The Top 3 Employee Retention Strategies to Help Professional Services Firms Prevent the Great Resignation

The Top 3 Employee Retention Strategies to Help Professional Services Firms Prevent the Great Resignation

Burnout and disengagement are driving the Great Resignation, and professional services are among the industries that have been hit the hardest. There are many factors at play, but three major issues are driving this rise in employee burnout and attrition.

  • First, professional services workloads have been increasing as industries bounce back from the initial pandemic slowdown, but that’s led to unsustainable workloads and low satisfaction with work quality. There’s more work to handout, especially in client services, but work is often allocated ineffectively and inequitably. Associates are either overworked or not getting the kind of work they want – and both can lead to attrition.
  • Second, the increase in remote work during the pandemic has made it harder for associates at professional services firms to build relationships at work and feel connected to their organization. New hires who haven’t worked in their office at all are especially at risk of feeling like an outsider.
  • Finally, one of the top reasons for employee quitting has been that they didn’t feel valued by their organizations or their managers, or they didn’t feel a sense of belonging at work, as shown in a study by McKinsey & Company.

“These problems run deep, and only the organizations that strive to understand them and solve them stand a chance of holding onto (and attracting) talent,” said Andrew Talpash, founder and CEO of talent software provider vi by Aderant. “The answer to retention isn’t simply higher salaries or better perks. Firms need to focus more on making sure associates are satisfied with the work they are given and the connections they have at the firm.”

Here are the top three retention strategies, plus some best practices, for professional services firms looking to prevent the Great Resignation’s impact on their organization.

Allocate work to associates effectively and equitably

In professional services firms, the most capable associates are often the most overloaded with work. Gallup reports that the top two factors that correlate highly with employee burnout are “unfair treatment at work” and “an unmanageable workload.” Firms don’t often have enough information on each associate’s workload and assignments, which means they won’t realize an overutilized associate is burning out until it’s too late.

On the other hand are the associates who are underutilized and the ones that are lacking in development opportunities. Some are not getting enough work, either because of a lack of interaction with partners or managers, because of their underdeveloped skills, or due to the nature of remote work. Some are not getting the skill-building or career-boosting assignments they need to achieve their full potential.

Both sides of this spectrum run the risk of attrition and contribute to issues in resource management and capacity planning.

“Firms want their people to be at maximum capacity, but not over or under capacity,” said Talpash. “We’ve had clients struggle with people billing 200 hours per month or less than 160 hours per month, with no middle ground, and they need to be able to track this and balance it out.”

There are also implicit biases in the work allocation process, such as recency and familiarity bias. Partners and other assigning roles are going to turn towards the people they know or have already worked with, and that means the ones who need the experience or who haven’t had the chance to interact with them are left in the cold. This also leads to a lack of opportunity for underrepresented or diverse associates.

The solution for professional services firms is building a centralized system for work allocation and capacity planning. The goal of such a system is to make sure that employees are staffed on the right projects, work is allocated equitably, and capacity is planned effectively. Resource allocation software built for professional services is a great tool for streamlining the process.

With or without software, here are some key components of a centralized work allocation and resource management system for a professional services firm:

Understand individual associate availability and team capacity

  • Let associates report on their workload and availability to take on work
  • Monitor workloads and flag over and underutilization risks
  • Balance resources across offices and departments, including remote work

Understand individual associate skills and development needs

  • Build a skills taxonomy for the firm
  • Let associates report on their skills, development needs, and interests
  • Match expertise in a skill with a development need for mentoring opportunities

Ensure effective and equitable distribution of work

  • Allocate work based on availability, skills, interests, and development needs
  • Categorize projects by their work quality and growth opportunities
  • Foster associate development with stretch assignments

Fully integrate new and lateral hires

As always, first impressions matter – one study showed that 31% of people surveyed have quit jobs within the first 6 months. Common reasons were that the work was different than they expected, they didn’t like the management, or they had insufficient training.

The fight to retain an associate actually starts from the very moment an employment offer is signed, and it’s a fight that organizations can’t afford to lose. An SPI Research survey reports that losing a consultant can cost an organization an average of $150,000.

“The cost of associate attrition breaks down into reputational damage to the firm, lost billable hours, the recruiting fees needed to hire a new associate, and unprofitability during that new hire’s ramp-up time,” said Talpash. “All of this leads to an enormous cost for every person that chooses to leave a firm.”

When it comes to making new hires feel welcome and helping them quickly learn the ropes, standard onboarding processes are rarely effective. Firms need comprehensive employee integration processes to ensure that no one falls through the cracks, especially during remote work.

While onboarding involves the administrative and technical steps needed to, theoretically, get an employee ready to work, new hire integration builds on these basics to create a more holistic experience customized to each person’s role. To be effective, an employee integration plan needs to be triggered as soon as the associate is hired.

Here are some of the key differences between employee integration and onboarding:

  • Integration is more holistic: Plans typically include events and tasks pertaining to key introductions, mentorship, communication, and feedback.
  • Integration lasts longer (6 months or more): This ensures that associates are fully integrated into all layers of the firm.
  • Integration should be tailored to each role: Plans can be designed for early career hires, lateral associates, and lateral partners.
  • Integration makes sure both sides are happy: Thorough two-way evaluation can determine early on whether an associate is a good fit for the firm, and vice versa.
  • Integration includes equitable opportunities for every new hire: Plans give everyone equal access to quality work and important relationships.

When it comes to partners or other leadership positions, a great employee integration plan is also an “insurance policy” for the firm. These are high-stakes lateral hires, and the firm has already invested a lot into recruiting and securing them. There are nuances to getting them ready to work and making them feel comfortable in their new position. A personalized plan ensures that every detail is carried out properly by their integration team.

Engage associates with real-time feedback and coaching

As real-time feedback has become a key part of performance management, it’s seen a lot of traction in professional services industries due to the project-based and client-based nature of their work. Feedback creates meaningful conversations that drive performance and continuous development throughout the year.

“Partners can give recognition for a job well-done, associates can course correct before it’s too late, and it leaves the associates feeling more engaged and supported,” said Talpash. “All of this creates stronger working relationships within a firm.”

Rather than surprising associates at the end of the year with feedback they didn’t expect, firms can alleviate disengagement and burnout with a continuous feedback system. Junior associates particularly crave frequent feedback from supervisors – in a PwC study, 72% of employees under age 30 reported that they would like feedback on a daily or weekly basis.

Depending on their workflow, firms are going to have different needs and preferences for their feedback. With open and shared feedback, associates can request feedback from their managers at any point, and feedback can be prompted at project milestones or billing thresholds. This is great for client services, where associates may be juggling multiple projects for multiple managers.

Private feedback gives managers the chance to record project-specific observations on associates that will help them provide better overall evaluations at the end of the year or quarter. They can also include scores without making the associates feel self-conscious.

vi by Aderant has published a guide on best practices for real-time feedback. Here are a few takeaways:

Feedback cadence

  • Use recurring prompts to remind associates to ask for feedback
  • Set prompts to trigger at project milestones and upon project completion

Supporting mentoring and performance evaluations

  • Mentors can see the feedback their mentees are receiving
  • Real-time feedback can be pulled directly into annual reviews

Training for evaluators

How to manage these retention strategies with the right technology

Talent management software can help firms manage each of these retention strategies by ensuring that data is shared across the firm and that every associate is being given the best experience possible. Examples include vi by Aderant’s resource allocation software, employee integration software, and real-time feedback software, which can be used together on vi by Aderant’s talent management platform.

“It really comes down to three pillars: allocating work effectively and equitably, fully integrating new associates and lateral hires, and continuously providing real-time feedback and coaching,” Talpash said. “It’s key to have great processes in these areas, but we have also seen that a software solution can help manage this, especially as firms grow.”