Date: 14 Mar 2022

Author: Hamish Drummond

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In a working world that has shifted dramatically in a short space of time it’s easy to feel hopeless about actually understanding the real levers of retention in 2022. In a world where ‘bigger is better’ and ‘more means more,’ our expectations of life inside and outside of the workplace have increased dramatically. The pandemic made us question fundamental things about our lives, especially around job satisfaction, flexibility and sense of purpose. The latest world events literally unfolding in front of our eyes are making us (and our employees) question even more about what’s important and what’s not in life’s value equation. In the workplace, employee attrition is an everyday fact of life. But some employers manage to achieve such a low level of people churn, don’t they? So how do they do it? — and does it only apply to companies with a very special kind of culture? We explore six go-to strategies that any HR professional can implement to stop precious talent from leaking away.

Before we dig into solutions, it’s important to take a step back and think about the reasons why people actually leave in the first place. This isn’t rocket science — any manager worth their salt would be able to put together a list like this very fast:

Key reasons why people leave their employer:

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  • They feel undervalued
  • They are burned out and their job is affecting their health
  • They found something with more competitive pay
  • A desire for more flexible work arrangements
  • Micromanagement and poor relations with managers and leadership
  • A lack of career development, advancement and learning opportunities
  • Something came up that offered greater work-life balance
  • Boredom; lack of a challenge and need for better job satisfaction
  • A lack of sense of purpose — “I don’t really believe in what we’re doing”

We also need to acknowledge the consequences and costs that employee churn bring to the organisation. When good people leave the organisation, they take their well-earned and long-earned knowledge elsewhere. Sometimes this knowledge capital takes literally years to build up. It brings disruption to your teams and can literally leave a gaping hole in your operation. Others in the company are left to take up the slack. The cost to locate, attract and onboard people is significant. And the disruption to teams can be significant; the loss of one person can have a dramatic impact on the motivation, mood and productivity of others. Employee churn is inevitable in all industries — but some companies have a leaky bath problem. People are leaking out of the bottom and it’s taking too long to refill from the top. With the costs and associated disruption, you need to be decisive to get things back on track. So, here’s how to do it:

1. Employee engagement needs to be your number one priority

Leading authorities point time and time again at employee engagement as being the number one driver of employee retention. So what is it exactly? It relates to the level of an employee’s commitment and connection to an organisation. Engagement is on a spectrum — you’ve got people who are highly engaged in the business. They feel like more than just a cog in a big machine. Instead, they feel highly motivated by the company’s mission, vision and values. What’s more, they feel valued and have a sense that the work they are doing is making a real difference. These people are enthusiastic, they regularly recommend their place of work to friends and family. Their involvement goes well beyond just turning up and doing their work. They’re the kind of people who get involved in social activities and career days to help attract new talent. They are the vital glue that keeps your workplace vibrant. When there’s a barrier facing the company, these are the people who will move heaven and earth to overcome the challenge, rousing others around them to take action. At the other end of the employee engagement spectrum are people who are ‘completely disengaged’. They likely don’t have any emotional involvement with their employer whatsoever. In fact, they are just exchanging their time for money in a cold-hearted transaction. It’s likely they no longer care about their work — they just turn up, do what must be done and get on with it. Don’t think for a second that the dis-engaged employee is some kind of lazy enemy here. The likelihood is, after years of micro-management in a military style work dictatorship, the enthusiasm and ambition they once had has waned. Their efforts and toils probably went un-noticed — without recognition. If they’re still in the organisation, perhaps their state of mental health and fears around job security have actually left them trapped in a job and company they don’t really believe in. We’ve painted two dramatic opposite extremes there and we’ve done it for a reason. The reality is that the majority of people probably sit somewhere in between the two.

The SHRM (or Society for Human Resources Management), a leading global authority on HR has created a simple table that makes it very easy to understand the difference between an engaged or dis-engaged employee.

Engaged behaviours

Disengaged behaviours





Goes above and beyond

High absenteeism


Negative attitude



Shows a passion for learning

Focuses on monetary worth

Passes along credit but accepts blame

Accepts credit but passes along blame

So, if we know that employee engagement is so key, what are the secrets of a highly engaged workforce - and then ultimately a loyal one?

We’ll there’s more to it than money. All other things being equal, a pay rise can’t make up for a miserable work environment. In fact, it’s when people are not engaged; that’s when they start to look closely at what they are being paid. For some, they’ll decide that their pay level makes up for the lack of workplace engagement. But for others, even a pay rise won’t be enough to stop them looking elsewhere.

It’s important to get real about what employees actually value. Pause for a second — is a fruit basket actually an employee benefit? The availability of free healthy snacks is bound to be valued by some people — but a manager or leader with an open-door policy is going to be far more valuable. As an employee, engagement is about the open flow of information throughout the business or organisation. It’s about knowing where you stand. It means a culture of openness where everyone is on the same page.

It’s about ensuring that your people feel a sense of purpose about what they are doing. Renee in accounts payable needs to know that her purpose in life means more than just loading a load of invoices onto a system and double checking them. She needs to feel connected to the overall vision and strategy of the business. She needs to feel at one with the other people across the value chain — whether they are in the c-suite, on the factory floor or out on the road serving customers.

If you want to stop the brain drain and keep the best people in your organisation — ask yourself this question and give an honest answer. ARE OUR PEOPLE ENGAGED IN OUR BUSINESS?

2. Listen to your people and act on what they tell you

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When you involve your employees in the running of your business, they will have the courage to open up. You don’t need a firm of fancy consultants to tell you what you need to do to improve employee retention. Just ask your people — for free! Whether as a group or privately (as part of your performance management processes), don’t be afraid to ask people what they actually value and want. We all want the world — and granted, we can’t deliver every little part of it. But look for the common threads and themes. They will give you valuable insight that you can act upon. Just the act of asking and involving people is in itself a form of employee engagement — so you really can’t go wrong. If your people have asked for X, Y and Z — perhaps give them a way to choose between them or let them know that “we can’t give you Z — but we can give you X and Y.” When employees see a link between their needs and management making a proactive response, it reinforces their value, their importance and their sense of self-worth.

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3. Give people a chance to develop and learn — and use their skills

Harvard Business Review reported that nine out of 10 people are willing to earn less money to do more meaningful work. It says a lot about the real importance that today’s workforce place on having the opportunity to learn and develop, irrelevant of their immediate pay packet. When someone leaves your organisation, there’s a good chance they are moving to better themselves, to expand their horizons and have access to a role that will stretch and challenge them in a new way. Opportunities for promotion and advancement are coveted — not everybody gets to advance as fast as others. But as a manager or leader, it’s important to have real empathy and understand that whilst you are promoting and developing your ‘future stars’, others in the organisation can feel static and dis-engaged. The reality could be that they just don’t meet the requirements to progress and excel in their current role. But perhaps they do have a strong cultural fit which means their skills could be harnessed in a different role or in a different part of the business altogether. Of course, the needs and wants of the employee must align with the strategic objectives of the organisation. Not every employee can be retained — but there are things you can put forward that could retain them in your organisation, albeit in a slightly different way or role.

4. Give people a sense of belonging

Smiling man holding yellow book, turns around in desk seat and looks back

Feeling noticed, appreciated and valued is a basic human need, whether inside or outside of the workplace. In the workplace, people from all walks of life come together. Teams share many common traits and ambitions — but the people behind these roles couldn’t be more different in many, many ways. When we come to work, we leave our differences at the door and come together to share a common purpose and the motivational drive to ‘do our work’ and achieve shared objectives. Feeling a sense of community and belonging is very important to bring out the best in people. It’s also crucial in retaining people in the workplace. With the trend towards remote and hybrid work it has never been more important to make people feel like a valued member of a family or team, rather than as a ‘lone ranger’ with loose connections to others. Different strategies can give your people that sense of belonging. A lot of the cultural glue used to be formed in the office through shared experiences. Coming together to eat, to laugh, to share tea and biscuits and engage in lively discussion. In an increasingly remote-first world, you’ll need to compensate for this with ways to bring people together. This could be through online get-togethers or even through offline events that gather everyone in a single space for the generation of some valuable team spirit. What about an away day? — a sports event — or even a bake-a-thon for a good cause. Think of anything that brings people together — with a focus on what people have in common rather than what they don’t. Making the workplace feel like a home — where people can be their authentic selves is what it’s all about. And it starts will common sense and empathy.

5. Take wellbeing seriously

Top view of people working at a wooden desk, with their devices and notebooks

Issues like mental health and burnout have entered the public consciousness. They are no longer taboo. Yet around the world, leaders consistently report that there’s limited take-up of schemes designed to offer people support when they need it the most. One of the challenges is that despite wellbeing now being such an openly talked about topic, people still feel ‘ashamed’ of admitting to themselves (let alone others) that they have a problem that needs outside help. Putting wellness at the heart of your workplace agenda can make a real difference to your workplace retention. How to put it to work? Let your leaders and managers take the lead. When senior people show their human vulnerability and share their own challenges with stress and mental health, it gives people permission to be authentic to themselves and to seek the help and support that they need. Without that ‘invisible nod’ from more senior people — employees will continue to keep things bottled up. Make it happen.

6. Make people feel secure

Imagine living life on a knife edge where you don’t actually feel secure in your employment from one day to the next. Imagine the impact of living with that anxiety for months or even years on end. According to the World Health Organisation job insecurity harms health, even more than unemployment. Evidence now shows that the higher the level of job security, the higher the level of productivity. The bottom line is this - making employees feel safe is good for business. Building mutual trust will be reciprocated. When you make your people feel safe and secure — in most cases you’ll see that they do the same thing back to the business. Events like COVID, rising inflation and unforeseen economic events have proven that not every business can be totally secure. Business health can change quickly. But leaders can choose to be open, transparent and honest about what they are doing, what they can do and what they can’t. With trustworthy information, people are given the opportunity to make plans and prepare for what they need to do next (instead of being lulled into a false sense of security). It works both ways.

If you’re struggling with employee retention, there are ways and means to fix it. None of the strategies we’ve outlined are an overnight fix. However, like with any overwhelming business challenge, you have to start somewhere and make progress forward step by step. By committing to a plan instead of just paying lip-service to this crucial commercial issue, you can inch closer and closer to a workplace where people feel secure, a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.

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