They Wouldn’t Be Quitting… If They Had Been Doing The Best Work Of Their Life

“What % of your time is spent doing the tasks that you do best?” Sadly most top performers say < 30%. And you wonder why your team is having a turnover problem?

Learn to utilize the “Doing the best work of your life” retention tool

Yes, it’s true that many average employees leave for better pay, benefits, or for more paid time off. However, the #1 retention factor for top performers is when they are “doing their best work.” So every manager needs to realize the importance of “the work” in retaining top performers. 

Unfortunately, the importance of “the work” is not always obvious because most causes of turnover surveys are created by compensation and benefits consultants. Their narrow interests literally never include any turnover causes in their survey related to the job’s content and impact. 

But despite this lack of publicity, every manager needs to realize that top-performing employees care a great deal about the content of their jobs. This includes what they do, how they spend their time, who they work with, how much freedom they have, and their resulting impacts to improve their retention. You will need to increase the amount of time that your top performers spend on important tasks that fit under the “best work of your life” umbrella. The assigned retention-related job tasks that qualify under that umbrella must meet each of these three criteria. 

  1. The work must be highly impactful.
  2. The employee must be really good at this type of work. 
  3. The employee must really enjoy doing this type of work. 

Illustration – If You’re Still Wondering Why Your Best Performer Recently Left

Assume that you run a golf team that consistently wins because it has a top-performing golfer named Tiger Woods. However, one day, Tiger finally realized that he was actually spending most of his work hours not preparing for and playing golf. Instead, he was filling out paperwork, following procedures, and attending low-value committee meetings. So as his manager, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that a recruiter successively poached him away. By simply guaranteeing him a job where he could do “the best work of his life.” He would spend 90% of his time on golf-related activities. And that he would never have to attend another administrative committee Zoom call. This, of course, wouldn’t have happened if you utilized the “Doing the best work of your life” retention tool.

Why “During The Best Work Of Their Life” Is Such A Critical Retention Factor 

First, managers must realize why “during the best work of your life” and “spending most of my time doing right to best” are such important retention factors. The top six reasons why doing their “best work” is so important for top performer retention include.

  • Research shows that “doing what I do best” is a key retention factor – the most powerful data-driven research on retention (conducted by Gallup) revealed that. “At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.” This was the third listed contributing factor (Q3) for improving employee retention. Gallup’s research also demonstrated that this same “what I do best” factor also has a measurably positive impact on productivity and employee engagement.
  • Post-exit interviews reveal that “not doing what I do best” is a key cause of turnover – once you realize that standard exit interviews provide little value. You will start delaying your exit interviews for several months after a top performer has departed. If you do that, you will almost always learn that additional negative turnover causes relating to “the work” will be uncovered. You will likely also learn their new, more desirable job. It will provide them with dramatically more flexibility and freedom than their last job. 
  • A top performer can only maintain their rating by doing more work in high-impact areas – because they need to produce the highest output on the team to qualify as a top performer when given a choice, like a star quarterback. They won’t often select “doing less work.” But instead, you will find that they consistently want to do more difficult and high-impact work (please keep me in the game coach).
  • Top performers must continually sharpen their “future skills” – their skill level in their expertise area is already high; however, they want to improve and maintain their status as experts continually. They will want to spend most of their time on activities that help them continually build on and enhance their current skills.
  • They want to build and maintain their reputation in their industry – unlike most average performers. Many top performers consider it important that they are recognized as experts throughout their industry. As a result, the more time they spend “doing leading-edge work” (versus mundane tasks), the greater the opportunity they will have to maintain and build their broad reputation.
  • Top performers become frustrated when they must do any low-impact work – most top performers clearly understand which tasks have the highest impact. So not only do they want to spend most of their time on high-impact tasks. Top performers also consider doing low-impact tasks that they don’t enjoy to be “a waste.” Not only does this low-impact work frustrate them. But often, when they’re doing the task, their mind wanders to thoughts of seeking another job. They wouldn’t have to waste even an hour of their time on what they consider insignificant tasks. Some of the common “I want to do less of” areas that top performers want to avoid. Often include: administrative tasks, filling out paperwork, attending nonstrategic meetings, doing inventory, getting approvals, and making nonstrategic presentations.

Using The “Doing The Best Work Of Your Life” Retention Tool – Implementation Steps

By far, the most effective of all retention tools is the “stay interview.” During a simple interview, an employee’s manager helps identify and strengthen the “sticky factors” that tie a key employee to the team and firm. However, few realize that the second most effective retention tool is what I call “The doing the best work of your life retention tool.” Which can effectively shift and reassign some of the job tasks accomplished by a top performer to continually do the best work of their lives.

The goals of the “best work tool” – the primary goals of the tool are increasing retention and productivity. These work goals are reached by getting each top-performing employee to shift the time that they currently spend on work tasks. So that after the adjustment. They spend an increased percentage of their work time “Doing what they do best.” And a significantly lower amount of time doing tasks frustrating a top performer who feels that others should do them.

Main elements of the “doing your best work tool” – this tool involves a yearly meeting between the individual top-performing employees and their manager. The tool requires only a single hour-long one-on-one meeting between the employee and their manager. To identify the work tasks that the employee feels they deserve more or less of their time. 

Benefits to managers – in addition to lower top performer turnover. Individual managers are likely to find that their job of managing will slowly become more fun. They will likely also find that their employees with reassigned work may have also become role models. That now inspires other team members because of their newly elevated interest and excitement levels. Reallocating tasks will also likely improve recruiting when the potential candidates meet with these re-energized employees. As a manager, not having to deal with so many grumpy employees will also reduce manager turnover. It will make developing future team leads more willing to move up into a management role. 

Implementation steps for changing “the job” to better fit the top performer’s view of “their best work.”

If you’ve decided to implement this simple and inexpensive tool. Here are 14 basic implementation steps to consider.

  • Implement an HR policy that allows managers to “change a worker’s time allocation” – Those in HR must realize that jobs can no longer be 100% uniform and unchanging across the company. So HR must take proactive actions that allow individual managers the authority. For example, periodically shift an individual employee’s time on each of the various duties outlined in the corporate job description. This policy should also allow managers to add up to 10% of additional tasks (with the permission of HR and the employee).
  • Identify and prioritize your top performers – In most cases, it is simply too time-consuming and expensive to adjust the work tasks of every employee. So at least initially, I recommend that you restrict your task reassignment activities to only top performers. And if you don’t already know who your top performers are. First, develop a team process for identifying top performers. And then for selecting which of the top performers require immediate retention support. 
  • Give them preparation time – Before any meeting, the manager should educate each targeted top performer about their role in the task reassignment process, what will happen in the process, and why.
  • Ask them to chart where they currently spend their time – to get a benchmark level. Ask your top employee to take notes on how much time they currently spend on each of their assigned tasks. Also, note any tasks that they are doing that are not currently in the job description. You might also ask the employee to estimate their ideal time allocation for each task under normal and during crisis and rush time periods.
  • Kickstart their thinking by providing them with prompts – because deciding on what work they really want to do will likely be a new concept for many employees. It makes sense to provide them some early examples of what more of/less work other top-performing employees have chosen. 
  • Try out a mini-pilot – consider selecting one easy to work with top performer. Ask them to select one work task that is extremely important to them. And if the team’s capabilities allow for it, increase the employee’s time on that task by at least 25%. Next, ask them to select one work area that will completely shift to someone else. Check back in a few weeks to assess the results of the pilot as well as any problems.
  • Ask the employee to propose an initial task and time allocation – at least initially, shift the ownership of the work allocation problem to the employee. And ask them to create the first draft of their time allocation proposal. Start by asking them to name the tasks that they want to “do more of.” Once you settle on the tasks, together, work out the increase and decrease in time allocations for each remaining task. Ask the employee to make proposals regarding other relevant elements of this employee’s work. Including who they would work with, when and where the work will be done, and the strategy and the tools to be used.
  • Ask for the employee’s input on who should do the discarded work – because this employee has likely seen when “fill in labor” was used to fill in parts of their job. So ask the employee and other team members for suggestions on how best the discarded work can be done. 
  • Identify what additional skills might need to be developed – once the first draft of the time allocation plan is accepted. Work with the employee and the training department. To identify any new skills that will be required and how they will be developed.
  • Revisit the final plan and its results within one month of implementation – both parties should be ready for some initial problems. So it is good to schedule another meeting after 2 to 4 weeks to further “polish” the final task reallocation scheme.
  • Next, implement performance metrics – add metrics and track your results to see if turnover actually decreased. Also, measure whether performance actually improved after implementing this retention tool.
  • Change onboarding to identify their “best work” factors – add a segment to your onboarding process to proactively capture their positive and the negative “best work” job tasks from the new hire’s perspective. Onboarding should also capture the reasons why this individual quit their last job. So that their new manager can more quickly understand them.

Don’t ignore negative headwinds that will likely result from reallocating job tasks.

Of course, it makes logical sense to let your employees spend most of their time doing their best work. However, there are still at least four major problem areas that you should be prepared to handle.

  • Few managers will know their worker’s task preferences – start by assuming that most managers don’t currently know what individual top-performing employees “do best.” So you will need a process to help them identify those preferences.
  • Some employees don’t know themselves – because they haven’t been consulted in the past. Some top performers won’t themselves know which tasks they would like to focus their time on. 
  • Overcoming a legacy of management control will be difficult – even when managers learn where top performers want to spend most of their time. Moreover, many managers may still be reluctant to let it happen because of their history of allocating work tasks without a shred of employee input.
  • Other employees will be jealous – By using this process, your top performers will be treated differently when it comes to work allocation. And that different treatment will result in some complaints. Fortunately, those complaints will die down once every employee realizes that they too could have their job changed. After they also become qualified as a top performer.
  • Who will be assigned to do the low-value work – each manager must find another way to get these discarded “Not what I do best” tasks completed. This might include shifting these duties to new hires, interns, temps, technology substitutes, asking for volunteers, or identifying those that enjoy doing this kind of task. 

Why not start with a pilot program?

If you work in a highly political organization. I recommend starting with a pilot “doing their best work” implementation that includes only one or two influential managers. This approach allows you to learn while you are working out the kinks. It also helps you develop your business case to better influence additional managers to want to try the approach. And don’t be surprised after you implement the pilot when you experience a measurable drop in turnover and an increase in productivity, excitement, and engagement among those that have had their time reallocated. 

Final Thoughts

What retention solution could have more impacts while being cheaper and completely intuitive? After using the tool, your team does the same amount of work. However, your top performers have some of their work reallocated. So that they are now spending more of their valuable time doing “best work tasks.” And less of their time doing low-impact tasks that don’t excite them. What could be simpler?

Author’s Note 

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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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