To Retain Talent in 2022, Know that Sustainable Work Doesn’t Look the Same For Everyone

The Great Resignation has made it clear that workers have more choices than ever. And the latest US job numbers indicate that the demand for workers is the highest in decades. In such a competitive market for talent, smart business leaders know they must do whatever it takes to keep the good colleagues they already have. To retain our employees, we need to make sure we understand each of them as individuals– what motivates them, what they’re passionate about, and how they’re feeling. And we need to see to it that their work experiences reflect their needs and desires.

You can see this in the way the best companies are caring for their employees, including surveying them about their return to work preferences, rolling out more thoughtful benefits that address personal needs, and investing in technology that reduces workplace complexity. We all recognize how much of the COVID-19 pandemic upended workplace expectations and caused challenging collisions between “work” and “home life.” But the revolution we’re experiencing is broader than that.

In this new environment, organizations must cultivate a sustainable work culture– one that builds up employees and gives them skills and support, as opposed to a culture that is emotionally and mentally draining. But it’s also important to recognize that sustainability is not the same for everyone. As a leader, you need to appreciate differences such as communication style, flexibility and career-growth objectives so you can respond to them.

My company recently commissioned a survey on current attitudes toward workplace conditions in corporate America to better understand how perspectives are changing and how they are impacting performance. I was struck by the fact that one of the biggest perception gaps was between senior executives and employees. For instance, only 5 percent of the senior leaders in the survey said they believed their workplace culture was unsustainable, compared with nearly 22 percent of individual contributors. This raises the concern that as people leaders, what we experience working in our departments or organizations does not necessarily reflect the impressions of the teammates who work alongside us.

Men and women also expressed big differences in how they perceived sustainability at work. Female employees are more than twice as likely as men to say that their work cultures are very unsustainable. And nearly a quarter of women without children (24 percent), who tend to be younger and earlier in their careers, felt this way– more than any other group who responded to our survey.

Considering that these results are reflective of people’s experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m reminded that the weight of the past two years contributes to how employees feel and function at work. As managers, we must be intentional by default to help our teams strike a balance that works for them over the long term. For me, this means building time into my schedule with the express purpose of trying to lighten my teams’ workloads.

Not surprisingly, our survey found that sustainability has a direct impact on retention. Workers at companies with unsustainable cultures are more than 9 times as likely to say they don’t see themselves remaining in those jobs in the next 12 months. On the other hand, 71 percent of respondents who answered positively and said that their workplace is sustainable feel that the culture improves their levels of engagement.

Ignoring such realities is a detriment both to employees and to the health of organizations– and can have a direct impact on productivity and financial performance. Here are two simple approaches that have helped my company encourage open dialogue about sustainability and build a deeper support structure into our culture:

Rethink your and employees’ schedule.

My schedule certainly gets dense because of the demands on a CEO’s time. But what stresses staff is not the number of slots filled with meetings but how much control they do or don’t have over their calendars. If a manager sees an opening on an employee’s calendar and grabs it for a conference call, they might not be aware that the employee had left the slot open to focus on an important task. It’s easy to fall beforey to the perspective that the density of a calendar is equal to workload.

The truth is that, typically, the more senior the executive, the more control we have over the way we spend our time. Rather than just grabbing “open” slots on staff schedules, we can optimize the workflow for our teammates by being intentional with scheduling and using async meeting practices when possible. By giving employees more control over how to use their time, we can empower them to create a sustainable work environment while meeting the company’s objectives.

Develop a system to understand how each employee is feeling.

As the data above suggests, each person in an organization has a unique experience with the demands of work, which can be influenced by a myriad of things, including their level of experience, personal pressures or world events.

With this in mind, I start meetings by giving each person on my team a chance to share how they are doing individually. My company and I have built this into our culture by employing a stoplight system in which we directly ask people how they’re feeling before we enter meetings. By hearing each answer– red, yellow or green– we can adjust the workload or even our tone in meetings to avoid adding unnecessary stress. This allows us all to lead with empathy but also gives us the tools to be stronger as a team.

Companies that do not invest in a positive, sustainable culture risk leaving significant value on the table. Whether this involves rolling out new benefits or giving staff more control over the shape of their workplace and workdays, we know that these elements add real dollars and cents to the bottom line.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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