In the past year, so many employees have left their jobs that the trend has earned the name the Great Resignation. COVID-19’s impact on the workplace not only led to massive shifts in where or how we work, but it also spurred a mass exodus of employees who felt forced or compelled to reevaluate their priorities. This has made a profound effect on nearly every industry.

The small business community, in particular, was hit hard with an unprecedented hiring crisis; however, those who created or maintained a culture where employees felt supported, heard and valued retained the talent needed to keep business operating smoothly. Here are five examples of small business owners who did just that.

 Busting restaurant at dusk hosts a dining room and outdoor patio filled with guests.
Witherspoon Grill credits its good fortune in retaining great employees to hiring “upstanding” individuals who inspire a family-like culture of mutual respect. — Witherspoon Grill

Danielle DiTaranto, service & media manager, Witherspoon Grill

Who we are: A classic American steak house in a sophisticated setting with warm and welcoming service located in the heart of Princeton, NJ.

I was initially interested in Witherspoon Grill because it seemed like a great place to work and find success. I knew someone who worked there who told me not to apply because everyone has been there so long that they hardly ever have a need to hire. Fast forward through a series of events that led to my current role as a manager, and what I can say from experience, is that we truly take care of our employees. As a manager, I try my best to foster stability and make sure all staffmembers are treated fairly — especially because I was once in their shoes.

We appreciate and acknowledge hard work. We recognize people who are the go-getters by moving them up the ladder. We have dishwashers who have become some of our best cooks. It’s really about being a cohesive team. When people get along for the most part and can work side by side, they can accomplish so much. It's truly as simple as respecting and caring about your employees. Many employees have had family emergencies or health issues, and we are always there to support or help them out. If you do that, they will give you their best right back.

We also offer prizes and incentives for servers for selling or getting the most guest compliments, but for the most part, our employees work hard and stick around because they want to. Follow Witherspoon Grill on Instagram & Facebook.

 Portrait of a winery building with farmhouse doors and floor-to-ceiling windows.
Some of the employee benefits offered at Sharrott winery include engaging training sessions, generous discounts, appreciation parties and competitive wages. — Sharrott Winery

Lawrence Sharrott, owner, Sharrott Winery

Who we are: A family-owned vineyard, winery and wine bar located in the beautiful Hammonton, NJ pine forests.

Our retention success stems from making sure our employees know that they are engaged, appreciated and supported. Engagement starts with empowerment. Our employees are given the permission to make everyday decisions to get the job done. This could be as simple as offering an unhappy guest a free dessert or giving them a stretch assignment based on their interests or future career goals.

We show our appreciation with fun but focused training sessions, employee discounts, and the occasional employee appreciation party. Training sessions may not sound like a benefit but most of our staff are wine nerds, so they love to taste and talk about wine. Plus, the more they know about wine, the better the customer experience. And while we talk a lot about Sharrott wine, we also bring in other great wines for comparison to build general wine knowledge.

Support also plays an important part in employee retention. Employees must know that they can go to management for actual resolutions to their concerns. This can be hard, but failing to act in difficult situations shows employees that their concerns are not important to the company and the culture of an organization can go south quickly.

Wages are the last piece of the puzzle. Our goal is to pay wages that are competitive in our area both at the time of hire and also throughout their careers. Pay isn't necessarily correlated with job satisfaction, but being underpaid is a good way to show employees that they don't matter to you, and they will soon be browsing job postings. While retention programs take time and effort, the turnover from the lack of these programs will cost you much more. Follow Sharrott Winery on Instagram & Facebook.

 A modern co-working office space shows individual desks with partitions, modern lighting and an exposed brick wall.
Percolator, located in Norfolk, Va., is focused on fostering community, collaboration and growth both for its employees and the teams that utilize the co-working and event space. — Percolator

Bobby Wright, founder and CEO, Percolator

Who we are: A fully furnished coworking and event space for entrepreneurs, startups and innovators in the heart of downtown Norfolk, Virginia.

Although the companies that I own are independent of one another, there is a cross-collaboration in areas like marketing and staffing, which creates a family spirit. Like most businesses, we were initially optimistic that the pandemic would only impact us for a few weeks, so at first, we focused on remaining positive, encouraging each other as well as our members/customers, and doing catch-up on projects that we had been hoping to complete.

When business operations became very limited, our teams met often and other than a little venting, we kept our conversation positive and focused on how to help keep people from losing hope. We did everything possible to give the businesses a “normal“ feeling, and remain positive in our conversations. We formed camaraderie around serving others, bolstered by weekly prayer time that always led to people feeling much more positive about the future. Our faith led to hope, and hope is contagious.

Most of our staff wanted to stay on,t rather than go on unemployment. We made an agreement with employees to reduce hours and we focused on improving the space and experience that our members/customers would feel once we reopened. Most of our staff in the various companies have received hourly wage increases, and as we succeed and grow in the future, I will be focused on how to help my incredible staff gain more financial freedom as well as quality downtime.

The pandemic has taught us that staff engagement in all aspects of day-to-day operations as well as budgeting and financial forecasting are important to building camaraderie needed to retain quality employees. People want to be needed and appreciated. When we show them that, they are grateful to be involved in the company they serve. Follow Percolator on Instagram & Facebook.

 Busy ice cream shop with three employees serving customers
Neil Hershman attributes a positive work environment, competitive wages and transparent leadership retaining a loyal team at his NYC-based Dippin Dots/Doc Popcorn outpost. — Dippin Dots Doc Popcorn

Neil Hershman, franchise owner, Dippin’ Dots/Doc Popcorn/16 Handles

Who we are: NYC destination for Dippin’ Dots and gourmet popcorn.

Retaining employees is important to sustaining profitability and customer satisfaction in our industry. When I acquired my first location from a passive owner, I found that they had 12 part-time employees, most of whom were frustrated with the lack of training and weekly hours, which led to a revolving door of employees and a higher payroll expense. I shifted to exclusively full-time staff and now run the same store with less than half the number of employees. Ultimately, it all starts at the interview stage — finding people who don’t just want to collect a paycheck, but people who want to be part of a successful business.

We aim to train our employees so they understand every aspect of our business, which in turn makes them comfortable dealing with stressful situations and feel as though they have skin in the game each shift. My teams are all so close that they have in many cases become friends, even outside of work. They are excited to come to their shift and work together, which is a better incentive for keeping employees happy than any gift card or meal policy. I think another big driver of retention for us is our employee events, like bowling, karaoke, paint ‘n pour, and other events. They allow our employees to open up and feel part of the organization while also giving them something to look forward to every few months.

Perhaps the most successful tool in my tool belt is my ability to talk openly and relate to my employees. It allows me to hear the issues my employees face and help solve them. Oftentimes, I’ve found employees leave because they don’t feel recognized or appreciated for their hard work or they simply aren’t working the hours they want; both are very solvable problems. Follow Dippin’ Dots/Doc Popcorn on Instagram.

 A collage of photos displays a group of people in the outdoors
The Kinetic team is focused on engaging with employees through team-building events, meaningful dialogue and an intentional approach to work-life balance. — Kinetic Marketing and Creative

Dana Pulis, founder and principal, Kinetic Marketing & Creative

Who we are: An award-winning, full-service strategic creative agency located in Billings Montana, focused on bringing out the best in its clients, building brands, breaking barriers and making big things happen.

The last two years have thrust businesses into an employee-driven market like never before. While focusing on a solid hiring strategy continues to be crucial, retaining the amazing team members we have has become even more important. At Kinetic, we are ‘leaning in’ to the challenges of the current business environment by finding opportunities to engage and connect with one another in new, more meaningful ways. For example, we plan and schedule regular activities, like team hikes and community-based volunteering days.

We also have focused on new retention strategies aimed at making our team members know they are appreciated and listened to through one-on-one conversations and surveys. We have open, transparent dialogue that allows our team members to understand high-level goals, processes and financials. We welcome their questions, feedback and thoughts. As a result, we have adopted a permanent hybrid, work-from-home office policy to create the balance of flexibility and opportunity for collaboration that we learned was important to the team.

Another great and effective aspect of our retention approach formalizes processes for recognizing one another’s accomplishments and celebrating our successes as a team. Only in embracing the passions, individuality and unique talents of each one of our team members are we able to fulfill the “Kinetic Vision” together: Every. Day. Greater. Follow Kinetic Marketing & Creative on Instagram & Facebook.

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Published January 20, 2022