In the months following the onset of the pandemic, the prospect of a recession loomed large. With the memory of the economic crisis of 2007-2009 — the “Great Recession” — still fresh, economists, CEOs, and small business owners braced for its second coming. But in the close to two years since the beginning of the COVID crisis in the US, the force shaping organizations hasn’t been a prolonged dip in the economy, but rather a mass exodus of employees. Dubbed the “Great Resignation,” 2021 saw more Americans voluntarily leaving their jobs than any other time on record.
As any Human Resources leader knows, turnover isn’t great for business. So while media outlets have been making various predictions and debating what these mass voluntary employee separations mean for the country, HR teams have been working hard to bring on new employees — and hold onto existing ones. The key, it turns out, goes back to employee engagement. Here’s what you need to know about battling employee turnover by boosting engagement.
Employees Are Leaving Their Jobs in Record Numbers
In June 2021, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released the April edition of their Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS). The report showed that four million Americans had left their jobs voluntarily in the month of April — the biggest spike on record in the 20-year history of the BLS’s JOLTS report. And while journalists appeared to be shocked by this information, the April numbers merely highlighted what business leaders had already been witnessing: Many workers were quitting their jobs.
As 2021 continued, the number of Americans leaving their jobs ticked up even higher. August usurped April’s number, with 4.3 million voluntary separations, only to be beaten out by September, in which 4.4 million individuals quit their jobs.
In Lattice’s State of People Strategy Report 2021 (SOPS), HR leaders echoed the data reported by the BLS: More than half of respondents (51%) rated turnover as higher than usual. In addition to these responses about turnover, the impact of voluntary quits came up again in Lattice’s report findings. When asked to rank their key performance indicators (KPIs) by importance, the highest ranking response, at 49%, was that employee-initiated turnover rate was the ultimate measure of success or failure this year.
Companies with a high employee turnover rate tend to have a slew of other problems. Correlation is not causation, but a revolving door of new hires affects company culture and can make it difficult to retain institutional knowledge, among other negative impacts that could adversely affect the bottom line. For HR teams looking to build and support healthy organizations, reducing high employee turnover can have positive effects throughout the company and workforce.
Battling Turnover Isn’t As Easy As Boosting Pay
While it’s true that compensation is a key factor driving voluntary turnover — Lattice’s State of People Strategy Report found that 55% of departing employees are seeking higher pay — it’s far from the only element at play.
Career development figures prominently into the equation, too — especially for top talent. Some 37% of respondents said they left their role this year because of a lack of opportunities for advancement, which has actually been a longtime driver of turnover, even before the pandemic.
“For all that was ‘unprecedented’ about last year, we shouldn’t miss how enduring the key drivers of turnover are. Career growth and development continue to be core for employees and, with the restraints of slow economic growth lifting, they are ensuring that they work for companies that enable it,” said Dave Carhart, VP of People at Lattice, in Lattice’s SOPS Report. “What is newer is the way in which many people are reevaluating life priorities at a more fundamental level.”
The pandemic catalyzed a significant reassessment of priorities for many, with people taking stock of their lives, their location, and their jobs. Lattice’s State of People Strategy Report found that more than a quarter of people who left their jobs in the last year did so because of career reevaluation, and one external study conducted by The Washington Post and George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government found that nearly one-third of workers under 40 have considered changing their field of work or occupation since the beginning of the pandemic.
Carhart said the reasons behind employee departure should cause HR professionals to reconsider and reflect on how they connect with teams and how they attempt to engage employees, especially in this time of seismic shifts in the workplace. For example, a company may be able to counter low employee satisfaction related to a lack of career development with employer-sponsored training programs or mentorship. And individuals feeling disconnected from the company’s mission may be reenergized by a different position at the organization.
Hiring Sprees Don’t Fix the Root Issue
In contrast to last year’s layoffs and furloughs, People teams today are prioritizing hiring. According to recruiting platform Jobvite’s President Peter Clare in an article in online trade publication HR Dive, recruiting departments were “decimated” last year. Now, the article continued, recruiters can hardly keep up with their workload.
But HR pros know all too well that you can’t fill a leaky bucket — meaning, if there are systemic issues with employee retention, hiring more employees won’t solve the problem. Without remedying the drivers of attrition at your company — be it low employee engagement, a lack of development or career advancement opportunities, or poor work-life balance — you risk losing existing employees as you hire new ones. And with time, you may lose those new hires, too.
The Human Resources professionals who responded to Lattice’s recent State of People Strategy Report echoed the importance of addressing the underlying causes of attrition while seeking to increase headcount, saying that both employee engagement (43%) and talent acquisition (40%) were top priorities in the coming months. But crucially, HR teams hoping to stem the tide of employees walking out the door must come up with effective, long-term engagement strategies to improve the employee experience.
Expert Strategies for Boosting Employee Engagement
According to Gallup, companies with engaged employees produce better business outcomes and have lower turnover, but boosting engagement isn’t a quick fix. And while every company and its workforce are different, there are some key, overarching aspects of engagement that companies can focus on to bolster their engagement efforts. Below are two strategies HR pros recommend for boosting employee engagement.
1. Identify the “moments that matter” and provide the appropriate support.
“One of the most important parts of employee engagement are the ‘moments that matter,’ and how a company treats their employees in those moments. This pandemic is truly one of those moments,” said Farrah Jessani Mitra, founder of leadership development and executive coaching company Green Reed, in Lattice’s SOPS Report. “Every employee remembers their experience, for better or worse, during the most significant moments of their lives.”
According to an article from research and consulting company Gartner, “In HR, ‘moments that matter’ are the moments that impact an employee’s organizational experience most significantly throughout their day, year, and career.”
“Moments that matter” — the times where it’s especially important to engage employees — range from an employee’s onboarding experience, to how a company handles situations such as an employee having a baby or caring for an ailing family member, or a global event like the pandemic.
Story after story has been written about workers who left their jobs during the pandemic, citing health concerns or a lack of communication from leadership. For these individuals, during a significant “moment that mattered” — a global health crisis — the ways in which they weren’t supported by their employers ultimately led to their voluntary departures from their workplaces. However, had their employers better handled this significant moment and offered the flexibility and resources they needed to succeed amid this crisis, perhaps many workers would have been more engaged, and decided to remain with their organization instead of leaving.
2. Prioritize culture, employee surveys, and work-life balance.
In addition to supporting employees during major life events, pivotal milestones, and times of crisis, there are other essential components that support employee engagement, too. Lattice’s State of People Strategy Report found that the top four components of employee engagement, according to level of importance as rated by survey respondents, are:
- Culture Initiatives: 68%
- Engagement Surveys: 67%
- Wellness/Work-Life Balance: 63%
- Pulse Surveys: 49%
While culture initiatives and engagement surveys appear split down the middle for their level of importance among survey respondents, the Lattice report found that companies that conduct engagement surveys are significantly more likely to rate their workforce as engaged (61% vs. 48%).
Engagement surveys allow employees’ voices to be heard and — when done right — acted upon. Since human capital is a company’s most important asset, understanding how employees are experiencing the workplace is essential to making sure HR is delivering on the experience promised by organizational values, company mission, and workplace culture. With employee surveys, an organization can hear directly from the workforce how well the company is serving them.
Research from Lattice’s Advisory Services found that when it comes to engagement surveys, “more is more,” and companies should conduct engagement surveys as frequently as possible. For optimal results, full engagement surveys, consisting of 20 questions or more, should be complemented throughout the year with pulse surveys, or mini-engagement surveys, which offer HR a real-time measure of employee sentiment.
Employee Survey Data Can Guide Reengagement Efforts
Consider all the people who’ve left their jobs since the onset of COVID, citing frustrations with their company’s handling of the pandemic. Perhaps managers had touched base with employees individually early on in the pandemic, but after that, when workers had frustrations or concerns they remained silent, not wanting to add to the stress during an already chaotic time. In turn, company leadership didn’t rethink their communication approach, because based on that early employee feedback, there were no issues or concerns.
Meanwhile, employees were anxious, in need of answers, and struggling to get their work done in the midst of the global health crisis, compounded by the personal challenges that COVID caused for everyone at home, like the sudden switch to remote work, figuring out childcare, or worrying about loved ones who were frontline workers and regularly exposed to the illness. But if HR had conducted a pulse survey shortly after that initial manager-employee touch-base, leadership could have been made aware that employees were feeling confused and frustrated by the lack of corporate communications in the early days of the pandemic. Then, Human Resources could have partnered with the Communications department to come up with a better approach to communication and reach out to employees quickly to remedy the situation.
The HR team could have helped reengage disengaged employees with a simple email that relayed the following key points:
- We’re grateful for your continued effort and hard work during this difficult time.
- We heard your concerns about communication in the pulse survey we just conducted.
- We’re working on a new strategy for sharing information.
- Here’s what you can expect next: X, Y, and Z.
In this situation, a simple acknowledgement of the problem and a promise to do better, with a brief outline of the plan to do so, may have supported disengaged employees in believing their organization valued their concerns and would work to improve how they were handling the situation. But without conducting a pulse survey, Human Resources might not have even been aware that there was a problem — and therefore, wouldn’t have been able to take action to address it.
As much as HR teams work to build thriving workplaces with engaged employees, it’s hard to know how employees are experiencing the company’s efforts if you don’t ask them. In this time of massive global upheaval, individuals are rethinking everything — including their job, employer, location, and industry — and many more workers are projected to leave their jobs in the months to come.
While engagement strategies won’t keep every individual from leaving, the data provided by employee surveys gives Human Resources teams a clear path forward to address employee concerns and disengagement, and head off worrisome issues before they snowball into major, irreversible problems. Download Lattice’s State of People Strategy Report 2021 to learn more about how HR teams found success engaging employees this year — and what their strategies are for employee engagement in 2022 and beyond.