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Flexibility: Key to Employee Retention in 2023

As 2022 comes to a close, several work trends are clearly visible on the horizon. Here’s one employers can’t afford to ignore — an alarming number of employees are still leaving their jobs. For all the talk about “the Great Resignation” being behind us, turnover continues to shape the world of work. And it doesn’t seem to be fading.

What’s the culprit here? In my opinion, too many employers continue to discount the need for flexibility in all its forms. Not sure if this should be a priority for you? Then consider some big-picture statistics:

  • recent Workhuman survey focused on workforce behavior and sentiment estimates that 36% of employees plan to leave their jobs in 2023.
  • Gartner predicts that steep 20% turnover rates will continue for the foreseeable future, with as many as 65% of employees still reevaluating their career paths.

These findings are hard to ignore. But rather than drilling down on disengaged workers and why they’re looking for greener pastures, I’d like to flip the script. Instead, let’s talk about people who want to remain in place. What can we learn from them?

Why Some People Stay

What is keeping people onboard? No doubt, some are hunkering down in reaction to growing economic uncertainty. But despite recent layoff news, many organizations are still hiring qualified talent. So why aren’t more people jumping ship?

Here’s why I think flexibility is the key. It is one of the most important factors keeping satisfied people connected with their employers and committed to doing their best work. In fact, as a motivational force, flexibility is second only to salary — ranking even higher than a positive work culture.

That’s powerful stuff. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Let’s look closer.

Making a Business Case for Flexibility

If you’re mapping your HR goals for 2023, keep this caveat in mind: From a business perspective, flexibility may be losing some of its sheen. Organizations are facing the prospect of another year trying to juggle remote and hybrid workforce models. And after years of struggling to get it right, some companies may not be willing to invest as much time and effort to make it work.

Other business factors are causing leaders to push for a return to the office. After all, money talks. And the cost of office space doesn’t drop by 50% if only half of your workforce is filling the space. Also, we hear more executives emphasizing what suffers when people work from a distance — social bonds, career growth, collaboration and innovation.

But if you’re contemplating a full-scale return to office, perhaps you should think twice. Here’s why. I’m reminded of a 2021 #WorkTrends podcast conversation about flexibility with work-life expert and business consultant, Suzanne Brown.

Did Suzanne know something the rest of us weren’t ready to take seriously when she said this?

“People will stick around now. But as soon as the economy starts to strengthen, if you haven’t already built flexibility into your culture, you’ll start to lose people quickly.”

Circumstances may have shifted since that discussion, but Suzanne’s advice still holds true.

Flexibility Isn’t Just Skin Deep

When the conversation turned to imagining what flexible work could look like on the other side of the pandemic, I recall Suzanne saying:

Flexibility is more than just taking an afternoon off once in a while. Flexibility is how you treat employees in the long-term.

So true. The pandemic underscored what employers already knew (but may not have been willing to fully support at that time). But the fact remains, people want and deserve flexibility, even when the pandemic isn’t a concern.

With this in mind, what can employers do to build flexibility into their organization’s DNA? The challenge is to match the right conditions to choices that make sense for your workforce. Flexibility is both an informal and a formal state of work. And every organization is unique.

The possibilities are diverse: job sharing, split-shifts, permanent remote work, four-day work weeks, cross-functional talent mobility programs, project-based talent sharing, freelancing pools, part-time arrangements and more.

But the trick is to offer a mix of options that are relevant and meaningful for your people, while also supporting your organization’s values, culture and goals. If you’re serious about finding the best choices, you’ll involve your people in defining the options and being accountable for their success.

Clarifying the Rules

Flexibility deserves to be more than a random whim or a moving target. Employees and employers alike need to agree on guidelines. Indeed, your team’s ability to perform well in any combination of flexible roles demands a workable game plan.

Because employees see flexibility as the sign of a great work culture, it’s important to get their buy-in. Begin with a renewed reality check. Take the time now to ask employees and managers what kind of flexible options they believe would work best, going forward. (Anonymous surveys and feedback tools are terrific at helping you manage this process and interpret findings.)

Keep in mind that individual circumstances, career objectives and personal preferences change over time. What works for someone today may no longer fit in a year or two. People don’t want to be trapped in a work structure that no longer serves them. What will your process be for people who want to rethink their choices and modify their work model?

Here’s the clincher for employers. You need to demonstrate respect for people’s wishes. Respect and recognition are intimately connected with employee satisfaction, productivity and commitment.

That means leaders must be willing to do more than listen. It’s essential to take appropriate action in response to input. And it’s even more important to repeat this process, over and over again. When you demonstrate an ongoing commitment to building your flexible agenda around collaborative conversations, how can employees resist?

We’ll see what happens soon enough. The pandemic no longer has a grip on our every move, but the Great Resignation is still happening. No one knows for sure what will unfold next. But whatever challenges lie ahead, you can’t go wrong by staying in touch, staying open and staying flexible.

It could just be what convinces more of your people to stay.