THE BLOG
09/10/2014 06:08 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

Innovation in the Workplace

After being named an EY Entrepreneurial Winning Woman and being given exposure to this powerful network, which includes the world's top entrepreneurs, I learned some important insights. In order to drive growth and future success in a business, you need to innovate with new products, expand into new markets, and develop your people so you're ready to grasp new opportunities as they start to arise.

In my 14 years as a CEO, I've come to trust the role that innovation plays in business growth. While there's always opportunity to move beyond the ordinary and discover new possibilities, the painful (or exciting) reality is that opportunity usually comes disguised in the form of adversity.

One area I've seen this manifest is among the workforce. Today's workers want to be co-creators of something exciting and live in the moment. They want family time, flexibility, and a collaborative style of leadership that ignites them, exposes them to cutting edge tools, and offers an expansion of their experience and knowledge. In today's age, innovation within the workforce has become a necessity in order to grow or scale.

This is especially true for entrepreneurs running fast-growing companies in labor-constrained markets. My home state of North Dakota ranks No. 1 for female entrepreneurship, but has the fourth highest cost of living in the country. The shortage of a qualified workforce is the top concern for the state's business leaders, myself included.

I've had to think outside the box when it comes to employee recruitment and retention. Considering that my company earthkind has a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) approach, I feel double the pressure to make these ideas sustainable and replicable. Here are the top three workforce innovations I've implemented in my business to retain a quality workforce. It wasn't immediately clear how they'd work - or even if they'd work! Additionally, each carried risk. However, they did - and what I didn't expect was the positive impact we'd see on employee engagement levels as a result of implementing these strategies.

Disabled Workers
Every business owner dreams of a stable, steady workforce that really cares. This leads to good employee morale, consistent quality, low absenteeism, and virtually no turnover.
Earthkind has found that employing approximately 50 percent handicapped workers has turned this dream into reality. These employees work hard, believe in our business and mission, and are extremely engaged in their jobs. Nationwide, unemployment among the handicapped is 80percent - virtually an entire second workforce of people who can help stimulate businesses and the economy. As a CEO, I have seen firsthand what these workers are capable of contributing and think that as a country, we can do a better job overall if we employed them more often.

Family Flexibility
Meeting the needs of my employees is essential if they are to meet the needs of our customers. In no case is this truer than with moms. Allison O'Kelly of Mom Corps notes these challenges when recruiting and retaining talent when she wrote, "All generations, genders and levels of workers are beginning to demand flexibility at work and those companies that offer it will win the war for talent." She cited a survey that found 73 percent of working adults considered flexibility one of the most important factors they weigh when looking for a new job or deciding what company. Additionally, 39 percent of working adults have considered leaving or have left a job because it wasn't flexible enough.

As a small business, I can't afford all the luxuries employees would like to have, but I can afford those that matter most, like being able to care for children. We take it a step further and actually let new moms bring their babies in the office with them for the first four to six months. When moms feel supported rather than stigmatized for caring for their families, everything improves. The bond with their babies is strong, they have success breastfeeding, and the spheres of family and workplace overlap rather than collide. The loyalty and engagement from these employees more than makes up for any interruptions our youngest office members may cause.

Virtual Workforce
Another way I've found to meet employee needs is by utilizing a virtual workforce.
People today are more mobile than ever, from the way they communicate to the way they want to work. Unlike previous generations who would work at the same job for 30 years, today's average job span just 36 months. Using a cloud system, one-third of earthkind's team is virtual and spans five states. Regular team meetings, monthly newsletters and open communication across multiple channels keep the team spirit alive despite the distance. And critically, for me, we've been able to retain our top talent even if they need to relocate.

My involvement in the EY network helped me discover that my goal of creating a better world through business can be produced only through a workforce that has been encouraged and inspired to come to work and perform their best. The possibilities of a company are exponentially more when it has employees who are engaged and empowered behind it.