It might be easier to say what 2020 hasn’t changed – it’s a much shorter list. When it comes to employee retention and the employee experience, Covid has accelerated the evolution of both, changing what employees want and need in ways we may have predicted, but didn’t expect to address in the immediate future. There are emerging questions that employees are only now learning they can ask, like where does an employer’s responsibility begin and end when the work environment is the employee’s private home? Is the employer responsible for providing a laptop, an internet connection, an ergonomic chair? Childcare?

And what about the employer — how much can they expect to have control over how employees do their jobs at home? Can an employee smoke at their desk in their home office? Do they have to be on video, on Zoom, all day? (The answers, incidentally, are yes – it’s their house; and no, at least if you want to keep them. Read more about our stance on trusting your employees here.)

It’s a brave new world and we’re all feeling it out as we go.

But the fundamentals of employee retention actually haven’t changed, even though our context has. Keeping your employees is still – and will always be – about…

1. Communicating transparently, openly, and honestly

Making it clear what you expect from your employees is even more important this year when everything – where we work, how we work – is in flux. Aligning employee expectations with the company’s requirements, policies and preferences is an important inflection point and one that could impact retention dramatically for companies that don’t get it right.

But it’s not just clarity around work expectations that are important in 2020. The biggest issue we’re seeing right now is whether employees believe their organization is stable and their job is secure. The less information they have, the more room for doubt, and the greater the odds of their moving to a job they perceive to be more secure when one becomes available.

Alison Green, author of “Ask a Manager” said in an interview that housebound workers are increasingly stressed and anxious about “whether their companies will have to lay off workers or cut wages, or even whether their industry will survive.”

Things to ask yourself:

  • Are you taking the time to tell your employees how your company is performing?
  • In terms of team dynamics – what’s working? What isn’t?
  • Where there may be risk? Where are performance problems or discontent creeping in?

Even if you don’t have all the answers, not turning a blind eye to these questions and being open now will pay dividends in retention later.

2. Listening to employees (and giving them a chance to speak)

Employees are experiencing different forms of stress right now (as we all are) that may affect their ability to work in different ways – ways they may not feel comfortable disclosing to their managers directly. Nobody wants to be the one to say “I didn’t make my goals today because my toddler wouldn’t stop asking for a piggy-back ride, or “I was so depressed today that I struggled to get out of bed.” We are under a tremendous amount of pressure this year, and as a result, we need different kinds of support. Give your employees an opportunity to regularly and anonymously tell you what’s really going on. Otherwise, you might make the mistake of assuming that they’re being lazy and require 8-hour/day monitoring! (That is never the answer, by the way.)

3. Supporting them what they need to do their best work

Sometimes (and these are those times) employees need human understanding and compassion more than anything. Because toddlers happen. Anxiety and depression and sleepless nights happen. And the most meaningful support can often be to acknowledge that these are unusual times. But, you can do more than that. You can ask your employees to tell you what would help them most to do their work better, and you may be surprised by the answers. Then, be upfront about what you feasibly can and cannot do, and why. Give them all the support you can. They’ll remember it later.

Understand also that in times like this, providing employees more autonomy is important. This is a powerful act that does two important things for them:

  • It gives them something they can firmly control, in a moment for many that feels increasingly out of control;
  • It communicates a powerful message of trust and confidence in their abilities – important because many employees are feeling guilty about their performance challenges given the unusual circumstances we find ourselves in.

4. Realizing that they are not just employees, they are whole people

We are under what psychologists call “sustained stress” – which humans are not wired to do. Our stress responses are meant to react to predators pouncing on us from the bushes: there’s a threat, and we fight, flee or freeze (and get eaten, most likely). And then it’s over, and we go back to living our lives. But when the stress is everywhere, in our homes, on the news, on our phones, it can seriously impact our physical and mental health.

In normal times, realizing your employees are whole people means supporting their life goals and outside-of-work goals, just as you’d ask them to support your Engaged Purpose. But it also means supporting their mental and physical health by encouraging stress-relieving activities and healthy habits, which is a trend we hope to see moving forward as we learn to improve the employee experience.

5. Giving them a strong sense of purpose to rally around

Our strong, shared sense of purpose this year is simple: To survive. We’re all in this together, and the group effort of just trying to pull through has provided an unprecedented level of cohesion and commitment among employees and their leaders. But that effect won’t last forever. Just as the pandemic won’t last forever. In our experience, a clear and powerful purpose is a sustainable driver of employee engagement over time.

Millennials have made headlines as prioritizing a sense of purpose as one of the most important criteria for choosing their careers and organizations. And not just the purpose of making money or attracting angel investors — that won’t cut it. A recent survey reported 63% of millennials said “the primary purpose of businesses should be ‘improving society’ instead of ‘generating profit.’” Another study reported that 94% of millennials want their work to benefit a cause.

Why do you do what you do? In what meaningful ways does it help your clients? How are you making the world better, safer, cleaner, happier? What transformation are you trying to create in people’s lives? That is your Engaged Purpose — your compass and a key employee retention tool. Read more about How to Inject Purpose Into Your Company’s DNA here.