Industry Insight: Poor Operations May Be Killing Employee Retention

Finding and keeping the right talent might have more to do with the way your company works than how much your company pays. Things such as workflows, collaboration, and overall project management (PM) have a massive impact on whether employees are happy and will continue working for your business or whether they'll start to look elsewhere for a job.

I spoke with Wrike CEO Andrew Filev about this topic. As a PM software company, Wrike is invested in finding ways to help companies improve operations, collaboration, and communication between employees and managers. To help you better understand these practices, Wrike recently surveyed more than 1,000 professionals around the US about their respective companies' operations.

PCMag (PCM): How does a company's operations impact things such as morale, recruitment, and retention?

Andrew Filev (AF): According to the findings of [our survey], it turns out that poor operations can have a very negative effect on both retention and culture. About 42 percent of respondents to our survey said they had searched for a new job out of frustration with operations at work, and about 15 percent said they had actually quit (for millennials, that was about 18 percent). Consider the enormous cost of recruiting top talent [and you can] see this is a huge drain financially, without even factoring the cost of inefficiency itself.

Even more damaging in the long term could be worker disengagement. Thirty-five percent of respondents said they became disengaged because they were frustrated with operations and another 15 percent have actually declined assignments.

When you consider these numbers, the reason behind them may be obvious. If you hire passionate people who take pride in their work, they're going to be demoralized when they feel like things just aren't getting done—which is why I believe that operational excellence is critical for companies, especially when quality and innovation is a leading differentiator of your brand.

PCM: For companies that have never thought about this topic, what's the first thing they can do to turn operations around?

AF: One of the things we learned in our own research is that there was a very significant disparity between management and non-managers almost across the board when it came to how they perceive operations, with management having a much more sunny view. For example, 69 percent of managers said their companies operated with more efficiency than their top competitors versus 54 percent of non-managers who said the same (and this trend continued across many of our questions). Managers were also about 12 percent more likely to say their teams could handle a 20-percent increase in workload with relative ease.

A good starting point might be to open a channel internally to collect feedback on operations. Sending a survey to all employees and managers to see how they feel about operations and asking specific questions about their barriers to execution would probably be eye-opening. And make sure everyone has a realistic view of the status quo. In our research, we found that the biggest challenges to execution were related to cross-team collaboration, lengthy approvals, and capacity but those may vary from company to company.

If their companies struggle in all the same areas as our respondents, implementing work management systems that can bring process and repeatability to work is critical to overcoming these barriers. If you compare the current digital transformation to the industrial transformation of centuries past, you can see some parallels. The conveyor belt brought scalability to manufacturing and allowed industries like automotive to expand exponentially in just a few years. Work management software brings an assembly line to digital work to bring that same level of repeatability. And if you're in an industry that's trying to compete with Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, AirBnB, or a similar digital disruptor, you're going to be fighting an uphill battle if you're not equipping your teams with the same tools they're using.

PCM: As PM software evolves, how will things such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) impact the human element involved in PM?

AF: Project managers are in a great position to be assisted by AI and ML, more specifically, with helping to estimate, and find risks and inefficiencies in repeatable workflows. Project managers will progressively move into work that emphasizes more human skills like creativity, strategy, and empathy, which are vital to the success of projects.

This dynamic isn't unprecedented in the workplace. For example, before digital spreadsheets, accounting jobs involved a lot of manual math or math using simple calculators. It was immensely time-consuming, perhaps soul-crushing work, and companies had teams of people doing it. When spreadsheets came around, those jobs were transformed from arithmetic to analysis, making them more valuable for companies and more interesting for workers. It didn't kill jobs, it increased their value. Digital and online spreadsheets have been in use for decades now and the employment of accountants is actually projected to grow 10 percent from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations.

PCM: In your experience, have you witnessed a difference in how younger employees and older employees are impacted by operational procedure? How can PM software make all generations if not happy, then at least happier about the way work is being done?

AF: The majority of the differences we found were role-based, not generation-based, which shows that the challenges of operational inefficiency don't necessarily care how old you are or how much experience you have. The two biggest shortcomings reported in organizations when it comes to tools that might improve operations are "Single Source of Truth" and "Automation," and PM software can definitely improve operations in these regards.

A single-source-of-truth ensures that everyone is working with the most up-to-date information and reduces the amount of time they spend waiting for others to give them access to data, files, or decisions that they need to access to do their jobs. Work management software in the cloud creates alignment between teams and gives everyone visibility into the status of projects.

Automation helps reduce repetitive, low-value work so that workers can focus on the most innovating and interesting parts of their jobs, without being buried in data entry, duplication, and distribution. Work management software automates the structure of work, acting like a conveyor belt to ensure that each project is following similar steps so that they will result in consistent, high-quality results, even at scale.

PCM: Too often, when we address these questions, we tend to think of them in terms of an office (i.e., a physical structure where people meet and work). But, as more businesses allow remote work or work across multiple regions in different languages, what can PM software and better operational understanding do to help those companies?

AF: The biggest barrier to work according to our survey is "getting other teams to do the work I need done." For remote workers, I hypothesize this problem might be compounded because it's more difficult [if you're not in person] to walk over to someone's desk and remind them that you're waiting for something. PM software in a way creates a virtual factory floor for knowledge work where you can see what's in queue, what its status is, and gently ping your colleagues if something looks like it might fall through the cracks.

At Wrike, we have teams spanning multiple offices and using cloud solutions; we're always collaborating, even when we're not doing so explicitly. Anyone can chime in on projects, lend their expertise, and ensure that no one is working on an island, even if they are the only Wriker in their region. It allows us to share knowledge, brainstorm ideas, and extend our culture of continuous improvement around the world.

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