6 Ways to Manage Employee Turnover and Retention

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If you’ve managed a team for any amount of time, you’ve dealt with the inevitable truth: most of your team members will leave at some point. Many of your members will leave to go on to other roles — with the annual turnover rate in the U.S. being 47% — while others will go out on temporary leave due to personal reasons such as medical leave or caregiving responsibilities.

These gaps in employee coverage rarely come at a convenient time. You get two weeks’ notice from someone right before a major client deadline. Someone goes out on parental leave as you push across the finish line on a major project. Or, right in the eleventh hour of meeting a client’s deadline, a critical team member gets sick. Despite the known reality and near inevitability that gaps in your team will happen — both short and long-term — very few teams are built in flexible ways to plan for this ahead of time.

The smartest thing you can do as a team leader is to think ahead and build a flexible team that can absorb this wave when it inevitably hits.

As a social psychologist, researcher, and manager of my team, I have repeatedly faced this reality. I firmly believe in creating teams that work with the realities of people’s lives, which means they are designed to absorb the hurdles life throws at us. For myself and other leaders I’ve spoken to, we are all facing higher turnover rates, use of paid medical leave, and sick days on teams than in past years. Given this new reality, given the turbulence presented by these constant gaps in employee coverage, I got curious about how to set up teams for success.

I researched, consulted with several team leaders, and discovered my own tips on building flexible teams. Here are six key tips that emerged from that process:

1. Hire with a diversity of talents and cross-coverage where possible

This requires thinking ahead, but it’s best to think about cross-coverage on your team at the point of hiring. This is especially important if you have a small team of 10 people or less. It helps to hire people with more than one talent who can fill various roles while someone is out. Don’t get too laser-focused on hiring only for the specific skillsets you need for the role you are filling, but keep your eyes open to other talents that candidates might bring to the table besides the core skillsets required to do their job.

Related: If Your Team Has a High Turnover Rate, It’s Time to Re-Evaluate

2. Anticipate short- and long-term gaps and put a system in place for handling these ahead of time.

You should have two strategies on your team for when someone is out on leave. One strategy for times when there is a longer runway and you can plan. Another strategy is an emergency landing procedure for when someone must leave quickly and unexpectedly. First, have templates and procedures in place to guide what your employees will finish before they leave, who they will hand certain tasks off to, and what will be put on hold until they return or you find a replacement.

For the emergency landing scenario, it’s helpful to have a running list of what is considered top priority vs. what can wait so that you can put a pause on all non-urgent tasks. For more urgent, have a list of backup employees who can step in to take over.

3. Train your team members ahead of time for cross-coverage

It’s best to have clear leads on projects but to cross-train at least one backup for every project who is in the loop and could step in where needed. That way, you know you have coverage but aren’t using too much of their time to be on the project fully if they aren’t needed.

Related: Want an Unstoppable Team? Try Using Manager and Peer Recognition.

4. Explicitly communicate with your team what will happen during leave

One of the biggest fears employees mention when someone goes out on leave is that they will now be tasked with doing double the work. This can put your remaining staff at risk of burnout, resentment, and ultimately leaving as well.

To avoid this, be sure to explicitly mention in one-on-one meetings that you are aware that the person leaving will create shifting workloads, explain your plan for handling that workload so as not to add more to the person’s plate, and open the line of communication for them to voice questions or concerns. For instance, if you need one of your remaining employees to handle some of the tasks the person leaving handled previously, try removing some of their non-urgent commitments to free up their time to address the more urgent items.

Related: 5 Ways to Reduce the Cost of Employee Absences

5. Delegate wisely

Be sure you have people step in with their highest skillset possible. In other words, don’t have a high-level project manager editing slides when a lower-level employee could do that. Tap into everyone’s highest skill set to use your remaining team members wisely.

6 Create an environment that normalizes taking leave

One of the most important but overlooked things you can do to prepare for employees being out on leave is to normalize the act of taking leave. By normalizing it, you can increase employees’ chances of mentioning upcoming leaves earlier in the process. This can help ensure you are less blindsided as a manager and more able to develop a clear action plan for the team.

The reality is that life happens to us all – people get sick, medical issues come up, we have children or aging parents to care for, and we leave jobs. Knowing these realities and creating teams that are openly set up to thrive amid these major transitions is an excellent step toward managing your teams through these times.

Related: The True Cost of Employee Turnover During a Recession? Your Entire Business. Rethink Your Strategy to Make Your Top Talent Stay.