Sign In

Is increasing wages or cutting hours enough to ensure staff retention?

Salary increases are becoming an increasingly blunt retention tool. Flexibility is now crucial to many workers – for whom a simple ‘thank you’ from their employer wouldn’t go amiss either 


Faced with an exodus of talent from their industry, even the most conservative of corporate law firms are thinking about adopting innovative recruitment and retention tactics. Take magic-circle member Clifford Chance, for instance. Jonathan Kewley, the co-head of its tech practice, recently submitted an emoji-punctuated plan to the partners that recommended several novel measures. These included bringing in a four-day week, sponsoring employees to pursue “passion projects and hobbies” and allowing people to take “micro-retreats every six weeks in cool places we might not have thought of.”

The policies that Kewley proposed would be overseen by a senior executive assuming the new role of chief happiness officer. The incumbent would bring in a host of further retention measures, such as ensuring that employees receive the latest books by their favourite authors on publication. 

Another of his suggestions included removing the job title ‘trainee’. Given that starting salaries for Clifford Chance trainees are in the region of £50,000, this proposal – alongside all the other recommended changes – is a strong indication that pay is not all that matters to employees. 

Although some colleagues of the partner who told the London Evening Standard that Kewley’s plan was “utterly deluded” would endorse that verdict, it’s a sign that there may be a revolution afoot in working conditions and inducements even in the highest-paid industries.

Many firms have found that the flexible working regimes they have been obliged to adopt since the first national Covid lockdown was imposed in 2020 haven’t reduced the quality of their output. So says Nic Marks, who worked as a statistician studying quality of life for 25 years, including as an adviser to both Labour and Tory governments, before co-founding workplace data company Friday Pulse. 

“If you have a client that’s paying you for your employees’ time, it won’t want to buy time when they are knackered. It wants to pay for their best work,” Marks stresses.

To continue delivering work of that standard, employees want to retain the flexibility they were granted during the initial phase of the Covid crisis. Indeed, they are actively seeking employers that are offering staff the most freedom to do their work where and when it best suits them.

Flexa Careers, a platform where employers can advertise only genuinely flexible jobs, started operating in February 2020. It has since attracted more than 400,000 users. 

For Molly Johnson-Jones, one of Flexa’s co-founders, the business was born of necessity. In 2016, aged 26, she was working at an investment bank when her career was derailed by an auto-immune illness that would at times render her unable to walk. Instead of letting her work from home when she needed to, the bank’s response was to offer her a settlement package and the door.

Her resulting search for a more supportive employer led her to create a resource to help others in a similar position. 

“One user we helped now lives in the mountains and has skydiving as a hobby,” says Johnson-Jones, who reports that 86% of Flexa’s users are searching for employers that operate a ‘work from anywhere’ regime. 

At a time when people are quitting their jobs in unprecedented numbers, ‘thank you’ has never been so powerful

“They can make a primary search – for accountancy jobs, say – but they can also make a secondary search for features they want from an employer – from a dog-friendly office to an enhanced parental-leave entitlement. That secondary search is becoming more demanding in this market.”

Flexa practises what it preaches. Employees work four-and-a-half-day weeks, with core hours of 11am to 3pm and an annual leave allowance of 36 days. The London-based firm also allows its staff to work where they like. Johnson-Jones herself recently spent six weeks working in Devon and Cornwall. 

HappyOrNot is a Finnish-based multinational that asks people exactly that question on behalf of the companies to which it sells its distinctive terminals. These consist of four coloured buttons that customers can press to indicate whether they are very happy, happy, unhappy or very unhappy with the service they’ve received. It has also conducted a large-scale research employee satisfaction survey, polling 2.8 million people across a range of industries last year. The results suggest that flexible work is happy work. 

Respondents in industries offering more flexibility – technology, for instance – were significantly more likely to declare themselves very happy than those in sectors such as healthcare, which tend to require employees to be on the premises at all times while on duty. 

With 83.5% of tech workers saying that they were very happy overall, it’s notable that they maintained this level of satisfaction at all times of the day and week. Those who worked Sunday shifts in less flexible sectors became far less content. For instance, the proportion of healthcare staff saying they were very happy working on that day was 51.9%, compared with their overall average of 63.5%.

The Covid-enforced move to remote working has not only given people a taste for a different way of operating; it’s also detached them from the hive mind of the office. That’s the view of Eric Mosley, co-founder and CEO of Workhuman, a provider of employee recognition schemes. 

“We’re seeing a huge amount of disconnection between employees, their company and their colleagues,” he says. 

This indicates that many people are “looking for jobs with meaning and for employers that accommodate different working preferences, all the while maintaining a sense of human community. If that’s not the case, they will walk. Workhuman’s latest research report, Two Years into Covid, reveals that the great resignation is still a massive disruptor. Of the workers we surveyed across the UK, the US, Canada and Ireland, four in 10 are planning to look for a new job in the next 12 months.”

The study also found that people who had simply been thanked by their manager for their efforts in the previous month were half as likely to be seeking a new job than those who hadn’t.

“At a time when people are quitting their jobs in unprecedented numbers, ‘thank you’ has never been so powerful,” Mosely says.

Marks observes that most bosses are what the Chartered Management Institute calls “accidental managers”, by which it means they’ve been promoted for their technical knowledge and/or length of service, rather than their people skills. A lack of know-how in this area can be problematic when it comes to motivating their team members and making them feel engaged with their organisation. 

He believes that all line managers should hold review meetings with their staff at the end of each week “where they ask: ‘What went well for you? What didn’t?’ Too often, we simply move on to the next thing. Businesses are concerned that they would be opening Pandora’s box by doing that – they worry about what would come out. But they don’t see that so much good stuff can come out simply by asking.”

One company that has opened the box is Fishbrain. Its popular app helps anglers to locate the best swims, exchange tips and find fishing pals. But what it couldn’t necessarily do was help the company lure more female talent to its 130-strong workforce – a challenging task, given that both coding and angling are male-dominated pursuits. 

Fishbrain signed up to Pink Programming, a not-for-profit organisation that runs coding events for women and celebrates female successes in the tech industry, to see if it could help to develop and attract female coders. 

Another key move it made was simply ask its employees for ideas to make the workplace more inclusive to women. 

Lisa Kennelly, Fishbrain’s chief marketing officer, explains: “If we can’t make women feel welcome in the office, how can we make them feel welcome in our app? One thing that kept coming back from staff was that they would like the bathrooms in the building to offer free sanitary products. Making this small change has made a big impact. Our female joiners always comment on how valued this makes them feel compared with previous workplaces.”

Fishbrain now also supports flexible schedules for employees who need to work outside typical office hours. Such minor concessions can make all the difference in retaining the services of valued employees. 

Johnson-Jones believes that a positive change is coming at even the biggest corporations. “It is absolutely possible for office-based companies, even those with thousands of employees, to at least offer hybrid working. Any firm saying that it isn’t is lying.”

Not that her old employer has started offering flexible working, she notes. Such firms may be able to offer the most generous financial rewards, but they have yet to realise that, for the latest generation of candidates especially, it’s not all about the money.