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For all of us involved in scaling a business, having the right team is an essential ingredient.  The second half of that is to retain them.  When lockdown first hit businesses, many people looked with horror at both those challenges.  Some are still struggling.  I set out to find the expert secrets of the people who are triumphing.

Finding people to recruit

Jimmy Williams is the CEO of the Urban Jungle, which provides insurance to generation rent and millennials.  They doubled their team in 2020 and anticipate doing the same this year. Jimmy finds they are swamped with applications, but not necessarily people with the right qualifications, so they plan to improve their filtering.  They find Zoom works for interviewing, but they like to do practical tests, so they also plan to develop these in exploding formats to prevent sharing between applicants.

Jimmy says that it is “harder is getting to someone’s personality, so we often ask more direct questions about that. It’s not like anyone has any out of work interests at the moment, so we have to get it out of them!”

Donald Lindsay is People Operations Director at the hugely successful FreeAgent, which makes award-winning cloud accounting software for small businesses and their accountants. While FreeAgent has had low turnover, when Donald has needed to recruit, he too found a great pool of motivated talent in the market last year and expects to see much the same this.

Natalie Lewis of Dynamic HR Services also feels that with so many good people who will be made redundant, the talent pool will be large in 2021, but the key will be in the selection.  The choice is even more comprehensive than before. Entrepreneurs worldwide are no longer restricted to employing people locally or even nationally.  A global company in San Francisco might be hiring someone who lives in a remote Cornish cottage.  But pulling precisely the right fish out of a worldwide ocean will challenge everyone in the business of recruitment in 2021.

Integration post recruiting:

Both Jimmy and Natalie agree, the biggest challenge is often not the recruitment but integrating them remotely.  “It’s not like it can happen by osmosis or down the pub,” Jimmy points out.  Urban Jungle encourages everyone in their team to bring their personality to work, but Jimmy admits it is hard to do.

Companies have to create that crucial buy-in to vision, mission, and culture, and this has the crux of the lockdown challenge, which Natalie describes as behavior onboarding.  “Previously, with people in an office together, it was much easier for newbies to pick it the culture and internalize it from the people around them, what they hear and see, embodied in the physical room.”  Without it happening naturally, leaders have to create it.

Natalie believes it is the companies that have been open to change and adapting that are thriving and cites Gitlab as a perfect example.  They have a flat structure, high accountability, and responsibility.  Natalie believes that even post-pandemic, companies like this will retain hybrid working.

FreeAgent moved the whole company to remote work in March last year and quickly adapted to virtual recruitment.  Donald says this meant both updating their range of interview guides and processes so they cover online settings and upskilling their staff so they could properly manage and lead this work.

“Even before the pandemic,” Donald adds, “we were looking at how we could strengthen the employee experience at FreeAgent. 2021 will see us building on these strong foundations.”

Creating culture and retention from day one

I asked all three of my experts for their top tips, practices that they find work best to build and retain great teams in new times:

Jimmy’s top tips:

  • Jimmy says that they work “very hard to keep the team both productive and happy.  “We’re trying to maintain our usual levels of transparency, despite being in a physically different space, which makes that difficult.”  One thing they do to maintain transparency is that some of their senior team members now have ‘open 1-2-1s’ with their direct reports so that more junior team members can eavesdrop on what is going on like they would in the office.”
  • The second Wednesday in the month is “Workmate Wednesday,” which is just to have non-work chats with colleagues.
  • They also use their social budget to send people little treats in the post and include some remote socials. “Remote cocktail making for the Christmas party was brilliant,” Jimmy adds.  In addition, having found that around 20% of their team were suffering from their mental health after lockdowns started in 2020, they replaced their social budget for a mental health fund, offering counseling and yoga session in place of after-work drinks. This does seem to have helped and the team is coping better with this lockdown.”

Donald’s top tips are:

  • Donald believes that “flexible working arrangements will become the new normal going forward when it comes to future recruitment with fewer roles requiring to be based full-time in our HQ.   There will be more of a hybrid split between office-based and remote working from home.”  He believes this kind of flexibility is likely to be an important factor for many applicants in the future, so it’s vital to adapt and meet these expectations as quickly as possible.
  • Donald also plans to strengthen FreeAgent’s progression and personal development.  They will offer people the chance to upskill and also to explore other careers within FreeAgent.
  • They will also aim to improve things like salary bands, inter-departmental movement, flexible working arrangements, and succession planning “so that employees feel properly valued and nurtured.”
  • FreeAgent is also continually reviewing staff benefits packages to ensure they are as strong as possible.  Donald believes that “if our people don’t feel they have a voice or are valued, we simply won’t be able to retain the amazing talent we have here.”

Natalie’s top tips are:

  • For Natalie, it is all about building culture.  One tip is that everyone on a remote team to have google hangouts open all day.  People being able to see each other makes a crucial difference to isolation.  They can always mute for an important call.
  • She recommends enforcing virtual coffee meetings a couple of times a day.  Her experience is that people embrace it at first and then lose interest, so you need to really encourage it until they see the benefits – which are huge.
  • Natalie says that to retain teams, a culture of compassion and flexibility will be the absolute key in the future.   Many people have to juggle work and family responsibilities in these lockdowns, and they need understanding and flexibility to remain committed and happy.

Guided by the experts, I conclude that selecting the right talent will be the challenge for 2021 from a vast global pool.  Integration is critical for culture.  And when it comes to retention, the keywords are flexibility, transparency, compassion, and showing you value your team in every way possible.  Just as they have always been, but much more so.

Jan Cavelle has several decades of founding micro and SME’s behind her and is now a freelance writer and author. Throughout her career, she has worked on various campaigns to support and encourage other entrepreneurs.   Her first book is Scale for Success: Expert Insights into Growing Your Business, Bloomsbury Business, 2021.

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