Across all sectors in the second half of 2021, corporate America is bullish on rapid growth. Offices and manufacturing plants are re-opening. Job recruitment is already ahead of pre-pandemic levels. The online job search website Indeed.com reported in early April that the number of available positions posted on its platform was 17.9 percent above its pre-pandemic baseline back in February 2020.
Large firms are not alone in seeking top talent in a resurgent economy. According to The Economist’s April 10, 2021 report on the future of work, 2020 was a record year for new company formation in the United States. In fact, more than 1.5 million new firms launched last year. Many of these startups are ramping up talent recruitment to help meet an expected surge of consumer and business demand. Adding fuel to the current competition for high-demand technical and management talent, a record-breaking $69 billion in venture investment flowed into both newly hatched and more mature startup firms in the first quarter of 2021.
Employer and Employee Expectations Out of Sync
Clearly, office doors are–or will be–wide open. Financial incentives are on the table. But will that be enough to bring top talent back to their former workday routines?
Based on recent workforce surveys and trend analysis, the answer is a resounding “No.” This is especially true for the technical and professional workers who are most in demand. It turns out that executive and investor views of the future of work are out of sync with employee expectations generated during the pandemic.
Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index outlines the findings from a study of more than 30,000 people in 31 countries. The study includes workers of all ages and experts in workforce engagement and recruiting. One of its blunt conclusions:
“Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call.”
A striking data point:
“41 percent of the global workforce is likely to consider leaving their current employer within the next year. This number is even higher for Gen Z (54 percent). At the same time, 46 percent are planning to make a major pivot or career transition.”
A Defining Workforce Trend: YOLO
One explanation for such widespread workforce restlessness is the YOLO (You Only Live Once) spirit. In a recent New York Times article, the authors characterized YOLO as “the year’s defining workforce trend.”
With the future of work suddenly upon them, and close to half of their current employees at risk of decamping, corporate HR departments are not just competing with other established firms in finding and keeping top talent. They are up against an unprecedented combination of post-pandemic force fields. There’s the lure of startup unicorns, a deep determination among workers to live life to the fullest, and a growing sense that personal fulfillment is most attainable outside the confines of a traditional office.
How Should Employers Respond?
First, it’s time to acknowledge that hybrid work schedules are no longer innovative. Yes, this includes the flexibility to work from home on a regular basis.
Instead, they are intrinsic to the future of work. Even employees who miss face-to-face discussions with colleagues and other aspects of the physical workplace want remote work options to be available as part of their work-life going forward. Flexibility is no longer a differentiator in attracting talent–except as a strong disincentive to join a company that doesn’t provide that now must-have benefit.
Strategies for Attracting and Retaining Top Talent in 2021
If hybrid work isn’t enough, what is needed to retain and recruit top talent in 2021 successfully? Companies must embrace several innovative and interconnected strategies to create a workforce culture that matches the future-of-work reality. A forward-looking workforce recruitment strategy should start with the following four components:
1. Purpose and positive social impact as a corporate priority
Employees care deeply about the impact that their company has on the environment. They also care about their communities and social issues such as diversity, racial justice, and economic equality. Studies over the past decade report that companies prioritizing corporate social responsibility enjoy an advantage in attracting and retaining top talent of all ages. But high-minded mission statements and CEO declarations no longer suffice. In this age of critical scrutiny, results must measure up to stated social impact goals. Companies must lead with purpose; they must also prepare to follow up with transparency in reporting impact.
2. Opportunities for growth across the entire workforce
Opportunity for personal and professional growth is essential for recruiting and retaining talented workers. Traditional support for professional development needs to transcend the scope of narrow productivity goals. It must encompass learning and applying new skills in contexts that support all stakeholders. The future of work will demand that development and growth opportunities previously reserved for professional levels are available across the workforce.
3. Multi-directional mentoring
The long-standing tradition of workplace mentoring strongly correlates with increases in employee productivity, job satisfaction, and also retention. In addition to benefiting those who receive mentoring at work, studies show that the mentors report increased personal fulfillment and organizational commitment. And yet, today’s mentoring programs are too often limited in scope. They remain stuck in a seniority-based one-to-one framework. Intergenerational, peer-to-peer, and group mentoring programs can be a powerful force in overcoming workplace silos and building a culture of mutual learning and support.
4. Empowered teams
Employers must reinvent the omnipresent project team to function effectively in the world of hybrid work. They must empower team managers and members to redefine roles and balance both group and individual accountability. They must allow experimentation with different modes of collaboration and communication. After all, collaborative, empowered teams will remain an essential foundation for future workforce engagement.
The future of work is already here. And to find and keep top talent during what is already an ultra-competitive job market, companies must be ready. As they chart their course for the months ahead, companies must remember that YOLO also applies to them–and they may only have one shot at getting this right.