by Yitzy Tannenbaum For all the challenges the workforce has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been a few shifts that are actually good news for employees. In early 2020, millions of employees became full-time remote workers, a first for many of them—and for many contact centers as well.
In an industry that has typically been reliant on in-person facilities, nearly 75% of contact centers now allow employees to work from home, with nearly four in 10 saying they will definitely continue agent work-from-home programs for agents and another third say they probably will continue them.
After working through the abrupt initial change and the bumps throughout 2020, it became clear that a large percentage of employees prefer the flexibility remote work offers.
Unfortunately, some employers are struggling to accept the idea of remote work forever, despite a rise in productivity and the clear desires of their employees. This fact—combined with a lack of focus by many companies on creating a strong company culture, regardless of where their employees sit—has created what is now referred to as “The Great Resignation.”
This has led to an abundance of job openings in the market, with workers able to be selective about where they apply, the salary they require and the benefits they seek. And for many people, the core issue has less to do with pay rate and everything to do with culture. As Gallup put it in the above-referenced survey, “It's not an industry, role or pay issue. It's a workplace issue.” The survey found that engaged employees require an average of 20% increase in salary to leave their current job, but disengaged employees require next to nothing—some may even be willing to leave for lower pay.
The workplace issues that may be driving employees to leave are varied and complex, but a study by the Work Institute shows that up to 77% of those issues may be preventable. Whether it’s keeping a closer eye on workloads, ensuring fair and equitable treatment or increasing recognition, many employee relationships can be saved—before the employee cuts ties with the organization.
It can be easy to slip into a mindset that positions a disengaged employee leaving as a net positive; after all, their discontent could be affecting other employees, productivity and company culture. However, employees leaving can have a severe effect on the morale of your remaining team. In one study, 70% of employees said having a friend at work was the single most important contributor to their happiness on the job.
This likely won’t change in a work-from-home environment either, thanks to tools that allow employees to connect virtually. While employees will always come and go for various reasons, the current shift in the labor market can create an image of a “sinking ship” in the minds of employees left behind after a team member leaves.
The costs of losing employees don’t stop with the culture aspect, either; it can affect your bottom line. SHRM estimates that replacing a salaried employee costs six to nine months’ salary on average due in part to the hours required of your HR team to recruit, interview, train and more. To improve retention, consider these eight strategies.
Be thorough when recruiting employees: Keeping an employee happy and engaged begins before he or she is even an official team member at your organization. Starting off on the right foot is key to setting the tone of the employee-employer relationship, and the interview process is integral to making this happen.
During the interview and recruitment phase, be sure to leverage enticing “selling points” that show how much your company values employees. This doesn’t mean the snacks in the break room or the ping pong table; after all, the candidate most likely wants a hybrid or work-from-home setup. Instead, share details about how your company pivoted during the pandemic and took care of it’s employees. Talk about how your work-from-home policies have evolved, and share what you’re doing to build culture with a distributed team.
It is also important to be transparent about expectations up front. Sugar-coating a job description or role will lead to a poor working relationship later if the employee feels they’ve been tricked. Be honest about what they will be expected to do, how performance is judged and the challenges they may face on the job. Once you’ve made a hire, make sure to carry this approach into your onboarding process.
Acclimate new employees with top-notch onboarding: The first week is critical for a new employee. Those initial days are your opportunity as an employer to prove you’re going to hold true to the selling points you highlighted in interviews and really dig into care for your new team member. If you have had this opening for a while (which may be the case given that many companies are currently struggling to fill roles), it may be tempting to throw them right into thick of things. While learning on the job and getting right into can be a great way to learn, you run the risk of overwhelming the employee. Too much information, too fast leaves no time to absorb, leading to frustration for everyone when projects aren’t done correctly. Focus on giving new employees the resources they need to succeed, which includes time to learn and a mentor to ask questions and work through challenges with.
As part of the on-boarding process, set up a coaching program for what exactly they’ll be learning in those first few weeks. This ensures that everyone will be spending their time wisely, focusing on what matters. Schedule regular check-ins with the new employee, both formal and informal, to monitor how things are going. Incentivize your other employees to provide guidance and mentorship throughout the onboarding process as well; this approach can boost the employee engagement.
Engage with employees: Though a simple statement, this employee retention strategy is a multifaceted one. Disengaged employees can hold back a company or, even worse, cause damage. According to Gallup, about 74% of employees were actively disengaged in March 2021. It’s an issue that is costly to companies: Lost productivity equals about 18% of an employee’s annual salary. Gallup noted that disengagement costs more than $60 million a year for a company of 10,000 employees with an average salary of $50,000 each.
With remote work, engagement looks different. Engaging with employees in this setting will require you to think creatively and be willing to try new things, working to find a balance of getting to know and support your employees on a personal level with ensuring their work and personal lives aren’t too tightly wound together. One of the most important pieces is to simply listen, collecting ongoing feedback via surveys and one-on-one meetings. It is also important to give employees a voice in influencing the workplace and workflow by taking that feedback and turning it into action. That dedication can help create a connected culture among your team.
As Heidi Lynne Kurter wrote in Forbes, “Employees crave connection and want to feel included. They want to share what’s happening in their lives, funny moments, and jokes, and build relationships with their colleagues. Creating a culture of connectedness means recognizing that employees are more than workers, they’re people with unique backgrounds, interests and ideas.”
Sometimes, this connectedness can be as simple as leaving time in Monday Zoom calls to chat about weekend activities. Kurter also suggests encouraging employee side projects and sending thoughtful care packages to their homes.
Create space for professional development: Employee retention strategies aren’t just about the bonuses and fun benefits of working at your company. Employees want professional development opportunities, avenues to learning and paths to growth in their careers. When given opportunities to develop skills and experience as part of their role, employees will be more engaged and have a deeper personal connection to their work.
Offer continual trainings and resources that involve independent learning; mandatory group trainings can be useful but sometimes feel more like an obligation than a passion project. To ensure that all employees benefit from each other's learnings, create internal knowledge-sharing programs. You’ll get more traction out of paying for a training for one person this way while encouraging further connection among your team members. Professional development opportunities can be a source of inspiration and a creative outlet, especially for the more ambitious employees (AKA the ones you really want to hold on to). The key is to focus on what employees really want to be learning; employees want to grow and evolve, not simply polish up the skills they use in their everyday work.
Ambitious employees also thrive with consistent coaching programs. As part of this process, provide employees with full transparency into their performance and create a constant communication channel between managers and team members. One way to enable this is by integrating technology and tools that collect this information for you in an easy-to-use platform.
As our recent ebook on at-home agent coaching recommends, “data, goals and progress toward goals should be stored in a single location. This becomes increasingly important when your workforce is not in the office in person – desk drop-ins are no longer an option. Supervisors have less time to compile data, so they need technology that does this for them. Technology should bring areas of improvement to the forefront and make those highly visible to everyone whose actions impact the result.”
Coaching is also an opportunity to develop soft skills in employees, which are key to engage positively with other team members. Part of the coaching process should include rewarding employee growth and improvement.
Create effective recognition and reward systems: To be effective and engaging, recognition and reward systems can’t be one-size-fits-all or short-sighted. While a gift card as a thank you for jumping in on a big project is great, reward programs go far beyond that. Ensure that your salaries are competitive and the benefits you offer are on par with your industry and region (don’t forget that work-from-home options are a non-negotiable part of this now). While salary isn’t a “reward,” making sure your offerings are up to snuff sets the stage for a culture that values and recognize employees.
Once employees are on board, studies show that employees who feel appreciated are more likely to stay at a company. To integrate recognition and rewards in an even more engaging way, gamification can be a very successful approach. Gamification works well for employees regardless of whether they’re in person or remote.
According to the Elevating Performance Management guide, “Gamification lends to a more spirited atmosphere, where the buzz and the bells-and-whistles excitement to score, succeed or win a prize creates a collective electricity. This is especially effective for those working from home, who are missing the real-time energy of an in-person call center.” This approach can be integrated into a variety of employee touch points and parts of the workday. Incorporate recognition into your staff meetings by starting off each one with recent team member wins, and create a chatroom on your internal communications platforms dedicated to sharing wins and ongoing recognition. This shouldn’t just come from managers; encourage team members to give shoutouts to their co-workers. Many people thrive with public recognition.
In that vein, you can also create a leaderboard showing the team’s top performers; this can foster friendly competition (but avoid showing where every single employee stands, instead showcasing the top two or three). Following the principles of gamification, you can use this leaderboard to award badges for meeting company goals and encourage employees to “level up” by earning more badges. This can also play into a point system, where employees can redeem points earned for things that matter to them. These can be material rewards, like company swag or tech products, or non-monetary things like extended lunch breaks and priority parking. When given the opportunity to choose their own rewards to an extent, employees can come away more inspired to work hard.
Cultivate a company culture that inspires: Inspired employees are proud of their work and what their company does. If you reward employees who act according to company values consistently, you’ll create a culture of people who seek to work toward those values together. It is important to build alignment on those values by getting input from the entire team before creating or restructuring those values. Employees who have a stake in crafting the company values will feel more tied to them. Your team wants to be an active part of creating and maintaining your culture.
In fact, a 2019 study by Glassdoor found that 56% of workers rank culture as more important than salary. But building a culture isn’t a one-time effort; once you’ve done the foundational work, you’ll need to continue to engage employees by finding their pain points and working through those collaboratively. A culture that inspires is one where employees feel comfortable voicing concerns, have true work-life balance and feel like they have managers who support them in working through challenges.
Choose and support managers who attract talent: Managers must be leaders, not bosses. Leaders mentor and inspire; bosses slowly build frustration and anger over time, eventually causing disengagement and turnover. An open-door policy is a good thing, but it’s not nearly enough. Managers need to be available to employees in more ways, drawing them in and pursuing a rapport with each of their direct reports. As a company, you must invest in hiring, promoting, and supporting managers with these traits. Your managers need engagement just as much as your front-line team.
Soft skills are just as important as technical skills for managers. They need to be structured and organized in their work, but they also need to cultivate skills in empathy and listening. Good managers know how to gamify and inspire through feedback and coaching. According to the Elevating Performance Management guide, “Generic required learning tends to deflate and demotivate. But meaningful, tailored coaching and education gives employees a rejuvenating back-to-school experience or self-improvement seminar in miniature with shorter sessions that are often on demand. It’s an opportunity to soak in new information and gather tools and strategies for success that can change their trajectory. The sense of open-ended possibility around this experience fosters optimism and a heightened sense of purpose in the work.”
A key to tailored coaching is providing actionable feedback. Employees should not feel “reprimanded” after getting feedback. Instead, they should feel empowered to continue learning and apply what they learned in the coaching session. To foster this, managers should genuinely want to help their team and see their employees as trustworthy. As the common saying goes, “people don’t quit companies, they quit bad bosses.” Supportive managers who consistently engage their team can be a true force for good, creating a thriving culture and helping others avoid burnout.
Focus on employee wellness and be aware of burnout: Simply put, burned out employees leave. The cause of burnout can vary—and in some cases, a job may only be a small part of it—but the fact remains that burnout employees aren’t engaged, and they often leave for greener pastures. Encouraging work-life balance is important, but understanding what that actually looks like in practice is vital as an employer. Managers should be knowledgeable about what burnout symptoms look like. This can include things like low emotional state, poor motivation, a decline in performance and personal struggles. Though it may be trickier to discern some of these symptoms in a remote team, managers following the best practices listed above will be more in tune with their team and able to spot these red flags.
Once burnout has been identified, it’s vital that it be addressed. Help employees find ways to get breathing room and space for a reset. Ideally, however, an employee-centric culture will focus on preventing burnout before it happens. Bring in speakers and specialists to present on topics like sleep hygiene, healthy eating, and wellness. Encourage discussions around interests outside the office and make sure team members are using their vacation time. Create a culture where using sick time is a no-brainer, not an inconvenience. This approach creates more engaged employees who are in turn less likely to experience burnout.
Employee retention strategies, when done well, work together to empower both front-line team members and managers. Disengaged employees are costly to the company, and investing in an engaging culture creates employees who are inspired at work and likely happier outside the office, too. Ready to rejuvenate your employee engagement approach? Learn more about NICE’s Performance Management.  Robison, Vipula Gandhi and Jennifer. “The 'Great Resignation' Is Really the 'Great Discontent'.” Gallup, Nov. 9, 2021.
About the Author Yitzy Tannenbaum Yitzy Tannenbaum leads marketing for NICE Performance Management. Drawing on his years of experience in the IT and call center sectors, Yitzy is dedicated to ensuring NICE remains the leader in the ever-evolving market of performance management technology. Prior to joining NICE, Yitzy served in various marketing roles at IBM and other leading international technology companies.