Retrain to Retain: Employee Engagement in Uncertain Times

Jeff Myhre | | Change Management

employee engagement can be boosted with trainingIt's an old conundrum in business. “What if we train them and they leave?” versus “What if we don't train them and they stay?” In my experience (and you should always be suspicious of anecdotal evidence), companies that train their people, tend to retain their people. It's a measure of employee engagement that the training happens. Or, put another way, “Employee engagement is an outcome driven by the quality of employee experiences.” Training is a quality experience almost by definition. It says, “We want to make you more valuable to yourself and to us.”

Indeed, Industry Week published some data on this last August. Drawn from a study by Axonify and Ipsos, one of their findings was, “More than three-quarters (76%) of employees feel [that] the opportunity to complete additional training designed to develop their skills for the future would make an employer (present or prospective) more appealing to them.” In other words, it's a decent bet to give additional training to your staff.

To Retrain or to Hire

In these times (Twilight Zone Daylight Saving Time), retraining becomes paramount. If your business is open and operating, it's almost certain you're doing things differently. You probably don't have the same staff availability and, above all, you have unforeseen issues that someone has to address. If your business has had to close, you have a moral duty to explore ways to re-open as quickly and as safely as you can. Both demand retraining staff.

This isn't to say that hiring talent right now is a bad idea. Given the massive unemployment rates, you might be able to get some exceptional people who would otherwise be beyond your budget. However, wait-and-see is our default strategy. Asking to hire new people right now will probably be met with a curt “no.” This isn't the time, let's wait and see where we are next week – take your pick of excuses to delay. Even before all this began, retraining was cheaper and more effective than bringing in new people.

With the people you do have, retraining falls into three categories. First, work that has to be done by different people than before. Second, work that has to be done differently by the same people. And finally, new work that no one has been doing. Thanks to COVID-19, many companies are dealing with all three categories at once. Looking specifically at workplace safety and compliance, companies have to train on everything from telecommuting and cybersecurity for remote working to new sanitizing and social-distancing policies affecting on-site employees and workplace layouts. Looking forward to these measures and starting training for them can be a great way to boost both employee engagement and morale.

Same Job, Different Worker

remote training will help employee engagement and boost retentionThe easiest retraining to undertake is taking existing responsibilities done just as before, but having someone else do them. Organizations of all sizes and competence have arrangements for when an employee takes a vacation. Someone else learns how to do the job, usually from the person they'll be covering for. When the vacation starts, the switch over is relatively seamless.

In the good old (pre-pandemic) days, this was done face to face. Even with complicated processes, trainees could be coached at the work site. Not many years ago, I was an editor working for a major French bank in the New York City office. One of my responsibilities was to publish the daily research across four platforms. Each platform required 10 to 15 steps. The fellow who taught me to do it created a booklet to guide me (I dubbed it the Book of Bart after him). In the beginning, what really made the book useful was sitting next to Bart and reading the instructions while watching him do it. Today, that wouldn't happen. There might still be a Book of Bart. But it would also require video conferencing, screen sharing, perhaps even remote operation of my computer by someone in IT to accomplish that degree of training.

What's most important is making sure every employee has access to the tools needed. As NYC public schools closed eight weeks ago, my granddaughter's elementary school offered a tablet computer for online learning to any child who needed one, free of charge. You can't do school online if you can't get online. Similarly, employee engagement while working from home can't happen without the right tools. Companies should be taking steps to do the same where possible.

Same Job, Same Worker, but Done Differently

Slightly more difficult is getting the same worker to do the same job in a different fashion than before. This raises the problem of needing to overcome the natural resistance most people have toward changing established processes. That's never easy, but there is some good news here. With the magnitude of change we're being forced to accept right now, people are more understanding of the need to do things differently. Employee engagement may be low but, with so much uncertainty, anything that helps them feel they're doing something toward getting back to normal will help. In other words, they're less resistant than they might otherwise be.

Real estate is just one industry that exemplifies how the same job is being done differently by existing workers. Under the current unpleasantness, realtors in New York, for instance, simply aren't allowed to show apartments or houses in person. No open houses, no private viewings by appointment only. Needless to say, this is a problem. No one (except maybe someone laundering money) wants to buy a place for half a million dollars (which might get you a tolerable home in Queens but not an apartment on Park Avenue) without seeing it.

Enter the virtual house tour. Realtors have come to rely on video posted online to provide two-minute tours of a home. It won't replace a physical visit, but it does allow would-be buyers to get a better sense of what a property looks like beyond the usual photos. Realtors are finding new ways to bring buyers and sellers together. Virtual tours are a big help, even though they're not a perfect replacement for a physical tour.

New Work for a New World

The hardest adjusting we have to do is figuring out how to suddenly do work that wasn't necessary before. The first step is to figure out just what the task entails, then determine who will do it. After that, the process needs to be established. That is often managed by the person who winds up responsible for the task. This can be a lonesome job in the best of times. It's important the staff member in question feels they have the support and resources needed for the job.

For instance, many companies rely on freelancers. They were rarely part of the benefits equation in the olden days (how long ago 2019 feels now). Then, along came the new CARES Act that allows freelancers and other gig workers to apply for unemployment benefits. Guiding them through the application process is important because they need the help and your company's HR department is where they're going to look for that help. So, who's going to navigate the process for applying and how will those calls for help be managed?

training for new policies and processes needs to start soonAdapting physical workplaces and processes to accommodate recommended (and in some cases, compulsory) social distancing and other protective measures creates a flood of new work. Almost every aspect of work we've taken for granted has to be reviewed in this new light and changes implemented. Open office plans? On-site cafeterias? Conferences and meetings? Decisions need to be made in anticipation of even the smallest non-essential sectors of the economy reopening. For some businesses, even the question of who makes those decisions and how is new work.

A Silver Lining

The COVID-19 pandemic could have been worse in a lot of ways. The virus could be nastier, and spread even more easily. But we sort of got lucky it turned up in an era of video conferencing and instant messaging, with Amazon delivery and GrubHub for takeout. There's a technological base to work around a lot of these issues, and many jobs don't require physical contact. With these tools, it's easier to monitor remote employee engagement. Can you imagine trying to get through this with only three television networks to choose from on one TV, one land-line phone in the house (at most two, possibly none at all), and no deliveries at the drop of a hat? I can and the images in my head are awful.

We need to utilize the tools at hand to reinvent jobs and processes. And we need to use them to train staff on how to operate under the new constraints. Stuck at home, people are turning to the video resources out there to help with everyday obstacles they're encountering. Since the lockdown, I've learned how to spatchcock a chicken and get rid of a squeak in my clothes dryer just by watching YouTube. Businesses can (and should) rely on video to help their workers with the different types of training needed now. It's easy to share a video link if you can find one but, with technology today, it's also easy to make your own.

By retraining your staff, you'll help keep them engaged, employed and employable at a time when more than 22 million are unemployed with that number still rising. There will probably be grumbling but, in the end, your team will remember the lengths you went to in order to keep them working.

Human Resources Today

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