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How to retain employees without money? Focus on this.

No, not salary, perks, or promotions. The answer to how to retain employees lies in the work itself.

how to retain employees

Everyone is quitting. Or at least, that’s what the headlines are announcing, clamoring for how to retain employees during this “Great Resignation.”

According to a recent survey published by Prudential, 1 in 4 workers plans to look for a different job once the pandemic has subsided. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 5 million more people left their jobs this time of year than they did last year. Prudential’s Vice Chair said himself that “flight risk was the number one concern” keeping him up at night. And, amongst our own leaders who we work with during our Workshop Live! in June 2021, 30% of people out of 223 attendees said that keeping their best employees was their #1 concern.

Given this, perhaps it’s a concern for you too:  How to retain employees, and encourage your best employees to stay?

Your immediate answers, as a leader, might be to focus on the following: (1) Salary (2) Growth opportunities and promotions (3) Recognition. You might feel your organization likely isn’t paying someone enough, giving enough room for this person to be promoted, and/or not publicly recognizing them.

That might be true. But while these factors are valuable and likely contributors to why someone stays, these areas overlook a primary factor in employee retention:  The work itself.

The work itself, after all, is the core of what someone spends their time doing if they decide to stay. The work itself is what a person interacts with, ruminates on, and is immersed in, day in day out. The quality of the experience of work –  what a person is being asked to think about and act on – drives their decision to stay or not and how to retain employees more than we realize.

Yes, we can raise their pay. Yes, we can give them a promotion. Yes, we can publicly recognize them more. But if the experience of the work itself isn’t interesting, challenging, invigorating, or purposeful – your employee will feel they’ve reached a dead end.

This presents a dubious challenge: You need to make the work interesting and meaningful if you want to retain your best employees. How?

You may be thinking to yourself:  “Oh Claire, but the work at my organization is NOT that interesting, and I don’t know how I can make it more interesting…” You may feel that the field domain is not compelling or exciting, or that you’re asking your team to perform repetitive rote tasks that you can’t “dress up.”

Despite this, you can still focus on the work itself in three aspects:

(1) Progress.

Illustrate forward momentum. Make exceedingly clear how the work your team did yesterday is helping them make a difference in where they are at tomorrow. Then, make that path to progress easier as a leader. Specifically:

  • Carve out at least 10 minutes during your weekly or monthly all-team meetings to share your team’s vision. How is the work you’re doing today contributing to the bigger picture of where you’re headed? Why does the work the team is doing matter? What impact is it having on customers and/or internally in the organization?
  • Find a way to automate your status update meetings, so regular progress can be consistently shared. (Here at KYT, we use our Heartbeat Check-in in Know Your Team.)
  • Ask in your next one-on-one meeting: “Where do you feel stalled on progress? What can we brainstorm together so that path of progress is clearer?”

(2) Meaning.

Work only has meaning when it’s within the context of what the individual finds meaningful. As a result, you’ll need to ask your team members, “What do you care about most?” in order to then connect the work they’re doing to what they believe matters. Specifically:

  • Share a direct client testimonial or specific story for how the work they did made a significant impact in an area they care about during an all-team meeting.
  • Give a genuine shout-out to a team member on how something specific they did contributed to a larger positive outcome and/or elevated a team’s value. (Here at KYT, we use our Shout-outs in Know Your Team to do this.)
  • Ask in your next one-on-one meeting: “What aspect of your job do you find most motivating?”

(3) Choice.

You may not be able to give choice around what project to work on, but you CAN give team members choice in other areas. Big or small, choice matters. Specifically:

  • Give several options around how to approach a project.
  • Suggest folks outside the immediate team for who to work with.
  • Provide options on the timing of meetings (once a week or biweekly, mornings or afternoons).
  • Ask in your next one-on-one meeting: “What’s an area of work that you feel you’d appreciate greater flexibility and autonomy in?”

Looking to pile on money, a promotion, or praise for how to retain employees – while all helpful – doesn’t get to the core of what an employee would do if they were to stay.

To keep your team, focus on the work itself: The meaning, progress, and choice you give people in that work, more than anything.


🚀 Now let’s talk practice. What kinds of conversations can you have with your direct reports to help encourage them to stay?  Read our piece on “The Three Stay Conversations” here.

💡 Ready to deepen your leadership self-learning? Apply to our Global Manager Learning Path our 1-year leadership training program that gives you the foundational skills to be an effective leader.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.

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