Hybrid work: How to prepare for the turnover tsunami

The pandemic opened the door to more hybrid work options - and that's just part of a perfect turnover storm brewing. Consider this retention advice from CIOs and talent experts
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As more of our lives inch closer to pre-pandemic normalcy and signs point toward economic recovery, your employees will begin to explore new opportunities. As many as a quarter to one-half of employees are itching to spread their job-hunting wings, recent data shows. The Achievers Workforce Institute’s Employee Engagement & Retention Report says that 52 percent of North American workers plan to look for a new position in 2021. Prudential Financial’s Pulse of the American Worker survey reports that 26 percent of workers plan to leave their employers after the pandemic.

"This suggests that people think the grass is greener," says Dan Roberts, CEO of Ouellette & Associates and author of Confessions of a Successful CIO, "and not because it's spring!"

"Are the recruiters who are trying to poach our people painting a better picture of a future working with their company than we are of ours?"

Among the multiple factors at play, according to the Prudential Financial survey, are employee concerns about career advancement. Then there's the overall impact the COVID-19 crisis has had on people. Additionally, the wide and rapid acceptance of remote work has opened up new job opportunities to work from anywhere.

It's a perfect storm for creating some degree of turnover, says Brian Abrahamson, CIO and the associate laboratory director for communications and IT at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Lab. "We used to talk about the impacts of fear, uncertainty, and doubt on people. Add to this the impacts of burnout and isolation and you have a recipe for workforce chaos," Roberts says. "A question every CIO should be asking their people managers is, 'Are the recruiters who are trying to poach our people painting a better picture of a future working with their company than we are of ours?'"

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10 tips: How to retain employees in the hybrid work era

"If you wait until you begin to see an increase in attrition, it is too late to prevent it.”

The time to start addressing anticipated turnover is now. "If you acknowledge that the risk factors affecting the likelihood of increased attrition in the near term are there, the first recommendation I would make is simple: Accept and prepare for it," says Selective Insurance CIO John Bresney. "Developing loyalty and improving retention requires you to improve employee engagement, increase the sense of empowerment in your talent, and align current responsibilities and opportunities to their career and life aspirations. If you wait until you begin to see an increase in attrition, it is too late to prevent it."

Consider these 10 strategies from CIOs and talent executives:

1. Meet workers where they are

"Many CIOs I talk to find that their staff have a newfound appreciation for working from home and the flexibility and focus that it affords them," Abrahamson says. If that's the case, IT leaders should explore hybrid models so their key players don't have to look elsewhere to retain the flexibility they now value.

2. Conduct turnover post-mortems

Take a look at the people who have left recently. "Discuss the warning signs, what we ignored, and what might have kept them," advises Roberts. "Publish the results with all your people managers and take action today to mitigate more losses."

3. Create a sense of belonging

"If your staff doesn't have a strong connection to each other, as well as [to] your organization's mission and values, you risk just becoming a gig for them," Abrahamson says. "Now is the time to redouble your efforts to build connection and regain the ground that you've likely lost this past year in staff engagement."

4. Expand your aperture beyond your rock stars

It's time to look at team members who have been "passed over" – and ticked off.

"CIOs and their teams do a great job identifying and engaging their high potentials," says Roberts, but now it’s time to look at team members who have been "passed over" – and ticked off.

5. Perform a talent assessment

It's time to identify employees with growth potential as well as those in key positions at risk of leaving. "Develop programs to directly engage these employees immediately," Bresney advises. Select Insurance developed a mentorship program for IT professionals in these categories.

"While productivity remained high during the pandemic, most of the conversations between managers and employees were directly related to tasks, projects, and meeting execution commitments," says Bresney. "There wasn't always the emphasis on talent and career development that these conversations would have if we were in the office together."

Bresney's organization matches each mentee with a manager outside of their reporting relationships. "This allows for discussions that focus on improving engagement and career development," Bresney says. "The mentor equally benefits from this relationship. It increases their understanding of challenges and opportunities affecting other departments which they may not be exposed to in the remote work environment, and it raises their awareness of the need to have similar discussions within their own reporting structure."

[ What should a hybrid workplace model look like? Read also: Hybrid work model: Qualcomm IT, HR execs share 6 priorities for leaders. ]

6. Develop a learning culture

Compensation is important, but IT professionals also want to grow and develop. "CIOs are implementing talent programs and internal 'IT academies' that are big, budgeted, and branded," Roberts says. "This, combined with giving people the time and headspace for learning, demonstrates a commitment to them and their future."

7. Set your talent free within the organization

"If you don't have internal mobility, you get external mobility."

IT managers are incentivized to be "talent hoarders." CIOs should flip that script and encourage them to identify new job and project opportunities for their team members. "If you don't have internal mobility," says Roberts, "you get external mobility."

8. Foster positive exits (and returns)

"We are about to enter a period of unprecedented talent churn and burn. I believe a lot of people are going to leave and come to the realization that the grass was not actually greener," says Roberts. "So, when you have people who are leaving, remind them of how much you value them and wish them well in their new endeavor. Because the more elegant the exit, the more respectful their return will be."

9. Plan for some losses

The U.S. unemployment rate for IT occupations was 2.4 percent in March (compared to 6.6% for all occupations), according to CompTIA, while the number of employer job postings for open IT positions hit a 12-month high in February. "If turnover increases, we should also assume that the average time to replace and onboard a new employee will also take longer than was the case in the past," Bresney says. "Our employees are the most critical asset that we have, and we may need to prepare to use them more sparingly than before."

Now is a good time to consider moving high-risk positions within operations staff to third parties or automating those tasks where possible to help prevent disruptions due to attrition. "Most importantly, I would suggest that you have an open discussion about the risk with your business clients, review your application portfolio, and decide which projects and initiatives contribute most to your business strategy," says Bresney. "If many teams are depleted of key skills, the worst thing you could do is fail to deliver on all of the impacted projects. You and your business clients should be prepared to make good business decisions about projects that can be delayed or deprioritized should the depletion of key skills require it."

10. Look beyond attrition mitigation

Consider what you can do to capitalize on new talent hitting the marketplace. At Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, for example, Abrahamson is embracing the hybrid workplace model that gives employees flexibility in how and where they work, coupled with investments in culture, new space concepts, and collaboration technology – to elevate the employee experience and attract new hires.

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Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.