Concerns over rising rates of speedier job-hopping are now at a fever pitch. By one recent estimate, nearly half of employees could leave their jobs by the end of 2017. And according to another, millennials now expect to change their job every two and a half years—double the rate of their Gen X predecessors.
In response, LinkedIn rolled out a feature late last year to help recruiters find less-than-satisfied employees who may be “passively” looking for options. And on the other side of the equation, companies are scrambling to find way to hang onto the talent they’ve already hired for as long as they possibly can.
But me? I’m not–and here’s why.
What if this steadily accelerating, workforce-wide game of musical chairs were actually a strategic advantage?
Traditionally, employee retention—the ability to keep staff—is considered a telltale sign of a company’s health. But if you ask me, focusing blindly on retention actually misses the bigger picture. The metric we should be tracking is something I call “people movement,” and it’s the oxygen pulsing through a business.
I’m not talking about churn–losing employees altogether is rarely a good thing. But if all you worry about are retention issues, then you’ll be pouring tons of resources into reducing churn and missing other areas that, for one thing, you have much more control over and, for another, might end up making a bigger difference in the end. If you think holistically about all the ways people move through (including out of) your organization, you’ll start seeing more clearly–and freaking out less. Part of this will be promotions. But an even more critical piece is the lateral and diagonal movements of employees leaving one team for another.
Contrary to accepted wisdom, this kind of people movement isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s vital to organizational health. Indeed, moving people out of their current roles can be just as important as keeping people in them.
My company, Hootsuite, is a social media management platform with around 1,000 employees. We made it a company-wide goal–right alongside revenue targets—to ensure that 20% of our employees, or around 200 people in total, aren’t in the same seat by the end of 2017. It’s an open declaration to managers and staff alike that shifting roles is part of our culture and something to be encouraged, not avoided.
For so many companies, exactly the opposite is true: You’re expected to “do your time” before moving over or moving up. And I get it. Managers make an investment in training and expect to see a return on that. But the world is moving too fast for this model, and it’s time we evolved.
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For the right employees, an open people-movement policy is a boon: the chance to learn new skills quickly, expanding your professional toolkit and building a stronger resume–on a timetable you’re happy with. For better or worse, employees want to grow and improve more rapidly and many of them feel they can. 65% of millennials say that personal development is the most important factor of their jobs, according to a 2013 UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School study.
In my company, we’ve seen salespeople transition to product management roles and marketing specialists shift into corporate development. Talented people who enter the company with one skill set are able to level up and acquire expertise in a whole new area. The result is happier, more fulfilled employees who stay with the company–but don’t necessarily stay put.
For the business, the benefits are multiple and cascading. Lateral movement is a powerful way to break down corporate silos and diffuse institutional know-how. Plus, the reality that employees are continually on the move obliges a company to hire smarter and to train faster, maximizing return in a shorter time span.
Deeper still, people movement is a powerful way to sustain startup energy and spirit as a company scales. Talented recruits are drawn to early-stage startups by the excitement and promise of wearing multiple hats. But this kind of role fluidity diminishes as a company grows and jobs become more specialized. The enthusiasm and creativity that make the scrappy startup environment so appealing gets watered down. But scrapping employee retention efforts for a broader people-movement focus reignites that flame.
Ultimately, that leads to better recruitment and (yes) better retention anyway–the exact goals that keep all HR teams up at night. Smart prospects want to work at a company where they know they can learn and grow. And A-players want to keep working there as long as they’re continually challenged.
So how do you actually pull off this switch in approach? It’s not always easy. Actively encouraging your best and brightest employees to move on goes against everything managers are usually taught. You invest energy to bring people up to speed, only to see them swooped up by another department, leaving you with a new vacancy to fill.
That’s why, internally, we’ve found that people movement doesn’t work without a clear shift in perspective. This involves reimagining the “manager” as mentor, champion, and educator. Turnover, in this formulation, is an indicator of success, not failure. It’s not a sign that employees don’t want to work with you; it’s a sign that you’ve done an exceptional job. They’re graduating, not leaving.
This holds especially true for departments that attract high volumes of junior talent–at Hootsuite, that’s sales and customer success. These teams have their own mandates to fulfill, but they’ve embraced the idea that they’re also invaluable talent funnels for the rest of the organization. Rather than trying to lock their best people into a single career track, managers have learned to actively steer them toward other roles throughout the company.
But it’s worth pointing out that the goal is not to fast-track promotions, which only bloats management and inflate budgets. Instead, it relies on employees actively stretching to brand-new roles, often in different departments. We’ve found, though, that interdepartmental walls can sometimes be intimidatingly high. How’s an employee supposed to know what goes on in other departments, let alone what roles need to be filled?
Both informal and formal initiatives are key. On the informal end, employees across the company get together Friday afternoons, when we open our taps for a round of drinks. It’s not rocket science, but it’s one way to get people outside their departmental bubbles. Better still, we’ve got a robust #randomcoffee program: employees sign up to be paired with a random peer, blind-date style, and then get to know one another over a coffee.
Our most effective tool is a lateral-movement initiative we call the “stretch program,” which gives team members a formal way to try on roles in another department. Stretch employees spend one day a week on their adopted teams and the remaining time in their official roles. At the end of the trial, the fit is evaluated: If everyone’s on board, the staffer can make the jump full-time.
It can be a challenge at first to wrap your head around the idea that helping people leave their roles—rather than encouraging them to stay put—is actually good for business. Yet the simple truth is that if you don’t give employees the chance to learn something new and change positions, they’re going to take it upon themselves to do so anyway–with a different employer. Faced with that prospect, a little people movement makes a lot of sense.