Competition for talent is a bigger concern than a recession, says Slack’s future of work expert

Attracting and retaining the top talent is key to surviving a tough economy but requires a different mindset from employers, survey shows

The tight labour market is the main concern for businesses right now – more than challenging economic conditions and rising input costs. 

So says Brian Elliott, SVP of Slack and executive leader of its research consortium, Future Forum, which explores workplace trends and has released new data about employee sentiment.

“Competition in today’s economy is about talent,” Elliott explains. ”It’s about the ability to attract, retain and engage talented people and to get them collaborating as efficiently and effectively as possible.” 

Although the number of vacancies reported by the Office for National Statistics fell in the period July to September, the UK labour market remains tight. With the level of unemployment declining and economic inactivity increasing, the number of candidates continues to be restricted. The number of unemployed people per vacancy is at a record low of 0.9.

According to Elliott, this trend is the same among knowledge, office and frontline workers. Even in a tough economy, finding the right talent in the labour market will remain paramount for businesses. 

“I’ve managed teams in two and a half recessions now,” he says. “Top talent always has a choice. Your most talented salespeople, marketers, engineers, finance experts will still be the most sought-after people in a distressed economy and companies will compete to steal them away from you.” 

How to retain talent in a recession

Elliott says that, despite the current economic conditions: “The companies that win in three to five years from now will be the ones that take a much more flexible approach.”

To hold on to talent, companies will have to employ flexible working practices. Flexibility is second only to compensation to keep talent, according to Future Forum research. While it can be challenging to improve compensation in recessionary times, providing flexibility need not come at an additional cost.

“We are starting to see a bifurcation of how organisations approach the future of work,” Elliott reports. Some companies push for a return to the office, while others continue with remote working. But he reports that top-down policies for people to work in the office a few days a week have rarely been successful. 

“So much of the conversation about flexibility has been about location,” Elliott says. “But 80% of people in our survey want location flexibility – and the majority of those want to come together a couple of days a week – whereas 94% of people want schedule flexibility.”

If we can find ways not to think about location but about how people use their time together, it unlocks a lot of productivity gains

During Covid lockdowns, many office workers’ diaries slowly filled up with Zoom calls. Research from Business Financing shows that the time spent in meetings for the average worker went up 69% between 2020 and 2021, to an average of 21.5 hours per week. It estimates that the wasted productivity created by excessive meetings could cost British businesses £36bn a year.

For Elliott, these statistics emphasise the importance of schedule flexibility. “Finding some way to put constraints on the day is hugely valuable. People who have found ways to do it note that it has a bigger impact on work-life balance, stress and employee productivity than location flexibility,” he says. “If we can find ways not to think about location but about how people use their time together, it unlocks a lot of productivity gains.”

Why employee monitoring is a waste of time

Some companies have turned to workplace surveillance tools to try to recoup some of this lost productivity time. 

A survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development shows that more than half of bosses (55%) agree with the use of employee-monitoring tools, although only 28% admit to using such software in their organisation.

The fact that people are buying mouse jigglers shows gamification of employee monitoring

But Elliot says these forms of employee monitoring are “a weak way of managing people”. Certain employee surveillance programmes track mouse movement to judge whether someone is at their computer. This has led to a rise in the sale of mouse jigglers, which simulate the use of a computer mouse, with eBay reporting searches for the mouse-moving devices were up 19%.  

“The fact that people are buying mouse jigglers shows gamification of employee monitoring, which isn’t improving productivity,” Elliott explains. “All it does is cause people to gamify their own behaviour to hit the outcome the manager is looking for.”

Outcome-driven management is therefore much better to improve employee motivation, productivity and retention, in Elliott’s opinion. But this change in management style will require change on the part of leadership too, something he admits is “always hard”. 

“It’s very contrary to the way of working that I grew up with, where information was power and leaders wanted to command and control,” Elliott adds. “People expect to be able to challenge leaders and ask them questions so that they can understand the thinking behind the decisions.”

Elliott thinks that this makes transparency a “really important” quality for leaders to show. Those that can manage with transparency, offer flexibility and focus on outcomes, will survive and thrive, despite a recession.