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Key to happy staff: Great expectations at work

A recovering economy automatically creates new attitudes and conditions in the workplace. Employees start to rethink their priorities, focusing less on basic job security and more on ways to improve their income and personal career prospects.

That means employers also have to shift gear accordingly. Topics such as staff engagement and retention strategies climb higher up the agenda. In the event that good people move on, employers must also be ready to adjust quickly to changing circumstances, ramp up on-boarding and training programmes, and apply lessons drawn from across the spectrum of other industries.

Against this background, a number of important pointers for employers can be found in the latest Kelly Global Workforce Index released last month. Taking employee engagement and retention as its main research theme, the report looks at what makes a “content” worker and how that then influences – or is influenced by – aspects such as loyalty, the impact of direct managers on job satisfaction, management tactics, and willingness to recommend an employer.

“The current economic environment is testing the employee-employer partnership, with employees ready and willing to switch jobs should a better prospect arise,” says Alan Wong, managing director of Kelly Services Hong Kong. “But simply changing jobs does not make for contented employees. In almost every case, a big factor is the way that managers and supervisors handle [expectations], and it is not all about the money.”

The report is based on feedback from more than 120,000 respondents in 31 countries. It reveals that, after the uncertainty of the economic crisis, a new mood has now taken hold. Among respondents in Asia-Pacific, 42 per cent had changed jobs in the previous 12 months, and the sense is that this “volatility” is set to increase.

“The factors that contribute to a successful job or career are complex and intertwined,” Wong says. “Many workers have experienced a significant shift in their attachment to employers since the global financial crisis, and this phenomenon is still shaping attitudes.”

Specifically, employees are more prepared to express the view that they are not content and they are more mindful of the importance of keeping their options open. In this relatively fickle environment, Wong says, there is less emotional attachment to jobs and companies and a more rational, arm’s-length assessment of career prospects and alternatives.

For employers, the one certainty is that they cannot afford to ignore these developments. To hold on to good staff and attract quality candidates from elsewhere, they must react and, if necessary, invest.

Improving staff “contentment” might appear a nebulous concept, but it can be done by paying due attention to differing emotional, cultural and economic needs, as well as realising that employee goodwill and loyalty should never be taken for granted.

“Individuals are more readily making judgment calls about the actions and reputation of their employers,” Wong says. “[Unlike three years ago], they are ready to switch jobs and move on.”

Sounding a cautionary note, however, a separate paper from executive search firm Bo Le Associates asks how much is too much when it comes to job-hopping, particularly for staff in senior positions. Historically, the accepted guideline has been that roles with a series of companies, each lasting less than three years, is likely to raise eyebrows. The common view is that short stints don’t allow enough time to make a meaningful contribution or enhance one’s value.

According to Gary Kwok, managing director of Bo Le Associates Hong Kong, job-hopping also tends to be seen as a sign of bad decision-making. This perception, however, must be balanced against the realities of the modern workplace – in particular, the layoffs of recent years and the growth of contract work. 

“Most clients are satisfied with senior candidates who have stayed for at least five years with each company,” Kwok says. “Obviously, some career moves make more sense than others, so candidates should always carefully evaluate their options and understand how each move will fit into their planned career trajectory.”