Long reads

How to be an employer of choice

9 Dec 2021 By Katie Jacobs

Amid a turbulent, candidate-driven market, keeping hold of top talent is just as important as attracting it

It’s been coined the Great Resignation – and it could be coming for your workforce. Also known as the Big Quit, the trend was first identified in the US, where employees have been leaving jobs in their millions in response to the pandemic, forcing a rethink of what matters in work and life. In April 2021, as the vaccine programme gathered pace, a record four million Americans chose to leave their jobs.

Could the UK be following suit? According to recent data from Randstad UK, a quarter (24 per cent) of workers were actively planning to change roles within three to six months, compared to 11 per cent during an average year.

Richard Johnston, associate economist at Glassdoor, believes the Great Resignation is “in full swing”, with younger workers particularly likely to jump ship. “The job market in the UK is tightening and this isn’t going to change anytime soon,” he says. “The pandemic encouraged many employees to re-evaluate their priorities and job vacancies have jumped to an all-time high.”

Simon Winfield, managing director at Hays UK and Ireland, is more circumspect: “Despite talk of the Great Resignation, we haven’t seen it come to fruition.” Hays’ data finds jobseeking intentions are lower than usual, but Winfield adds that the demand for talent is the highest it has been for several years, with 80 per cent of employers planning to recruit over the next year.

This is leading to a talent crunch, compounded by a resurgence in the economy, existing skills shortages, Brexit, and the fact many EU workers chose to return home at the height of the pandemic. “Most, if not all, sectors are facing skills shortages,” says Winfield. “Demand is high in areas such as tech, construction, marketing, engineering and life sciences.”

People teams are certainly feeling the pinch. “The recruitment market is really challenging at the moment. Now, more than ever, it feels like a candidate’s market,” says Melanie Hayes, chief people officer at Harvey Nash Group. “Volumes of vacancies are high, and employers are competing for the same talent while navigating how they want to operate in the new normal.”

Cathy Donnelly, senior director, talent at Liberty IT, has also noticed a shift in employee attitudes: “For the first six months of Covid, there was a sense of appreciation for having a job and job security. Then the pendulum swung and we saw people wanting more from the organisation than security and stability.”

In this competitive and demanding landscape, there will be winners and losers. So, set yourself up for success with People Management’s guide to becoming an employer of choice in the era of Covid.

Embrace genuine flexibility

We all know the pandemic has radically shifted attitudes towards working from home, but to be an employer of choice, organisations need to offer flexibility beyond place. “The pandemic has shown us new ways to be agile and flexible in how we work,” says Claire McCartney, senior recruitment and inclusion adviser at the CIPD. “Employees now expect greater flexibility and autonomy, beyond the traditional nine-to-five or rigid shift patterns. Employers that offer greater flexibility will be hugely attractive to a diverse pool of candidates, and will retain talent as well.”

Malcolm Higgs, professor of human resource management and organisational behaviour at the University of Hull and emeritus professor at the University of Southampton, says flexibility is about “an increasing desire to have more control over your working life. We’re seeing organisations responding in terms of place, so where you’re working, but not as much how or when you’re working.”

“Priorities have shifted for many people so offering the flexibility and choice on working hours and patterns has become more important than ever,” agrees Claire Logan, HR director at Microsoft UK, which is ranked the second-best place to work in the UK by Glassdoor users.

While many organisations are implementing hybrid working strategies, embracing and enabling asynchronous working is as critical as ‘allowing’ people choice over their work location. This is vital, given that Johnston points out “work-life balance is more important than pay when it comes to workplace satisfaction” in 2021, and that burnout is becoming a more common discussion area among Glassdoor users.

Go big on purpose

“As a society, we spend so much of our time working – and thinking about work – that we want our work to have meaning. We’re seeing an even greater need for people to feel a sense of purpose in their careers,” says Logan. ‘Purpose’ is one of Microsoft’s ‘Five Ps of employee fulfilment’ (coined by CHRO Kathleen Hogan, the others are ‘pay’, ‘perks’, ‘people’ and ‘pride’).

The pandemic gave many of us the opportunity, impetus or both to reflect on what we want from work and life. “As we come out of the pandemic, people are increasingly being motivated to work for businesses that prioritise social responsibility, doing good and have a clear purpose instead of more traditional motivators,” confirms Winfield. “Instead of competing on salary, employers need to compete on what they can offer talent in the long run.” According to Hays’ data, 62 per cent of professionals would be willing to take a pay cut for a job with more purpose.

“Money is important, but it’s about having that compelling purpose and vision,” says Donnelly. “We need to help people understand the difference they can make.” For her organisation, that includes talking about how, as a mutual, Liberty IT reinvests all profits and thinking about how the insurance provided by its parent company is so important to people in their moment of need, “and the difference it can make when the technology experience is seamless and frictionless – that’s down to the work Liberty IT employees do”.

Higgs adds that while purpose means doing something meaningful and working for a cause you believe in, it’s also intrinsically linked to job quality. “As well as purpose beyond profit, one of the things that makes an employer of choice is purposeful work. A ‘good job’ is one with a degree of autonomy and decision-making ability.”

Match reputation and reality

In a tough, candidate-driven market, employer brand can make all the difference. “It’s important that the investment in employer brand is not forgotten as the pressures to hire build,” cautions Hayes. “Leaders need to understand that employer branding activities don’t always easily provide an immediate return. A consistent approach to messaging, content and employee advocacy will help to build the external profile.” 

However, there’s no point making that investment if it doesn’t match up to the experience of the organisation. As Hayes says: “It is so damaging if an organisation sells a culture that upon joining is entirely different to the reality.”

That’s part of the reason why Donnelly meets every new hire Liberty IT makes (and they’ve onboarded more than 200 people since the pandemic began) after 90 days. Her motto: “Recruit with reputation; retain with reality.” Is the firm living up to the “dream” it sold its fresh recruits? Luckily, the answer is usually yes. 

Property management firm The Sovini Group was named the best large employer in the 2021 Great Places to Work list. Group people and learning director Kerry Beirne believes the close working relationship between her team and marketing and comms is part of that success. “We ensure that everything is aligned,” she says. “We have worked particularly hard on this over the last couple of years as we felt there was a slight disconnect with our employer brand and our culture. We wanted people to be able to feel our culture from the outside and know what we were all about before they even spoke to us.” 

Microsoft has focused on employee stories, helping to show prospective talent what it’s really like to work there. “Simply posting a job description won’t attract our target talent, instead we need to activate our whole employee base to be talent magnets,” says Logan.

Higgs adds that while employer brand remains important, people professionals need to think bigger. “It’s more about what makes a good reputation, which is wider than caring for employees. It’s less about employer brand than the broader reputation of the organisation.” This could include your green credentials (not greenwashing) or your executive compensation programme. 

Offer room to grow

According to data from Right Management, 60 per cent of employees say they would be more loyal if their developmental needs were being fulfilled by their employer. Matt Phelan, co-founder and co-CEO of the Happiness Index, has noticed a similar trend with his customers’ data. “People have reflected during the pandemic and now want to focus on their personal growth,” he says. “We are seeing a demand from employees for L&D opportunities linked to career progression. If organisations can’t show people they have specific opportunities to grow, then expect them to look elsewhere.”

This demand for L&D chimes with Hayes’ experience. “Career pathways are one of the most in-demand things we are working on, aligned with development,” she says. “The focus on individualised strategies that help to get the best out of people means that the [people] function is moving faster than ever before and the demand is higher.”

At Liberty IT, which consistently ranks on the Great Places to Work list, development is a key plank of the EVP. This year, 27 per cent of the workforce have been promoted, thanks in part to the company’s innovative self-nomination promotion process. “When you think you’re ready for promotion, you find a sponsor and put together a portfolio,” explains Donnelly. Success rates run at about 95 per cent. 

Microsoft has explicitly stated a desire to move from a “‘know it all’ culture to a ‘learn it all’ culture”, says Logan. This is a culture “where continued learning and a growth mindset is promoted, and employees can try new things in an inclusive space”.

Don’t forget the social side of work

With various lockdowns forcibly removing in-person interaction and many staff working at home for the best part of two years, the value of relationships at work has perhaps never been higher. 

‘People’ is one of Microsoft’s Five Ps, focusing on the importance of colleagues and defined as: “The people with whom you work, the teams that achieve great innovation, the colleagues who become close friends combined with a culture that encourages you to grow and be your authentic self provides a lot of joy and inspiration every day.” In a hybrid world, being more deliberate about every interaction has become critical, says Logan: “Where relationships perhaps grew in a more organic way before, now people need to consciously think about building space and opportunity to nurture those relationships.”

Social interaction, whether in person or virtual, is part of wellbeing. The Sovini Group offers plenty of opportunities for colleagues to have fun together, including The Sovini Games, now in its sixth year, which involves a series of games and challenges, and a Sovini Safari Quiz, with teams being quizzed on their animal knowledge while being driven around Knowsley Safari Park. “We recognise the importance of making the workplace fun,” says Beirne, adding that doing events virtually has enabled the company to involve colleagues’ families.

Tune in to employee voice

Most organisations amped up their communications during the pandemic, with a focus on authentic and two-way messaging. To be an employer of choice means not letting that slip as things return to some semblance of normality. “In the post-pandemic world, employers of choice will give their employees a voice, listening to what they say instead of shutting down conversations,” believes Nic Marks, founder of feedback tool FridayPulse, adding that the best employers will be those organisations that feel “vibrant and happy”. 

“Since the pandemic, communication has become more important than ever,” agrees Beirne. At The Sovini Group, the employee app (OurSpace) has been particularly valuable, with engagement rates increasing by more than 50 per cent during the pandemic. “Engagement levels are monitored weekly, and directors are sent a report so they can see how employees are engaging in their area of the business. This allows us to review content and start the conversation if levels of engagement are lower.”

Marks adds that careful listening means tuning into the emotions of your people, rather than “brushing off emotions as unprofessional”. “The best employers embrace the fact that emotions are data and offer key insight into the wellbeing of their people,” he says. Logan concludes that authenticity has come to the fore over the past 18 months: “It’s HR’s role to understand the humanness of employees and make sure we are meeting them where they are.”

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