When “retention” becomes a buzzword, you know something has shifted in the world of work. You hear a lot about retention – and its shiny cousin “incentivisation” – at the moment, often coupled with the word “talent”, as if Dave from accounts might issue a rider demanding baskets of newborn spaniels and bowls of blue tropical Skittles before he deigns to tackle this month’s payroll.
I like it. It’s always interesting when the balance of power shifts in a relationship – and it feels as if that is the case now. We are probably too close to the “great resignation” – the term coined by the US academic Anthony Klotz for the wave of pandemic “quits” – to understand it properly, but it shows signs of being more than a blip.
In August, 4.3 million Americans resigned, beating the previous record, set in April. In the UK, the interminable carnival of Brexit gave us a summer of incredulous headlines like “HGV drivers paid more than CEOs”. (If only they were; it seems obvious that people who sleep in laybys, relying on baby wipes for personal hygiene and ruining their health to keep us fed, should earn more than anyone whose day involves nothing more arduous than some blue-sky thinking conducted from an ergonomic desk chair.) But the UK staffing crisis is deepening: more than a quarter of firms surveyed last month said a lack of staff was affecting their ability to operate.
This new economic landscape, for all its real horrors, offers scope to do things differently. Employers need us; although we still require food, shelter, wifi and Netflix (the 2021 pyramid of needs), we seem to have entered a period of existential reckoning about the role of work in our lives. Tǎng píng (“lying flat”), the Chinese protest movement against a frenetic working culture that treats employees as expendable, profit-maximising units, is becoming a reasoned philosophy and gathering momentum.
Of course, the thing about not caring quite so much is that it is the perfect negotiating position. For once, we have an opportunity to exercise our bargaining power, so what do we want? Justice, yes, but here are some more specific suggestions.
Unless and until all employers are prepared to pay workers a living wage, ensure working conditions are safe and healthy and hours are humane, there is no point in forming focus groups to discuss whether employees would prefer subsidised sandwiches or meditation classes. Newsflash: they would prefer work to provide them with enough money, and enough free time, to live. This applies across the employment spectrum. A Goldman Sachs internal survey from February painted a damning picture of analysts working absurd hours to the detriment of their physical and mental health.
Be flexible (don’t just say you are)
A survey by the Trades Union Congress revealed last month that 50% of mothers who had requested flexible working had been at least partly refused. That is half of those asking for the ability to meet their caring responsibilities being told it isn’t possible. No amount of wellbeing seminars or gong bath sessions can make up for that. This is entry-level stuff: if you don’t let people look after their loved ones, they will not want – indeed, will not be able – to work for you.
We got wise to the tendency of 90s and 00s employers to dress up facilitating never leaving the office – showers, chair massage, nap pods – as corporate largesse. But let’s not dismiss all traditional perks. Food is still good. I know of no more reliable workplace mood booster than the appearance of employer-funded cake. In my City lawyer days, we traced the firm’s fortunes by the baked goods it provided. Still-warm lemon drizzle: the managing partner is considering a yacht. Three pack of bourbons: P45s incoming.
When will employers realise that what we all want is someone to track down the best deal on home insurance, find a cheap emergency plumber or spend 53 minutes on hold to the council to request a new bin. A work concierge service that takes away tedious life admin would have me racing back to full-time on-site employment faster than a ferret can get up a trouser leg.
An ‘always be recruiting’ mindset
Employers should treat existing employees with the kind of seductive, assiduous attention they bring to hiring new staff. Yes, it’s a bit like those corny relationship therapists who tell you to treat your long-term life partner as if you are still “courting” when you have harvested enough of their plughole hair over the years to knit a thoroughly unpleasant jumper. But it would be nice to see more employers commit to bringing us flowers (by which I mean cake, extra money and more annual leave) year after year, rather than having their heads turned by some flighty young LinkedIn profile.
Microsoft announced this week it will be joining (or fighting) Mark Zuckerberg in his dreadful “metaverse” with its Mesh service, offering AI-enabled immersive meetings with 3D avatars. So, not only do I have to do my job, but I have to look like a Sims character while I am doing it? This is a resigning matter.
No one wants another awkward away day, but unless your job has intrinsic value (none of mine have fallen under this heading), human connection is the real draw to work. Can I roll my eyes at a workmate in the metaverse? Would I be summoned to a meeting with Paula from HR’s avatar? My happiest office memories are the moments of collective hysteria, gossip and daftness; shared rants behind my superiors’ backs. Employers with the confidence to give us space and time to bond by complaining about them are the ones that deserve our “talent”.
Dog ownership soared in lockdown, making bringing your pet to work one of this year’s “hot perks”. I would, however, suggest that employers keen to retain staff extend this policy to any animal an employee wants to bring in. Snakes, yes. Goats, absolutely. A pony, sure. Imagine the recruitment video potential: big corporates could lure us in with something that looks like one of those heartwarming animal friendship videos your aunt shares on Facebook. Given the choice between lying flat and petting my co-worker’s chinchilla, I know what I would choose.