TORONTO — When Tara Vanderloo’s employees are mulling leaving her enterprise software company, she wants to be one of the first people they tell — and to hear their unvarnished reasons why.
"I know people get called by recruiters, so I've asked the question: 'who are you talking to or what type of organizations?'" said the chief experience officer at Sensei Labs in Toronto.
"Have you had any thoughts or are you questioning why you want to be here?"
Vanderloo poses the questions in one-on-one meetings she and other staff periodically have with the company's workforce of roughly 70.
The discussions, which some companies call “stay interviews,” are designed to collect feedback from employees and are aimed at learning what the company can do to retain valued team members and keep them happy.
Some companies have been hosting such meetings for years, but many more adopted the practice over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic as the health crisis caused workers to rethink their careers or seek more flexibility, advancement or support from their employers.
Sensei Labs adopted engagement interviews in late 2021, when companies saw millions of people worldwide leave their jobs in what economists and businesses branded "The Great Resignation."
"It was substantial, and it was concerning for us because it's hard to hire great people and we don't want to lose them, so the first thing we did is we addressed it head on," recalled Vanderloo.
A companywide meeting was called to discuss the labour market changes afoot, and team leads — Sensei Labs doesn't use the term managers — followed up one-on-one to learn about employee happiness in more detail.
Despite a softening job market and suggestions that negotiating power has tipped back in favour of employers, Sensei Labs has kept up with the practice and a quarterly happiness survey.
The survey asks workers whether the company lives up to its values and "would you recommend Sensei as a place of employment to others?"
Sensei Labs has a near perfect score for people who would recommend it, but staff still have wants, particularly around flexibility.
That's part of why Sensei Labs has eschewed formal return-to-office requirements. The company has space staff can use but no rules on how often staff must use it for work.
It also piloted a four-day work week that has been expanded because the happiness survey and chats with staff have shown it's a hit.
"Their language was like, 'this has changed my life,'" said Vanderloo. "If you have kids, it just makes things easier to get all your chores done or doctors' appointments or focus on your hobbies or whatever you want to do."
Sensei won't green light every ask, Vanderloo cautioned.
"It's not like the sky is the limit," she said.
"If it's not something we can implement, we're very open about it."
Chief people and culture officer Michelle Brooks has done "engagement interviews" twice with the 200 staff at Toronto cybersecurity firm Security Compass.
They started the interviews a few years ago because they wanted to build on data they were already collecting by measuring engagement, which they thought would help indicate whether people intend to stick around.
The goal isn't to prevent everyone from leaving but to ensure the company couldn't have done something simple to prevent the departure of high performers.
"Some level of turnover is healthy," said Brooks. "We only want them to stay as long as they want to be here and they've having their needs met just like in a relationship... We don't want to lock people in."
The interviews Brooks has done so far have yielded valuable insights. For example, she learned that some workers aren't necessarily seeking a promotion. They just want more responsibilities, opportunities to learn and even the ability to go to a conference.
Jenna Hammond, an Ontario woman working for a Norwegian biotech company, used a stay interview, which her company calls a "touchpoint," to ask for a better employment arrangement.
Hammond was hired as a sole proprietor on a six-month contract with no benefits. She took the job because it was a way back to working after 15 years raising kids.
"I really needed financial stability and financial independence and being on contract just wasn't ideal," she said.
When the chief executive of the company asked her what it would take to get her to stay in a touchpoint, she told him and ended up being made a full-time employee with benefits.
Her company repeats these meetings every quarter and does a more fulsome one each January that can last up to 3.5 hours.
In her last meeting, Hammond asked the company to cover cleaning services for her home, which she said would help with work-life balance. They declined but offered her Fridays off this summer to help her juggle responsibilities.
"The worst thing that they were going to say to me was no, but I found that if I didn't ask, I wouldn't receive," she said.
Jennifer Hargreaves, who runs Tellent, an organization that helps women find flexible work opportunities, believes every company should be having open conversations to hear about employee needs on a regular basis, but warned the process can also be a "double-edged sword" for staff.
"The huge benefit to doing it is obviously you can get what you want" she said.
"But there's this fear that if I ask them and they say no, they're going to know I'm unhappy, so then I might get punished for it right down the road."
She encourages employees asked to complete such interviews to step back and think about they want and what is most important to them before coming up with an ask that is focused, specific and realistic.
But even more important to the process, she said, is employers willing to be transparent with staff and make changes based on what they hear.
"Candidates and employees are getting really tired of a lot of talk with no action," she said.
"People need to see things backed up. If not, they know how much opportunity is out there."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2023.
Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press