Participate in our Employee Benefits Survey, and you’ll receive the full report free! Start the survey here.

Workplace Challenges, A scene of conflict at work.By Jenny Ellis

The workplace is the epicenter of some intense challenges these days, not the least of which centers around your employees. We have consulted with many clients to tackle a host of issues, including: the difficult hiring market; employee burnout and mental health at work; the need to support working parents; the demand for flexibility in when and where employees work; and deteriorating employee engagement.

Let’s take a closer look at these challenges individually, notice how they are interconnected and intersecting, and consider some high-level solutions to help you retain top talent.

A historically tight labor market

With conditions of full employment in the US, companies are facing an extraordinarily challenging recruiting environment. Not only is it difficult to find candidates and swiftly bring them on board to fill your open positions, key employees on your team are vulnerable to being hired out from under you. Hiring managers are struggling to fill the holes in the organizational structure, and as a result, employees who are picking up the slack are burning out.

Solutions: While money is the tool most often deployed to attract and retain talent, a ratcheting of salaries without a thoughtful, data driven approach can throw your entire compensation structure out of balance. We recommend looking at company culture to determine if there are ways to improve the employee experience and, by extension, employee retention. One way to do this is to survey your employees to find out what is working and not working within your organization. It’s a good practice to send out quarterly employee surveys, or more frequent “pulse” surveys, designed to capture employee satisfaction, and to track how and if that metric changes over time.

As a general rule, you want to ask for a data point on a scale rather than pose yes/no questions, but you also want your employees to be able to offer input on how things could be improved through open-ended questions. Below are some questions you might include in an employee satisfaction survey:

On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 = strongly disagree, and 5 = strongly agree please respond to the following statements:

  1. I have open communication channels to managers and leadership.
  2. I feel personally supported and cared about by managers and leadership.
  3. I feel professionally supported by managers and leadership.
  4. My work contributions are valued and acknowledged.
  5. I feel fairly compensated for the work I do.
  6. The benefits packaged offered to me is of real value.
  7. I see a pathway to career advancement within the organization.
  8. I am satisfied with my job overall.
  9. What could we do to improve your job satisfaction.

Answers to these survey questions will give you data on whether you have a larger cultural problem that needs to be addressed. If the results suggest that you have a positive culture and that your team members are satisfied – well done! Make sure to nurture your winning culture, and incorporate it into your brand and recruiting messaging. Celebrating employee satisfaction data is an effective recruiting and employee retention strategy.

Employee burnout at work / mental health issues

As mentioned above, a workforce that’s stretched thin can be a major factor in employee burnout, but there are so many other ingredients currently contributing to this urgent issue. In this McKinsey report, employees cite the following grievances as most negatively impacting their mental health at work: “the feeling of always being on call, unfair treatment, unreasonable workload, low autonomy, and lack of social support.”

Solutions: Employee wellbeing programs, as we’ve discussed, are nice to offer and can alleviate some of the pressures an individual might be experiencing by focusing on behavioral change, therapy, meditation, physical health, etc. But as the McKinsey study asks: do these kinds of initiatives really solve the right problem? Employers need to determine to what degree employee burnout is caused by real conditions in the workplace, and this can be done in one-on-one interviews, or, again, through an employee survey. Here are some examples of survey questions related to burnout:

On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 = strongly disagree, and 5 = strongly agree please respond to the following statements:

  1. When I come into work each day, I feel calm and composed.
  2. Expectations for my performance at work are reasonable and attainable.
  3. I have a sense of belonging and connection at work.
  4. My work contributions are valued and acknowledged by managers/leadership.
  5. What could we do to make your experience at work more positive for you?

Responses to these questions will give you an understanding of the level of burnout and stress that is being experienced by your employees, and can indicate if there are systemic issues company-wide, or within a particular department, that need immediate attention. A culture of destigmatization, compassion, listening and solution-seeking is a constructive approach to employee wellbeing and reducing burnout.

The need to support working parents

As we know too well, school aged children suffered immensely during the pandemic, from isolation, online overload, and learning loss. Working parents are stressed when their children struggle, and can often feel like they are failing at both parenting and their job. While we do see signs of resilience and recovery among schoolchildren as life returns to a sense of normalcy, working parents still need additional flexibility, empathy, and support from employers. The labor market shortage in care workers has made daycare options scarce and often unaffordable, and parents need to be able to balance work life with childcare and family responsibilities.

Solutions: For larger employers, offering on-site daycare would be the optimal solution to this problem, but obviously is not feasible for most smaller organizations. Does your benefits package include childcare subsidies? Consider what additional benefits you could offer working parents to assist with their unique challenges and be open to the additional support and flexibility that would be helpful. In an environment where an unprecedented number of working mothers dropped out of the workforce due to childcare inaccessibility (dubbed the she-session), employers must recognize the costs of potentially losing this segment of their workforce, and adapt to their needs accordingly and individually.

The demand for flexibility in when and where employees work

There have been many recent articles and this podcast predicting the death of the office, and while we agree that the workplace has been permanently changed by our adaptations during the pandemic, we believe the office, in some shape or form, will have a place in the future of work. It may look very different from one industry or even region to the next, and will certainly continue to evolve over time, but there will always be value in bringing workers together to collaborate, innovate, and solve problems in a shared space.

Early career professionals and new hires in particular benefit from professional relationship building and mentorship in person in a way that simply can’t be replicated through remote technologies. Right or wrong, being seen has proven to be a real advantage for advancement and promotion. That being said, knowledge workers got a taste for remote working, figured out how to make it productive (often more productive than in-person), and aren’t likely to give it up anytime soon. The many benefits, including zero commuting time, more comfortable/casual attire, and working when and where it’s convenient, are hard to argue against, and employers will have to weigh the risks of losing valuable employees if they insist on a full-time return to the office. [See #1: a historically tight labor market, above.]

Solutions: In the early stages of the pandemic, we recommended patience and flexibility, and that is still an appropriate approach. If you’re at a point where you need to establish some rules or guidelines around remote working, make sure to engage representatives from all the stakeholders in your decision making. When people feel they have been heard, that they have a voice and input, they are more likely to accept and honor decisions.

If flexible work just isn’t working in your organization, there could be many reasons why that’s the case – and many pathways for improvement. A rigid, top-down culture might explain why management distrusts that work is getting done remotely, but shifting this mindset is possible by focusing on outcomes, and whether goals are being met, rather than the specifics of when an employee is sitting at their desk. Be prepared to check in more with your remote employees. A daily chat can keep you connected and up to speed on the status of projects – but figure out what communication structure and cadence works best between you and each of your reports, and go with that. You’re probably getting the idea that quality communication is the key to most – if not all – human solutions.

The Deterioration of employee engagement

We’ve heard about the phenomenon of “quiet quitting” lately, in which a younger generation of workers is focused on enjoying life and not interested in the grind of corporate striving. In contrast to boomers – fiercely competitive and hard-working, and who may even equate self-worth with their position at work – the goal is to work to live, not live to work. And with all the challenges we’ve discussed above in this article, it’s not surprising that, according to this Gallup report, only 34% of US employees overall said they are engaged at work. A lack of employee engagement diminishes morale, productivity and profitability – moreover it can be highly contagious.

Solutions: Leaders need to develop ways to engage and motivate different cohorts of employees. While some workers may be motivated by investments in learning and development, transparent career advancement and enrichment pathways, and increasing responsibility and compensation, others may require more autonomy in their work, closer alignment between their personal values and the corporate mission, more social activities with co-workers, and the sense of a common goal, in order to feel engaged at work. A one-size-fits-all approach to improving the employee experience will not yield better engagement; in the current workplace, we will have to think bigger and more creatively.

When things get challenging on the human front, resourceful companies know to call KMA. We have experience in successfully implementing many of the solutions recommended in this article. Please reach out to us to discuss any employee experience, recruiting or compensation obstacles you are confronting; our team has the tools and expertise to help you solve them.