3 things bosses can do to keep their best employees happy

Apple employees celebrate a milestone.
Yoshikazu Tsuno | Getty Images
Apple employees celebrate a milestone.

As we head into Labor Day to honor our nation's workers, a key question becomes timely: How satisfied are we as a workforce?

According to The Conference Board's new survey of over 1,500 workers, overall job satisfaction increased for the seventh year in a row. Survey participants weighed in on 23 components that contribute to satisfaction, and the findings show that America's workforce feels most satisfied with the relational and social aspects of their work. They gave the highest marks to issues that include supervisors, interest in work and, in first place, people at work.

Beyond the symbolism of Labor Day, this question of job satisfaction could not come at a more significant time. In today's strong job market, high-performing employees have more options than they have had in years. And for many of them, options will continue to abound as unemployment looks likely to decrease over the next year.

A labor market with less slack can make retaining employees more of a challenge. But on the upside, these survey results reveal how employers can turn this challenge into an opportunity. Workers would like to see improvements relating to job training programs, acknowledgement, and the performance review process. Fortunately, all three of those issues lie within an organization's control.

Here are some suggestions for how, with the right focus, employees can start seeing those problem issues as company strengths.

1. Improve the performance review process

About 70 percent of America's workforce would like to see improvements to the performance review process, which employees often view as a disengaging and demoralizing experience. Research from Deloitte found that nine in 10 companies that have redesigned their performance management see direct improvements in engagement. Moreover, eight in 10 report higher quality conversations between employees and managers.

Instead of the more conventional, infrequent performance review, employees would benefit by having routine, often quarterly, coaching conversations with their managers about current projects. These conversations should also include talk about what lies ahead, as it relates to both the company and the employee's career aspirations. This dual approach can help employees focus on both their continual development and current, on-the-job performance.

2. Bolster job training programs

Engaged employees are those who feel passionate about and fully commit to their work, which helps increase their retention. In part, achieving robust engagement and retention hinge on making sure employees not only have the skills to perform well in their current job, but also to continue developing. Job training programs can support both.

Companies should consider leveraging both internal and external options. For example, FedEx partners with higher education organizations including Western Governors University to sharpen their workers' skills. Employees learn through online, competency-based education, where progress hinges on command of subject material rather than time spent learning. With the clock taken out of the equation, employees can quickly master new skills and thus quickly take on new, satisfying assignments.

Another program worth considering, "returnships" can increase satisfaction for workers who have taken extended time off – for instance, working mothers. At Goldman Sachs, "returnees" participate in an eight-week program, where they hone their skills in areas that may have undergone significant change since their most recent experience as an employee.

3. Prioritize recognition and acknowledgement

When employees perform at their best, they understandably expect to be acknowledged. And given that acknowledgement is a critical component of job satisfaction yet comes at no cost, management should consider providing more of it.

Recognition programs can include the more formal organizational awards or honors, usually selected by a committee using transparent, public criteria. But also, a company should support people recognizing each other in smaller, more informal ways, often leveraging recognition platforms for timely call-outs for behaviors that reflect the core values.

Managers should also recognize outstanding performance in company emails, team meetings, hallway conversations or hand-written notes — acknowledgement that someone noticed a job well-done is often more satisfying than an award or gift certificate. At the end of the day, employees are less likely to leave organizations that care about their well-being and provide opportunities for them to continually learn and grow.

As we look beyond Labor Day and toward 2019, the job market will continue tightening. Strong economic growth, the continued departure of baby boomers from the workplace, and the scarcity of candidates with in-demand skills will escalate the challenge of retaining talent.

The good news is that we know what contributes to higher workplace satisfaction. If employers focus their efforts in areas important to but that currently disappoint their workforce – areas including feedback, recognition and job training – they likely will be rewarded with more satisfied employees and lower turnover.

Commentary by Steve Odland, President and CEO, The Conference Board, and former Chairman and CEO, Office Depot and AutoZone; and Rebecca L. Ray, Ph.D., Executive Vice President, Human Capital, The Conference Board.

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