Francine Katsoudas Believes in the Power of Empathy

Employees around the world are making it clear that the ways we’ve been working are just not working. Call it what you will—the great resignation, the big quit, the great upgrade, the great reassessment—it’s here, and as 2022 gets underway and we begin to define a hybrid work world, it’s clear that this trend isn’t letting up. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the United States alone workers left 20 million jobs between May and September of 2021, a trend that hit a peak in November when 4.5 million workers left their employers. And things only slightly slowed down in December as the month ended with another 4.3 million quits.

According to an AON U.S. Salary Increase and Turnover Study, the rate of attrition across the technology and IT industry averaged 19% over the past year, and some studies estimate more than a third of tech workers are considering leaving their jobs over the next 12 months. These are staggering numbers. Cisco hasn’t been immune to the impact of the Great Resignation, and we are feeling the pain of these losses across the organization. We are also listening, learning, and experimenting. Compared to the IT industry average of 19%, Cisco’s rate of attrition for the last fiscal year was just 9%, though we’re being attentive to the reality that it could be even higher this year as the Great Resignation continues. We have more work to do, but we also have a better understanding of what is working for our people.

Leaders Who Actively Listen

A successful hybrid work model will rely on flexible, empathetic leadership. The best leaders regularly connect with their team members, understand the way they work best and the support they need, and dig deeper to find out how each team member is doing. Built on the core tenants of a relationship — trust and transparency — this kind of connection is critical for retention and engagement. People don’t leave companies, they leave leaders, which is why we’ve put such a heavy emphasis on teams and leaders. And it’s one of the ways Cisco is navigating this tough time. From our internal research we know that 81% of Cisco employees agree their team leader knows them really well. Taking that a step further, people who feel their team leader knows them well are 2.7 times more likely to build a connection to an executive in the organization. This connection to an executive can go a long way in ensuring employees at all levels feel seen and heard at the company.

One key insight from our internal research is that everyone wants the chance to be heard and to know that leadership is listening and taking to heart what’s most important to them. These simple acts are an important part of building an inclusive culture and understanding a diverse range of perspectives. On a quarterly basis, we conduct Engagement Pulses — a survey designed to allow individuals the chance to share what it’s like to work on their team and give leaders practical strategies on how to fuel engagement for their people. Employees who are never invited to share their perspectives or concerns are 21 times more likely to leave Cisco.

The pandemic era has demanded a great deal of people leaders, and as companies, we must do more to equip and support leaders with new skills. We must embed principles of empathy and an expectation of mindfulness into our leadership training. Taking this intentional approach will build the kind of conscious culture necessary for organizations to truly excel and get the best from their people and teams.

The Personal Career Journey

Listening deeply to our people also means taking the time to understand their strengths and career goals. But we also know that exposing people’s strengths is not enough to fuel job satisfaction, engagement, or stem the Great Resignation. A recent internal career study showed that careers are more about steps than paths, and that career satisfaction correlates more with knowing your next move than with having a long-term plan. This makes sense — careers are highly personal. People aren’t just driven by how to reach the end, but instead make decisions stepping from one stone to the next, asking, “How do I do more of what I love, and less of what I don’t?” and, “What do I need at this time in life, at this point in my career?”

Helping our people identify and take those next steps is a huge opportunity for companies at this moment in time when the point of a career feels more personal than ever, but this also has to align with ensuring people advance at a pace that allows their continuous growth. We’re proud that we have promoted 30% of our workforce over the past year, and we are continuing to identify the segments primed for new growth and promotion. We know that enabling the right promotion velocity — particularly for those early in their careers — is an extremely powerful path to retention.

Flexibility and Experimentation

Knowing that the Great Resignation is far from over means that we must get it right as we enter a permanently hybrid world of work. But getting it right means embedding flexibility and experimentation into our practices and listening to how our people want to work. At Cisco, we were a flexible workplace long before the pandemic hit, but the future of work will look different. While we still have a lot to learn, we know that work flexibility and choice are big factors in people’s decision-making and that our collaboration technology and culture can be major contributors to our success around this.

And we’re doing more to understand and respond to our people’s needs in order to set us all up for success, including creating new spaces and trying new things. This means implementing a new site strategy by building collaboration centers in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and San Jose (to start), that will provide more team space and utilize technology to support collaboration and innovation. It means periodically giving the entire company a Day for Me (7 in 2021 and 4 already planned for this year) to unplug, take a mental health break, and do something that brings them joy. It means piloting a 4-day work week schedule over the next few months, gathering data, and understanding the impact of this change on our people’s well-being as well as our business needs.

The Great Resignation is a great indication that companies and leaders need to listen to their people and respond with empathy. We know there’s not one reason why people decide to stay or leave a company — it’s personal. But we do know that leaders have a big role to play, and there are little steps we can take to ensure our people know we’re putting them first. While it can be daunting to address many different aspects of how we work and what our people need in such rapidly-shifting terrain, leaders and companies can commit to actions that go a long way to retain their people — listening, building trust, and leading with empathy and flexibility. When our people are taken care of, when they feel heard and included, when they can use their strengths and grow, our company thrives.

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