If employers want to hold on to their stars in the new world of work, it falls on HR to create a more wondrous vision for them to stay.
When Publicis Groupe considers its retention strategies, it looks beyond the employee experience. Following the pandemic, the global advertising agency has broadened its lens.
“We’ve shifted the focus to the person’s ‘life experience,’” says Pauly Grant, Chief Talent Officer ANZ at Publicis Groupe. “People have emerged from COVID-19 with a clearer perspective on their own personal priorities and purpose. The way people want to work, their personal choices and beliefs now differ.”
Publicis has long implemented progressive paid-leave policies with retention in mind.
“Data highlighted that we had a spike in employee turnover around 18-24 months into their tenure,” says Grant. “We also have a significant proportion of employees in their 20s and 30s who love holidays and travel.”
So Publicis launched ‘lion leave’ in 2016: five days’ extra holiday annually for employees once they hit their two-year anniversary. The aim of the scheme was to incentivise loyalty – and it worked.
“We saw a 20-24 per cent increase in retention for employees past the two-year mark,” says Grant. “We were able to provide a meaningful tenure benefit, encouraging people to take leave to improve their wellbeing and energy levels, while also helping us manage our annual leave balance.”
More recently, Publicis introduced paid leave for major life issues such as gender affirmation, IVF treatment, miscarriages and domestic violence.
“It’s gone from the employee experience and making work-life better, to the life experience and recognising how work impacts people’s lives,” says Grant. “This thinking helps to inform our people strategy, including our inclusive leave policies.”
Building robust retention strategies
Gartner estimated that the pace of employee turnover in 2022 would be 50-75 per cent higher than companies had previously experienced. Compounding the issue is the fact that it’s forecast to take 18 per cent longer to fill roles in the current hiring crisis.
HR professionals will be thinking about how they can set themselves up to retain star employees. They’ll need to support leaders to create more robust retention strategies to ensure that, while they’re worrying about filling gaps due to the skills shortage, they’re not also feeling stressed about losing existing talent.
“The aim should be that the employee feels they’d be giving something up if they quit.” – Mark Bolino, Professor of Management, University of Oklahoma.
In some cases, this might look like reinforcing fundamental retention practices. For others, it may mean rewriting policies entirely in the new world of work – one in which flexibility is often no longer seen as a perk, but as a right.
Creating deeper connections
A strong retention strategy typically features four core pillars, says Neal Woolrich, Director, HR Advisory at Gartner.
“Flexibility, work-life balance, wellbeing and connectedness are crucial. While many organisations aspired to these elements before the pandemic, they’ve now come to the fore. People have normalised the integration of their personal life into the working day.”
Increasingly, this means HR teams need to rethink tried-and-tested retention strategies, and have a wider perspective on how to keep talent happy and engaged.
“The new aspect is the human deal,” says Woolrich. “Think of the employee as a person rather than a worker.”
That means organisations need to forge deeper connections with employees and understand their personal situation better.
But this can be harder to achieve in hybrid and remote settings. With teams often not working in-person, an employee’s sense of belonging and connection can be lost.
When AHRI surveyed over 1100 HR professionals in July 2022, 65 per cent cited a sense of disconnection to colleagues as a key challenge of hybrid work.
Not only do employees need to feel connected to the people they work with and for, they also need to feel a strong sense of connection to the work they’re doing in order to deliver high discretionary effort and feel a strong sense of engagement.
A May 2022 survey of 5600 US employees showed that only about half of employees aged 25-45 felt they could connect their day-to-day tasks to larger, strategic business imperatives.
Yet, 92.4 per cent said they perform better when they see how the quality of their work matters to the bigger picture.
Woolrich says with organisations no longer able to rely upon physical proximity, emotional proximity becomes paramount in creating this sense of belonging. Often this can be achieved by reframing an organisation’s purpose as part of a broader narrative in how they benefit society more generally.
“A client in the insurance industry wanted to know how to create that sense of emotional proximity for people working in functional roles, like payroll,” says Woolrich.
“We talked it through and they realised their line of work means they’re with people in their most difficult moments in life.
For example, their home was damaged in a fire, or someone had a severe illness. It’s payroll that facilitates people being able to do their jobs and support others when they’re in need.
“Driving that emotional proximity among employees enables them to understand the value they create, helping to build connectedness to the work they do.”
New retention strategies
The new world of work requires new retention strategies. Mark Bolino, Professor of Management at the University of Oklahoma, believes the hiring crisis shows that firms should be more proactive.
“Any time the labour market is tight, people will be more inclined to look elsewhere, so organisations need to step up their game,” he says.
Key to preventing an employee from resigning is getting ahead before it becomes an option, says Bolino.
“Some companies only have a plan of action once a worker receives an offer from another firm – that’s not good enough. Instead, the aim should be that the employee feels they’d be giving something up if they quit.”
This could be achieved by helping employees in their personal lives. Bolino cites the example of Google’s death benefit in the US. If an employee dies, their spouse receives half of their salary for the next ten years.
“It makes an employee think, ‘How can I give that up for my family? That’s a unique benefit I can’t get elsewhere.’”
However, there are also retention strategies that work for the here and now.
“A company could introduce a policy that makes it easier for people to secure a mortgage, either through a loyalty bonus or down payment,” says Bolino. “Not only is that creating the feeling that an employee has to sacrifice something if they leave, but it also ties them to the local community.
“The logic is that you want to embed people at an organisation through the culture and relationships they form so they don’t think about leaving.”
Crucially, any strategy should be bespoke and tailored to each individual’s or team’s tastes, needs and preferences.
For example, while internal mobility and a compelling career pathway may appeal to one employee, another may prefer more leave options to spend time with their family, or support in pursuing their side hustle.
“HR and managers need to know their star talent and their idiosyncrasies,” says Bolino. “It’s about having regular conversations with employees and knowing what’s important to them. You need to know what they want, be that greater flexibility, recognition or new assignments. Then, if you know what drives them, you know which levers to pull in terms of offering targeted benefits and building a comprehensive retention strategy.”
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Also, if you want your best employees to stay, you need to know what would entice them to leave. Woolrich says manager quality is often the number one factor for employee turnover, followed by issues such as heavy workload, stress and burnout.
“Retention strategies are often about fixing issues around the work itself,” he says. “Removing barriers, friction and frustrations that prevent people from being effective helps them to be more engaged.”
Much of it should be done with the person in mind. Grant says Publicis’s progressive leave policies go to the heart of this because they place the employee front and centre.
“They speak to an individual’s needs. Knowing your organisation is connected to your personal priorities is so important. When we announced our in vitro fertilisation leave, we were overwhelmed with feedback. Some of these employees hadn’t had access to this in previous organisations. They were overcome with emotion knowing they’d be supported through a difficult journey.”
The grass may always appear greener on the other side, and organisations can’t control what else is available in the jobseeking market, but they can get their own house in order so employees want to stay for the long term.
In the next version of retention, HR teams are the lead architects; they design the blueprint. It’s left to management to then create it in the day-to-day running of an organisation.
“A good retention strategy means laying the groundwork and having strong fundamentals in place like fairness, transparency and work life balance,” says Bolino. “Then it’s a matter of building retention programs unique to your company, and having managers able to respond on a case-by-case basis.”
A longer version of this article first appeared in the Dec/Jan 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.