Winning the battle for talent: five ways technology can attract and retain skilled employees

The Great Resignation may be easing off, but the battle for talent shows no signs of abating. In May, the Office for National Statistics revealed that, for the first time since records began, there were more job vacancies than unemployed people in the UK. Particularly in terms of tech skills, businesses are suffering – research by Virgin Media O2 Business and Censuswide on the battle for talent found that 55% of respondents agreed that their organisation is having a shortage of skills in relation to digital technology, while 83% were concerned about the impact this could have on their organisation.

“The UK jobs market has an extreme shortage of talent,” says Josh Brenner, chief executive of AI-driven recruitment marketplace Hired. He cites three main factors: a shortage of skills, fewer European workers because of Brexit, and a tendency for empowered workers to quit their jobs in search of something better. The Battle for Talent report shows that 35% of respondents said there was no one with the expertise to replace some people who had left the company.

According to research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the most popular response to this challenge among companies has been to raise pay. But most have gone as far down that road as they’d like, says the CIPD: only 27% anticipate upping pay in the future to address hard-to-fill vacancies.

An alternative, if less well publicised, means of attracting and keeping staff is by investing in the kind of technology that will make their working lives more efficient and more satisfying. According to the Battle for Talent survey, 81% of respondents agreed that technology plays an important role in helping them stay engaged and happy in their job.

”As UK employers grapple to attract and retain the right people, our research shows that technology could be a key battleground,” says Mike Smith, large enterprise and public sector director at Virgin Media O2 Business. “From concerns about digital skills shortages to outdated tech holding them back at work, the nation’s employees are ready to vote with their feet.

“But by stepping up investment in the technology to help everyone work smarter, backed by the right digital training, both private and public sectors have an opportunity to improve the employee experience – and boost outputs at the same time. Employees across the UK rate connectivity infrastructure and hybrid working tools as key for improving their productivity and happiness at work, so it’s clear that now is not the time to row back on the digital transformation the UK has made over the past three years.”

Brenner agrees: “If a company is leveraging more innovative types of technology, that will absolutely get you more interest from candidates,” he says.

So how can employers ensure their technology is an attractive proposition?

Dad working at home
With hybrid working now the norm, it’s important that employees have the technology they need. Photograph: AnnaStills/Shutterstock

Lay the foundations for success
According to the Battle for Talent survey, 72% of workers are frustrated at least once a week by the poor quality or lack of business technology available to them, and 48% say that poor-quality business technology makes them more likely to resign from their jobs within the next six months.

This is perhaps not surprising as, all too often, the foundational technology in a company is operating on internal systems that are already many years old. While businesses have funnelled investment into creating seamless digital experiences for customers, the user experience of internal systems has often been a secondary consideration.

Yet these systems are essential for the smooth running of the devices and apps that enable employees to do their jobs properly – and are key to their workplace experience. Technological research and consulting firm Gartner predicts that remote workers will use at least four different device types by 2024 – up from three in 2019 – noting that 4G- and 5G-equipped devices will be key to a smooth employee experience.

“Particularly in retail businesses, it’s no surprise to find them using old legacy systems,” says James Bidwell, chair of global innovation platform Springwise. However, he cautions that the answer isn’t just to buy new technology for the sake of it, but to take a considered approach.

“The job of the business is to source the right systems for the teams who use them, so that they drive the business plan – which, in turn, will drive employee engagement and satisfaction,” says Bidwell. “And as an added benefit, workers will also feel positively about the company because it’s investing in their future.”

The Battle for Talent survey found that 55% of respondents would be happier at work if their employer invested in new technology, while 42% said they would be more likely to stay in their current job if their employers provided more regular, intensive training on the use of digital technology.

Earn your staff’s commute
Hybrid working is here to stay. “People want to work flexibly, and we’ve seen really high attrition rates when companies have forced people back to the office full-time,” says Brenner.

According to a paper by Virgin Media O2 Business on the implications of this new work paradigm, a “dynamic” working model – in which people have greater flexibility to choose when and where they work – can open up new and under-tapped talent pools, including people with caring responsibilities, people with disabilities, and people who live outside the area of the head office.

In this dynamic world, the office is now competing with the home as a place to work, and it needs to earn people’s commutes. “Employers who make an effort to create an inspirational and inclusive working environment for when workers come to the office are far more likely to attract talent – and tech can help them do this,” says Alison Bawn, people director at Virgin Media O2 Business.

Alison Bawn headshot
Alison Bawn, people director at Virgin Media O2 Business

Enable anytime-anywhere collaboration
An important factor in dynamic working, especially when it comes to attracting candidates, is the ability to work not only wherever we choose but also at the times that best suit us. That means providing not just secure, reliable connectivity and video conferencing platforms, but also tools to enable employees to collaborate while working to different schedules.

“There’s been a big movement towards asynchronous video, where someone can record a message and send it to you, and you can look at it on your own time and send back any comments,” says Brenner, about the rise of this type of video solution from numerous startups, such as Loom, as well as big tech players, including Cisco’s Vidcast.

“It gives people more flexibility in their working day and lets them work the hours that make sense to them. If an employee has something like that in their current role, they’re going to want it in their next role, too.”

Make tech the x-factor
The next stage in terms of remote collaboration comes with the growing trend for virtual reality video conferencing, with Meta’s Horizon Workrooms currently leading the field.

Global professional services company Accenture has taken this one step further, using Microsoft’s AltspaceVR platform to create an entire “enterprise metaverse”, which the company uses for a variety of purposes, including onboarding, training, meetings, events and just hanging out. Accenture invested in 60,000 Oculus Quest 2 headsets, which were sent to new hires – bringing an unexpected PR benefit, as many of them proceeded to post unboxing videos on social channels, praising how the company has embraced new technology.

“Today’s potential recruits, and especially those in the younger generation, are really looking for these kinds of differentiating experiences when it comes to a new job,” says Bawn.

Harness the power of AI
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are playing an increasing role in our working lives and can improve the workplace experience right across an organisation – for example, employee experience platforms such as Microsoft Viva are used with contact centre bots that help agents answer customer queries more speedily.

AI can also play a major role in recruitment. A “talent intelligence” tool such as Eightfold, for example, makes it easier to find the best talent for current skills gaps. And AI technology can also help in more subtle ways: Brenner cites Textio, an “augmented writing platform” that uses machine learning to automatically optimise the language of company recruitment messages, ensuring they’re as inclusive as possible.

According to a report by Virgin Media O2 Business on AI, automation and collaboration, as we enter an age in which human talent is increasingly complemented by “digital talent”, the speed of change can seem unsettling for some.

“People can be a little anxious about AI,” says Bawn. “But really it’s about making employees’ lives easier and more satisfying by freeing them up to do more interesting and creative kinds of work that have the potential to add more value to customers.”

It’s also likely that completely new fields of work will open up in the future, Bawn says, so reskilling will become crucial. “Training is really the final piece of the jigsaw when it comes to providing the technology that today’s candidates are looking for,” she says. “They need to know they’ll be able to feel confident when they’re using it.”

To read the full Battle for Talent report from Virgin Media O2 Business, download it here