4 ways to lean in and discover what employees really want

Checking in with staff, piloting ways of working, and using data can allow you to understand better what employees want and retain them.

The Great Resignation prompted by the pandemic is driving companies to find creative new ways to keep hold of key talent as many employees increasingly prioritise nonmonetary benefits such as flexibility, work/life balance, and skills development over lucrative compensation packages.

To effectively retain employees in this rapidly shifting environment, organisations need to invest time to discover how best to redefine and bolster the value propositions they offer.

Organisations are emphasising the importance of experimenting with new ways of working, improving communication with their teams, and building genuine personal connections to develop staff willing to stay the course.

Taking cues from nimble startup culture and drilling into the data companies already have about their employees can also prove valuable as finance managers look to fine-tune their value propositions, experts said.

No matter which combination of policies and technologies you choose, having a managerial relationship with employees that supports their goals, ambitions, and needs is key to employee retention. But understanding what employees want and need requires intent, empathy, and skilful leadership.

"Attrition is a cost, and the challenge of retaining people is understanding their mindset and then to keep one step ahead in understanding their professional and emotional needs and balance them," said Rajarshi Sen, Bangalore-based CFO for India's Vman Aviation Services.

Signing up to management development programmes can be a useful way to pick up tips on how to develop employee value propositions best suited to the changes sweeping through the corporate world, Sen said.

Read these further tips on how managers can discover what their staff are looking for and boost retention.

Listen closely and experiment

The pandemic showed employees the benefits of flexible working, and now many are reluctant to go back to the old way of doing things. And it's risking a clash with employers.

According to the EY Work Reimagined Employee Survey 2021, over 50% of employees would think about quitting their job if they were not offered flexibility in when and where they can work.

It's important managers avoid jumping to conclusions about how staff want to work, and instead let them demonstrate what suits them best, said Sebastian Reiche, Ph.D., professor of people management at Barcelona's IESE Business School.

He encourages managers to experiment by giving teams the chance to lead new initiatives and make some of their own decisions. It's a way to give employees the autonomy and responsibility they increasingly crave while providing a wealth of feedback on how staff interact and become more effective, he said.

"Think like a scientist, experiment," Reiche said.

"If you want to find out exactly what talent at your organisation wants or how happy they are with a certain way of working, start with one team working differently and use it as a pilot case."

Climate surveys and anonymous questionnaires both have a role to play but only if managers are genuinely committed to putting results into practice, he said.

Instead, he suggests managers glean ideas by asking teams to workshop ways to redesign core processes or brainstorm how to make their jobs more engaging.

Get personal

Get up close and personal to discover more about your employees' families, hobbies, and aspirations. It might sound fluffy, but it's an important way to develop value propositions that better fit their home lives and career goals.

Often, finance managers need to start the ball rolling by first sharing details about themselves and creating an environment where people feel comfortable divulging personal information, Reiche said.

With many companies still working remotely or on a hybrid basis, it's important managers grab whatever opportunities they can to check in with staff. It's often tricky to read the room via Zoom, so leave a few minutes spare at the end of meetings to ping downbeat employees for quick one-on-one catch-ups.

"Build in some slack for those spontaneous meetings," Reiche said.

"Don't switch off your radar ... if there's a potential weak signal that someone is less engaged, then it's your responsibility as a manager to touch base with that person."

Managers should also seek out ways to become more closely entrenched with their teams and encourage continuous two-way communication, said Sen, who invites new hires for one-on-one lunches and encourages regular social events.

Rather than wait until annual appraisals, acknowledging achievements when they happen is a simple way to boost morale, build goodwill, and create opportunities to talk to staff about their career goals, he added.

"Communication is the biggest factor giving comfort to your team members. The value proposition is that we are there for you, we work for you," Sen said.

Use data

Depending on data can never replace managers leaning in to find out what staff really want, but it can offer important hints to help companies as they try to flesh out their value propositions.

Companies already have a wealth of personnel and performance data on hand, so tap into this for clues on which staff are most likely to jump ship. Once you find out how likely they are to look elsewhere, you can start exploring what it would take to encourage them to stay.

For example, mapping out where people live could be important for companies looking to scrap home working options, Reiche said, as those with long commutes may be increasingly tempted to find more flexible firms.

Similarly, comb through the data to find out who has repeatedly asked for new projects, as people may be more likely to leave if they are not given enough responsibility.

Build bridges

Even if staff choose to move on, the exit process can be a valuable opportunity to gather information. By understanding why staff head for the door, employers can try to improve their value propositions to keep them in the company, Reiche said.

"If you have someone who wants to leave because there's a more attractive job, a job where they can learn more, let that person go," said Reiche, who suggests building alumni networks to keep former staff in the loop.

"But leave the door open, and maybe the person will come back to you with a better skillset in the future."

Sophie Hares is a freelance writer based in Spain. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe at