Strong engineering talent is the bedrock of modern technology companies. Software engineers, in particular, are in high demand given their expertise and skills. At the same time, there is a much greater supply of software companies and startups, all of which are jostling to hire top engineers. Given this market reality, retention of top engineering talent is imperative for a company to grow and innovate in the short as well as the long term.
Retaining employees is critical for numerous reasons. It helps a company retain experience not only in terms of employees’ domain expertise and skills, but also organizational knowledge of products, processes, people, and culture. Strong employee retention rates (>90%) ensure a long-term foundation for success and enhances team morale as well as trust in the company. A stable engineering team is in a better position to both build and ship innovative products and establish a reputation in the market that helps attract top-quality talent.
The corporate incentive of maintaining high standards of employee hiring and retention is also related to the costs of employee churn. Turnover costs companies in the US $1 trillion USD a year with an annual turnover rate of more than twenty-six percent. The cost of replacing talent is often as high as two times their annual salary. This is a tremendous expense that can be averted through better company policies and culture. The onus is typically on the human resources (HR) team to develop more employee-friendly practices and promote higher engagement and work–life balance.
However, in practice, most HR teams are deferential to the company leadership and that is where the buck stops. Leaders and managers have a fundamental responsibility to retain the employees on their team, as more often than not, employees do not leave the company per se, but the line manager.
I will discuss best practices and strategies to improve retention, which ought to be a consistent effort across the entire employee lifecycle--from recruiting to onboarding through regular milestones during an employee’s tenure.
Start at the Start
More often than not, managers do not invest in onboarding preparation and processes out of laziness and indifference. Good employee retention practice starts at the very beginning, i.e., at the time of hiring. Hiring talent through a structured, transparent, fair, and meritocratic interviewing process that allows the candidate to understand their particular role and responsibilities, the company’s diversity and inclusion practices, and the larger mission of the company sets an important tone for future employees.
Hiring the right people who are a good culture fit increases the likelihood of greater engagement and longer tenure at the company. Hiring managers should not hire for the sake of hiring. They should put considerable thought into each new hire and how that hire might fit in on their team.
Apart from hiring, managers have other important considerations, including:
In the first few months, the new hires, the hiring team, and company are in a “dating” phase, evaluating each other and gathering evidence on whether to commit to a longer-term relationship. Most new employees make up their mind to stay or leave within the first six months. A third of new hires who quit said they had barely any onboarding or none at all.
The importance of a new employee’s first impressions on the joining date, the first week, the first month, and the first quarter cannot be overemphasized. Great onboarding starts before the new hire’s join date, ensuring all necessary preparation is handled, like paperwork. Orientation programs on the join day are essential to introduce the company and expand on its mission, values, and culture beyond what the employee might have learned during the interviews.
Minor things like having the team know in advance about a new team member’s join date, and readying the desk, equipment, access, and logins are tell-tale signs of how much thought and effort the hiring team has invested in onboarding. Fellow teammates also make a significant impact, whether they are welcoming and drop in to say “hi” or stop by for a quick chat to get to know the hire better, or take the new employee out for lunch with the whole team.
Onboarding should not end on day one but continue in various forms. Some examples include:
A successful onboarding strategy should enable the employee to know their first project, the expectations, associated milestones, and how performance evaluation works.
Keep It Up!
Onboarding should be followed up with regular check-ins by the manager and HR at the one-month, three-month, and six-month mark. These meetings should be treated as an opportunity for the company to assess the new employee’s comfort level on the team and provide feedback as needed. An onboarding mentor or buddy, if not assigned already, should be provided to help the employee find their feet and learn the informal culture and practices.
The manager should set up the employee for success by providing low-hanging projects that are quick to deliver and help the new hire understand the process of building and deploying a new feature using the company’s internal engineering tools and systems. With quick wins, new hires are able to build trust within the organization and gain more confidence to do excellent work.
As time goes on, the role of the hiring manager becomes more prominent in coordinating regular 1-on-1 meetings, providing the new hire clear work guidelines, as well as challenging and stimulating projects. Apart from work, an introduction to the organizational setup and culture, as well as social interaction within and beyond the team is also crucial. As the new employee ramps up, it is important to give constructive feedback so that the employee can improve. Where a new employee delivers positive impact in the early days itself, the manager should highlight their work within the team and organization, and motivate the employee to continue to perform well.
In addition to core engineering work, employees feel more connected when a company actively invests in their learning and development. Cross-functional training programs that involve employees across different teams foster deeper collaboration and a stronger sense of connection within the various parts of the company.
Investment in employees’ upskilling and education via partnership with external learning platforms or vendors also generates a positive culture of instilling curiosity and learning. Learning new skills energizes the employees and provides them opportunities to grow and develop. They can then apply the newly learned knowledge and skills to pertinent business problems. It creates a virtuous culture that yields overall positive outcomes for the employee and employer alike, and positively influences the long-term retention rates.
New employees generally feel the need to be positively engaged. A powerful mission statement can sometimes convert naysayers faster and generate a company-wide sense of being part of something impactful. This fosters deeper engagement, loyalty, and trust in the company and helps employees embrace company values, resulting in better employee retention rates. Frequent town hall meetings from the leadership enable a new hire to understand the organization as a coherent whole and their particular role in furthering the company’s mission.
Listen to Feedback
The diverse organizational efforts to onboard, engage, and enhance new employees’ perception of the company are bound to fail if the organization does not seek and act on any feedback shared by the new hires. Companies ought to create an internal culture of open communication whereby they seek feedback from employees via surveys, meetings, and town halls, and showcase transparent efforts in implementing employees’ suggestions and feedback. Regular 1-on-1 meetings with managers should be treated as an opportunity to gather feedback and offer the employee insights into whether and how the company is taking action on that feedback.
However, in spite of organizational efforts to improve employee satisfaction and wellbeing, some attrition is inevitable. Attrition rates of more than ten percent is a cause for concern, however, especially when top-performing employees leave the company. Exit interviews are typically conducted by HR and hiring managers, but in practice these are largely farcical as the employees hardly share their honest opinions and have lost trust that the company can take care of their career interests and development.
Companies can implement processes that bring greater transparency around employee decisions related to hiring, promotion, and exit. These processes will also hold HR and managers to greater accountability with respect to employee churn, and incentivize them to increase the retention rates in their teams.
In past generations, job stability was a paramount aspiration for employees which meant they typically spent all their working lives at the same company. In today’s world, with a plethora of enterprises and new startups, high-performing talent is in greater demand and it is possible to accelerate one’s career growth by frequently job hopping and switching companies.
Nowadays, feedback about company processes, culture, compensation, interviews, and so on, is available on a plethora of public platforms including Glassdoor and LinkedIn. Companies are now more proactive in managing their online reputation and act on feedback from the anonymous reviews on such platforms.
Employees in the post-Covid remote-working world are prone to greater degrees of stress, mental health issues, and burnout, all of which have adverse impacts on their work–life balance. In such extraordinary times, companies face the unique challenge—and opportunity—to develop and promote better employee welfare practices.
At one end of the spectrum, there are companies like Amazon. In 2015, The New York Times famously portrayed the company as a “bruising workplace.” Then, in 2021, The New York Times again reported on Amazon for poor workplace practices and systems, prompting a public acknowledgment from the CEO that Amazon needs to do a better job.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are companies like Atlassian or Spotify that have made proactive changes in their organizational culture and are being lauded for new practices to promote employee welfare during the pandemic. Companies that adapt to the changing times and demonstrate that they genuinely care for their employees will enjoy better retention rates, lower costs due to frequent rehiring, and long-term employee trust that conveys the company as a beacon of progressive workplace culture and employment practices.
Copyright © 2022, Sundeep Teki
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