The human factor as a competitive advantage

As markets and workforces change rapidly, build a competitive advantage by focusing on how to keep and attract great people with these four strategies.

While we know a company’s workforce has the potential to be its greatest asset, there is no silver bullet to arriving at this reality overnight, or staying there for long. 

Each organization is a collection of people who are always changing, growing – and coming and going. And every workforce’s fluidity is matched by that of its environment. The market today is changing quickly as companies rise to meet the challenges of this COVID-19 era of business. 

Amidst today’s pace of change is a concerning trend: a record-high quit rate that many surveys show will likely continue to rise. In fact, a December 2021 poll found one in four workers plan to quit their jobs this year. Yet too often companies take a band-aid approach, focusing solely on trying to replace talent versus building a strong culture that engages and retains talent.

First, leaders need to understand attrition in a meaningful way that enables them to improve. Then they need to empower their teams and managers to succeed, grow and progress with the right tools and strategies. And finally, it’s more important than ever before to infuse inclusive practices into the day-to-day lives of employees. As markets and workforces change rapidly, build a competitive advantage by focusing on how to keep and attract great people with these four strategies.

  1. Dig deeper into why people leave.

Every mid- to large-size organization is already tracking attrition rates, however, most aren’t doing so at the level to which the data is usable in real time. Annual rates are great to show leadership how you’re doing year-over-year, but the data is meaningless in today’s fluid talent environment.

With the rapid shift of the labor market today, it is smart to pull attrition data on a regular basis so you understand how to navigate the spikes. The data should also be sliced and diced for a full picture. What trends are you seeing in quit rates across demographics, business units or locations? Here are a few examples. 

  • Are diverse new hires leaving at a quicker rate? Perhaps your company, or a particular team or leader, is selling a level of inclusion during the interview process that isn’t reality. HR needs to know this and adjust for future candidate engagement. Even better, your company can take action to live up to its DEI claims.
  • Are employees leaving from a certain division that just went through a rocky restructuring? HR can jump in with additional change management to salvage the relationships with those employees who have stayed but might be flight risks and help create smoother processes for the future. 
  • Is there a high attrition rate in a particular geographical location? Through data analysis, we helped one client see a competitor in a specific area was poaching its employees with higher compensation. 

Attrition data must also be viewed in conjunction with regular employee survey data. Short pulse surveys are helpful in today’s fast-moving workforce environment to understand sentiment trends in real time. Open text responses can provide additional context into the numbers.

While employee surveys can tell you how employees feel about you, other data can also give you a sense of how employees are doing from a well-being perspective. Paid time off and sick leave policies should be reviewed regularly. Having a sense of how much time off is used for mental health, for example, will help you understand if your mental health benefits are sufficient. Anonymized data on how those benefits are being used can also help you adjust offerings over time.

  1. Tap into what makes employees stay by reframing mobility

The current disengagement level of employees is well documented by the climbing resignation rate. Companies are scrambling to retain talent, with one caveat: they want to retain them in their current roles. Recruiters don’t want the headache of filling a role that wasn’t at risk. 

Mobility can be scary for some HR leaders, who view it as more of a “push” than a win. A more strategic view of mobility is as a multiplier of retention, and one that leads to a healthier, more diverse and successful organization.

An October 2021 Oracle study found 75 percent of employees feel stuck professionally, and just more than 50 percent of employees would give up PTO and bonuses for more career opportunities. It’s time for businesses to get into the mindset that retention today equals mobility. 

A big part of internal mobility is creating opportunity for non-traditional candidates to move into new careers. For example, tech skilling is a win-win for businesses, allowing them to fill in-demand roles with diverse employees that do not have formal technology training, while retaining them at the same time. 

Mobility must be seen as a welcome, positive part of an employee’s journey inside the organization. All internal jobs should be openly shared and employees should be able to apply at will. 

  1. Give management training an overhaul

Managers need to be re-trained for today’s workplace. Many might be new to remote or hybrid model leadership and may lack an understanding of inclusive leadership or they aren’t prepared to be a support system for today’s mental health challenges. They’re likely operating in a state of fear and anxiety over the uncertainty of the labor market and the risk of losing employees.

HR needs to give them the tools, training and resources they need to be successful. Here are a few reasons why managing looks different today.

Hybrid leadership is a work in progress. Many managers are still finding their footing when leading from afar. They need more communication tools and ways to connect with employees to continue developing relationships and engaging them. For some organizations, this new environment of remote, in-office and hybrid workers is also unintentionally creating a divide between workers that can be difficult for managers to navigate. HR leadership should equip managers to have meaningful conversations with their teams should these issues arise.

Leadership skills have changed. Do your managers practice active listening? Are they empathetic? Do they create an environment where employees feel safe to share? Are they curious and caring in addition to being focused on results? With significantly increased stress levels, employees need managers with the soft skills to help their teams be productive and develop. 360-evaluations will open the two-way communication needed to continue building strong managers, who in turn build strong teams.

Managers should be internal mobility advocates. Some managers are understandably leery of mobility. Many see it as a loss and inconvenience to their own team. HR leaders need to re-train managers to see their role as drivers of career growth versus keepers of an individual’s skills. This mindset shift won’t happen overnight and HR needs to closely monitor mobility metrics per manager to ensure all employees feel comfortable applying for roles. 

  1. Redefine “inclusive” and reset behaviors 

It’s so important to create an environment that is inclusive of everyone. In addition to ensuring underrepresented groups are fully included, it’s important to address this need for all employee populations.

Does every level of employee have an equal voice in a meeting? Do introverts have the same influence as extroverts? Do all employees, remote or office-based, have the same access to opportunities?  

Building inclusivity has a lot to do with how we use our voices, especially for leadership. Employees tend to take direction from managers regarding team behavior, communication style and expectations. Leaders must set the tone. Do employees see leaders give everyone a chance to contribute, or do they let the same team members drive the conversation? A great starting point to resetting behavior can be as simple as managers withholding their insights and opinions until the end of a meeting to give their team the chance to form their own conclusions first.

What unique experiences do individuals have and how open are teams to hearing these different viewpoints and acting on them? Answering this question honestly will give you a sense of whether you’ve created psychological safety for your team that’s necessary for inclusion.

Each of these strategies will impact someone’s career from day one. Just one conversation between an employee and a manager can effect change. But it will take consistency across the organization to create the momentum needed to infuse these behaviors into a company’s culture. The HR leaders that give their teams the tools and space to make that happen will be those who will be able to transform their workforce into a competitive advantage.