What will it take to keep your best employees in 2024?

With recruitment getting tougher and workers expecting more than ever, Joe Mull offers HR professionals some advice

Nearly everyone associated with the global labour market – new grads, career changers, business owners, hiring managers, recruiters, economists – knows that we’re in the midst of a work-life reboot. In a decade that featured a global pandemic, the Great Resignation, quiet quitting and more, there’s a massive recalibration taking place around how work fits into people’s lives. In the US, quitting and job switching is still occurring at near historic rates and a large swatch of employees are still unhappy at work, leaving them ripe to pursue a professional upgrade. This is the story around the world.

What can HR professionals do to keep top talent in the new year? I’ve spent nearly 20 years speaking and writing about how leaders cultivate commitment at work. Recently, we analysed more than 200 studies and articles on retention and turnover to identify what leads workers to join an organisation, stay long term and do great work. What we learned is that retention comes down to winning in three areas of the employee experience. In a post-Covid world, employees stay with organisations and stay psychologically engaged in their work when they get their ideal job, doing meaningful work, for a great boss. 

Here’s what makes up each of these experiences and how HR professionals can engineer them inside organisations.

1. Ideal job

The first factor is what I get, as an employee, in exchange for my employment and how that job fits into my life. There are three dimensions to an ideal job: pay, workload and flexibility. Workers today expect higher wages and reject hustle culture, and flexibility is now the most requested workplace benefit in the world, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. As an employee, having adequate-to-generous compensation, a challenging but not unmanageable workload and some flexibility around when, where and how I work directly impacts whether I’ll stay long term with an organisation.

To perform well in this area and improve the likelihood that workers will perceive their job with you as an ideal job, look for ways to innovate around compensation, workloads and flexibility. Consider elevating staffing levels to better distribute workloads, for example, especially in roles or departments where burnout is high or the work is particularly taxing.

Look for benefits enhancements that give you a competitive advantage over other employers or that better meet the needs and wants of your workforce. Keep pushing wages higher while innovating ways for workers to have more control or choice over their work experience and employment situation.

2. Meaningful work

The second factor is what employees experience in the course of doing their work, day in and day out. A nearly endless parade of research over the years suggests there are three dimensions to the meaningful work factor: purpose, strengths and belonging. More than ever, employees need to believe their work matters and want their employer to stand for something more than profit. We also know that aligning a person’s strengths to their job role improves performance and outcomes and that belonging is consistently cited as a top driver of both retention and turnover.

As an employee, when I believe my work has purpose, my job duties align with my strengths and I’m an accepted and celebrated member of a team, there is a much greater likelihood that I’ll develop an emotional and psychological commitment to my work. 

To increase the experience of meaningful work for employees, be clear about how the work your company does makes a difference in the lives of others. At the same time, invest in job crafting, which is the practice of changing job roles and duties to capitalise on the talents and interests of those in the role. Demonstrate a commitment to professional development, along with building camaraderie between team members and making your workplace a safe and inclusive place for people from all walks of life. These are but a few of the experiences that lead workers to find meaning in their day-to-day work.

3. Great boss

The third factor is the person or people responsible for overseeing an employee’s day-to-day work. Direct supervisors are the single most influential factor in the employee experience. Years of research suggest that bosses are among the biggest reasons someone leaves a job or stays.

If an employee consistently has a psychologically fulfilling experience in the workplace, it’s because their boss helps facilitate it. In fact, Gallup found that the team leader alone accounts for 70 per cent of the variance in a team’s engagement. While there are dozens of things a leader must do well to be a great boss, among the three most important are coaching, trust and advocacy. At work, if my manager regularly engages in coaching conversations, both grants and earns trust, and acts in my best interests consistently (that’s what advocates do), the chances are much higher that I’ll enjoy what I do and how I do it.

Improving the great boss factor may come down to making more and better investments in leadership development and management training. Create opportunities for leaders to gather together to explore the challenges and pitfalls of leadership. Invest in upskilling opportunities around leadership communication skills like coaching and giving feedback. Along the way, work to develop a people-first culture that empowers leaders at all levels to treat people humanely and minimises the suffering their job inflicts on their life outside of work.

These three factors – ideal job, meaningful work and great boss – and the unique dimensions of each, make up a kind of internal psychological scorecard that every employee has relative to their employer. These factors also reflect the job upgrades and quality of life enhancements that continue to drive record amounts of turnover across a multitude of industries. If you’re an HR professional looking for ways to keep your best talent in 2024, partner with executives and frontline leaders to make these factors central to your employee experience.

Joe Mull is the author of new book Employalty: How to Ignite Commitment and Keep Top Talent in the New Age of Work