What it takes to win the war for talent in technology

The scramble to fill roles in Australian companies is ramping up. Vacancies across the board are at a 13-year high and tech skills are an area of the job market where supply simply isn’t keeping up with demand. So what are companies to do if they’re to attract the talent it will take to seize the opportunities of a post-pandemic world where digital is an even bigger part of our everyday lives?

The tech talent gap hasn’t exactly appeared out of nowhere. For years businesses have been aware that digital transformation, in their company, market and entire operating environment, is driving exponential growth in demand for tech skills. Then a pandemic comes along and the pace of transformation reaches breakneck speed. Add to this a migration freeze here in Australia and we’re seeing the competition for talent reach a whole new level.

It’s a big problem that isn’t going away any time soon. According to a report from RMIT Online and Deloitte Access Economics Australia needs 156,000 new technology workers by 2025 to ensure the whole economy doesn’t suffer a setback. And this demand for digital know-how will cut across every industry and function in an organisation. Research from Amazon Web Services forecasts an increase of up to 450% in the number employees across APAC using digital skills in their work by 2025. Not only that, but they’ll be expanding their skillset, with an increase in the average skills used from one to seven per employee.

Before the pandemic Australia had a skills problem. That has become more complex because of the remote and distributed nature of our workforce and more urgent given the economic impacts of the pandemic.

PwC, Where next for skills?: How business-led upskilling can reboot Australia, August 2020

Higher education, government and business leaders all have roles to play in upskilling our workforce to prepare Australia for this leap into our digital future. But here and now, there’s a very real challenge facing organisations hungry for tech talent. As a technology business who have grown our headcount from 20 to 120 in just five years, Eighty20 have been learning a tremendous amount about what the best and brightest from the talent pool need and expect from their work. And as expert tech consultants to many businesses large and small, across all sorts of sectors, we also get insights on how their tech employees respond to different organisational models, leadership styles and workplace cultures.

These observations could probably fill a book. But that’s a project for a time when we’re not in the midst of running a business guiding clients through the maze of digital transformation and technology adoption at scale. For now, we’ll just share our four key insights on the changing dynamic between employee and employer and how we see it working best for our modern workplaces.

1. What people value in their work

In both the short and the longer term we’re seeing a shift in what people value most in the experience of working. Taking one of our recent end-of-phase updates as an example of what people really get a kick out of and we find ourselves in a different place to where we were five years ago. This group debrief at the end of each project is as important as the work itself. It’s a chance for everyone to share what they did and why and what went really well for them.

Looking back to the early Eighty20 days, these conversations were focussed on the engineering and technology wins, a laundry list of features and capabilities built, tested and delivered. Job done and on to the next one. The wins we hear about today are where our people get to work with different colleagues in a new business area or on another product. One team member realised how much he loves working in the security space and has started a new path of study as a result. Five years ago, people weren’t recording these kinds of wins, they were just ticking boxes.

This is no accident. Our hiring conversations revolve around what candidates would like to be doing, and how they want to grow into different spaces in six months and over two and five years and beyond. We want to place them in roles where they feel valued and have room to do what they’re interested in. It makes sense for us because we’re keenly aware of where we add value to our clients – through our expertise in strategic planning for really effective software implementation. The value chain is real and it starts with our people knowing they’re valued for their contribution now, with the flexibility to change and grow when they need to.

Having said this, in recent months we’ve seen more of our people focussed on doing work where they feel strong and comfortable, instead of looking for that stretch. With all the change they’re having to adjust to, stability at work becomes more of priority. And we’re definitely not looking to push people into something new when they need to feel secure and competent in what they’re getting done at work.

2. What that means for leadership

The current situation highlights the way leadership in the technology sector has transformed over time. We’ve moved away from a model where direction and control are the expected behaviours. There is now an industry-wide accepted notion that leaders add far more value when they remove obstacles and create a sense of safety and possibility. This is where their strength lies, in supporting and enabling their team to hit peak performance, as individuals and as a group. Steve Jobs said it best when he declared that hiring smart people and telling them what to do was the key to his success at Apple.

We see this leadership mindset in action in the majority of businesses we work with. But while it might sound like an easy formula to get right, many companies – and whole sectors –  can struggle to put the theory into practice. The remote and hybrid working conditions introduced by the pandemic have upped the ante even further for the organisations struggling to let go of the command and control approach. As a recent Boston Globe article on the future of work highlights, it’s time for leaders to listen, reflect and understand what their people need or suffer the consequences for company culture and productivity.

The best leaders now are listening deeply to what their people need and making changes accordingly. They’re inviting employees to prioritize their families and well-being. The leaders who don’t get it are draining their people and treating them like machines.

The Boston Globe, New clothes, new hours, and other expert advice:
Six pressing questions about the future of work, April 2021

3. Belonging matters more than ever

The human face of our leaders and team members has become one of the most crucial changes COVID has made in workplace priorities and culture. It’s not a universal phenomenon, but many of us have had no choice but to let our guard down. When there are dogs and babies on camera during morning huddles we feel more connected and safer to share. So much so that we’re making ourselves vulnerable in ways that just didn’t seem possible in an office environment. The 2021 Work Index survey from Microsoft highlights this, reporting that 17% of 30,000+ people surveyed had cried with a colleague in 2020.

As a business, Eighty20 have always been people centric and this is true for how we treat customers and employees. We believe in going beyond meeting their basic needs for getting their work done – salaries, equipment and clear and unambiguous communication about roles and responsibilities – and exploring how we can deliver the extras. Things like belonging and acceptance are a big part of that and have become of higher importance in this more ‘human’ work environment. 

Compared to one year ago, 39% of people say they’re more likely to be their full, authentic selves at work and 31% are less likely to feel embarrassed or ashamed when their home life shows up at work.

Microsoft 2021 Work Trends Index

4. Keep striving for better

As leaders, one of the most human things we can do is admit we haven’t got everything right. No matter how great your organisational model is, things change all the time and it won’t work forever. All you can do is solve for today and prepare for what’s to come as best you can. At Eighty20 we’ve found that this takes great awareness, honesty and courage to seek feedback and take it on board without flinching too much!   

To do the best thing by your people is always a journey towards where you want to be. You can be crawling or running towards that culture you’re trying to build, but the pace matters less than your commitment to your people and knowing which steps to take next. And it’s not just high-growth companies like us who are constantly adjusting to a new normal in how we work. Everyone is getting used to constant changes in the ways we communicate and the tools and rules for doing so. This has major impacts on workplace culture, which is, ultimately, what it takes to attract an amazing team and empower them to do their best work.

For more information on how to create a workplace where your team thrives, please get in touch