I have a person on my team that has been a solid contributor to the team and company on an area that the organization has no relevant experience in. While this person has done everything within their means to support the organization's objectives in this area, we are approaching a point where we have minimal work available for them in their area of interest.

The concern here is that we work in a highly competitive market for their skillset, and that if this person were to become bored or aware of this issue, then I am afraid they can easily leave for another company. While there is only a small amount of baseline work required, losing this individual would be extremely difficult for us as no one is even remotely close to this person's skillset, and it will adversely impact our ongoing support for associated projects.

In my position, I am limited with what I can do (I have no power over compensation or career trajectory), but I would like to support those who can with ways to keep this employee engaged.

As an aside, we have begun an effort to have the employee help upskill others, which they have been very supportive of, but other employees are less receptive of, or woefully unprepared for.

One update. When we began the process to hire this person, it took us approximately six months to find this person. Based upon previous experience, and the competitive nature of our local market, simply being prepared to hire a replacement is a non-trivial effort.

What options can I consider in order to keep this employee engaged and motivated?

Personal note:

I just wanted to add that a key part of my asking this is I lack the experience in dealing with issues like this. I was approached by my manager recently about how to work on this, and felt that reaching out here could be useful. I appreciate all the comments and questions as it is helping me think through this, and will hopefully help me improve going forward.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Lilienthal Mar 11 at 20:18
  • Out of curiosity, can we know which industry you are from? – MOON Apr 3 at 20:28

What options can I consider in order to keep this employee engaged and motivated?

The only answer is to find other work for this employee that they would consider engaging and motivating. That may or may not prove to be successful.

Meanwhile, you must work as hard as possible to find a way to replace their expertise, even if there is only minimal work to be done. If you can't hire someone to fill the minimal need, then train several others to be ready. Perhaps you can pick up the skills.

It's always a mistake to be overly-dependent on a single individual's expertise. That's even more of a mistake if hiring a replacement is extremely difficult or time-consuming.

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    You are correct and I think that very last comment was exactly what needed to be said. Thank you. The best I can do is to pass this up and hope others feel the same. – user108075 Mar 8 at 21:21
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    @JoeStrazzere The employee themselves has even alluded to "the bus factor", and has increased mentioning this since the beginning of the year. Putting on a tin foil hat, we just had bonuses paid out this month, and they may be legitimate red flags. – user108075 Mar 9 at 18:45
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    @VillageIdiot someone talking in first person about the bus factor is about the biggest, reddest flag you can get. For people who intend to make career in the company, it is beneficial if they are irreplaceable - nothing gives you more leverage in negotiations than knowing that walking away isn't an option for the other side. People who are loyal but shopping around are the ones who mention the bus factor. You don't want to hurt the company, but you don't see your future there anymore. Been there, done that. – Tom Mar 10 at 9:31
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    Oh Joe, What would we do without you? – Strawberry Mar 10 at 9:59
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    I wonder if we're overly dependent on a single individual's expertise – Strawberry Mar 10 at 15:42

This might actually be an opportunity in disguise

Instead of worrying, "How do we keep them engaged?", flip it around. What do they want to do? I mean, if I had to distill your position down to a few sentences, it'd be "We want to have Alice Awesome on our staff - and even though we'd be happy paying her a competitive salary for only 10 hours/week of effort, we're worried she'll get bored and go elsewhere."

That's reasonable. And it's also putting you in a very powerful position: you've got 30 hours/week to play with that are essentially free. So if I were in your shoes, I'd brainstorm with Alice Awesome about things you could do.

  • Maybe she gets to work on experimental proof-of-concept ideas to improve user experience, with the goal of churning out a mock prototype of an idea every month.

  • Maybe she gets to develop a training course and is responsible for upskilling.

  • Maybe she gets to do architecture planning/review, to plan out future designs?

  • Maybe she gets to lead RedTeam/BlueTeam engagements, and is responsible for security.

  • Maybe she gets a revised contract where she goes to part time but is still paid the same salary-wise.

  • ... etc, etc.

Sit with Alice and figure out: what's something that be interesting to her? If she could snap her fingers and change her job to whatever she wanted, what would it look like? And then see if you can arrange it so that those 'extra' hours are aligned along that axis.

Edit based on comments I think there might be a misunderstanding. I'm definitely not saying to "tell them to investigate X and Y and tell us what you find". I'm not saying to assign them anything specific at all. What I'm saying is, ask them what they would like to do in their ideal dream job.

Let me put it this way: if your company had a choice between:

  • A) Alice leaves the company entirely
  • B) Alice works 10 hours/week on the critical stuff, and then lays back in a hammock sipping wine coolers the other 30 hours/week

... you'd rather have B. I'm not saying, "Let them Hammock!" - but I am saying, if your company would already be happy with the 10 hours output, why not find out what would make Alice happy to do, and let her do it? If she says, "I'd love to just do GUI enhancements on all our existing programs" - then let her do GUI enhancements to the existing programs. Who cares if it's not 100% perfectly optimal - you're not paying her for that, you're paying her for the core 10 hours of critical work, and those GUI enhances are just a cherry on top.

And for what it's worth? The times I've had the absolute maximal value for my company were ones where I was doing "dink around" time - doing stuff that wasn't on my proper priorities list, on a lunch break or a lazy friday afternoon.

  • "Hmmm. I wonder if I could program my own version of X" ... only to find out, I'd saved the company 30k/year in maintenance fees.
  • "Ya know, it'd be cool if the users didn't have to do all these steps and could just click a button on the toolbar. Is it even possible to add a toolbar icon in this application?" ... only to find out, I'd just programmed the prototype of the add-in that everyone in the company has now been using the last 15+ years.
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    Thanks for the clarification, I did misunderstand the difference of "Try this for us" vs "Go forth and improve things". To be a bit more specific, the employee mentioned self learning ML concepts recently, but our company does absolutely nothing with it. This could be an area for us as leadership to explore. – user108075 Mar 8 at 22:36
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    @VillageIdiot - one last thing to think about: you're really illustrating this company as a top-down, command-and-control entity. Why does leadership need to dictate direction on this? Why can't Alice? Say to her, "You want to pick up Machine Learning? Awesome! Tell you what, what I'd like you to do, every month, prepare either a small proof-of-concept on a ML idea, or a proposal for some way we could use ML to help improve some facet of how we do business. If it's good, I'll try my hardest to see that you get what you need to launch it as a project." – Kevin Mar 9 at 3:25
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    This is part of a good solution, particularly if some of those thing AA is interested in spending the time on are potentially valuable to the company in the future, but you also need to address the "single point of failure problem". AA leaving to work for another company is not the only way this matter could become inconvenient: the workload in that area could unexpectedly balloon so you need more than just AA working on it for a time, AA could be more temporarily unavailable (due to illness or annual leave) at a time when work in the area is urgent because something has broken, and so forth. – David Spillett Mar 9 at 11:48
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    @VillageIdiot - I'm getting more and more confused. Your question was "Alice only has a small baseline amount of work that's required of her - how do I keep her engaged?", and now it sounds like "Alice has too much work in the next year to spend any time on ML." Does her 'support of the two major deliverables' take 40 hours/week, or much less? – Kevin Mar 9 at 18:48
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    @Kevin My fault, I hope this clarifies it. The two products AA supports are tasked as high priority, but they are both to reach production status in the next 3 months, at which point AA's time requirement for them will drop to minimal support as they go into a regular cadence of quarterly updates. AA would be responsible for validating contractor work, which now takes approximately 5-10 hours a week for AA. The goal of the manager and I is to provide cover for AA to seek other tasks. My poorly stated point was that management does not support AA trying new things, out of fear of distraction. – user108075 Mar 9 at 18:53

I have no power over compensation or career trajectory

Then talk to the people who do.

Retention is not the responsibility of the tech lead, it's the responsibility of the manager. Your job is to make sure that your team is functional and that your projects are running well. If a potential departure makes this impossible, you need to bring it up with the person's management. Make it very clear that your goals & deliverables are at risk if that person leaves. If you have seen any actual signs of a real flight risk, share them. The manager owns the master plan: you can certainly help and support but this needs to be consolidated effort with all relevant tools being available. And yes, this includes compensation and career trajectory.

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    @VillageIdiot given "we cannot take any action until July" you have a problem - it does not matter that employees know this - in fact it makes it worse as they have another incentive to leave. – mmmmmm Mar 9 at 12:05
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    Flight risks can be very tough to spot. I have myself left at least two jobs where everyone was utterly surprised if not shocked when I announced it. People with a bit of meta experience in the job market know not to let their current employee guess that they're checking other options. – Tom Mar 10 at 9:27
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    @VillageIdiot don't take that July deadline as gospel. For the right people, rules can always be bended. – Tom Mar 10 at 9:28
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    @VillageIdiot Your problem with "corporate restrictions" is that they are a powerful reason for people to leave in their own right. You say they've got a 20% payrise coming in July though. If the manager promises to backdate that in July, effectively giving them a bonus for staying, that can work. Of course the employee has to believe that the manager will stick to their word though, otherwise you can cast-iron guarantee they're out the door in July! – Graham Mar 10 at 9:59
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    @VillageIdiot "cannot" is an artificial, imposed restriction, so it's up to you to speak directly to the person who imposed this restriction (the CEO) and explain that it causes a strongly undesirable side-effect to your area of the business that you need their cooperation to avoid. Many CEOs would love to have feedback from the trenches on the impact of their decisions - if it's delivered constructively. – Tom W Mar 10 at 10:29

I was that employee at one point, and saw the situation coming. I asked to go part time, rather than cross train. Maybe a possibility here?

  • What if I want a full time income? – gnasher729 Mar 9 at 14:58
  • Well, obviously that then does not work. But to some people, time is WAY more valuable than money, and they can easily live on half income. I was one. Not the most common situation, but it is a possibility, which is why I mentioned it. – kpollock Mar 9 at 16:38
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    @kpollock Thanks, but I do know this employee is the only income in the family in a high COLA city (we are in a top 3 US tech market). They do value time and work a pretty strict schedule, so I also suspect taking up a part time contract while working elsewhere is not an option. – user108075 Mar 9 at 18:49
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    well if empoyee gets full pay for par time, that could be a strong motivation to stay. – akostadinov Mar 10 at 12:59
  • not sure how others will take it if you pay someone full-time when he/she works 20% of the time... regardless how skillful she/he his – Jean-François Fabre Mar 11 at 13:58

Can you promote this person to a team lead or managerial position. If so, would they be a good fit, and would this appeal to them?

This way you still have their expertise for the times it is required, and you get to hold on to the person.

  • They have discussed a promotion to lead of the relevant platform, a position this person is wholly qualified for. The issue is that their work would really not change much, but this would be a title bump & associated pay raise. As mentioned upstream and further elaborated on, we cannot process this until July at the earliest. – user108075 Mar 11 at 17:08

If career path or compensation can't be done (but you should exert any influence that you have, obviously), the only thing that remains is social skills.

Appreciation is one of the things that really work.
Just make sure how much you appreciate that work. Encourage the person. Ask him/her what you can do to help. This kind of stuff goes a long way to keeping people happy, and happy people tend to stay where they are.

It's also a question of motivation. What is motivating that person?
Talk, or ask others about their perception of that person. Find out what that person really wants, and see how much of that you can provide, or make happen.

  • This person is definitely feeling the love and was even singled out in an org wide event for their contributions. While they have not asked for any specific assistance (they are asked on a weekly basis), they have signaled a key frustration that was resolved this week. As to motivation, I would describe this person as someone who enjoys making things work and mentoring people. Their effective combination of the two is actually extremely rare in our organization and is what leads to them being as valuable as they are. – user108075 Mar 11 at 17:12
  • Then you probably can't do much more :-) – toolforger Mar 12 at 11:44

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