• Work/Life Balance
  • Retention

The modern workforce: how to attract and retain exceptional employees

If you look at the agenda for any HR strategy meeting this year, attrition and retention will certainly be near the top – and it’s easy to understand why.

As HR professionals can attest to, in today’s competitive talent market it is getting tougher to recruit and retain exceptional employees. In 2016 18% of UK employers said they had difficulty filling roles – a number that has risen 4% in comparison to the previous year. Retention is also posing a similar challenge for UK employers, with the 2016 Autumn CIPD Employee Outlook Survey reporting that 23% of employees are currently looking for a new job.

Coupled with concerns following the UK’s separation from the EU and the possibility of freedom of movement restrictions impacting an already shrinking talent pool, organisations are now striving to find new ways to attract and retain great people. But do we know what employees are really looking for?

The Modern Workforce

The UK workforce is changing and becoming even more diverse and complex. As our population ages and the retirement age increases, employers must adapt to create workplaces which appeal to a multi-generational audience of employees: Baby Boomers (1946 – 1965), Generation X (1965 – 1980) and Millennials (1980 – 1995).

With their age range spanning more than 50 years they each have different interests, responsibilities and commitments. They are no longer can be considered just employees but also parents, grandparents, carers, children and more.

As a result of a wide range of caring and personal commitments, work is no longer their main priority. Instead, employees and society as a whole are expecting work to be carefully balanced with employees’ personal lives. Maintaining this balance is paramount and if the balance tips unfavourably, work quickly takes second place. For the growing number of working parents this is particularly significant as they can feel that they are faced with no option but to reconcile the work-life balance by compromising their careers and downshifting to less stressful jobs, taking pay cuts, reducing their hours and even withdrawing themselves from the workforce completely. Working parents are also keen to maintain the balance for their personal wellbeing too, with 50% agreeing that their work-life balance is increasingly a source of stress.

As a result, the traditional methods of attracting and retaining employees such as high salaries and material goods are no longer as significant as work-life supports. Instead employees are looking to join and stay with organisations which support them not just as employees but as people.

Organisations which support people to effectively manage both their personal and work commitments will therefore reap the rewards in attracting, and even more importantly retaining, exceptional people as work and personal lives become increasingly intertwined.

In fact, when asked what difference having a flexible and family-friendly employer makes, over half of respondents to the 2017 Modern Families Index said that having such an employer would make them happier, more motivated, more productive and more likely to stay with their organisation. Whilst they identified themselves as being most responsible for finding a good work-life balance, parents also thought that employers should put more policies in place to help people balance work and family life and change the company culture so that work-life balance is more acceptable.

So what does this look like in practical terms?

Great Benefits

Creating a compelling benefits package which provides more than just the traditional cash bonus and expensive wrist-watch goes a long way in demonstrating to employees that you see them as more than just a commodity for the business but as a human being – a ‘human resource’.  Many employers fail to recognise that by solely providing material and financial goods to their employees, they are demonstrating or reinforcing a culture whereby employees are seen as another resource or asset which can be bought and sold – much like a machine or real estate property.  Instead forward-thinking employers are moving toward a humanistic model which provides holistic and therapeutic benefits which look after the employee’s health and wellbeing.  Successful examples have included on-site fitness and yoga classes, mindfulness and resilience, on-site childcare and coaching, as well as access to health and nutritional advice from healthcare professionals through face to face, online and telephone portals.

As a society we are living longer, working for longer and working harder than ever before, and therefore a big shift in employee benefits also needs to take place to look after one’s mind as well as the body.  Mental illness is more visible than ever before both in its diagnosis and publicity.  When surveyed in a recent report, the majority of employees claim that their key workplace pressures are from their financial situation, job stresses and family life. This means that employees are attracted more and more to organisations which are seen to be providing benefits and cultures that reduce the pressures of life by attacking the root of the problem, as opposed to implementing sticking-plaster techniques which cover up and heal the damage which has been done.

Help at every Stage

Employers who consistently attract and retain talent do so by alleviating the pressures of the workplace before they even become a concern for the employee too by forecasting the needs of their employees and providing well thought out robust initiatives to deliver a compelling offering.  Employers have recognised that financial control is a key driver in employee wellbeing but giving employees more money is not the most effective way to increase their financial intelligence. Instead, offering courses and sessions to manage budgets and conflicting priorities effectively actually has a much more favourable effect on the financial solvency of the employee.  Similarly job security is also a major driver in terms of the employee’s peace of mind, and employers who recognise this provide initiatives to assist employees with career progression, mentoring and upskilling when their role requirement seems to be at risk of being replaced with technology.

Learning and Development Opportunities

Learning opportunities and career development can also play a fundamental role in recruiting and retaining talented people – particularly millennials who see it as the best employee benefit. Investing in training and development encourages employees to feel a true sense of belonging to an organisation and that their organisation values their contribution, but more importantly helps them to feel confident that they are here for the long haul. With change being cited as one of the main factors of work-related stress and that 92% of employees believe that job security is important, this can have a substantial impact.

Learning and development doesn’t necessarily need to be a formal qualification either and a career pathway can be carved through a great employee mentoring or coaching programme.

Honest Conversations and Flexibility

Introduced in 2014, flexible working arrangements and part-time hours can enable employees with conflicting personal commitments to also remain in the workforce. However, research suggests that flexibility is not viewed solely as a positive arrangement by employees and that there as associated risks, such as being seen to be less committed or that it will have a negative impact on their career. Cultivating a workplace culture which promotes honest conversations can encourage employees to speak about challenges at home and at work and also increase job satisfaction.


Many organisations already offer great workplaces and benefits which support their employees to thrive however, as our workforces become more dispersed, information about these can easily be forgotten, not fully communicated or deleted from an inbox. Regularly promoting benefits and ensuring they are easily accessible ensures that employees can benefit from the solutions available to them, especially during challenging times when they have many items on their mind. A one stop shop can provide a great home for this and can be situated on an organisation’s internal intranet. Promoting benefits can also improve recruitment, retention and engagement as employees can fully appreciate the solutions available to them.

Peace of Mind

The final, but perhaps most prevalent example is providing peace of mind for employees that their dependants are being cared for in their absence. Family-friendly workplace cultures and providing tools to manage care needs are tangible way that employers can support employees and their benefits are proven.

For the growing number of working parents and adult carers, which is now 1 in 9 employees, a suite of practical solutions such as back-up care can provide much needed support, especially when unexpected care challenges arise. With flexible schedules becoming increasingly popular, particularly amongst the younger generation, it is also a practical solution in enabling employees to be agile and flexible to the demands of the working day.

For companies such as Thomson Reuters there are big rewards to offering practical solutions:

“Cultivating an inclusive work environment helps us attract and retain diverse talent with wide-ranging skills and industry expertise who collaborate to provide the most innovative solutions for our clients.” Peter Warwick, Chief People Officer, Thomson Reuters

Great for Employees and Employers

It’s clear that supporting employees has many benefits in recruiting, retaining and engaging employees and ensuring that employees have a great work experience. But in addition to ‘plugging’ the attrition and retention leaky bucket it can also help our organisations succeed too.

In an interview with Inc magazine entrepreneur and founder of Virgin, Richard Branson, argued that organisations should put their people first, not their customers. It wasn’t to say Virgin is not focussed on customer service or that it is solely interested in the bottom line. Instead, Branson shared his philosophy that if organisations place their people first, customers second and shareholders third, in the end customers have a better experience and shareholders do well – all because their people are happy and provide great service.

Employees who highly value their organisation beyond their remuneration package also act as natural brand advocates and can support in building and maintaining organisational reputation. In a digital world, this takes places both face to face and also online as people share more information about themselves. This too supports recruitment as the law of attraction proposes ‘like attracts like’ and people are drawn towards organisations and brands that are similar to them.

One size won’t fit all

Whilst it is easy to suggest solutions and their worth, organisations do come in all shapes and sizes and there is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach. However, there are a multitude of options available to support employers in attracting and retaining the people that are right for their organisation. For those considering additional employee benefits, these can also be scalable depending on the organisation itself and chosen to meet the needs of the workforce.

Future Proof

The future of work certainly promises to continue to be fast-paced and dynamic. In answer to the question ‘what are employees looking for’: an organisation that helps them to do it all.

Employers who consider what practical supports and cultural measures they can offer employees will create a sustainable talent pipeline and prepare their organisation for not just today, but tomorrow too.

Stephanie Kowalewicz, Research and Public Affairs Manager, Bright Horizons

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