How to Retain Employees

Hiring and cultivating talent is crucial to growing your small business, but so is keeping your employees — especially when you’ve invested time and resources in their development. But, retaining employees with specialized skills and talents can be hard. On top of that, established companies are able to offer generous salaries, benefits, and other perks to woo top talent.

That said, small businesses do have some advantages when it comes to keeping star employees in the fold. Salary is important, but it isn’t everything — turns out, loving your job goes a long way towards being happy at work and staying with the same employer over time.

SMBs have some inherent advantages when it comes to creating and adapting roles, career paths, and cultures tailored to employee happiness. Notably, smaller organizations are usually nimble, which makes it easy to mold job descriptions around an individual’s strengths and workplace ambitions. Beyond shaping individual jobs to suit, here are a few ways you can make a big impact on your small business’ ability to retain talent.

Show Them the Love

It was true when John and Paul sang it, and it’s true today in the workplace: Money can’t buy you love. Just as leading a smaller organization gives you the opportunity to really understand what motivates all of your employees professionally, it also affords you the chance to care about them as individuals.

Take the time to ask your staff about their lives. Follow-up when they mention a sick relative or non-work event they’re looking forward to. Who doesn’t like a boss who actually cares about your life outside of hitting deadlines and staying under budget?

Apply the same love to life inside the office, as well. Take everybody to lunch or happy hour and ask them how they’re doing and what they’d like to see in the workplace. You don’t have to promise on-site massages and three day workweeks, but little perks can go a long way when they show you’re listening to your team and investing in what makes them happy.

Offer Flexibility and Empowerment

This blog post outlines five ways small businesses can retain top talent. What’s at the top of the list? Something all SMBs should be familiar with: flexibility.

For starters, you could allow employees to work from home as needed, offer flexible sick/vacation policies, and conduct meetings online to reduce travel. Take a page from this leader’s playbook: Trust your employees to get their work done well and on time, but leave the how, when, and where up to them.

Alongside flexibility, empowerment is another hugely important factor in keeping top talent happy. The “everybody wears many hats” nature of many small businesses can be an advantage here. Expose talented new hires to different work opportunities and situations, and use 1:1 meetings to learn what stokes their workplace fires. Talented workers do well when they’re given responsibility and some decision-making power, too.

Empower employees on a broader scale by taking steps to build a healthy work culture. Some ideas:

  • Schedule outings aligned to everyone's interests, like group volunteering or a team potluck. Get people working together outside of their everyday role.
  • Foster friendly competition through an internal leaderboard (this one’s great for small sales orgs).
  • Set an example by showing your appreciation to employees. Sometimes it’s the little things that wind up creating the biggest impact, especially when they trickle down from the boss to everyone else.

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Encourage and Support Professional Development

Professional growth is essential to job satisfaction. In fact, some 93% of employees said they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their careers, according to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workforce Learning Report. The best leaders and managers make a point of encouraging and supporting their team’s professional development. That starts with getting to know what makes each employee tick, professionally speaking.

Ask questions to get context into their past jobs. Find out what they did in the past, and what about it they liked and didn't like. Talk about what they’re interested in learning or trying next, professionally. Maybe it’s developing specific skills, or maybe it’s exploring a new part of the business or job function.

Then, actively support their development. Direct them to learning opportunities like workshops, conferences, and local or online classes. Encourage them, in person or over email, and consider offering an educational stipend to help pay for classes. Introduce them to people from your own network who do similar things, or started out in similar roles. Support your employees in developing soft skills, and understanding why they’re important, no matter their job.

Understand The Importance of Retention

Retaining employees is a mixture of what you do every day as a business leader, and knowing when and how to “pull retention levers,” as we like to call it. Regularly scheduled 1:1 meetings combined with casual conversations, emails, and performance reviews give you an idea of how your engaged employees are with their jobs.

Engagement ebbs and flows a little over time, perhaps with some team members more than others. But what do you do when an employee becomes legitimately disengaged with their work?

The Focus on Retention Trailhead unit is a great starting point for understanding how and why disengagement happens, and what steps you can take to retain a valuable employee who’s at risk of leaving your company. At its core, retaining employees starts with a few key steps:

  1. Open and honest dialogue. Have the hard conversation about why your employee is disengaged, and what you both can do about it. Be prepared to set the context for the conversation, ask direct questions, and actively listen to the responses.
  2. Follow-ups. If an employee has truly become disengaged with their job, it’s unlikely that a single conversation will resolve the issue for good. Schedule follow-up conversations, and prepare for those conversations by checking in on that person’s progress in the meantime.
  3. Get some help. Managing people isn’t always easy! Ask your business partner, HR leader, or (if applicable) that employee’s direct manager for help with the situation. Good leaders surround themselves with great people, and situations like these are why.

If and when the time comes, you can pull one or more of those retention levers we mentioned to help keep valuable employees on board. The Trailhead module goes into more detail, but here’s a key detail to remember: Offering more money, whether in the form of a bonus or raise, can be a powerful motivator. But people also really, really like to be recognized for their contributions and hard work. Compensation is great, but some kudos and a heartfelt Thank You can go a long way, too.

Both of the Trailhead units referenced above are part of the Engagement and Retention module. This module goes much more in-depth into the art and science of motivating employees and learning when and how to take steps to make sure they stick around. It’s a great resource for new managers and seasoned leaders alike. And it’s free for you to read and refer back to, as often as you like. Check it out!

Check out 7 Easy Ways to Retain Top Talent on a Tight Budget for more ideas on how to keep good people around without blowing your bottom line.


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