How to Win the Battles that Matter Most to Your Business

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With unemployment persistently under 4% and at least a million more job openings than people seeking work, founders and leaders of small businesses are finding creative new ways to compete. The talent war goes far beyond acquisition, hiring practices and employee retention — entrepreneurs must reimagine and recreate a workplace environment to maintain a competitive advantage. Don’t wait for the battle to come to you. Here are some new ideas to help your company take the hill.

Related: How Even the Smallest Startup Can Win the War for Talent

1. A work-life balance is a new ask of employees today. Answer it.

During the pandemic, workers’ lives were turned upside down. Employees were forced to deal with jobs, kids and every other aspect of life all jumbled together. Established boundaries and norms were lost in the mix. Virtually everything employees believed and expected about work — their likes and dislikes — was laid out on the dining room table.

Is it any wonder employee attitudes to work are forever changed? According to a report by Gartner, 65% of employees surveyed agreed that the pandemic shifted their attitude toward the value of life outside work and caused them to rethink the place work should have in our life. Here’s how to foster a work-life balance at your company.

  • Don’t blame your employees: Resist the employer’s tendency to blame today’s talent wars and the so-called Great Resignation on employees. Employees are tired, stressed and burned out. Options for child care are limited and expensive. People have realized that they want to choose where they live and where they raise their kids. They don’t want to waste time or incur the expense of commutes that were previously an accepted given. This is especially true for much of Gen Z, who have only known flexible work environments — and Gen Z is the primary workforce for the next 20 years.
  • Recalibrate the company’s metrics of success: Participation is not the measure. Firms that manage for impact can care less about how employees spend their time and more about how well those employees deliver on milestones and results. Interesting outcomes happen in organizations that relax controls (such as start time or the number of personal days) as long as the work is accomplished and the job gets done.
  • Accept that hybrid working arrangements are here to stay: Every company has to find the appropriate balance of in-office and remote work. Successful hybrid work arrangements will not come from some magic formula or artificial intelligence algorithm. Nor will it be the same for every function or geography. That is, solutions aren’t prescriptive. Instead, seek logic and flexibility. If your company can’t fully make peace with remote work, declare detent. Form cross-functional teams of employers and employees to figure it out.

Related: How Even the Smallest Startup Can Win the War for Talent

2. Rethink your approach to talent and retention

No matter what your company has done in the past to develop and retain employees, doing more of the same in the new workplace won’t be enough to create the talent pipeline you need. Pre-pandemic mindsets and tactics have to shift.

  • Tap into wider talent pools: It used to be that businesses vied with other companies in their industries and geography for talent. Today those boundaries have been eliminated: People and jobs can be separated by oceans and continents. Re-orient your company to tap into non-traditional sources of talent, starting with diverse and under-served communities. With the gig economy, workers — especially those skilled at their craft — can work under contract, changing projects and employers based on timing and interest. Can you contract with gig workers on a project-by-project basis? Are there people who stepped out of the workforce because they were burned out or retired who might be ready and willing to come back to work under the right conditions and in a fitting role? McKinsey & Company estimates that there could be as many as 23 million of these so-called “latent” workers.
  • Replace exit interviews with “stay conversations”: Rather than talking with people after they choose to leave, talk to employees who are still on the team about the things that make them (or could make them) stay. Then act. Compensation is always a lever, but there are indications that employees’ viewpoint about this has also changed. It may be that other job attributes are as or more important after a certain threshold.
  • Review your role descriptions for barriers to entry: Is a college degree a requirement? Would a certificate of specialization replace five years of experience? Could your company benefit from giving a juvenile offender a job? There are employment programs in many cities and counties that structure training and support. What about retirees? It’s time to rethink who — and how — you hire.

Related: Achieving Diversity in the Workplace Is Enabling Organizations to Win the War for Talent

3. Change the way that work gets done

During the pandemic and the separation from office, co-workers and teams, employees figured out new ways to achieve results. In a reconfigured workplace, where will continue to be dispersed and teams become the metrics of success, it is hugely important to map out the milestones that lead directly to growing revenue, improving customer satisfaction and increasing margins with fewer defects.

  • Change the hiring approach: Define traits hiring managers have overlooked — or that didn’t matter before — that is now important. Define roles using skills and experiences rather than degrees and years.
  • Define the work in terms of individual tasks and collaborations: Does a project best begin with a multi-day collaboration of multiple team members, then sectioned off into individual or small group tasks? Or does the project need a small team or individual contributors to start, with collaboration coming later? Why don’t we have more flexible options for work? Instead of employees asking this question, perhaps leaders should ask it first.
  • Make recruiting and interviewing for new talent a sustained aspect of every manager’s job: No matter how this economy turns, the talent wars are not going away. Be out in the workplace listening. Employees are unsettled and they may not know what they want. What hopes or expectations do they have about work not being met? What do they miss about the old work routine? What will they never put up with again? A lot of employees are asking themselves questions these days. If you are an employer looking to retain or hire, now or in the future, you better be asking them, too.

Pick your battles. Return to the basics, and don’t focus so much on winning any individual skirmish that you forfeit the larger campaign. Remember: Employees seek community. Relationships are an important reason that people work — that is one thing that hasn’t changed.

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