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Solving the talent shortage in a post-pandemic environment


In March, Nigel Wright welcomed northern business leaders to a special event focused on skills shortages, staff retention, and staff attraction. Following a presentation of the results from our Regional Skills, Retention and Attraction Survey, guest speakers from Beetroot HR, Quorn, Atom Bank, and NHS England shared insights about how organisations are navigating skills shortages and managing retention and attraction in the post-pandemic environment. 

Skills shortages

Today, companies face an unprecedented situation where high demand for staff is exacerbated by low unemployment and a low supply of people. Our survey confirmed that nine out of ten companies expect a lack of suitable candidates to limit their growth. Skills shortages are becoming more pronounced and it’s unlikely that these circumstances will change any time soon. Most firms are trying to navigate this environment by prioritising retention and attraction, while upskilling staff to build a more valuable workforce.

Philippa Wallis, Pay and Reward Lead at Quorn, noted how when struggling to recruit a certain skill or role, organisations often default to offering higher pay to attract people. Pay is part of the solution, says Philippa, but it's not the whole solution.

Quorn’s main skills gap, according to Philippa, is created by a lack of available frontline factory workers. The business admits it can’t compete with nearby chemical manufacturers and other similar types of organisations when it comes to remuneration, so has pursued alternative options to attract talent. These include partnering with a workplace rehabilitation program to get ex-offenders back into the workplace. Quorn is also experimenting with incentivised training with the view to merging compatible roles.

“It’s about thinking about how can we frame things differently,” says Philippa. Integral to this approach is to provide employees with a more meaningful purpose. Back in 2020, Philippa explained, Quorn established a new purpose and foundation from which to launch a successful attraction and retention strategy. The purpose ‘to feed people and save the planet’ is what makes the organisation unique, and this message is now reinforced in all recruitment and retention campaigns.

Quorn is the first food manufacturing organisation in the world to have an externally recognised carbon footprint. And contributing to the “higher purpose” of feeding and saving the planet is why people join and stay at Quorn. In Philippa's words: “We continue to focus on what is unique about our organisation and what else we can offer new and existing employees instead of defaulting to higher pay.”

Another workforce concept gaining importance at Quorn is job crafting, where employees are encouraged to find ways to customise their jobs to better meet their interests and ambitions. Quorn’s HR business partner, for example, is also the firm’s operations business manager. According to Philippa, job crafting allows employees to consider a non-traditional type of career progression while facilitating invaluable cross-functional learning opportunities and helping to solve skills shortages.

“If an employee joins our organisation because they are aligned to its purpose, mission and values and they're ready to progress or want to learn more, but the obvious career next step isn’t available yet, we look for other ways to ensure we retain them in the organisation.”

Retention

Nigel Wright’s survey confirmed that over ninety-five percent of businesses are addressing retention rates. Making staff feel valued and valuable has never been more important. And giving people a valid sense of belonging is clearly key to engagement in the post-pandemic world. Most permanent changes occurring within organisations are also intended to influence the entire workforce.

Employers accept that hybrid and flexible working will remain a feature of working life in a post-pandemic world, though offering hybrid and flexible working isn’t the primary change organisations are seeking to make to retain their people.

That aside, hybrid or flexible working has and continues to transform the employment landscape. According to our survey, sixty percent of organisations are receptive to considering moving towards a one hundred percent remote working model. This would have been unimaginable before the pandemic. Our survey also highlighted how fifty-seven percent of employers would prefer hybrid workers to spend at least two or three days per week at their premises. Companies may have different views of what’s important for employees compared to the perspectives of employees themselves and this will continue to create difficulties in implementing hybrid working arrangements.

According to Beetroot HR’s Rachael Lovett Brunt, despite rising expectations around pay, work-life balance and flexibility are still more important to people. Employees don’t want additional fixed days at home either, says Rachael, but rather need work to actually fit around their personal lives. Workplace changes such as hybrid or flexible working have been accelerated by the pandemic. They are part of a “great reshuffle,” where heightened retention efforts on behalf of organisations are focused on attending to people’s changing attitudes towards work.

Similarly, Kelly Angus, ICS Development & Change People Director at NHS England noted how the pandemic has made people pause, reflect and consider what they want from their job and life in general. During these “extraordinary times,” Kelly says, personal choices and individualism are “important factors for employees when negotiating relationships with their employer.”

Retaining staff during this “cultural shift,” Rachael Lovett Brunt explained, doesn’t require wholesale change and transformation but a degree of organisational “fine-tuning” is necessary. Perks such as an early finish on a Friday or offering employees free fruit no longer add value to people's working lives as they used to. In Rachael’s words: “If we want to continue to attract, retain and develop talent, it's essential to redefine workplace culture with an even greater focus on the reasons why people choose to stay. Flexibility is a key part of that.”

Companies are also focusing more on measuring performance based on outputs rather than inputs. According to Rachael, organisations will have to continue evolving their approach when managing talent. An important aspect of this is removing rigid performance frameworks and giving leaders greater autonomy to choose how they manage their teams: “Successful retention will depend on having a more flexible approach to employee development and performance management too – less dependent on process and more about conversations, engagement, making things more individualised for people so that they feel valued in their connection to the organisation.”

As companies create more flexible and agile workspaces, creating opportunities for all employees to reach their potential is becoming important. Leaders must be creative about how they connect with staff and establish environments conducive to their individual development. The scale of opportunity for employee retention is “immense” says Rachael who reminds organisations that company culture and its role in shaping the process is critical to making sure that any tailored talent development strategies are successful."

Attraction

Ninety-eight percent of employers are recruiting this year, according to our survey, with eighty-nine percent of organisations indicating that they will hire the same number or more employees than last year. Record high levels of employment and job vacancies have created the perfect storm, with three out of four firms expecting to compete with other employers for talent. What is clear from these data is that the problem of staff attraction is not going to go away.

While companies may be able to attract candidates with interesting career opportunities, it's common now that individuals will be involved in more than one recruitment process. Businesses are having to work harder to convince candidates that they are the best option. And some organisations have responded to that challenge much better than others.

One firm that has enjoyed a great deal of success in talent attraction during the last two years is Atom Bank. According to CTO, Stewart Bromley, since the start of 2021, the business has almost closed a seventeen percent gap in unfilled vacancies within its technology team. He attributes this achievement to a strong Employee Value Proposition (EVP), designed specifically to attract the world-class technology talent the firm requires to deliver its digital banking services.

Stewart outlined a six-point challenge that, he says, will help all types of organisations attract the talent they need to grow and achieve success.

Beginning with a quote from former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith – “Exceptional success requires exceptional circumstances” – he urged businesses to first focus on what resources they needed to deliver their brand promise. If that means, for example, utilising some of the “greatest and latest technologies,” then organisations should not be afraid to invest in the best technical capabilities from a people perspective to match business goals.

When all the core critical competencies of the organisation have been outlined, Stewart says it becomes easier to determine ways to fulfil non-core operational requirements with more cost-effective partnerships. Atom Bank identified app development, middleware, dev-ops and data as core business areas and focused on marrying the right technologies with the best talent. For all other technology needs, Stewart explained how Atom partnered with organisations that specialised in delivering it’s non-core services: “If a service isn’t business-critical, don’t worry about trying and do it yourself.”

Atom Bank also prioritised attracting senior engineers to deliver its core services. Research carried out by the firm highlighted how senior engineers, on average, achieve five times the amount of output compared to junior engineers, yet they cost around two and half times as much to hire. Stewart says, businesses usually seek to nurture and grow talent internally. But from a commercial perspective, Atom found that recruiting senior experts paid “massive dividends” compared to hiring and training junior staff.

To attract the best senior engineers, the business developed an EVP that would appear attractive to them. Stewart noted how companies today require unique EVPs for all disciplines, as people working in one profession will often have different motivations from their colleagues from another area of the business.

According to Stewart, senior technologists are driven by the opportunity to do interesting work that enables them to master their talents and provides them with autonomy and a sense of achievement. “The freedom to express themselves and be creative makes a huge difference,” says Stewart. And Atom has worked hard to create an environment that fosters speed and agility while enabling its tech talent to enjoy the freedom to do their jobs “unconstrained by bureaucracy.”

Stewart was also keen to emphasise how senior engineers value their time and actively seek ways to achieve better “work-life integration.” Flexibility and agility are a part of this, explained Stewart, but to truly allow employees to “harmoniously integrate their work and life” Atom adopted a 4-day week in November 2021. As well as having a positive impact on productivity, Stewart says the 4-day week has been a “massive retention and attraction tool when recruiting senior resources.”

Atom Bank has invested significantly in PR and other employer brand initiatives to help raise awareness of its EVPs and communicate to the market about technologies the business uses, the difference it’s making, and what it's like to work there – intended, says Stewart, to grabs people’s attention with “those intrinsic factors that make Atom an interesting place to work.”

Finally, to maintain a compelling talent attraction strategy, Stewart urges businesses to be prepared to change or evolve their proposition to succeed in today's “hugely dynamic world.”

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North of England Salaries Report 2022

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