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Retaining employees and keeping them happy during trying times—a pandemic plan

Curbside sales, ecommerce strategies, staff layoffs—it’s been a rollercoaster year for many Canadian small business owners. Events like a global pandemic can take their toll on an enterprise, from both a financial and human resources standpoint.

At the top of the list is retaining personnel. Losing key employees can be incredibly disruptive, often leading to delays in work completion, lost revenue, and sinking morale. According to a 2020 survey by recruitment firm Hays Canada, 49% of Canadian employees are on the verge of quitting their jobs—which is 9% higher than the previous year. This growing dissatisfaction largely stems from a variety of new “pandemic problems” arising in the workplace: from the lack of social interaction due to being remote to increased workloads to workplace health and safety concerns.

But there are measures you can take to hold on to key employees and keep your business running. Read our expert tips on what you can do to retain employees and keep them happy during challenging times.

Identify your key support

During times of uncertainty, companies often give raises to the “top dogs” on the organizational chart to secure their loyalty. And, they frequently overlook hidden talent whose skills or knowledge may be just as fundamental to business success. Don’t make that mistake. Do these things instead:

  • First, create a list of key players in your organization and scrutinize each employee individually. Seek out the secret “staple staffers” who keep the business running smoothly: from the assiduous accountant to the friendly frontline face to the tech-savvy employee who safeguards vital documents. What would the impact be if that employee walked out of the door tomorrow? You may learn that business success hinges on these staff, who hold vital institutional knowledge, direct client relationships, and/or specialized technical expertise.
  • Next, assess the probability of whether that key employee might depart imminently. Is your accountant on the verge of retiring? Has your tech expert expressed a desire to move up the ladder? If you suspect they’ve got one foot out the door, it’s time to roll out some targeted retention measures to ensure that person stays on your payroll.

Modify your thinking

Taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach may fall flat since the reasons why employees stay in a job are varied. A more effective retention strategy is to focus on the mindsets and motivations of key employees. Ask staff about their concerns and what could be done to keep them from leaving. The incentive may not be money at all: An employee might be enticed by flexible work hours, professional development opportunities, or improved health benefits.

The bottom line: If you’ve been using a carrot to motivate staff, you may want to rethink what you’re dangling at the end of the stick to suit each employee.

Boost the benefits

Improving your benefits can help retain top talent, especially if they go beyond a basic retirement plan and health coverage. Consider adding non-traditional perks to the package, such as unlimited vacation time, paid sick leave, financial counselling/advice, childcare subsidies, student loan assistance, and free meals at the office.

Including such unexpected benefits can go a long way in helping to keep your team intact, as well as giving you a competitive edge in the industry. Moreover, some measures—such as free lunches or flexible work arrangements—may not cost much, but the staff appreciation you’ll receive is priceless.

This is where a business emergency fund might come in: “Just like you would with your personal finances, have a cushion you can use in hard times,” says Farrah Solly, Senior Manager, Small Business Initiatives at Coast Capital. “This could be in the form of cash or investments, which can earn you interest until you use them, or a line of credit that will be there when you need it.”

Embrace flexibility

With lockdown restrictions, many employees are juggling their professional lives with new and existing personal responsibilities—from home-schooling kids to grocery runs during off-hours to caring for elderly relatives in isolation. According to a recent survey commissioned by ServiceNow, some of the biggest barriers to worker productivity during the pandemic have included technology (37%), taking care of others (29%), and lack of a dedicated workplace at home (23%).

What staff members need now is flexibility and support—that means accommodating their schedules, as well as helping employees set up the space and technology to enable them to successfully work from home. Creating a flexible workplace promotes a healthy work-life balance and could even bolster worker productivity in the long run.

Offer mental health support

COVID-19 has rapidly transformed the workplace in unimaginable ways—and the upheaval is taking a toll on employees navigating this “new normal.” According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), 80% of Canadians indicate that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health. Yet, 54% of employers have not done anything to assist employees with their wellness or mental health during the pandemic.

Putting a priority on your team’s mental wellness during this stressful time is one way to promote employee retention, as well as fostering an inclusive, safe workplace. Here’s what the CAMH says you can do to support the psychological health of your employees:

  • Consider adding Internet-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (iCBT) coverage and access to your benefits plan. Early research indicates that every dollar invested in conventional workplace CBT programs could return approximately $1.79 per participating employee after one year.
  • Set up a support system. Turn to the pros (like human resources professionals) for advice on how to implement supports within the organization.
  • Offer mental health training, which includes resiliency workshops. Every person on the payroll needs to be equipped to handle challenges in a constructive way.
  • Modernize your mental health strategies. With remote working, your existing mental health programs may need to adapt to the changing needs of the workplace.

Lastly, be in touch with your workforce yourself. Find ways to stay social with the team. Most likely there’s no break room, so try to schedule regular virtual meetings just to catch up, share your experiences, and support each other.

Limit communication on employee downtime

With one-third of Canadians working from home, many people are struggling to maintain a healthy work-life balance. One simple way to prevent “work from home burnout” is to limit email to 9-5 office hours.

If you’re working at oddball times, you could consider scheduling outgoing emails to automatically send during the regular workday. That way, you’re not sending a message so it appears you’re expecting your staff to work around the clock.

Seek a wage subsidy to avoid layoffs

Are layoffs or reduced hours a reality? If your business has experienced a drop in revenue due to COVID-19, you may be eligible for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) to pay a portion of your employee wages.

Retroactive to March 15, 2020, this government subsidy will allow you to re-hire laid-off or furloughed workers, help prevent more job losses, and get back into the swing of business.

Be transparent and always communicate

As a business leader, you may be forced to make tough decisions during turbulent times, which ultimately impact peoples’ lives. As CAMH emphasizes, “being clear is one of the easiest—and most compassionate—ways to support your team.” Plan regular check-ins with staff to clarify expectations and plans, and to share what you know (and don’t know). Avoid speculation but be honest about the situation and what you may be forced to do. Also, ensure that management is on the same page across the organization— inconsistent messaging will just stress out employees.

You also don’t have to go it alone. Lean on Coast Capital Savings for answers, says Solly. “Talk to your [advisor], in good times as well as tough ones,” she says. Tapping small business resources can also help, such as Coast Capital’s COVID-19 support page, which offers financial solutions and member relief programs.

Build a resiliency plan that lasts well into the future

According to Solly, building a resiliency plan is a vital business tool that can help you not only deal with crises but grow your business in the long-term. Coast Capital’s Business Resilience Program is an online learning platform offered free of charge to Coast Capital Small Business members and designed to help you assess the status of your business and equip you with the right tools and resources to help you thrive. You can tap experts on any issue you’re facing and connect with other small business owners going through similar challenges.

The odds are you can’t control a crisis. But why not plan for how your business responds to the disruption. Having resiliency built into your business is one way to stand up to the chaos.

Let's build the right business plan, together

Not sure where to start? Take advantage of expert advice you can trust. Talk to one of our Business Specialists today.

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