3 Employee Retention Lessons From Addictive Apps

5 min read
Sep 27, 2016

Employee retention lessons

These days, youre lucky if you keep an employee around for five years. Apps, on the other hand, are remarkable if theyre not deleted by 80% of users after one use. That means they need to focus on engagement, and they need to focus on it immediately.

The same goes for employees. The amount of time spent getting employees onboarded (ramped up to full efficiency) is huge. Christine Marino says, “it takes 8-12 months for new hires to be as proficient as their tenured colleagues.” And with that in mind, you can imagine what a mess youd be in if you were constantly cycling employees in and out, trying to properly onboard them only to have them leave because youre not retaining them properly.

So that begs the question: why arent you properly retaining employees? Lets look at how the most addictive consumer apps — apps that really know how to tap into human nature — keep their users hooked, and see if we can apply these to employee retention.

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Prioritize Human Connections

Social apps tend to retain very well, and thats because by uninstalling it youre not the only person affected. Social apps foster a kind of responsibility to each other, as well as a fear of missing out on the action if youre not monitoring the goings-on. Of all the social apps out there, it wont surprise you that the most popular has the highest retention rate:

According to Quettra's data, of the 52 million Facebook users it tracked, 98% are still using the social companys app 90 days after they install it.

Even though it doesnt seem like much, 90 days is a digital lifetime — especially for something that isnt paying your bills. The majority of apps lose 80% of their users within a week. For Facebook, three months go by and just 2% of users churn.

Why is that? And why is it that social apps stick so well? The reason behind it is an evolutionary one that can also be applied to improving employee retention. At its most basic level, humans interact with each other and feel enriched, protected, and connected to something bigger than their own private thoughts.

Improving retention might be as easy as encouraging coworkers to become friends. It turns out that we have a kind of resistance to this, though, as Adam Grant explains:

“Since we don’t plan to stick around, we don’t invest in the same way. We view coworkers as transitory ties, greeting them with arms-length civility while reserving real camaraderie for outside work.”
This is a symptom of poor retention, but its not always like that. At Process Street, everyone is keen to make friends and genuine connections with each other. It seems to be a product of a few different things:
  • A water-cooler type place to hang out. For us, its the #general channel on Slack
  • Individuals working together on special projects if they wouldnt normally interact
  • Welcoming each other, and saying good morning each day

employee retention 

Reward Behavior That Leads to Retention

Every app has different metrics that can be examined to judge exactly what features are retaining users. Twitter, for example, figured out what keeps users sticking around, as Josh Elman found:

“It turned out that if you manually selected and followed at least 5-10 Twitter accounts in your first day on Twitter, you were much more likely to become a long term user, since you had chosen things that interested you. And if we helped someone you know follow you back, then even better. As we kept tweaking the features to focus on helping users achieve these things, our retention dramatically rose.”

The last sentence, where Elman says the team tweaked the app to help users achieve criteria for retention, is particularly relevant here. After figuring out the signs, they adjusted the app to reduce the time and effort it takes to get there. When it comes to employee recognition, the signs of engagement and happiness are more universal:
  • A proactive, optimistic attitude
  • Meeting targets and exceeding expectations
  • Consistently working late or coming in early
  • Sharing ideas
  • Planning for the future

When employees show this behavior, its effective to offer recognition more regularly and tangibly than a big bonus at the end of the year.

Make Work Into a Game

Another way to tap into the predictable nature of the human brain is to turn things into a competition. Theres a reason that Temple Run, Fruit Ninja, Candy Crush, and Angry Birds are some of the most downloaded apps of all time. And theres also a reason apps that make a game of your life, like Habitica, are making a real impact on the way we get stuff done.

Foundation research in favor of gamification shows that we are more motivated when our brains are producing dopamine, and playing games triggers the release of dopamine in our brains.

If we can learn anything from a game like Habitica, its that adding a layer of gamification to anything can not only make that thing bearable but it can also mean youre more likely to do it productively. And, incidentally, employee engagement is an area where gamification is thriving.

Metrics-driven roles like customer support (tickets closed, average time to close) and sales (leads contacted, deals won) lend themselves especially well to gamification. To use support as an example, some companies implement gamification strategies that both engage employees and significantly improve performance. RapidBi reports:

“Omnicare was experiencing long wait times at its helpdesk, even though employees were experienced and knowledgeable about the service. The company decided to gamify a solution to improve efficiency. The first thing the company did was add a leaderboard and show the representatives on the board. Additionally, employees with the fastest times were issued cash rewards”
This doesnt just use gamification to get more done, it also utilizes gamification for engagement because the outcome wasnt just to win the game — it was actually a cash reward. This goes back to what I was saying earlier about rewards for performance and engagement creating positive reinforcement.


Make Your Employees Compulsive Workers

Engagement that leads to retention is mostly about compulsion. Its about being compelled by something more than money to show up and do a great job every day. In 99% of cases, youre not getting money directly from apps, but you are getting something that compels you to come back. Figuring out what that thing is in the context of your organization will be key to improving engagement and retention, and I hope this article has helped you start to do that.



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