Across the markets of design, planning, and the technical professions, labor remains scarce – and true talent even scarcer.  Moreover, population demographics, educational trends, and a hyper-competitive employment environment suggest that this will not change – perhaps for decades.  In the professional firm, people are – and will be – the key.

So, keeping the company’s staff focused, fulfilled, and engaged will remain job #1 for all executives.  Many are doing quite a lot in this area, but – despite the effort – real progress isn’t always obvious.  Note, in particular, Gallup’s annual survey of employee engagement (across the whole American workforce) – which has reported now for years that only about a third of workers are truly engaged (willingly providing discretionary effort), while some 50% are disengaged, and 17% are even actively disengaged (saboteurs).  Considering the rowing metaphor:  three out of ten are propelling the boat, five are along for the ride, and two are working to sink the thing.  

Not. Good. At. All.

We conduct many employee engagement surveys as a part of our comprehensive Strategic Organization Assessments – and these often suggest a much more engaged professional team (when compared to American workers as a whole) – but frankly, I’m skeptical that we’re understanding the whole picture in these.  Individual and group interviews often suggest more trouble: a lack of understanding of things, frustration with operations or people, and concern for career opportunity and advancement.  There are, I believe, ready opportunities for step-change improvement.

So, what is really going on here, and what can we do about it?

First things first:  I believe that, in all matters employee related, we must start with a real sense of humility, and an acknowledgment that a full understanding of what is happening may for now be beyond us.  Current reality is complicated, and it’s rapidly changing.  Perhaps our historians will look back from mid-century or further and see the 2020s as the point of pivot – from an old paradigm of work to something new.  Further, maybe less than half of the shift today is actually controllable in/by the firm – the rest a transformation of our culture, society, attitudes, beliefs, and expectations – about work, and about life. 

Again, I just don’t know.

Still, even if we can only control a half of the situation, this is a big, big opportunity.

An example:  Last week I spoke with the Chief Executive of a well-run client firm, with a current staff of about 1600.  He shared that, in the prior year, they’d hired and onboarded over 500 new employees, but also during that period had lost more than 200.  A net growth of about 60% of the total.  That’s a leaky and friction filled system – but it’s not abnormal.  Many of our client executives share much the same story:  recruiting is going pretty well, but retention is way behind expectation.

While there are many reasons why an individual employee might choose to move on – some of these are directly within the control (and responsibility) of the firm.  Imagine then, that only 10-20% of the total loss is actionable. For our client here, that would be 20-30 people – and for key staff amount to a $2-3 M lost opportunity.  Wow.

And again, we must ask:  What should we do?

Here are the most common actions that firm leaders are taking today – to ramp up employee satisfaction, happiness, and engagement.  All of these work some, and some work better.  (In our next post, I’ll share with you the prescription we believe in – beyond these measures – that really move the dial with employee experience).

  1. More Money: No question, competitive compensation pressure is real.  Some firms have been more reactive (matching to hold on to a flight risk) while others are more proactive (and even quite generous).  Money is a benefit for most, but not always a sustainable motivator.  Note too that a continued rise in costs, but without a corresponding rise in fees – will spell real trouble down the road.
  2. Work Flexibility: Most companies adjusted office requirements significantly during the pandemic (though dependent on geographic place, city size, and region culture); most learned of the positive value of workplace flexibility.  Some have remained flexible and adaptive, while others have worked hard to get back to prior ways.  Work from home is indeed a benefit appreciated by most.
  3. Input and Feedback:  The pandemic also resulted in higher empathy in organizations, and many leaders upped their game with feedback and counsel.  Online connections broke down some hierarchical power and modeled a more democratic vibe.  On the downside, most agree today that it’s more difficult to collaborate deeply in a virtual team, and with hands-on mentoring down as well.
  4. Training and Development:  Participative and engaging training experiences have suffered in recent years as well, and much of the training investment has been in lower cost, lower touch methods (generic online courses, basic webinars, and lunch and learns).  Most of these efforts don’t do much to enhance employee experience.
  5. Fun Committees:  Many companies have worked explicitly to ramp up the fun – offering and supporting arts and crafts, physical fitness, and volunteering and community involvement.  These well intentioned, and indeed valuable activities are important – but they should be, we believe, the icing on the cake – and not the cake itself.  Worthwhile yes, but in the context of more substantive engagement.
  6. Birthday Celebrations:  Nothing new here (celebrating birthdays, life events, career promotions, and such) – but again it must be within the context of something bigger.  Mixed in with more meaningful and valuable engagement in the real work, the personal touch then means a lot.  On its own, it feels more like we’re trying too hard.

I’ll stress again – there is nothing particularly wrong with any of these engagement initiatives – most should indeed be pursued.  Still, to build a real, distinctive, and sustainable employee experience – and a lasting competitive advantage in our highly competitive labor market – the firm must do more.  This requires a bigger, bolder, and better approach – what we call today E3: The Extraordinary Employee Experience.  

In our next post, we’ll dive in directly into what E3: The Extraordinary Employee Experience really is.  Stay tuned!


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