More companies are coveting their competitors’ talent this year. To counter that, businesses are offering flexibility and low-cost perks like telecommuting. Since these have limited appeal, and most companies can’t afford to be as generous as, say, Google and Microsoft when it comes to putting down cash, HR and line managers face quite a conundrum.
One thing they can do to give themselves an advantage is to understand this: The first step toward keeping employees happy isn’t about things like flextime or money. It’s about engagement. On his excellent blog Rands in Repose, author and software engineer manager Michael Lopp suggests that the first warning sign of a staff member becoming poachable is boredom. Of course, any number of other factors can come into play, but boredom is kind of like a rust pit on your car: Address it early and it’s cheap and easy to fix. Let it go and you’re looking at either spending real money on repairs, or buying that new minivan you didn’t really want. The challenge, Lopp observes, is boredom “shows up quietly and appears to pose no immediate threat. This makes it both easy to address and easy to ignore.”
Boredom tends to begin quietly and gain momentum. First, someone just sighs a lot, but then he gets sloppy. He starts to daydream more. Maybe he pokes around for what looks like a better job, but even if he doesn’t, he certainly loses focus. The work he does every day becomes just a job. His resistance to the lure of other companies diminishes. Then one day he comes in and quits. Counter offers might keep him around for a while, but probably only for a while.
Lopp has suggestions for keeping people engaged:
- Keep an interesting problem squarely in front of them.
- Let them experiment.
- Protect their time so they can experiment.
- Don’t always give one person the tough and lousy assignments. Spread them out.
- Aggressively remove noise.
- Keep them up to date on your thoughts, plans and how you’re going to help them reach their goals.
These are all good points, but they can’t come into play if managers don’t realize handling boredom is a part of their job. It can’t simply be chalked up as one of the realities of life. Unfortunately, most seem to stay in precisely that lackadaisical place. While it’s true boring tasks are a part of working life, if that’s where a managers’ thoughts end, sooner or later they’re going to have problems keeping people on board.