One in five U.S. workers changed their line of work in 2020 to secure better work-life balance or higher pay, or to try something new, according to Prudential’s Pulse of the American Worker Survey: Special Report.

Additionally, the report revealed that 26% of U.S. workers plan to look for a new job once the threat of the pandemic has decreased, largely because they are concerned about a lack of career growth, according to the report.

But another dynamic is also driving workers’ intentions: corporate culture—or lack thereof.

Of workers choosing to stay put, 70% gave their companies an A or B for culture, compared with 42% of job changers who gave their current employers an average or failing grade.

At the same time, issues related to racial and gender equity are front and center in the workplace. Amidst employee concerns over the pandemic and social justice, what can small and midsized employers do to provide an inclusive and productive environment to retain good people?

It comes down to targeted investments in training, health and wellbeing—and lots of empathetic communication, according to experts in learning and development, diversity and communications.

“Employees are hungry for connection,” said Kristin Graham, a former Amazon communications executive now working as a culture and employee engagement consultant at Ragan Consulting Group. “In addition to broader support for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, companies need to build sustainable, scalable mentoring programs.”

The gig economy at work

As companies work to reopen their offices, pressing the reset button on learning is an astute move, said Chrissy Medeck, BOK Financial’s® director of talent and organizational development.

“Ensure that you are developing your talent by giving them experiential and social learning opportunities. These account for 90% of learning that takes place on the job and often there is no cost attached,” Medeck said. “It involves a manager taking the time to have a development conversation with the employee and the employee seeking out learning opportunities such as a mentorship or joining a project team.”

To make that happen, companies are beginning to leverage the gig economy—characterized by short-term, freelance projects—inside their own organizations.

Another trend is the creation of corporate-sponsored mastermind groups, Graham said. Known in entrepreneurial circles for fostering brainstorming, education, peer accountability and support, masterminds can help employees get reacquainted virtually—or back in the office.

Provide employees with an opportunity to learn new skills by redeploying talent.

Watch our video series with Kelley Weil, CHRO, on redeploying talent to build job skills.

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Flex it

As for managers with direct reports, many of them are promoted for delivering positive business results and have the opportunity to learn how to effectively move from leading self to leading, Medeck said.

“If a company is going to invest in one space, it should be teaching managers to be coaches. Great leaders know how to have motivating and persuasive conversations.”

When an employee is ready for their next role, empowering employees to pursue other full-time roles within an organization is an effective retention tool, said Medeck, citing the Situational Leadership Theory. While first introduced half a century ago, its emphasis on flexibility, coaching and humility speaks to today’s unprecedented challenges.  

“What happened last year—overnight—was a shock to all of us,” Medeck said. “As companies return to the office, we need to be flexible and thoughtful about the re-entry process. Whereas some employees might feel ecstatic, others might need more time to acclimate.”

Of the 2,000 people Prudential surveyed, 87% said they would like to work from home at least one day a week.

“It centers around transparency,” Medeck said. “We’re not pretending nothing has changed. Let’s give each other grace, patience and kindness—knowing we’re all adjusting. Normalize the transition.”

At the same time, business owners should assess how the pandemic has affected different groups, Graham said.

More than 2.5 million women left the labor force between February 2020 and January 2021, compared to 1.8 million men, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In addition, Gen Z workers are struggling to feel engaged and excited more than any other age cohort, according to Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index, a 31-country study. The Index also revealed that Black, Hispanic and women workers are more likely than their white male counterparts to say they prefer remote work.

Empathy, a core business value

Indeed, everyone has experienced the pandemic in a unique way—and all employees are bringing that experience back to the office. As such, now is the time to create a culture plan demonstrating corporate commitment to an inclusive environment, several workplace experts said.

In addition to mentoring programs, such plans might include the creation of employee resource groups to facilitate discussion about the needs of specific populations, and an editorial calendar for celebrating cultural moments such as Martin Luther King Day, Pride Month and Juneteenth.

“In the last year, the civil unrest shined a light on experiences that people may not have always understood or talked about,” said Keri Gavin, a partner and director of the Global Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Practice at executive search firm Hanold Associates.

“It has opened a dialogue about diversity, equity and inclusion—not just on the streets but also in organizations. Many companies have made commitments to inclusive cultures and workplaces, which is great. But, it’s one thing to have good intentions. It’s another thing to move toward action.”

For business owners wondering how to get such actions off the ground, Graham offered reassuring words.

“You don’t have to be perfect to get full credit,” Graham said. “It’s completely acceptable to say you’re working toward a DEI plan. Employees and recruits are open to the conversation. Putting it out there in plain consistent language helps.”

From burn-out to bright flame

Globally, more than one-third of professionals (37%) said their employers are asking too much of them “at a time like this,” according to Microsoft’s report. In the U.S., that nagging, overwhelmed feeling costs businesses dearly.  

Employees are more likely to become a retention risk if they don't feel like the organization is meeting their needs, according to The Top 5 Predictors of Employee Turnover, an April 2021 report from Quantum Workplace, a provider of employee feedback tools.

“If employees don’t feel like the organization is meeting their individual needs (e.g., health and well-being, work-life balance, personal development), they’re more likely to become a retention risk,”

While 77% of retained employees reported believing they had organizational support, only 66% of employees exiting their jobs felt the same, according to survey of 97,000 people. Likewise, 75% of retained employees said companies provided them the flexibility to meet both work and personal needs, compared with 64% of exiting employees.

Kelley Weil, chief human resources officer at BOK Financial, said business leaders should be leaning in to these concerns and showing they care.

“A myriad of factors have had a detrimental effect on mental health, be it feelings of isolation or balancing too much, plus the added strain of caring for children or aging parents while working from home,” Weil said. “As we start to look forward, companies should be making corporate investment in benefits that will lighten the load: things like child and elder care reimbursements and access to mental health providers through insurance plans.”

75% of retained employees said companies provided them the flexibility to meet both work and personal needs