It's Long Past Time to Reboot HR. Here's how.

Out of the blue, one of your key engineers walks into your office and gives 2 weeks notice.  She is on a critical project, with key deadlines coming up in the next month. Why is she leaving so abruptly? Why did she not let us know she was unhappy, that she was looking elsewhere? ...Or maybe, it wasn’t out of the blue. Maybe you didn’t pay attention to those key indicators of employee dissatisfaction.

This is not a piece on (cue deep serious voice) “Employee Engagement.” Rather, I want to show you how to retain your key employees and keep them committed and engaged. And no, it is not prohibitively expensive and it does not require a 180 degree HR change.

Chances are if you’re running a sustainable enterprise or start-up, you built your company to mean something, to make a difference, to fill a hole no one else knew how to fill. But balance sheets, project deliverables, IT risks and client care demand 90% of your time. How do you build a firm around a mission? How do you foster a meaningful company culture? How do you integrate the founders’ vision into the fabric of your company’s policies and procedures? Do benefits really matter?

Healthcare? Check.

Retirement? Check.

Vacation? Check.

That’s it, right? You can’t do much else...or can you?

Why did your employees come to work for you? A paycheck? Yes, but they could get that at any of your competitors. Your most engaged employees work for you because they believe in what you are doing.

As Daniel Pink explains in Drive, monetary reward does not lead to better performance. Pay your employees enough to take money off the table, and the key motivators are then:

  • Autonomy (self-direction)
  • Mastery (get better at it)
  • Purpose

As Abraham Maslow explained in his famous Hierarchy of Needs, once basic necessities are taken care of, people need fulfillment, belonging and purpose.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs  graphic by PsychologyOn /  CC BY-SA 3.0

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs graphic by PsychologyOn / CC BY-SA 3.0

Are your employees unhappy at work? I’d bet it’s because you are not getting the top tiers of your Hierarchy of Needs met.

After 20 years in the industry studying start-ups and lots of trial and error, I know that building and retaining a great team is about much more than salary, healthcare, vacation and retirement.  I’ve built firms that design employee benefits to align with core values of the firm: environmental stewardship, conservation and betterment of the built environment. What could be more boring than engineering (maybe accounting)? I helped build an “anti engineering firm.” We did it differently. We took the white collar, gray-haired white male pocket protector firm and turned it upside down - infusing mission, purpose, collaboration and truly embracing the Triple Bottom Line. The result? Exponential growth, zero attrition, and qualified, unsolicited resumes streaming in weekly. Our reputation for being the “employer of choice” in the engineering industry meant we could save 100% of our recruiting budget!

So how can you do the same for your firm? Let’s examine a few ways.


  1. Do not separate your staff from the fruits of their labor. At one of the firms I founded, we wouldn’t take advantage of your “salaried” status. We wouldn’t work you to death. We designed a custom payroll structure to reward engineers who worked long hours meeting a deadline. And conversely, we allowed them to work less than 40 hours on slow weeks--with our payroll system adjusting for that as well.
  2. Encourage your staff to take time off and play. Some firms cap PTO accrual. It’s the double-edged sword: you work so much you can’t take time off but then you accrue so much time off that you hit the limit. So the more your work, the less time off you get. Ouch! I found great, cost effective ways to help staff get out of the office that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. And believe me… when your engineer is sitting on the beach with a margarita thinking of how you made that vacation possible, he is not thinking of working anywhere else.
  3. Realize that your employees’ drive to improve the world permeates all aspects of their life. They chose to work for your firm because they want their work to make a difference in the world, and there’s proof. Why? Because they care about our collective future. I’ve found great ways for a firm to enable its employees to live sustainably outside of the office:
    1. Stop the disposable economy. We’ve all seen “The Story of Stuff” right? So keep your employees from throwing out those worn leather shoes, that broken toaster or that  ripped ski jacket. Provide them with the opportunity to repair them via a Repair Concierge service.
    2. Public transit should be free. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, BART and MUNI aren’t cheap, so you might need to encourage your staff to keep their cars in the garage with creative commuter benefits. Even if they have to drive, you can still give them a bike to use to get to lunch or client meetings with a company bike share membership. Take it further with a Bike Concierge and Repair Service for employees who ride to the office.
  4. Live green in the office. Do your employees keep Top Ramen in their desks for when they forget their lunch? You can help them do better. We always kept our employee kitchen well stocked with plenty of healthy, organic and local snacks and drinks. No time for breakfast? We got you covered. Forgot your lunch, not a problem.

    Gray walls? Brown stained carpet? Old linoleum in the break room? Is that going to inspire creativity? Not at all. But rotating art will. So will plants and living walls. Who’s got time and money for that you ask?  It is  an investment in productivity and the payback will be less than a year.

These are just a few of dozens of strategies to get your employees more deeply engaged in making your business a success. Study after study shows that investing in sustainability and work-life balance for your staff has an impressive ROI. Tired, played-out, business-as-usual HR has no place in today’s sustainable businesses. You’re imagining a new, better way of doing business. Why wouldn’t you consider incorporating new, better HR practices in that effort?

To get help making your organization culture and HR practices more sustainable for you and your team, contact us today.

About the Author

Maria Berta smaller.jpg

Maria Berta has vast experience building firm structure and culture from the ground up.  She co-founded and built two energy efficient, green engineering startups into thriving, robust firms, and developed systems that led to significant industry awards including being named “Top AEC Firm to Work For” by Building Design + Construction Magazine and “Top 50 Engineering Companies” by Inc. Magazine. She also pioneered the use of the JUST Label, ILFI's reporting and transparency program. Maria brings great depth of knowledge in innovative recruiting tactics, sustainability practices and corporate operations to bear for Sustainabilists' clients.