Retaining your top talent Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2007

It’s no secret that there’s a war for talent being waged in the workplace and in the job market today, and the competition for qualified employees is intense. What does seem to be an unknown — to many employers — is what they should be doing to retain their hard-won employees to avoid losing them to competitors.

“Throughout a decade of workplace surveys, Spherion has discovered specific needs among employees that employers can tap into in order to design effective retention programs,” said Lynn Billing, vice president of staffing services for Spherion Corporation in Atlanta.

Smart Business asked Billing what advice she would offer employers who are serious about retaining their top talent.

What do your workplace surveys tell you?

Our ongoing Emerging Workforce Study reveals an important disconnect between what workers want and what employers think they want. After the basics of compensation, benefits and growth/earnings potential are met, what employees say they want most are time and flexibility. Yet these were last on the list of retention drivers identified by employers.

Our research also reveals that two-thirds of workers (68 percent) are not satisfied with their ability to maintain a balance between their work and personal lives. They are working too hard or too much and their personal time is suffering.

What are the implications for employers?

Given the evidence, employers who are interested in retaining their top talent should consider providing perks that address the need for time and flexibility. Among the most popular are:

  • Flexible work hours — such as four 10- hour days with a three-day weekend, part-time work, shift work, or other creative scheduling. Our survey shows that 59 percent of the work force want flex time options.

  • Telecommuting — Our survey revealed that 48 percent want to be able to work from home.

  • Paid time off for community service — Almost one-third of workers (32 percent) named this as a top priority.

  • Ability to take unpaid leaves or sabaticals — This was named by 23 percent as a priority.

Other options include onsite day care and fitness facilities, cafeterias or bistros, dry cleaning outlets, car wash services and ATMs. Some companies offer onsite pharmacies, company nurses, medical hotlines, and smoking cessation and diet programs (which have the added advantage of fostering employee health).

In large metro areas, company-paid parking subsidies and subway and bus passes can offer high-perceived value. Other effective programs include retention bonuses for top contributors and coaching and mentoring programs to develop your best talent.

What are some advantages for employers?

When you think about the cost of turnover — which ranges from an average of $7,000 per individual hourly wage earner up to $80,000 for a middle manager or technical professional — investing in preventive measures such as these can pay huge dividends.

Our research reveals that 96 percent of workers say that employers who help them meet family and personal obligations through options like flextime, job-sharing and telecommuting are much more attractive to them than employers who do not offer those options.

According to our surveys, employers who understand and meet their employees’ needs can expect that 85 percent of their workers will have greater job satisfaction, 56 percent increased trust and 43 percent increased loyalty to their employer.

How can employers identify what programs will be the most effective in their workplace?

There are a number of steps employers can take. The key is to be flexible and committed.

Research. Start by reading the extensive research already conducted. Speak to peers in other companies to learn what they have done and consult work force management experts.

Survey. While it’s best to survey your entire employee population, if that just isn’t feasible, conduct employee roundtables or focus groups in representative functions and locations. One approach is to create a list of possible perks your company could provide and have each employee choose their top two or three from the list. Then implement the top two or three overall.

Experiment. Don’t be afraid of trial and error. Try some of the programs employees say they want, and then go back and see if they’ve been effective. Or, find out if their needs have changed and they want other accommodations.

Adjust. Be prepared to flex every couple of years if some programs don’t create the results you’re looking for. Survey your work force both before and after to compare responses and measure results.

LYNN BILLING is vice president of Spherion Staffing Services in Atlanta. Reach her at (678) 867-3097 or LynnBilling@ For more information, visit