Working at Elon Musk's companies Tesla and SpaceX doesn't sound like a party. Credit: Getty Images/Jeff Kravitz

Researchers recently uncovered a striking phenomenon: The more positively employees talk about innovation at their company, the more likely they are to leave it.

Donald Sull, Charlie Sull, and Ben Zweig, for a paper published in MIT Sloan Management Review, analyzed millions of online employee profiles and reviews for over 500 companies. They found the attrition rates of the three companies found to be the most innovative—Nvidia, Tesla, and SpaceX—were significantly higher than those of their industry peers.

A likely reason for that higher attrition? “When employees rate their company’s innovation positively, they are more likely to speak negatively about work-life balance and a manageable workload,” the study concluded.

The finding comes at a critical moment, when employers are trying to provide more flexibility and counter worker burnout while still driving innovation and performance. It raises a critical question: Can you have an innovative culture without the hard-driving approach that often tags along?

Absolutely, say innovation experts. “Our research suggests that this unbalanced culture is only successful in the very short term,” says Henry Chesbrough, faculty director of the Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “If a balance is not found, over time some talented people will leave.  Others will stay, but feel burned out and become less productive.”

Rita Gunther McGrath, professor at Columbia Business School, says many companies manage to be highly innovative while also maintaining a happy, highly loyal workforce. She cites those that made history, and broke speed records, in developing safe Covid vaccines.

“People actually aren’t in these crazy work environments. They discover things, they learn things,” she says. “They are given time to tinker and play around.”  

So how can fast-growing organizations be innovative while also maintaining some sanity in their work cultures? Experts offered this advice:

Make schedules predictable.

“One thing we found is especially powerful is schedules,” says Charlie Sull, cofounder of CultureX, an HR technology firm that uses artificial intelligence to analyze organizational cultures. “If you make schedules predictable—if you tell employees exactly when they’ll be working, you don’t call them at unexpected times—you can create quite a powerful way to alleviate attrition.”

Get remote work right.

“One of the most powerful drivers (of retention) we found were remote work arrangements,” Sull says. “So if you can move the needle on that, it’s going to have 1.5 times as powerful an impact as compensation.”

Lead by example.

“Sincere leaders who walk the talk of greater balance must hope and trust that their employees will respond in turn with greater loyalty and support,” improving overall company performance, says Chesbrough. “Over time, it is possible that happier employees spread the word to their friends, and the company attracts other highly talented people into their organization.”

When some high-profile companies seem to hew to an old-fashioned notion that the only route to success demands pushing employees to burnout, or worse, a work culture that values employee happiness and well-being is innovative in itself.