I think we as business leaders always knew that snacks and other surface-level perks were never going to be enough to keep top talent around. But it was always easier to stock the company pantry than do the work necessary to figure out how to keep employees truly happy.

That's not going to cut it any more. For one, remote work is increasingly becoming the norm, taking traditional office perks off the table. On top of that, nearly half of employees are considering shaking it up and leaving their jobs this year--and hiring is picking back up after the pandemic, meaning your employees will have plenty of other options available to them.

So how can you encourage real engagement and happiness in your employees so they want to stick around for years to come? Read on for a few powerful ideas, many of which don't have to cost you a thing.

1. Connect to the "Why" in Their Work

No employee wants to feel like a cog in a machine. Top talent cares about the "why" behind what they're doing: why this company exists, why they should do the specific tasks you're asking of them, why this work is going to matter.

So make sure employees understand how their work impacts the company--and how, in turn, the company is making a difference for them. There are so many ways to do this, such as:

  • Keep the company mission at the forefront: It can be easy to get lost in the weeds of the day-to-day, but making sure it's clear how the work everyone is doing impacts the ultimate company goals helps employees connect with their impact on the world.

  • Involve employees in decision making: Instead of just passing decisions about company priorities down from on high, look for ways to get employees involved in making those decisions, or--at the very least--communicate the reasons behind decisions with more transparency. This helps employees connect with the impact of their work within the company.

  • Ensure consistent growth opportunities: This is critical to help employees see the impact of this work on their personal lives and career paths. Even if you can't promote someone, look for opportunities to put them on new projects, provide education or speaking opportunities, or give access to leadership or mentorship aligned with their goals.

2. Rethink the Workday

In the post-Covid world, if you aren't considering how your company can provide more flexibility in the workday, you're going to fall behind in the hiring game--and lose employees because of it. A recent report by Envoy showed that 47 percent of employees said they would likely leave their jobs if their employers didn't offer a hybrid work model, with many willing to take a pay cut if it meant more flexibility.

There are so many ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy in the workday: flexible hours with work windows for collaboration, a hybrid remote and in-office model, unique schedules that provide more days off in a row. Feel free to experiment and find what's best for your team. Just remember the moral of the story--if you're going back to the 9-to-5 norm, you're missing out on a serious opportunity to keep employees happy.

3. Ask Employees What They Need

Of course, these are just some ideas, but the best way to figure out what will motivate your specific employees is to just ask. It sounds so simple, but it's a powerful strategy. Entrepreneurs have reportedly been able to improve employee engagement by 24 percent by polling their team about their needs. By identifying that his team wanted more transparency in their product road map, more growth opportunities, and more flexibility in their work hours, one entrepreneur then found simple but effective ways to address these things.

Employees don't just want to feel heard, they want to see that you're doing something with their input. This obviously doesn't mean you have to deliver on everything they ask for, but regularly gauge the most important issues of your employees, and develop and communicate a plan to address those issues. (As a bonus, this ties back to point No. 1, making employees feel like an important part of company decision making.)

4. Have a Return Policy

Finally, it's important to remember that you will lose great employees. Turnover is just part of the game. But that means they'll also likely leave their new job at some point; you'll want to stay on their radar so they consider coming back.

According to Brendan Browne, LinkedIn's VP of talent acquisition, employee "boomeranging" is on the rise as young employees test different jobs and companies before deciding what the right fit is for them. So don't burn any bridges with your top talent: Make sure they have a positive experience as they leave, be clear that they would be welcome back if it ever makes sense, and develop systems to keep them engaged after they're gone, like an "alumni" newsletter or regular coffee catch-ups with you.

In short, keeping good employees around isn't just about winning the salary and perks war. While being competitive on those is certainly a piece of the puzzle, making sure your team is constantly engaged, supported, and challenged will take you far.