By Lynda Gratton
If you could name a single factor as the biggest enemy of employee retention in your organisation, what would it be? My guess would be job design – specifically, the availability of career customisation.
You might think your organisation already offers career customisation and improved job design, but let me make my point clear: improving job design is not that same as bringing flexibility into work. Many – if not most – large corporations have flexible working arrangements. But when it comes to improved job design – by which I mean initiatives such as phased retirement, job share schemes and, on- and off-boarding ramps, they are lagging far behind. I estimate that such companies have a period of three years at most to introduce these elements of job design before the lack of them starts to have a serious impact.
This is becoming an urgent issue. As things stand, when people want to customise their careers they do so by leaving the company. The most valuable people are building their career elsewhere because companies are not providing what they need.
This talent drain is just one reason why companies need to ramp up their experiments and pilots in the field of job design: and it’s about to get worse. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, life stage is becoming an increasingly important factor in people’s career choices – and people reach these stages at vastly different ages. For example, some employees will choose to become parents in their 20s, while others do the same in their 40s. As people start to live longer, we will see more and more people rejecting traditional linear career paths and opting for careers that move sideways, downwards, or even pause for a while. It is the companies that are dealing with these issues already – and the ones that act now to start handling them more effectively – that will prove resilient over the coming decades.
The importance of scale
So why are so many companies, many of whom have already invested heavily in flexible working and job design, failing so miserably in this respect? One reason is that companies have for too long associated the idea of career customisation with motherhood. Often because when women in particular leave an organisation, there is an immediate assumption they are doing so to start a family. In fact, what I’ve noticed about my MBA students at LBS is that often when they leave a company, it’s to start their own business. And a key reason for this is that doing so empowers them to take charge of their own job design.
A damaging side effect of associating career customisation with motherhood is a lack of scale. You may have some great improved job design initiatives but failing to scale them beyond the concept of maternity leave means that employees will continue to achieve career customisation by moving on.
The solution to this problem is to make career customisation fluid, mainstream and transparent. Healthy, loyal employees have control over how, when, where they work and can manage their careers in tune with the rhythms of their life. To enable this, employers need to let workers know that the design of their job can change according to their circumstances and that customisation is available to everyone, not just mothers. Above all, they need to know what their options are at each stage of their life and career, so that they can make the appropriate choices.