How to implement a successful retention strategy and maximise the customer service experience

In a down economy, companies find they have fewer problems filling vacancies. But that’s all the more reason to have a robust retention strategy in place, says Nazia Ahmed, HR Director at serviced office operator Business Environment.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) latest annual survey on recruitment and staffing reveals that a whopping 55% of organisations still experience retention problems. The figure is down on 2009 (69%) which in the current economic climate is understandable; employees are naturally nervous about switching jobs and moving into new roles where they won’t receive the same benefits and perks which come as a result of long-term commitment at a company. It’s unstable territory.

For some business-owners however, improved retention levels, despite the external factors affecting these, mean they might be tempted to take their fingers off the pulse when it comes to planning and implementing an effective retention strategy. Just because employees might have fewer options, isn’t a reason to do this. Surely this is the most important time to ensure that it is working for your business?

With the current media attention on young people graduating from university who are finding it impossible to obtain employment, a negative public perception about the jobs market has a knock-on effect on employee attitudes towards switching roles; often feeling that they are ‘safer’ to remain where they are.

When employees have fewer ‘pull’ factors; that’s to say the reasons to attract them to a new place of work such as better pay or career advancements, then more focus should be given to limit the ‘push’ factors that drive employees to leave their current employer. After all, new external career opportunities are outside of our control as HR professionals – but we can certainly influence what’s going on inside the business, and what will keep staff happy where they are.

What the CIPD statistics also show us is that retention remains a problem for HR teams and the majority of businesses are not investing enough time in trying to rectify the problem.

The main reasons that people decide to leave a workplace can generally be linked to the following key areas; intrinsic work factors such as a fulfilling role that plays on the employees skills; business culture such as the ‘fit’ of the individual to the culture of the organisation and lastly leadership which includes training and promotion.

A truly solid retention strategy should begin long before staff join an organisation. How your business is portrayed to the outside world can be crucial to attracting potential employees and ensuring they have a good ‘feel’ about who you are as a company, what your business model is and that they understand better the culture and climate.  They should be given a good sense of this at interview level too, so they can decide if yours is an environment where they want to work and will ‘fit’ in alongside other employees. Companies can apply for national accreditation schemes such as Investors in People (IIP) in order to demonstrate to employees and people outside of the organisation that they have a real focus on commitment to staff. Accreditation is granted following interviews with employees throughout the business, looking at factors such as leadership, empowerment, communication, teamwork, culture and learning and development.  Businesses can then benchmark themselves against those scores year-on-year, continually improving people management practices across the workplace.

Creating a company where employees have a positive work-life balance should be encouraged. Supporting flexible working will also pay dividends in the long run, building loyal relationships and promoting low employee turnover. Supporting staff to volunteer and get involved with local community activities is a great way of paying attention to their individual needs. At Business Environment we encourage employees to support charities that have a personal connection to them and allow them time within their normal working hours to do this, which is particularly appreciated.

Keeping staff happy in the workplace is something that should be a top priority for employers, but understanding what keeps them motivated and committed can be a battle, particularly when you are dealing with large teams of staff, based in global locations, each with different ambitions and attitudes. So it is certainly a real challenge to satisfy everyone. Young workers are particularly renowned for moving from job to job, and therefore require a different retention strategy to those in the middle of their careers. For example, younger workers often prefer short-term benefits such as performance-related bonuses, compared to older workers who may look to pensions, healthcare and maternity/paternity leave being of utmost importance to them.  Acknowledging these differences and attempting to offer flexible benefits can be key to attracting and retaining staff.

Simply communicating with your employees and listening to their wishes, can also do wonders. This is something we devote a lot of time to at Business Environment, providing comprehensive inductions to new staff and setting the right expectations so they know what support is available to them. Then after one month of joining the company, the HR team carries out a ‘call and care’, whereby we visit the employee and discuss how they are getting on and whether they feel anything can be improved. Communicating regularly with your employees can resolve problems quickly and simply and ensures that teams are kept in the loop. It also helps them feel part of the team allowing them to suggest ideas and make recommendations on how to improve the business. Many companies also use assessments and measurements, including surveys, discussion groups, exit interviews and questionnaires that help to flag up problems as they arise.

Having a company intranet where staff can communicate with each other and find out the latest news and developments can also be a good way of encouraging staff to get to know each other better.

Retention and employee engagement strategies like these can also work well to keep employee absence low. The CIPD’s absence management survey reported that over a third (38%) of employers have noted an increase in mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, among employees in the last 12 months. This is no doubt  a consequence of the UK recession with redundancies or anticipated redundancies creating concerns over job security. These worries in turn can lead to sickness or depression. Often employees try to battle through these problems, continuing to work regardless, but not only will they be less productive within their role, but they may be more prone to costly mistakes which have consequent negative impacts on the business. This is where communication and monitoring of individuals is crucial, so that line managers are quick to pick up on changes in employees’ behaviour and performance as it occurs, and then take appropriate action.

Redundancies made, particularly over the last two years during the economic crisis, can also affect other members of ‘survivor’ staff who have to cope with increased workload and loss of fellow colleagues. This can make people very demotivated in the workplace and is precisely why extra care should be given to those employees to ensure their wellbeing and to prevent further loss of staff.

Employee engagement methods like these have been found to work well across the UK.   A review process conducted by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) from October 2008 to May 2009 examined whether a wider take up of engagement approaches could impact positively on UK competitiveness and performance. The answer was an overwhelming yes, with profitability and performance transformed through engagement. At Business Environment, employees tell us that feeling more engaged with their employer improves their commitment to their role and job satisfaction. This is reflected in our 94% retention rate – on average people stay at Business Environment for 4.1 years.

Resourcing and talent planning is often effected sharply in turbulent times, with more businesses looking to develop in-house employees rather than recruit more staff from outside the business which can often incur high recruitment fees as a consequence. Having a strong skills strategy in place to ensure that employees have the required capabilities to best suit their roles, and to help the lifeblood of the business is often overlooked. Yet it really can prove to be the most vital cog in your retention strategy. Offering employees the chance to develop themselves and keep learning is a great way of helping to keep them motivated. Ensuring they feel valued too is key, offering vouchers, cash incentives or holidays can really help them put that extra ‘mile’ into their jobs.

We also find that rewarding staff with team socials can help keep them happy in the workplace. Annual fun days, sports and leisure activities not only have benefits in terms of keeping them fit and healthy, but also helps improve working relationships with peers and superiors.

For Business Environment, employee engagement in our serviced office centres is an essential element to reducing staff turnover, because after all for any business to run well, it relies on the people who work there, regardless of how good the other elements of the company are. Employees are fundamental to the workplace and if you want them to remain committed to you and to respect and value you, then it’s only right that you stay committed to them in return.

There are no quick fix solutions to staff retention – it relies on a planned and well-executed strategy that runs across the whole company and one that is integral to your business model. What it definitely isn’t is an add on; something that can be forgotten about when times are bad and there is no money or time to invest in it. Ensuring a successful retention strategy requires effort, hard work, commitment, awareness, analysis and a variety of policies. Keeping staff is a challenge but one HR professionals can certainly overcome.

 Nazia Ahmed is Business Environment’s HR Director.

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