Employee Retention 501- Interesting & Challenging Work

Shawnee Love   •  
April 19, 2010

I remember a great Simpson’s episode when Homer used a “drinking bird” to do his job. For those of you who don’t know, a drinking bird is basically a gadget whose sole purpose is to bob up and down (usually into water). In this episode, Homer had it bobbing up and down on a button on his computer which in turn vented the gases at the nuclear plant where he worked. Since the bird was doing his job, Homer was able to go to the movies. Of course, in Homer’s absence, the bird fell over, the gas wasn’t vented, chaos ensued at the nuclear plant and Homer was busted.

What brought this story to mind is the idea that a person could have a knick-knack do his job for even a minute or two successfully. To me, that is the essence of uninteresting and unchallenging work and it is no wonder that Homer looks for chances to get out of doing his job.

Interesting and challenging work is absolutely essential to keeping good employees, not to mention attracting them in the first place. If the work isn’t interesting or challenging, typically you have to pay A LOT to find people willing to do the job. In a previous post, I talked about what fair compensation means and how to achieve it. What I didn’t mention is that fair compensation for a job that is boring and/or “so easy a monkey could do it” usually means high wages are required. And if you won’t pay very well for that boring job, then you will end up with a revolving door of good employees or less than savory people in the role or a combination of both. Although it is contrary to what your job evaluation results would tell you to do, employees want more money for boring, dead end jobs than they expect for amazing, interesting, exciting and challenging jobs. And while it may be difficult to fill the former jobs without relatively high compensation; exciting, interesting, challenging roles typically have so many great applicants that you will find it tough to choose. Imagine having that problem!

So how does an employer ensure interesting and challenging work when not every job is cool and most jobs have some elements that aren’t all that interesting, challenging or glamorous. You do it with thought, effort and a pinch of creativity. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Give employees the opportunity to:

  • Manage a budget,
  • Chair meetings,
  • Use judgment and make decisions,
  • Take on a new role temporarily,
  • Participate in a task force or secondment,
  • Cross train,
  • Take over a supervisory task,
  • Think and be creative,
  • Train someone else, etc.

One final point I have is that to set the employee up for success, you might also have to train, explain, and offload other parts of his workload. And while this all may sound like a lot of effort, if turnover is high then hard and soft costs for recruiting, training, etc. can be astronomical. Enhancing jobs is an effective way to keep your employees and bring those turnover costs down.