Hidden talent: The workplace and talent attraction

Three experts argue that flexibility, trust and autonomy are key to attracting and retaining talent in the post-lockdown jobs market

In a recent piece for The Telegraph, TOG’s co-CEOs Olly Olsen and Charlie Green put forward the view that work space should embrace a new value-based pricing model. This is a methodology that’s long overdue, and the article sparked an industry-wide conversation on how to value the office. Now, some 15 months into working from home, the science is backing up TOG’s position.

“This year has allowed people to reflect on their working life,” says Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester’s Business School. He thinks this period of reflection will accelerate this long-running shift to thinking about work space in terms of its holistic value, rather than as a purely functional environment, particularly among 20, 30 and 40-somethings.

Moreover, Sir Cary says that money is “less important” than other things to the talent pool today. Now things like flexible working, being valued and trusted, having more control over their job, good work and a sense of purpose takes precedence: “They don’t want what their parents tolerated in order to pay the mortgage.”

This attitude shift was in fact beget by the 2008 financial crash, says Sir Cary, when loyalty to organisations was rewarded with redundancy. Millennials (born in the ‘80s and early ‘90s) and Gen Z (late ‘90s onwards) have been christened ‘snowflakes’ for apparently wanting to be treated as special but that’s partly because, having seen their parents cast aside, they won’t put up with employers who treat their teams poorly: “In fact, they’re prepared to work for less money for a good employer,” he says.

In April 2020, Sir Cary published a timely book called Flexible Work. The evidence compiled therein, from academics around the world, showed overwhelmingly that flexible working results in higher job satisfaction, lower stress-related absence and – where it could be measured – improved productivity. The evidence also showed that although employees wanted flexible working before COVID-19, lockdowns have allowed this preference to crystallise in the minds of many employees. But, while women felt obligated to take up the option because they overwhelmingly shouldered the burden of caregiving in their families, men were “scared to death” to do so for fear that they would hinder their careers.

The pandemic has helped to remove the stigma of flexible working and provided a prolonged period of reflection, argues Sir Cary, which will accelerate change now that businesses across the UK are contemplating when and how they begin to return to the work place. And although home-schooling has been “a nightmare” for the average two-earner family, many men have experienced “the stress of looking after kids and trying to juggle work and family, but also the joy of it”, which may alter their priorities. Sir Cary’s son-in-law, a corporate lawyer, has worked from home throughout: “He was very distant. Not anymore. 13 months has made a total difference.”

Fiona Anderson, People Director at The Future Laboratory

“The pandemic has accentuated and accelerated drivers for talent that were already there,” says Fiona Anderson, People Director at London-based strategic foresight consultancy The Future Laboratory. “People want to work for organisations that make a positive difference in the world while prioritising flexibility, equity, trust and mental health.”

Five years ago, Anderson was mostly talking to people about personal progression, and the benefits that interested them were private medical, life insurance, pensions. Now, her conversations have turned to flexible working, diversity and inclusion, sustainability and how working at The Future Laboratory can complement and support people’s personal pursuits. Again, this change was taking place before COVID-19 but it has accelerated “ten-fold”.

In The Future Laboratory’s survey earlier this year, flexible working came out as the most popular benefit – more so than any monetary incentives – and is “undoubtedly the main driver for talent”, says Anderson. Interview candidates don’t want to relinquish the autonomy they’ve enjoyed for over a year: that doesn’t mean they never want to come into the office again, but they want to be free to decide. Flexibility also promotes wellness, because it enables employees to do more of whatever matters most to them.

Following other seismic recent events such as the Black Lives Matter protests, diversity and inclusion (D&I) is also getting a fairer share, says Anderson: “People are keen to learn how they can be better allies to marginalised groups, and they want to work for businesses that are diverse and create a sense of belonging for everyone.” After The Future Laboratory published its affirmative hiring policy in December 2020, its graduate scheme received more than 300 applications, many of which cited its D&I work as a big draw.

The Future Laboratory is now bringing its D&I work “to life” by making its work space more accessible, including for those who are physically impaired or suffer from sensory overload, and switching to hot-desking in anticipation that team members will want a hybrid model of working from home and office, whether to save money by moving out of London or save time by not travelling. Having fewer people in the office day-to-day will enable the space to be used more “creatively” allowing employees to choose from areas dedicated respectively to quiet work, projects and video calling in dedicated “Zoom rooms”.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Silicon Valley consultant, academic and author

“Companies will have to figure out how they can design hybrid work to accommodate the demands of workers while also satisfying the needs of business”, says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Silicon Valley consultant, academic and author of books such as Shorter, Rest and The Distraction Addiction.

When weighing up options, says Pang, talent will want to see employers being thoughtful about how they bring employees back to the office, articulate the “rules” of their redesigned work spaces and support team members who’ll be more remote and autonomous. Some employers will spy in remote work an opportunity to surveil their employees: “That won’t go well.” For flexible working to really work, says Anderson, there must be trust. And if the recruitment of managers doesn’t also transform, to be based on emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills, says Sir Cary, then this brave new flexible world will be a bust. What’s that old saying? ‘People don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses.’

The punchline here is that the past 14 months have helped us all to realise that when it comes to work, we want different things at different times. A well-designed work space and a flexible working culture that can accommodate these various needs is now a high-ranking way to ensure that businesses can retain their talent over time. Gen Z employees might prefer to be in the office, says Sir Cary, because that’s where they learn, socialise and meet partners, while 40-somethings or 50-somethings are more likely to be happier at home with partners or children.

That said, the desire for flexible working – and for the best of both worlds – will be universal, says Pang, even if the reasons for wanting it vary between individuals and over a person’s lifespan. “A thoughtful leader will ask: ‘What do we really use offices for? And, crucially, how can our spaces and calendar structures give people the greatest opportunities to do their best work?’”

Jamie Millar is a contributing editor to Men’s Health and writes for several other publications on subjects ranging from fashion to fitness and football