Want to attract and keep great employees? Here’s how to raise your game

What kinds of benefits do employees really want? Have companies taken the open office concept too far? Those were just two of the questions raised at Help Wanted: HR Strategies That Work, a recent BCBusiness event focused on best practices for human resources and recruiting—and what the future holds for companies and workers.

Credit: This Is It

Keynote speaker Caroline Stokes

Our HR Strategies That Work event included a keynote address by recruitment pro Caroline Stokes and a panel discussion covering everything from staff benefits to office design

What kinds of benefits do employees really want? Have companies taken the open office concept too far? Those were just two of the questions raised at Help Wanted: HR Strategies That Work, a recent BCBusiness event focused on best practices for human resources and recruiting—and what the future holds for companies and workers.

Hosted by Contemporary Office Interiors at its Mount Pleasant showroom, the late-afternoon gathering featured a keynote address by veteran Vancouver-based headhunter Caroline Stokes, author of the new book Elephants Before Unicorns: Emotionally Intelligent HR Strategies to Save Your Company.

Following that talk was a wide-ranging panel discussion, moderated by BCBusiness editor-in-chief Nick Rockel, with representatives of four sponsors: Max Brunette, partner; Gowling WLG; Kandy Cantwell, partner, Montridge Advisory Group; Jesse Garcia, workplace knowledge lead, Herman Miller; and Jeff Harris, founder and CEO, Impact Recruitment. Also sponsoring the event was Chartered Professionals in Human Resources of BC and Yukon.

Looking for unicorns? First, deal with your elephants

Stokes discussed the challenges of attracting, retaining and evolving employees in what some call the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the age of artificial intelligence and machine learning. “Start with what you can control,” she advised. You’re talking about controlling your life, leadership, your work environment. If you can control that, the rest will follow.”

No matter what product or service they offer, business leaders are people leaders, Stokes noted. Part of being a people leader is identifying what are known as the human systems in your organization and helping them evolve. “The systems represent your company,” Stokes said. “They’re going to either attract people or they’re going to not.”

Companies want to attract unicorns—people who will help them achieve their growth goals, Stokes explained. But first, they must deal with the elephants in the room. “Once you understand how those systems exist and how they impact your company from a talent attraction, retention and leadership perspective, then you know you’ve got some work to do.”

Graeme Johnson, former global head of employer brand and talent acquisition strategy at British Telecom (now called BT Group), who is interviewed in Stokes’s book, showed his boss how a broken recruiting system cost the multinational US$10 million a year. “You need to find out what candidates say about the end-to-end experience,” Stokes said of recruitment. “Once you know that, you can do something about it.”

Some other key questions: How is employee mission messaging incorporated throughout the business, from marketing to accounting to customer service? How do you want to improve your interview techniques and your hiring manager’s techniques?

And how can you make your onboarding better? “Everybody has fantastic onboarding processes these days,” Stokes said. “They’ve got their notes on the desks when people arrive, they take people out for lunch, they do all of these wonderful things that make everybody feel really fantastic. Then it’s crickets.”

To transform your bottom line, you need a 100-day onboarding program for new employees, Stokes recommended. “That is the fastest way to expedite integration and the fastest way to integrate their ability to develop alongside the mission.”

It’s also important to know how everyone communicates the company ideals. “You have to understand what the language is and try to get those stories together,” Stokes said. “There’s a reason why storytelling is the No. 1 thing in advertising, and it’s because that has to be communicated across the board, and it’s not just all about the bottom line and profit and loss.”

Companies should also ask how they can help people connect the organization’s mission to their why, Stokes continued. “When people understand why they come to work, why they want to go to work, why they want to help an organization, why they want to help people—if you can help people connect that with their company mission, they’re going to thrive.”

To help organizations deal with elephants, Stokes offers a free workplace diagnostic. “The data, once you have that, is going to be phenomenal for you to understand exactly how you can move forward,” she explained, warning that it can be a frustrating process. “You’re going to be able to go in and search and identify exactly what needs to be done.”

(From left) Panellists Max Brunette, Kandy Cantwell, Jeff Harris and Jesse Garcia with moderator Nick Rockel

More money is just a starting point

Asked what today’s employees are looking for in benefit and retirement plans, Montridge Advisory’s Cantwell flagged four things. The first is health: physical, mental and financial. No. 2: flexibility. “Studies have shown that employees are willing to pay more for their benefits and have more of a cost share if they are able to get some more flexibility with their plan,” said Cantwell, whose Vancouver-based firm advises organizations throughout North America on employee benefits.

Third is better communication to employees about their plans and the resources available to them. Fourth: “targeted communications from insurance companies that you contract with, especially for employees with chronic health conditions.”

For companies thinking of changing their office space, Garcia of U.S. office furniture giant Herman Miller offered this advice. “I think it’s important from a people standpoint to understand those work processes that are happening—when that work is happening, where it’s happening and what those changes might look like 10, 15 years from now,” he said. “It’s important to keep in mind that we’re trying to build spaces and places to do the work of tomorrow, not necessarily the work of today.”

People coming out of universities and colleges today are keen to learn and work in groups, Dallas-based Garcia noted. “When they get into an office environment, there becomes an expectation that learning, working and engagement in work will also happen in that same kind of atmosphere or environment of teams.”

A burning question for some: Has the pendulum swung too far toward the open office? “Our point of view at Herman Miller is to think of things in more of a purposeful variety or a balanced kind of workplace,” Garcia replied. “I would really like us to stop using the term open office and instead use—up for your consideration—a balanced workplace. Because a balanced workplace creates both open spaces when you need to do open, collaborative work, and private spaces when you need to do more-focused work.”

In a tight labour market, what strategies are Metro Vancouver companies using to fight for talent? “The short answer is they’re paying more,” Impact Recruitment’s Harris replied, calling it a starting point. Because millennials and Generation Z care less about money than older workers, he said, companies are trying to find strategies to engage and motivate them.

Lawyer Brunette, who is practice group leader in the employment and labour law department at Gowling’s Vancouver and Calgary offices, explained that his firm works with clients that recruit internationally, via the federal Global Talent Streamprogram—which approves labour market impact assessments (LMIAs) within two weeks—and the Provincial Nominee Program, a route to permanent residency in less than two years. “Ten years ago, these kinds of timelines were unheard of, and two weeks is ridiculously fast.”

 Harris had three suggestions for becoming more effective at recruiting. First, if you have an outside recruiter, streamline how they work with your in-house team. Second, enlist a recruiter that specializes in the area where you need to hire. “The third thing is, whoever you work with, whether in-house or outside, create a high-level understanding between your organization and recruiter or in-house team,” said Harris, whose Vancouver-based recruiting agency serves industries such as construction, financial services and IT. “It’s about really understanding where the company’s going and how that single message is unified.”

Credit: This Is It

Audience members had plenty of questions for the experts

From pay equity to work anywhere: Future trends

Asked to look ahead to 2030 and project some key workplace trends and themes, Brunette highlighted the pay equity movement. Already a going concern with federal employers and in Ontario, it will spread across the country in the next three to five years, so employers must start preparing, he said. “There’s a fair bit of analysis that needs to go into that to ensure that you’ve got balance throughout your organization.”

Cantwell pointed to an emerging trend among larger companies: data analytics of claims patterns in benefits plans. Where most wellness plans rely on historical data, companies in Canada can now use information from your insurance provider to identify emerging health trends in your employee population, she noted. “If you have a potential handle upfront and what that looks like on an aggregate level, it allows you to build plan designs as well as wellness cultures that can help tackle what’s coming down the pike.” Cantwell expects this relatively new service to trickle down to smaller organizations as the data becomes more accessible.

Harris’s bet? “You’re going to see what I would call gamification for motivation of people,” he said, predicting that companies will spend big on technology to make it happen.

The coming decade will see a “hyper version of work anywhere,” Garcia said. Although upward of a quarter of organizations already let their people work from home or somewhere else outside the office, “it will reach a monumental number,” he added.

Offering that kind of flexibility could be a major draw for staff who need to get work done while offering support to their families. According to one estimate, 25 percent of the 8.1 million Canadians caring for a parent or grandparent are aged 15 to 24. “One of the things that we could think about in the future is simply offering that person the ability to go and take their mother to the doctor at 10 o’clock on Tuesday,” Garcia said. “I promise if you were able to do that, the likelihood that that individual will stay at your organization will dramatically increase.”

For employers, that means significant change management, Garcia stressed. “Companies really need to understand that this is going to be a must as opposed to a side or a minimal offering or benefit,” he said. It will happen “whether organizations want to or not, or they won’t survive.”