The Great Resignation was somewhat oversold, but the labor shortages are real. Nearly three years into the pandemic, there are still plenty of open jobs and workplace turnover remains more than 17% higher than pre-pandemic numbers, according to Gartner.. In November 2022, 4.2 million Americans quit their jobs, and industries like tech, food services and healthcare are struggling to fill open positions, compared to 3.5 million in November 2019.
Some of those staff may be quitting in order to look for a more flexible work arrangement, or because their previous employer denied them one – data from WFH Research shows employees want to work from home for about half the week, and close to half of them are willing to look for another job to do so.
But even companies with remote or hybrid workforces are grappling with turnover and wondering how to prevent it in a tight job market. “As a remote and asynchronous company that works to place senior software developers in freelance and fractional remote roles, we spend a lot of time dealing with this exact question,” said Chris Johnson, marketing coordinator at Gun.io., a fully remote company that connects employers and software developers.
It’s a question with real impacts on organizational success. A recent Gallup meta-analysis found that employee engagement is related to a variety of performance outcomes including profitability, customer loyalty and engagement, absenteeism, shrinkage, and organizational citizenship.
Employee engagement also improves the chances of organizational success, which Gallup measured through variables including profitability, wellbeing, turnover, productivity, and customer loyalty and engagement. Business and work units scoring in the top half on employee engagement more than doubled their odds of success, Gallup’s meta-analysis found. The more-engaged units were more productive, more profitable, and had less absenteeism and turnover.
What’s different about remote work?
In some ways, fostering a successful hybrid or remote work environment requires fresh approaches to business considerations like culture, engagement, and onboarding. Johnson advises leaders at remote or hybrid operations to accept that running an in-office business is fundamentally different from running one that is remote or hybrid, specifically because it requires giving staff so much more agency.
“With this comes a change to the business’s organizational structure and generally less middle management, with more of a focus on higher-skilled employees, better project management, and near-complete transparency,” Johnson said.
It’s also important to remember that some of the same technologies that make remote work possible can also make it alienating, when management over-relies on their convenience. It’s easy to rely on email and chat applications like Slack, especially if staff members are in different time zones, but it can be a mistake, warned John Minnix, founder and CEO of Brightlio, an IT solutions provider. Managers should make a point of dedicating time to speak with remote employees through phone or video calls, Minnix advised. These calls should concern business matters, but they also serve as an opportunity to get to know your staff and their needs by sharing how their work impacts the company and asking about their professional goals.
“These efforts go a long way toward improving employee retention for remote and hybrid workers,” he said.
Creating Standard Processes and Cultural Serendipity Key to Remote Retention
Most of the responsibility for turnover prevention lies with management’s ability to foster a culture of “fierce dedication to creating and upholding standard operating procedures,” Johnson says.
Turnover prevention should begin as early as the hiring process. It’s essential for companies to have a clear vision of what makes a successful candidate for the given role and their organization, Johnson said. In remote candidates, that vision should include characteristics like organizational skills, confidence, thoughtfulness, motivation, and adaptability.
The company onboarding process should be as robust for remote and hybrid employees as it is for those working in the office full time, with consideration for educating new hires about all the tools and systems they need to do their jobs effectively – in all of your organization’s workspaces.
And don’t forget about the importance of training and education opportunities beyond onboarding, said Anjela Mangrum, founder and president of Mangrum Career Solutions. “A common reason for employee disengagement is meeting a dead end at a job that doesn't provide any opportunities to learn new skills,” Mangrum said. “Therefore, not only is employee training important for growing your team's capabilities, but it also does wonders for engagement and retention.” Develop your own materials for ongoing training opportunities, or take advantage of resources like Udemy or LinkedIn Learning.
For existing employees, implementation of systems to remove friction and allow for meaningful and creative interactions between team members is important, Johnson says. When building those systems, don’t forget to consider how employees will be able to provide and receive feedback – and be reassured that feedback has organizational impact. When they work remotely, employees can lose some of their power to provide or receive feedback to management or across their teams, which can leave them feeling unheard or unsure how their work is received.
“From my experience as the head of a medium-sized recruiting firm, anonymous suggestion box apps like DirectSuggest work best in encouraging all workers to speak up,” Mangrum said. She also recommended regular one-on-ones, which are also great, more frequent opportunities to give and receive feedback and set clear expectations.
Don’t forget to also provide opportunities to enjoy the social aspects of being on a team together, no matter your employees’ locations. Recreating happenstance interactions like retirement parties or overlaps in the breakrooms, where employees from all across the company have the chance to interact, is possible for virtual workspaces if you create interactions specifically for your remote and hybrid workers, Minnix said.
A virtual coffee room was a big success at her firm, Mangrum said. “It provided employees a work-free zone, with the sole purpose of sitting back for a while with a cup of coffee and chatting about their day before getting back to work,” she said. And when managing a remote and hybrid team of 100 U.S. and 30 international employees, Minnix used creative solutions like virtual lunches, where a handful of employees had lunch delivered to their homes by the company and spent 90 minutes together eating and talking. The employees may have been in separate locations, but they were brought together by sharing a structured virtual event that wasn't purely work-oriented.
“This gave team members from different departments a chance to know each other and fostered a sense of camaraderie,” Minnix said.