By the time Bill Allen was 29, he was managing almost 100 employees at a combined truck stop, convenience store and travel plaza in Atlantic Canada. He was running himself ragged, working from morning to night trying to "manage the customer and guest experience," he says.
That's when the penny dropped. "I couldn't be everywhere at once," says Mr. Allen, the Aulac, N.B.-based owner-operator of Fresh Casual Restaurant Group Inc. and chairman of the board for Restaurants Canada. "I realized it wasn't about me, it was about what I could do with my team. If you can energize your team and get them engaged, motivated and thinking the same way you do, you can get 20 things done at the same time."
For Mr. Allen, that meant finding ways to reduce employee turnover and keep valuable staff members on board for the long haul. "Those long-term folks collectively contain a wealth of knowledge that really becomes the face of the restaurant and creates the operational efficiency that contributes to its success," he says.
But ensuring employees remain content in a world where job-hopping is de rigeur is no easy task. Workopolis estimates Canadians starting work today can expect to hold about 15 different jobs in the course of their career. Here are a few tips on how to keep your treasured staff from moving on:
1. Pay them to stay
The prospect of earning tips keeps serving positions full in most restaurants, Mr. Allen says. But kitchen workers sometimes don't share in the gratuities, and yet their work is both tiring and demanding. So he targets what he calls "heart of house" employees with a retention and bonus program that pays out twice a year and can contribute up to 20 per cent extra to a kitchen employee's annual wages.
Under the bonus program, the entire management team scores each employee on factors such as paying attention to the brand's standards, attendance and teamwork. "The longer their tenure with the company, the higher their bonus potential," Mr. Allen says.
The result is a turnover rate that is, in many cases, much lower than the industry average. Mr. Allen boasts employees with 20 to 30 years of service at almost every one of his restaurants, which include Swiss Chalet outlets, Harvey's and a Big Stop Travel Plaza.
2. Give them something to sink their teeth into
Compensation is always a factor in keeping scarce employees, says Andrea Gilbrook, talent program manager for Communitech, the Kitchener-Waterloo innovation hub. But with highly-skilled techies, it's equally important to offer meaningful work that people can sink their teeth into.
She sees tech companies increasingly pinpointing high performers during quarterly talent meetings and then allocating them plum assignments. "It gives them visibility within that organization when they're doing a good job," Ms. Gilbrook says.
The caveat: You can't just throw them into the fire. "Even star performers need coaching and support from their manager and other mentors when they take on a meaty task," Ms. Gilbrook says. "That doesn't mean micro-managing, but providing direction and leadership so they can excel."
3. Reward them for doing what they do best
The concept of a tech-track for career advancement is gaining traction in the tech industry as well, Ms. Gilbrook says. "There's the management stream, but there's also an equivalent position on the technical track."
The reasoning goes thus: Not all techies are great leaders, but that doesn't mean they don't have skills of tremendous value to the organization. A tech track offers an opportunity for employees to continue to progress in the organization without having to become a manager.
Similar dual career ladder programs may also work well for other companies where skills are essential. "You shouldn't have to make someone a manager just so they can move up in the ranks," Ms. Gilbrook says.
4. Show them a path to growth
Eugene Winer, president of I Love Travel, which includes the brands S-Trip, Breakaway Tours and Campus Vacations, says most of the company's employees are millennials and they want opportunities for career advancement. Since I Love Travel grew rapidly in its first 15 years, from "a bootstrap organization" to one with more than 100 employees, that wasn't initially difficult, Mr. Winer says.
But more recently, "as we've become a bit more flat in terms of growth, we really try to show entry-level employees a path for progression," he says. The company's trip planners, for example, go from Level One to Level Three, "each with its own targets and perks."
Lateral moves can also allow employees to build new skills that look good on a résumé and help them grasp the workings of the overall organization. "The employees who are most engaged generally feel connected not just to their specific silo, but to the organization as a whole," Ms. Gilbrook says. "That means getting out of their own functional area."
5. Let people go off-script
"Tell people the outcome you're looking for and then let them arrive at it in their own way, without laying out 27 steps in between," advises Mr. Winer. He contends that giving employees some ownership over the process of work drives people. "They feel like they're contributing," he says. "And you stand to improve your business, because they might have some great ideas."
Mr. Allen conducts employee surveys twice annually. "They're quick, they're concise and they give the employees a voice," he says. "Then I follow up with each location and say, 'Okay, these things are priorities.'"
That followup is key, Mr. Winer adds. "There's a tendency for companies to say, 'Hey, we're listening to you and please share your thoughts,'" he explains. "But you have to be able to say to employees, 'This is what we've done with your ideas.' Otherwise, it doesn't help them feel engaged. And it could actually be discouraging."