Monday, May 27, 2024

Round table: Technology, how to attract and retain strong tech talent



Technology has automated many of life’s tasks, whether at home or work. And at the other end of the wire, there’s someone writing code, engineering a device or selling its benefits. But as the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact lessens, technology companies, like those in other industries, are struggling to find workers. Business North Carolina magazine recently gathered five leaders from the state’s technology industry to discuss workforce concerns, the ways technology companies are overcoming them and how these struggles will make the industry stronger.

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First Bank sponsored the discussion, which was moderated by NC TECH’s Brooks Raiford. It was edited for brevity and clarity.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected attracting and retaining technology workers?

DEFREITAS: Candidates have their choice of job opportunities right now. So, when it comes to attracting talent, companies need to be genuine and focus on their employment branding. Greene Resources’ recruiting division, for example, recently volunteered at a nonprofit. The team-building activity was a chance to blow off steam and do good work in the community. Our marketing person was all over it, highlighting the outing through posts on the company’s social media channels. That helped our employment branding and talent attraction. Many candidates are searching for companies that do good work internally and externally. As you get into the interviewing process, explain what’s in the job for candidates beyond salary. While that’s an important piece, it’s not the only one. Candidates want to know how you’ll help them learn and grow and what that pathway looks like for them.

GADDY: GDC was a self-funded startup, and now it’s part of London Stock Exchange Group, a large multinational company. We’ve lived through many recruiting challenges. How do you recruit when you’re tiny? How do you recruit when you’re big? If your company is small and doesn’t have much money to pay people, then you have to find candidates that fit your needs and understand what drives them. Our vice president of engineering’s wife owns several local coffee shops. It’s important to him to have work-life flexibility, so he can help in the shops on a busy afternoon, for example, or accompany her on a buying trip. So, understanding a particular candidate’s needs is important, not only for hiring good employees but engaging them. It’s not only about the work. It’s about the other pieces, too.

RESNICK: I’m reminded of something the late comedian George Carlin said: “Your kids aren’t special, but they’re special to you.” It’s important to remember that your company looks like many others to candidates, at least at first. So, use its culture and other attributes to differentiate it. I want to understand why a transaction works for the other party. If it isn’t beneficial to the other side, then it ultimately is an extraction, which diminishes resources. Discovering why an individual chooses a company is hypercritical to the success of that individual as they blend into the company. 

THOMAS: Companies are fighting for talent. Before joining First Bank, I worked for multinational companies, most recently Goldman Sachs. Recruiting for those large companies is different than recruiting for a midsize financial services company. It’s difficult to recruit really good talent against big tech companies. While many may be under a hiring freeze at the moment, that won’t always be the case. So, I’ve focused on building good relationships with local universities, creating a talent pipeline. Building it takes a team of others within the company such as the head of human resources.

How is the work-from-anywhere trend reshaping the workplace? 

RAIFORD: NC TECH produces a monthly information-technology jobs report and a quarterly poll that presents questions to more than 300 technology leaders. Every poll includes these two questions: What percentage of your workforce is remote on any given day and what percentage of your employees have a say in where they work. We’ve seen a gradual shift back to in-office. It’s not dominant, but there is movement. Even though the percentage of those who had a choice remains high, the percentage that are out on a given day has shrunk. That tells us employees are choosing to come back. We’ll continue to follow that trend.

THOMAS: Companies have focused on setting standards for where their employees work. But it really depends on the employee’s personal life. Lives changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some people had children, for example, and others have a spouse who lost a job. Some companies have mandated that employees return to the office. There’s value in bringing people together. But there is a cost, too, such as what we’ve seen with spikes of new COVID variants, which potentially could come down to someone’s life. You have to consider all of this when creating return-to-office policies. We spend a lot of time thinking about the future of work, what it will look like and how we keep people engaged. Creating good experiences for employees and customers in the office is important. One reason behind getting people back in the office is the fact that many big companies don’t own the buildings they use. They rent them, some in 50- or 100-year leases. That expense is a big driver for getting bodies in seats.

RESNICK: Leaders must define the objectives of bringing employees back to the office. My company isn’t a large bank or has been recently acquired, so it can be a bit more flexible in how it does things. But at the end of the day, it’s all about deliverables. One hypothetical question that I always ask fellow CEOs concerns two teams. They each have a delivery deadline in 90 days. Team A delivers on the 90th day, and its work is excellent. Team B delivers a week before the deadline, while working only 25 hours each week, and its work also is excellent. So, how do you assign your next deliverable? Most everyone says give Team B more work. But why would you punish Team B, when it’s highly successful? You need to define your goals and objectives. One objective of people returning to the office is watercooler moments. You run into your chief development officer, for example, and share an idea that you have. Then that person walks back into his or her office and says, “Eureka!” They never thought about that problem that way. Those moments aren’t part of teleconferencing. What’s the point to getting people wholesale to come into the office three days a week? What’s the deliverable associated with that objective? That’s what I ask myself.

DEFREITAS: Return-to-office strategies are varied. Being in the office brings value, whether that’s collaboration or training. But there needs to be a why behind individuals coming into an office. Recent graduates did a lot of their schooling virtually. And Millennials who are raising families want flexibility. We always advise clients that if there is workplace flexibility in a job, it needs to be advertised or it will cause retention issues. Completing work, meeting goals, satisfying customers — those need to be driving forces, regardless if work is done in person or virtually. Communicate it on the front end, and reinforce it as work is being completed. 

How can employers create structure for employees who are working from anywhere?

RAIFORD: One problem of not being in the office is you don’t sense things. If you’re working with someone every day, you pick up on nuances. Are they stressed? How do they sound, look or feel? So, you can miss things when working remotely. And there’s no off button. The commute provided a transition period — a mental break — from where you live to where you work and vice versa. Lunch provided a natural break, too. No one expected you to be all over your smartphone while having lunch, though most of us were. Nowadays, I get on my computer early and knock out emails. It’s shocking how quickly and how many responses I receive from people doing the same thing. But you never feel you can walk away for an hour at any point during the day. You work past when it would’ve been time to leave the office and go home.

GADDY: We were working remotely well before the pandemic. And as our company grew, we created cultural points. Once you met your goals and metrics, for example, you were free to move onto the next ones. No one’s looking to pay anything else on the first ones. You own your time. The company simply rents available pieces of it. We took to heart the idea that fun should not be forced. Many businesses, for example, say we’re all going for a beer after work, or we’re holding a virtual event at 9 p.m. so overseas colleagues can attend. Often those become less of a good thing and more of a burden. You need to decide if what used to be done in the office is a good thing when working remotely. Remote work requires building out the interconnections without imposing things that make the situation worse. It’s work-life respect. Work has to respect life, and life has to respect the work that needs to be done. Without that respect, you end up with an imbalance. If you don’t respect your work enough, then you’re going to suffer on the life side and
vice versa.

RESNICK: There was a podcast that examined social media’s psychological impacts on children. Unfortunately, we won’t know how it has embedded its hooks into their existence for about 15 years. Psychiatrists and psychologists are looking at how we can plan for it, but we don’t know the outcomes yet. It’s a similar situation to what we’re dealing with in the workplace. Business leaders are grasping at straws, trying to figure out the best possible solutions or outcomes. But we don’t really know. I do know that the whole structure of the way that we work has been forever changed by the pandemic. We’re searching for the best path forward. I’m trying to maximize employee output. That hasn’t changed. Everyone talks about work-life balance. But I don’t buy into it. When are you able to separate them? It’s really about work-life integration. People need to understand that going on a hike with your smartphone is freedom. I’m not saying people should work all the time. But as part of the workplace shakeup, everyone needs to think differently. It’s like someone said to me: You have unlimited vacation. But what if I return from a vacation and someone says I have two tickets to St. Croix, come along. Should I go on another vacation? I don’t know. Look at your deliverables. Look at your objectives and key results. If we’re truly deliverable based, and we’ve created reasonable goals that move the company forward, then everything else, such as what percentage of people are in and out of the office, are old ways of thinking about work. A friend of mine worked for a technology company out West. He had a work computer and a home computer. He told me that his work computer never left his office. He didn’t want his work life and home life to mingle. That’s not reality. The reality is devices, such as computers and smartphones, enable us to go play golf, for example, and still take a work call. I want all of my people to feel good. I want all my people to go on vacation.

What are some creative ways that you’ve seen technology companies use to find talent in today’s competitive environment?

DEFREITAS: Companies that have created a geographically dispersed employee base have been rewarded with a larger candidate pool, especially with skilled workforce. We see that trend continuing. We heard about the Great Resignation, but we’re seeing signs of a Great Retirement. Baby boomers still make up a large portion of the workforce, and many are choosing to retire now or in the near future. They’ll take a lot of experience and knowledge with them. Maybe some of them aren’t ready to retire completely; maybe they’re open to consulting or contract work. Companies need to get creative, finding ways for that population to train entry level workers, who may lack the same level of enterprise or the specific experience that companies need. 

RESNICK: We had nine employees 14 months ago. We’re at 39 now. We searched for a lead developer, who had a science background and was able to speak to fermentation analytics, for 12 months. It was difficult. Then we found someone to work underneath him in less than two months. I haven’t found any one thing that works. It’s all over the map. I’m always open to new ways for finding people. There’s a general tendency to elevate people from the thing that they’re talented at, then we’re shocked when it doesn’t work. The right person in the right seat is important. Be honest and upfront with people. Every relationship serves a purpose. You have to stay in touch with that purpose. Sometimes it changes; sometimes it ends. Every position has a lifespan. People will max out of them. You can’t start your administrator at $60,000 then take him or her to $85,000, $90,000 then $95,000. That’s going to break your system. We tend to have an idyllic view of retaining everybody and paying them more. That’s not reality. But if you’re honest and upfront with people, you have the opportunity to say here’s a move into a different group that focuses on your talents. You may not be totally comfortable, but I will ensure you’re supported. It’s like a 1031 exchange with real estate. They move and start again. There’s a moment in time when you realize that you have to let talent go. I love my people, but I also know when that becomes a disservice to them. I’m keeping them for the wrong reasons. I will help them find something else as much as I hate to see them leave.

THOMAS: It’s important to keep talent within a company. So, let them move around and grow within the company as opposed to letting them walk out the door. Give them a chance to work in different groups. Maybe they find a new niche. Then they become more valuable to the company because they know more. You need to create a good culture, then sell it. We have a great culture at First Bank. We have a commitment to service excellence and giving back to our community. Those are important to me. People ask me why I left Goldman Sachs to work for a smaller financial services institution in North Carolina. A big part was the leadership of the bank’s president and CEO, Michael Mayer. I saw a real opportunity in a great company with a great culture. That can be seen as valuable by many potential employees.

GADDY: There’s a concept that we’re all under the same tent. You may not work for us anymore, but we’ve built a relationship. That entitles us and you to certain things. I’ll help you find your next gig. I’ll be your reference. Building that keeps continuity, because that person, even if they leave, is more likely to recommend your company to a friend. We’ve had three or four people refer three or four other people. And even though they left for other places, the connections remain. I go to weddings in India, because people that used to work with us were here on an H-1B temporary visa, and they had to return home. But they’re still under the tent. Understanding that social and emotional construct and building it the right way helps you keep teams and fill the workforce pipeline with opportunities.

RAIFORD: Early in my tenure with NC TECH, a company sent Starbucks gift cards to past employees who parted on good terms. It was a way to invite them to consider coming back to work at the company while enjoying a cup of coffee. It was amazingly effective. They received enough inbound feedback that made it worth sending out those $5 gift cards. 


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