For the past few months, I’ve been meeting one-on-one with every single member of my team. I buy them lunch –– these days in the form of a gift card for a food delivery app. Then, we meet virtually, spending an hour or two chatting. It’s been a great way to stay connected while we’re all working from home. But as a leader, it’s also made me realize the past 16 months have really done a number on us. 

We find ourselves in a rare moment where anyone with doubts has had time to think. Now, they’re acting on it. People are getting divorced, moving to new towns, downsizing, up-sizing and starting new careers. I call it “Covid clarity.” 

Everyone has undergone some kind of transformation. Hearing my team’s accounts of what the crisis has shifted for them has made me realize: people have changed, and our workplace needs to keep up.

Employee expectations have evolved. In an increasingly borderless job market, there’s now pressure on employers to innovate and get strategic, not only to hire, but to keep our existing teams engaged and keep them from jumping ship. If companies stay stagnant after what’s been a year of disruption, we risk losing some of our best people. 

For many companies, that’s already the case. Surveys suggest that more than half of 18-25 year olds are considering quitting their jobs. They’re not alone — 41 percent of the entire global workforce could be thinking of resigning

We’re doing a big hiring push right now, but my one-on-ones have given me some Covid clarity of my own. At this critical period of growth, here’s how we’re doubling down on retention and giving people something worth sticking around for.

Meet your team for the first time … again

I don’t think any of us are exactly who we were when this whole thing started. As leaders, it’s critical that we take it upon ourselves to figure out who everybody is –– again. 

Just last week I met with one of our newer hires, Amanda. She’s been working with us for about 16 months, through rapid change. I learned that before she joined our team as a developer, she worked as an artist, creating 50-foot mosaics, and after the past year, she’s realized programming isn’t filling all of her cups. She told me user experience design has piqued her interest. Like Amanda, many people are reevaluating their careers and the result is a widespread shift in purpose

As leaders, offering internal mobility can give people the change they’re yearning for. There are benefits for companies too. A study of 32 million LinkedIn profiles showed that even a lateral move within an organization drastically reduced the chances of a person leaving for another company.

In the months ahead, Amanda will spend some time working with our UX department. They’ll benefit from her artistic expertise and she’ll get exposure to what they do. Take the time to pay attention to the person instead of just the task, engage employees and really listen to where they’re at in their lives, because the ground has likely shifted. 

Institutionalizing gratitude 

There’s an ongoing conversation at our remote office these days: How can we make our company a more welcoming place? The answer, I think, lies in gratitude. 

It seems small, but I’ve come to realize how critical acknowledgement is in building morale. I started giving people shoutouts for jobs well done at our town hall meetings, and we’ve been acknowledging team members’ work in our monthly internal newsletter. Recently I’ve seen just how powerful a simple thank you can be. 

Research has found that those two words have a profound impact on retention and culture as a whole. Sixty-six percent of employees felt more connected to their colleagues, 64 percent felt motivated to work harder, and 61 percent said being thanked alleviated some of the stress of remote work. 

But there’s another powerful way to cultivate a culture of gratitude. As the saying goes, people don’t leave their job, they leave their managers. People have less tolerance for toxic working environments after what’s been a stressful year, and I don’t blame them. Now is the time to support people, make them feel appreciated and keep the health of your team front of mind.

The great reopening is a great opportunity to hit the reset button by making sure every member of your team is aligned with your vision of an inclusive workplace. We’re working on a plan that would institutionalize gratitude and recognition to show employees how much they mean to us.  

Give people autonomy

One of the pandemic’s greatest lessons has been the value of flexibility –– for both companies and employees. 

In the early days of the crisis, the agility that comes with flexibility was a lifeline for companies. Now, though many employees say they miss the social aspects of in-person work, they’re loath to give up their newfound autonomy.

We’re exploring some tactical perks to show people we hear them. Everyone at Diff benefits from more than just the standard two weeks of vacation, we’re encouraging people to work wherever makes them happy, and we’ve introduced flexible schedules including a condensed work week. 

Then there’s the ultimate autonomy. If people are set on leaving, we won’t try and convince them to stay. 

When I heard the news that one of our exceptionally talented developers had resigned, I was gutted. But this year changed his sense of purpose. He wants to work in the health-care space, developing software that can improve health outcomes. And you know what? Good for him. 

Sometimes people leave for purpose, sometimes they leave for a salary they can’t refuse, and that’s OK. But what I’m most proud of, and what I can control as a leader, is that nobody leaves because of our company culture. 

As far as I’m concerned, once you’ve worked with us, you’re part of the club for life. In fact, it’s not unusual to see former employees at our events and gatherings. We even send them branded merch. Leaving the company doesn’t mean you lose your membership. 

To some extent, losing people is inevitable, but don’t rule them out forever. You may see some expats return someday. After a year where people fought hard just to stay afloat, when it comes to retention, it’s time to play the long game.