degree of process, but that process should underpin the culture – it shouldn’t define it. Great culture is about focusing on the purpose, rather than on the process.”

#5: Don’t just invest in talent – commit to it

Every organisation will claim it invests in its people – but in some companies the claim rarely goes beyond the rhetoric. To retain the best people, you have to show that you mean it. “Persuading talented people to stay with your organisation is a never-ending exercise,” says David Hunt. “In the first instance, it requires two things: investing in employees’ personal and professional development so they nurture new skill sets that help them progress, and investing in company culture to create and maintain a great place to work. But these investments are never a moment-in-time or an overnight whim, they need to be thought through, planned and sustainable. There must be strategy behind it – and you’ve got to show that you mean it. The best way to retain talent is to demonstrate an unequivocal commitment to developing employees at every stage of their career journey. Sure, learning and development programmes, whether they’re through apprenticeships, graduate trainee schemes or in-house academies, need to be high quality, innovative and relevant. But above all, they need to be purpose-driven and underpinned by a total, top-down commitment that highlights an authentic desire to invest in people. That same authenticity applies to culture. You won’t build a great culture by occasional grand gestures or bringing in a tray of doughnuts on a random Friday. Establishing and maintaining the best possible workplace environment takes time, thought, ongoing engagement and continual creativity. The companies that achieve it are those that attract, nurture and retain their best talent. And that investment ultimately reaps rewards.”

#6: Reward talent

Finally, if you want to attract and retain the best talent, you have to pay for it. “Too many organisations set out to be ‘market median’ payers,” says Liam Mulvihill. “The commercial objectives are understandable, but too often the race for the middle is a race for mediocrity. It’s the quickest way to lose talent. Companies can do much more to differentiate themselves by paying more for key roles – or high calibre people – without breaking the bank. The cost of replacing talent invariably outstrips the cost of paying it what it’s worth. The most attractive employers are also creative with total rewards, there are many innovative ways that companies can provide bespoke and customised benefits for employees where the perceived value can significantly exceed the monetary cost. Similarly, there’s a growing trend towards ‘shared wealth creation’ – rewarding talent by giving people skin in the game. There’s huge scope for much smarter bonus design where employees can share in a company’s success. Transparent, well-designed schemes that link employee and company performance can be massively influential and a significant driver of employee engagement. Certainly, all listed companies should consider an HMRC-approved share scheme, and companies that aren’t can employ a vehicle of long-term, shared wealth creation if possible. Creating interest in the company share price is a massive lever for sustained engagement and long-term thinking for employees. Discounted share options are great schemes, where people invest their own money with three-year return periods, encouraging retention. That’s been very effective.”

The People’s Vote

Leave or remain, in the career context, is an age-old question – the corporate equivalent of a People’s Vote where decisions aren’t swayed by promises on the sides of buses, but by the real-world evidence of their experiences in the workplace. The employee referendum is not a once-in-a-generation opportunity – it’s a perpetual poll that’s rerun every day. Whichever side of the argument you sit on, talent retention is ultimately a two-way street that depends on maintaining ongoing engagement to ensure that both parties – employers and employees – tick all the right boxes.

Chris Ross is a freelance writer specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry

Article by
Chris Ross

10th October 2018

From: Marketing



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