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Retaining great engineers can be hard. Here are the ten company habits that make employees choose to stay, even when other options are available.

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Despite all the perks contemporary tech companies are offering their employees, many are still suffering from high turnover. The fancy offices, the comfy couches, the premium health insurance, and the inflated salaries don’t seem to be enough. The demand for talented techies is still increasing in our information age, and is expected to rise in the US by 22% between 2020 and 2030, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So, how can companies retain their most valuable capital nowadays – their information workers?

In The 8th Habit, Stephen Covey talks about the four dimensions of an information worker (= human being), which translate into four main needs:

  • Physical needs: shelter, food, etc…
  • Emotional needs: a sense of security, belonging, love, etc…
  • Mental needs: learning and evolving
  • Spiritual needs: values, meaning, purpose, a just cause, etc…

While no one can deny the attractiveness of high salaries and fancy perks, it is crucial not to forget the other core dimensions.

With these needs in mind, here are ten organizational habits that make employees choose to stay, even when other options are available.

1. Hiring according to people skills and values

The Constructive Cost Model II (COCOMO II) states that having the best people is significantly more important for a project than having the best processes and tools, by a ratio of ten to one.

When organizations hire according to healthy and noble people skills and values, the culture and vibes within the organization are more vibrant and motivating. Communication is built on trust and everyone is aligned on the same values and principles.

Never underestimate highly motivated employees who are eager to learn and progress in life, while sticking to their integrity and core values. Such employees might not tick the whole technical requirements list, but their motivation, perseverance, and adaptability are more than enough to help learn new skills. Technology is evolving every day, so fast learning is the ‘hard’ skill needed when new frameworks and practices come to life. In addition, never underestimate the amount of damage and turnover a toxic employee can cause.

Employees choose to stay in a company that has values aligned with theirs, and that hires people aligned with those same values.

2. Assigning tasks and roles that are compatible with each employee’s potential

Being immersed in a task we love – or what the positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls the flow state – gives employees a sense of fulfillment and enjoyment. Csíkszentmihályi states that to be able to enter the flow state, the task at hand needs to be challenging enough; an unchallenging role leads to boredom and disengagement, while an extremely challenging role might lead to frustration and/or anxiety. This is key to employee engagement, performance, and learning.

Techies choose roles that push them just enough outside of their comfort zone, giving them an element of challenge and an incentive for growth.

3. Keeping promises, especially those made in the hiring process

Fake promises of raises, promotions, and other benefits attract a new employee in the short term only! Failing to keep one’s promises is a huge rupture in integrity and trust.

Employees consciously choose to keep working for managers with high integrity and authenticity.

4. Fostering harmony between team members

Strengthening the rivalry between team members might help some team leads and managers exert control over their staff. Nevertheless, this is a double-edged sword. Unhealthy rivalry increases stress and mistrust.

Workers tend to choose a harmonious environment of trust and cooperation where they don’t need to constantly cover their backs. One good practice to foster harmony is to reward team effort and cooperation rather than individual progress.

5. Optimizing the onboarding process

Starting a new job can be stressful and overwhelming. The newly hired need time and energy to adapt to the new environment, acquaintances, technologies, culture, and methodologies of work. So why not facilitate the process for them?

An optimized onboarding process is more than just sharing documentation and recorded presentations. It is about being actively present and empathetic. It could start by breaking the ice and scheduling calls/meetings to introduce the new starters to their colleagues and other people in the company. Another good practice is to introduce the new employee to the company’s habits, culture, and values. And of course, periodic meetings and check-ins are crucial to make sure all is going well with the technical aspect of the onboarding. And yes, some questions might be repeated at first.

In brief, an information worker chooses a company that takes the time to design an optimized onboarding process.

6. Investing in employees’ soft and hard skills

Investing in your employees’ learning and development helps to meet their mental needs for growing and evolving. It also sends the message that you care about them, and believe that their growth will contribute to the growth of the company.

An employee worth keeping is one who is hungry to learn from more experienced people. Providing an allowance for personal development, conferences, and certification is one way to develop your employees’ skills. Another way is to organize periodic gatherings where random employees get the chance to share their knowledge and experience with their colleagues. This is a two-way street because we learn best when we teach others.

It’s also important to invest in leadership training and other training related to soft skills. By increasing the self-awareness and emotional intelligence of your team members – especially your leaders – you can gradually shift your culture to become more inclusive, empathetic, and mature.

You might argue, ‘If our employees become really competent, it will become harder to retain them.’ But in fact, it’s equally hard (if not harder) to retain stagnating employees.

Richard Branson put it perfectly: ‘Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they choose not to.’

7. Making sure things are clear for everyone

Some leads and managers nurture ambiguity so that their staff remains dependent on them, while claiming to foster independence. Information is unequally distributed among team members and there’s a lack of clarity around the work.

Instead, clarity and positive interdependence should be the goal. When things are clear for everyone and the resources are available for all, it creates a healthy interdependence where the team can work in synergy with one another. This results in increased engagement and productivity.

The contemporary worker chooses a company that promotes healthy interdependence.

8. Addressing toxic behavior right away

Tolerating toxic behavior in the workplace can be very demoralizing for employees, and not just folks who are on the receiving end of a negative coworker. Those with high ethics are also impacted even if the behavior does not impact them directly.

Here’s an example. A software engineer I once knew (let’s call her Kate) who started a new job in a team that was manipulating clients’ requirements, delivering low quality work, and running useless scrum activities due to a lack of transparency. Kate thought that the project manager (PM) was unaware of what was happening, and she tried to push the team forward. A few months later, Kate discovered that the PM was aware of the team’s behavior, and was in fact encouraging it so that they (the PM) wouldn’t have to get involved or put effort into the project. This was a moral crisis for Kate. Even though the culture was allowing Kate to have a lot of free time, since little was being delivered, Kate’s integrity was not able to tolerate the absence of morals within this team. So, she quit.

Employees worth keeping choose to remain working in an environment that does not enable toxic behavior in any way.

9. Building a team’s identity and self-image

Defining a vision, a purpose, and a set of values for each team in the company is important to building each team’s identity. Also, having a set of habits, a routine, a unique style of work and communication, and a well-defined set of best practices gives a sense of predictability and security. When you invest in each individual’s self-image and in the self-image of the team as a whole, productivity is boosted, a sense of belonging is established, and communication with different stakeholders is improved.

Studies show that organizational citizenship is an important factor in choosing not to leave a company.

10. Taking exit interviews seriously

Exit interviews are very important for two main reasons. First, these interviews make the interviewee feel heard and empathized with. You might argue, ‘Why should we care? They’re leaving anyway…’, but this person might have friends still working at the company, or friends who are thinking of applying. You’d appreciate your former employee spreading a good word about you and your culture.

Second, exit interviews often provide useful information that can guide you in improving the company’s culture and addressing problems you might not be aware of.

Employees choose to work for managers who are humble enough to learn from their mistakes, and who don’t treat their employees as easily replaceable assets.

Reflections

In conclusion, there are four dimensions of a human being and an organization: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Taking this model into account while molding your company’s culture is crucial to increasing employee retention. High salaries and fancy perks are great, but you need to meet employee needs on a deeper, human level if you want them to stick around.