5 ways to keep your rockstar employees happy

Rock on

Rock on The Googleplex, Google’s corporate headquarters in Mountain View California, is legendary for its perks. Employees have access to unlimited free meals, haircuts, dry cleaning, massages, and even onsite medical care.

Yet earlier this year, when Google interviewed its employees about what they valued most at work, none of these extravagant benefits made the top of the list. Neither did salary. Instead, employees cited access to “even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.”

Tangibles like salary and benefits aren’t enough to guarantee that your best and brightest creatives will remain engaged. Indeed, a recent landmark study by Arnold Worldwide of 3,000 employees and 500 executive leaders across a range of communication and advertising firms found that 30 percent of the advertising workforce say they’ll be gone from their job within 12 months.

Take Jill, an outstanding, experienced copy editor whom Agency X recently recruited at considerable expense from one of its chief rivals. Despite her outward success, she’s unsure how she’s performing, where she stands in the company, and how she fits into the overall goals of the agency. Her pay is great, she loves the Friday office happy hour, but over time, she finds herself feeling demotivated by the lack of communication, and checks out.

The loss of star performers like Jill doesn’t just leave a talent vacuum to fill; it also leaves a gaping hole in the bottom line. Indeed, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal calculated that it typically costs a company about half a position’s annual salary to recruit for that job ¾ and several times that if the position requires rare skills.

So how can your company keep its stars engaged? It comes down to creating a culture of communication — one in which employees know where the organization is headed, how they fit into these plans, and what’s expected of them. Here are a few key strategies your agency can employ to make this happen.

1. Create a culture of education

The average Starbucks barista gets more training in a year than the average employee in a communications company, according to the Arnold Worldwide study.

For employees, the single most important motivational factor was the ability to learn. Yet the study found a huge disconnect when it comes to perceptions about company training. While 90 percent of employees say they learn by figuring things out on their own, only 25 percent of executives think that employees learn independently.

To keep employees motivated, agencies need to build a culture of learning, where employees leave more enriched at the end of each day.

2. Provide regular, consistent feedback

Employee feedback is a critical part of the education process, and shouldn’t just be relegated to the annual review. To be effective, feedback needs to be specific and actionable. But that’s not always how it works.

In a study by Leadership IQ, 53 percent of employees said that when their boss praises excellent performance, the feedback does not provide enough useful information to help them repeat it. And 65 percent responded that when their boss criticizes poor performance, it doesn’t provide enough useful information to help them correct the issue.

Feedback, both positive and constructive, is most effective when given right away. Negative feedback given a month after the fact can lead to a passive-aggressive environment in which an employee feels powerless to act on the advice.

Think of it this way: no one wants to go a full day knowing their price tag was hanging from the back of their shirt, or the remnants of the salad they had for lunch were still stuck in their teeth. If an employee does something well, that activity should be encouraged. And if there’s room for improvement, they should be given the opportunity to learn for their next task.

3. Set time aside for weekly 1:1 meetings

At first, most employees and managers will cringe at the idea of yet another meeting. But instituting weekly 1:1 meetings can be the most important step you take to retaining your top performers.

In its quest to build a better boss, Google discovered that its worst managers weren’t consistent in their 1:1 meetings; some focused on meeting with people who were underperforming, while others met primarily with the top performers.

Consequently, Google implemented the best practice of 1:1 meetings with all team members.

These meetings can cover anything and everything from upcoming projects to the latest client news. With each week, discussions about goals, feedback, and concerns become a lot more natural unlike the awkward, starchy conversations during annual reviews. Over time, it becomes easier for both sides to raise potential problems and deal with them early on, before they fester into something destructive.

4. Manage the grunt work properly

Not every project is going to be awesome. That’s just the way business works. And chances are your employees understand this.

However, managers need to handle such projects responsibly and that means a few things. Boring projects should always be balanced with more stimulating work. Employees should always be told how any grunt works fits into the overall needs of the company (“If we do a good job on x, we’re hoping the client will give us their cool launch next year”). And specific parameters should always be set for the boring stuff ¾ meaning employees should always see light at the end of the tunnel.

5. Publicly acknowledge good work

All too often, managers see motivation in terms of financial compensation, but money is far from the only way to effectively reward talented employees. A 2009 survey by McKinsey Quarterly asked which incentives were the most effective in motivating employees. The top two responses were: “Praise and commendation from immediate manager” (67 percent), and “Attention from leaders” (62 percent).

Praise and commendation go a long way in making employees feel noticed and valued. And the impact of a pat on the back is multiplied when it’s done publicly. Through public commendations, employees not only feel the support and respect of their manager, but the entire organization as well (including top-level executives). Creating a framework for “social recognition” will encourage a culture of appreciation throughout your firm.

Keeping your rockstar employees on board has always been important, and don’t think that economic uncertainty will keep your employees around. Your company has worked hard to recruit some bright people and great talent; make sure an opaque work environment doesn’t drive them into the arms of your competition.

Learn more about how to keep remote workers happy and your team collaborating at GigaOM’s Net:Work event on December 8, 2011.

Daniel Debow is co-founder and co-CEO of Rypple, a social performance management platform.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Esparta

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