Predictive Retention – Identifying Remote Workers That Are About To Quit

Preventing turnover is doable. You can ID 95% of those likely to quit and then prevent 78% of likely quits!

Everyone should realize that retention is currently a red-hot issue because 32% or 1 in 3 of current employees plan to look for a new role in the coming months (Robert Half research). This article focuses on one aspect of retention: identifying those remote workers that are likely to quit. The retention of this segment of the workforce is important because, over the last 18 months, remote work has become more prevalent and successful. As a result, many firms are deciding to allow a significant percentage of their workers to remain working remotely. And as the size of an organization’s remote workforce increases, retention becomes more critical. But more difficult because there is little or no face-to-face interaction between the manager and the remote employee. 

This article and checklist are designed for individual managers who don’t have the time or resources to develop their own algorithm to predict which remote workers will quit (Note: IBM’s algorithm “predictive attrition program” has attained an amazing 95% accuracy rate). 

It’s essential that you use a prediction checklist that is tailored to remote workers

Identifying which employees are at risk of leaving is more difficult for remote workers because there is no physical contact or interaction during or outside of work. So, it is harder for their managers to sense and assess soft predictor factors like a change in their attitude, a reduction in motivation, or their interest in development and career progression. So, my remote worker checklist focuses on turnover causes that can be reasonably assessed at a distance. 

Knowing in advance which remote employees are likely to quit is essential because it gives the manager or the generalist enough time to address these causes. First, because they give you time to prepare a replacement if they do leave. But also to dramatically reduce preventable and expensive turnover by as much as 75% [Note 78% of the reasons why employees quit can be prevented by an employer (Source: Work Institute)]. Incidentally, predicting remote worker turnover has recently become more critical because they now have additional work options. For instance, of the 32% of employees considered flight risks (a flight risk is an employee who has actively begun looking for a new job), an amazing 39% are considering leaving to become a contractor (which usually allows them to work remotely).

Here it is… THE FLIGHT RISK CHECKLIST FOR REMOTE WORKERS 

This is my flight risk checklist. It is broken into three parts. They are guaranteed indicators, career impacting events and work behavior indicators. I recommend that the checklist be applied to every key remote employee each quarter. Also, feel free to modify the checklist in any way so that it better fits your needs.

Part I – 5 Guaranteed Indicators That Reveal That A Remote Worker Is Already Looking

Note: If Even 1 Of These 5 Guaranteed To Be Looking Indicator Is Present (1 Out Of 5), These indicators are so powerful that having even one assures that this remote worker is already actively looking. 

  1. They have recently posted their resume – when someone has recently posted their resume on the job board, you already know that they are actively looking. So ask all of your team members to message you when they have spotted a teammate’s remote worker’s recently posted resume on a job board. In addition, be proactive and ask your recruiters during their regular sourcing to periodically look for current teammates that appear on job boards or at job fairs. You can also find those interested in leaving by having disguised recruiters proactively contact them and ask if they would be interested in a new opportunity at one of your competitors. Running blind job ads can also help if any of your employees send in their resumes. 
  2. The employee has physically moved – because most work at home orders allowed them to relocate, some employees may have physically moved out of the area. And now, if the company or their boss is requiring them to come back into the office physically. They are essentially being forced to begin searching for a new job immediately.
  3. Someone tells you an employee is looking – it’s true in literally every case that someone else already knows when a key employee is looking. So proactively ask a company super knower (who is often the company gossip person) if they know about any remote employees that are talking about or actually job searching. Also, believe what you have heard, and immediately start to act. In fact, whenever any other trusted employee within your company tells you that a remote worker is telling others that they are severely dissatisfied and/or that they are already actively looking. You should assume that they are in job search mode.
  4. Their LinkedIn profile was recently updated – a remote worker is likely looking when their “open to opportunities” feature is turned on. Or when they recently made a significant update to their LinkedIn profile.
  5. The employee is receiving an advanced degree – a remote worker is likely to become a flight risk when they have recently or will soon graduate with an advanced degree. And when their manager has not proactively discussed a promotion. Or what the company will do for them now that they’ve earned an advanced degree. Because the employee will likely have held high expectations that another degree would dramatically help your career. So, when they find out that this is not likely to happen here, most will immediately begin a job search.

Part II a – 12 Career Impacting Events… That Shock A Remote Worker Into A Job Search 

My research has found that in most cases, merely being unhappy with their job is not enough to cause a top employee to quit. Instead, in most cases, two drivers are required. The first is being severely unhappy with their job (severe means that they are openly telling other employees about their unhappiness). And the second driver is that a “career impacting event” occurs, which finally shocks them into action. The following section includes 12 of those “career impact” events.

Note: If 3 or More Career Impacting Events Have Impacted This Employee (3 out of 13), you can bet that this remote worker will soon enter job search mode.

  1. Dissatisfaction with pay or rewards (remote work or more money?) – few realize that in most cases, pay is not a key cause of turnover. It ranks 9th on the key drivers of retention list. In comparison, remote work is a powerful attraction and retention factor. Which is illustrated by the WOW fact that  “64% of professionals prefer permanent work from home over a $30K compensation increase.” Now that shows that money is not the #1 retention factor. However, more money will get them to stay a little longer for some employees, even though they will still be visibly unhappy (retention bonuses don’t work). So instead, I recommend “fixing the job” first before giving the employee any extra money, which should be tied to performance.
  2. The trauma of their decision related to returning to the office – for the many currently remote workers that strongly prefer continuing to work this way. The trauma around the uncertainty of whether they will be able to continue working remotely. Or whether they will be forced to return to the office. The trauma of this event will trigger many to begin a job search.
  3. Being turned down for something the employee views as important – one of the most impactful career impact events includes being turned down for a major project, a new idea, a promotion, a bonus, or a raise. Especially for top performers, this “turn down” and embarrassment within the team can push employees to want to go where they, their ideas, and their work may be more appreciated.
  4. A top colleague departed recently – a common turnover trigger is when one of the remote worker’s close colleagues (i.e., a mentor, a boss, a company icon, or a best friend) has recently left for a job in the same industry. In addition to being a career impacting event, there’s a good chance that this departed employee will try to recruit the employee away to their current firm. Thus increasing the likelihood of turnover.
  5. Recent performance review issues – many performance appraisal processes frequently create conflicts. So be wary if a remote employee has recently gone through some type of heated performance review or write-up (including performance appraisal). And if they publicly express their unhappiness with the review. You should assume that this event will likely drive them to consider a job search.
  6. Reaching an anniversary of their starting date – research shows that the first 4 anniversaries of their starting date are a major predictor of turnover. And with so many on social media and the Internet reminding them of this anniversary. Expect dissatisfied employees to use the time to think about whether they want to “spend another year working at this place?”
  7. Reaching time marks within this and previous jobs – you should try to identify patterns when it comes to time-based indicators. One time-based indicator would be reaching the average “length of service time” for past employees in their current job. A related time in service indicator would be when in this job; they are reaching their “average job tenure” in their 3 previous jobs. Which historically has revealed how long they would normally stay in a job. Also, look for a pattern, by checking whether they quit their last three jobs during the same time of year (you can get their historical job tenure and quit dates from their resume or LinkedIn profile). Also, note that people paid primarily by commission often leave immediately during the month where they get their year-end payout. 
  8. A repeat occurrence of the factor that “caused them to leave their last job” – an employee is highly likely to become a flight risk when the same thing that caused them to quit their last job. As recently reoccurred in their current job (this is only possible to determine if you asked them during hiring or onboarding “why did you leave your last jobs”). This dramatic event will trigger a job search when their manager does it meet with them to resolve this “it’s happening again” issue.
  9. Recent family and life events impact their work choices – outside-of-work events also have an impact on retention. The employee might consider a job search after several of these outside-of-work events. Including that they recently got separated/divorced, they turned 40, 50, or 60, they just had their first child, or their last kid went off to college. Also, they or a family member experienced a major health event, or their children can’t physically return to school. All of these events are reasons for many remote workers to reconsider their life situation, including this job.
  10. A sudden perception of unfairness – feeling that they are being treated unfairly is a major cause of turnover. So, if a major recent event recently occurred where they or another teammate was treated in a way that they perceived to be a major unfairness. Realize that their perception of this unfairness or unethical treatment may be so strong that it can cause them to no longer want to be associated with this team or company.
  11. Feeling “overdue” for important job tools and opportunities – each employee expects equitable treatment in the distribution of job-related tools and perks. So if a manager tracks whether each top-performing remote employee is “overdue.” Meaning that they “feel overdue” for any of the highly desirable job tools, perks, and choices that this individual considers important. Those perks for a remote worker might include the latest updated remote work tools, computer and mobile phone, and their accessories, the latest software, and of course, comfortable home office furniture. Feeling that they are being treated unfairly in job choices like work shifts, vacation choices, or the district or clients covered by their work can also be frustrating. Because after all the good work they have done, feeling that they are being treated unfairly in these important work perks will often cause them not to want to work here anymore. 
  12. A perceived lack of freedom – over time, most remote workers and especially high-tech ones have learned to expect a great deal of freedom and choices in their job. So, if a remote employee is frequently complaining about rigidity and lack of freedom in what they work on, when they work on it, how they do it, or having free time to think/innovate and choices. For many top performers, this is a key driver of turnover.
  13. This worker’s manager has recently experienced high turnover – when this remote employee is working for a manager that has recently experienced a high team turnover spike. An employee’s fear of continuing high turnover and all the extra work it puts on current employees. May drive some into beginning a job search. And in some cases, a manager’s history of high turnover may by itself be a contributor and a predictor of future team turnover.

Part II b – 6 Negative Work-Related Behaviors… That Result From An Employee’s Unhappiness… Which Will Likely Lead To An Imminent Job Search

The dramatic lowering of the employee’s performance in several important work areas. May result from this employee’s severe unhappiness with their manager, their job, or the company. So, whenever a remote worker’s performance dips, or they start exhibiting negative work behaviors. His/her manager should look at these problems as an indication that the employee is extremely unhappy. Or that the employee’s current job search is negatively impacting both their performance and their approach to their work. 

Note: If 4 Or More Negative Work Behavior Indicators Are Present (3 out of 6), you can almost guarantee that this remote worker will soon enter job search mode

  1. They have an increase in absenteeism – the #1 indicator of unhappiness and the likely follow-up job search are often absenteeism and tardiness. However, since remote workers don’t come to the job, this absenteeism and tardiness must be measured differently. For example, when they initially log on time, the length of their breaks and missing or being late to Zoom team and all-hands meetings. 
  2. A reduction in team messaging – for remote workers, communicating less with a wide array of teammates is a significant indicator of possible isolation or unhappiness. Both of these factors can drive a remote worker to begin looking for a new job. 
  3. They are volunteering and participating less – an indication that a top remote worker is considering leaving is a dramatic reduction in the things they volunteer for and participate in, including joining ad hoc teams, outside of work events, and volunteering for overtime. And participation in Zoom meetings will also likely drop.
  4. Their recent return to the office has caused them to make negative comments – remote workers that have recently returned even partially to face-to-face on-site work may soon realize that they are unhappy with their current office situation. They may ride it out for a month or two. But after that, if they continue openly complaining. If you don’t give them an option to return to 100% remote work. You should assume that their uneasiness will drive them to begin a job search. 
  5. Their job performance might be suffering – their unhappiness with the job and even the job search itself can negatively impact an employee’s job performance. So, unless this remote worker is highly professional (where you may even see a bump up in performance), assume that the lowered performance may likely be an indication of a current or upcoming job search. Especially look for worsening performance in these areas: response time, error rates, customer satisfaction, instances of bullying, and 360° survey results as an indicator of unhappiness.
  6. Disciplinary issues have increased – even top-performing remote workers can occasionally have disciplinary issues. So, a recent increase in the number of disciplinary talks, write-ups, or one-on-one zoom meetings called by their manager. It may have driven this employee to begin looking for a new job. Also, consider them ready to enter job search mode when any manager has labeled them as “disgruntled” because they often openly talk to other employees about how this is a crummy place to work.

Conclusion:

If you have a key remote working employee with 1 guaranteed turnover cause, or 3 career impacting events, or 4 work behavior turnover indicators. It’s critical that you pay immediate attention to them… while there is still time to talk them out of leaving!

Final Thoughts

With today’s employee turnover so unexpectedly high. In my view, it’s time for every manager to learn the science and the process for identifying employees that are “at risk of quitting.” They should learn this area because it is relatively easy to predict whether many of your employees will leave. And with enough time, you should be able to convince over 50% of these “likely to leave” employees to stay. 

Unfortunately, there are no existing company-wide ways for identifying who is at risk (even employee surveys are anonymous). So, the best retention approach is for individual managers to determine if any significant turnover factors/causes apply to any of their key remote employees. And since I am predicting that the turnover rate among remote employees is about to skyrocket during this summer. The time to develop and use a flight risk checklist on each of your key remote workers is now.

Author’s Note

  • Please help others… by proactively sharing this article widely among your team and network.
  • And also… please subscribe to Dr. Sullivan’s weekly Talent Newsletter here.

Bonus Material… For Those That Need A Deeper Dive

This additional retention information and tips are placed after the end of the article for those managers that require a deeper expert dive into how to better predict if an employee is about to quit.

  • Many have had success in predicting employee turnover – most retention efforts have consistently failed to produce any significant results because these programs are not data-driven. A second major flaw is the omission of a formal process for pre-identifying the individual employees that are most likely to quit. Identifying these employees before it is too late is important because managers need sufficient time to sell these employees on staying. Fortunately, for 23 years, I have been identifying the factors that trigger employee turnover. And more recently, Google, Hershey, and Xerox have worked to identify their turnover triggers. And now IBM is leading the way because it has used machine learning to develop its “predictive attrition program.” Which has attained a “take your breath away” 95% accuracy rate in predicting which employees are likely to leave within the next six months. Another study revealed that employees that were “most likely to be receptive to a new opportunity” were, in fact, 63% more likely to be in a new job after three months (Source: Harvard Business Review). And finally, remember that if your final “employees that have reasons to leave” list includes a mistake. Where you mistakenly identified a top employee that is not really leaving. The worst consequence is that you would have showered attention on any employee that doesn’t really need it.
  • Find real turnover causes by switching to post-exit interviews – unfortunately, you can’t accurately predict turnover unless you first identify its real underlying causes. Start learning them by realizing that standard exit interviews routinely provide mostly “non-offensive” and barely accurate reasons for leaving. So, to prevent future turnover, you must know the precise causes of recent turnover among similar employees. Therefore, I recommend replacing exit interviews with delayed exit interviews (which I call post-exit interviews). These post-exit interviews provide more accurate reasons for leaving because they occur after the departing employee has lost their fear of being overly honest about things their boss might eventually hear. Although they can’t tell you anything about why a current employee might leave, post-exit interviews allow a manager to accurately determine why “similar previous employees” decided to leave. And then, with some extrapolation, you can project why your current similar remote employees are likely to leave in the immediate future. 
  • Stay interviews are powerful – the cheapest and most effective retention strategy is for the manager to once a quarter hold a one-on-one “stay interview” with the employees that you need to keep. And in that one-hour interview, the manager directly tells them how their work is appreciated, how important they are to the team, and you. Next, directly ask them to agree to stay. And finally, if they’re willing, ask the employee to agree to alert you if they begin wavering on their first promise.

Additional tips – if you need a more sophisticated approach, realize that there is a publicly available Python algorithm for predicting employee turnover. Next, I recommend that you look at Gallop’s big 12 questions which have been given to millions of employees. In order to see if any of these productivity and retention factors are also relevant to your situation. Next, remember that any retention effort should pay special attention to preventing the loss of diverse employees that were so hard to recruit. HR also knows the importance of alerting all managers whenever a companywide trauma like a CEO leaving, an upcoming merger, a major budget cut, or business failure may impact employee retention. Because a business failure can overnight cause many employees to change their minds about staying. And it can also trigger outside recruiters to raid your organization. Which, of course, would also increase the likelihood of turnover among your remote workers.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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