Complacency, fixed mindset, dated values — just some of the reasons you’ll lose staff this year

For every one of us, the last 12 months have been tough. To varying degrees of course — someone said we’ve all been in the same storm, but on very different ships. Some sat comfortably on yachts, while others struggle to keep their dinghy afloat.

Whatever your vessel, maybe you can now see the storm starting to pass. Hopefully, you’re now making a plan to get back on track with your journey rather than simply keep your head above water.

If you’re a founder, particularly of a startup or scaleup, you’ll know that keeping your best people on board is an essential part of realising the vision for your journey.

Don’t get caught out

If you haven’t thought about what needs to be different when it comes to talent retention in a post-pandemic world, then I’d suggest you should start now.

I’m writing this having lost a valued employee last month, which was partly a result of not prioritising the things I know are important to keep our best people.

If you haven’t put some conscious effort into a plan for retention, that’s relevant to today more than yesterday, then start doing so now. It’s essential to reduce the chance of pain tomorrow.

Having weathered the storm with your team, wouldn’t it be great if you knew everyone was guaranteed to be with you for the rest of your startup’s journey?

If you know exactly how to maximise everyone’s potential and retain your best performers?

Let’s be clear, that you’ll never get this perfect. Much of the change in the last year has been outside of our control, as will a large element of any strategy around people, who can’t be programmed to be entirely predictable (just yet!).

But your ability to retain your best people is one that I believe remains largely a game you can take charge of and win.

By understanding some data and putting some effort into a strategy, making sure you’re evolving this to make sure it stays relevant.

In 2020, we shared our 2nd Retention Report for Tech Scaleups. This captured research from 250 candidates on why they had left their roles, with culture proving king.

Based on the hundreds of conversations my team’s had with people working in the tech startup world in 2021, I don’t think that will have changed.

However, clearly the world is different now. And when it comes to culture and many other things, what employees value is one of the more significant things that’s changed.

Don’t run the risk of complacency because you haven’t had letters of resignation from employees in recent months.

For many people, they may have been tempted to leave but reluctant to make that significant step because of the risk in changing jobs during a global pandemic.

Some will still follow through on that intent, but for others, the chance to make a positive impact and retain them is still there.

But it does need a revised playbook in many ways.

Hopefully one thing that you’re clear on, particularly having navigated your business through the pandemic, is the value of retaining your best talent.

Research puts the cost of losing an employee at £30,000, or 50–75% of salary. Others say it’s 6 months of lost productivity. There may be less research on the emotional cost of losing good people, but I know it’s significant from all too many personal experiences leading my business.

People don’t want to come back to the office full-time

Compared to a year ago, the most obvious change about your team is probably where they’re working.

The world’s workforce, particularly in tech, is now working remotely. Some of them were already doing so, but of course many were forced to do so.

But if you think people will be racing back to the office full time then you should be prepared to be surprised.

Research in 2021 from Buffer of 2,300 employees found that 97% wanted to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their career. Although half had already been working remotely, half of those surveyed had been forced to work remotely. There wasn’t much difference in views on returning to work between the two groups.

I don’t want to limit myself to trying to recruit and retain from 3% of the talent pool, and I wouldn’t advise it of you.

So make sure that remote working is part of your fabric permanently.

That’s not to say you have to be fully remote and ditch the office. That will best for some but not all.

You’ll need to balance your personal views, the needs of the business, and the thoughts of your team, to work out what amount of remote working fits best.

Be aware there’s a good chance that what you put in place will evolve a fair bit over time. Asking people how they feel about remote working under multiple lockdowns is likely to produce different responses to how they feel when restrictions are lifted.

Nor is 9–5 the only option

Linked to this, although not the same as remote working, is the approach you have to flexible working.

In the old world, my business placed importance on the time someone arrived at the office. We allowed some flexibility, but to a large extent you could see elements of a clocking in and clocking out approach.

All our employees were full-time. Not that anyone had asked for anything different, but I would have felt uneasy about having people doing some of our roles part-time.

But today, having trusted my team to work when suits them, flexible working feels so much more something that can be the default rather than the exception.

Part of that is feeling it would seem childish to return to clock watching when we’ve valued outputs and outcomes over time served.

And will we all stay full-time by default? I can be confident in saying no, as one of our team returned from parental leave in January, and accommodating her request for part-time work didn’t seem to really require any thought before saying yes. Another employee has asked to return from the same leave in the summer, and I will happily accommodate her return 2.5 days a week.

You might say we should have been thinking this way this previously and maybe you’re right, but it’s clear that we weren’t alone.

But if the rest of the world is catching up to flexible working as I have done, then you’ll need to make you’re sure you’re not left behind.

I’ve spoken to many candidates who are intending to work for several businesses rather than confine themselves to one employer. Research suggests we’ll see a big part of the talent market move this way, with desire for freelance, part-time and flexible work becoming more common.

To retain your talent, you will need to be offering flexible working much more readily.

Bring purpose to your retention strategy

Away from the models of working, another big change is the importance that employees will place on the purpose of what they are doing.

I love Daniel Pink’s framing of what motivates people, which he describes in Drive as Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. That’s 12 years old, so nothing new.

But what I believe is new is the weighting it has when someone is considering joining or staying in a role.

We’ve all had a chance to reflect on what’s important to us. And for much of the great talent I’ve spoken to, that’s not going to be trading their sense of purpose and impact to work for a bank in Canary Wharf for an extra £20,000. (sorry to pick on the banks!)

Purpose could be the value they are bringing in their role. It might be your startup’s mission, and the impact you’re looking to make a founder on the market you’re serving. Ideally, you can show them the value both as an individual and as a business.

If you are not able to give a sense of purpose, I believe your best people will seek it elsewhere.

Are your values still relevant?

And while we’re talking about the fluffy stuff, maybe this is a good time to revisit the values of your company.

I imagine that for many businesses, having a team with aligned values is a big part of what’s got them through the last 12 months.

But I think in many cases, revisiting those values is well worthwhile. Because what you viewed as a positive signal before might seem outdated now.

In our business, we’ve hired against a competency of Achievement Drive. As I’ve mentioned earlier, working long hours or staying late in the office was often seen as part of demonstrating this, partly because this was how I was led and managed in my earlier career.

Demonstrating Achievement Drive is still key for us, but I’m keen to explore how we can measure that without defaulting to hours worked.

The values may stay the same for your business, but there’s a decent chance you’ve seen different behaviours that link to them. So spend some time engaging the team to make sure your values stay relevant.

Build back trust

On the subject of engagement, building an inclusive culture with a high level of psychological safety has to be on your agenda, more so not than ever before.

There’s plenty of evidence that remote working can erode trust, and I’ve found it so much harder to be confident I know how my team is feeling while we’ve been working remotely.

When Google researched the key things their highest-performing teams had in common, psychological safety came out top. We’ve lived through 12 months where Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt have affected us all to some degree, and that’s not good for feeling safe.

Some people will be excited about returning to some kind of normality, others fearing more change and upheaval. Now and over the next few months, a big part of your job as a leader should be creating an environment where people can talk openly and honestly about how they are feeling.

If you’ve successfully navigated a business through the last 12 months then do stop and pause to congratulate yourself and the others that have played a part.

But remember the storm that’s affected us all? Now that the weather is hopefully improving around us, you need to move from steadying the ship to setting sail.

Start setting a course, and make sure you’re embarking on your journey with a plan to keep your crew on board.

Don’t do this alone

The first step? Talk to your crew.

Ask them what they will value. What do they see will be key in retaining them, and how can you make that happen?

The last few months have seen an increase in companies hiring, and at some point, that means your team will be approached more often.

Some of your key people may have come close to leaving, but decided to stay put because of the increased risk is moving jobs during a pandemic.

Don’t let the lack of resignations cause complacency for you. There’s still time to improve your chances of retaining your best people before it’s too late.