The rules of talent have changed

by | Sep 20, 2021

Founder Stephanie Portrait.
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The world has changed, and with it all the rules surrounding talent. From a resurrected civil rights movement during a global pandemic to changing attitudes about life, work, and institutions, the combination of so many factors has clearly positioned talent in the driver’s seat. Embracing this change and rethinking talent strategy – in terms of who and how you hire, and the talent experience you offer – is not only wise, but the only way through.

The rules of talent have changed. Dramatically. There are many factors contributing to the shift, so intertwined that we can’t possibly pull them apart and assign any one of them more value than the other. But the undeniable truth is that talent is in the driver’s seat like never before. There are so many reasons why:

Resurrection of the civil rights and #metoo movements. Digitally connected people are sharing their stories about appalling, longstanding workplace (and societal) practices that are demoralizing, offensive, and dangerous. There is power in numbers and the seal has been broken as hundreds of thousands of people feel empowered to acknowledge the abuse they’ve experienced because of discrimination throughout their lives, and especially at work. The sheer volume of the conversation around these topics at work create power that rests with the talent in insisting on better ways to work.

Covid. How could we not talk about it? It feels like we have been on a labor market yo-yo for 18 months. At the beginning of the pandemic, companies big and small deployed panic-layoffs. The uncertainty was palpable and in many cases, companies let go of wide swaths of talent, including those star employees that thought they were untouchable. These layoffs were so far reaching that it shook the foundation of security that many people mistakenly thought they had from traditional, full time employment. Now, as these same companies scramble to refill their talent bucket as business ramps back up, all those people who were burned have become adamant and rightfully demanding that if they come back to work, it will be on their terms, with their desired pay, with their needs considered. And surveys are suggesting that a massive number of people would rather quit their jobs than go back into the office.

The loss of women in the workforce. Related to the above, women and underrepresented groups of people (those who are often the most marginalized by corporate work) have been disproportionately impacted by the demands outside of work and have found themselves literally unable to return to work full time, and certainly not in an office, as they balance the needs of mental health, caregiving, and more during this incredibly stressful time. 

The rise of flex talent. Even before the pandemic, the US was on a fast track to have the majority of our workforce working independently in the next decade. The train was already moving when the pandemic arrived to accelerate the inevitable shift of power and flexibility into the hands of talent. The truth is we’ve been woefully negligent in updating the way work happens and we are still operating on a 5 day, 40 hour, in office work premise that was adopted over 100 years ago. 100 years! We’ve created so much innovation since then- technology that makes people avatars, video conferencing, we’re even sending billionaires to “inner space” on a private aircraft, but for some head-scratching reason, we still cling to the 40 hour work week. 

People are leaving institutions. Journalists are building their own careers on Substack. Sex workers are making a living on OnlyFans. Celebrities are monetizing their persona via Cameo. And the entire tech world is currently obsessed with crypto currency, the ultimate middle finger to the institution of money. Add this to all of us getting more and more desensitized to the sharing economy as we tap into platforms like Lyft, Airbnb, Instacart and beyond and you’ve got a culture that has slowly been getting ready for the rise of people leaving the institution of work as we’ve known it our whole lives.

All of these forces have created the perfect storm for employers that want to pretend nothing has changed – when in fact, everything has changed. People are having existential awakenings at a faster clip than ever, people are too exhausted to code switch or conform to a way of work that doesn’t work for them, and they know they are in the driver’s seat now.

So what are we to do? I don’t have all the answers, but as someone who has built a flex talent platform – a human cloud – on the premise of inclusive, thoughtful ways of working, I know what I have seen that is working now.

  1. Fully embrace that the talent is in charge now and you are one of many people/companies vying for their affection. What this means: It’s past time to rethink antiquated job descriptions and requirements that uphold systemic racism and oppression, i.e. “You must have worked on a global brand before” translates to “You must be in the category of people who have been given that opportunity in the past and if you are not, well too bad”. Remember the adage that talent is evenly distributed; opportunity is not and fully commit to creating opportunity for overlooked talent. This is the opportunity of our lifetimes to give people access and opportunity that have been historically left out when those things are handed out. Let’s not squander it. 
  2. Think differently. Embrace change and try new things – and new types of talent. Never hired someone without a college degree? Now is your chance. Never chosen a creative duo that hasn’t worked together before? Give it a shot. Also, think FLEXY. Everything flexible. Need someone to start immediately? Consider a part-time start, or be open to them starting a month from now. Remember, they have options galore. Flexibility is the name of the new game. 
  3. Commit to training. From where I sit, it’s obvious that the training buck has been passed for far too long and now, when every organization out there should be ready and willing to invest in new talent and train them to do the job at hand, we just don’t know what to do. Too many companies are reverting back to fruitlessly searching for people who have done it before so they don’t have to train them. If you are doing that, you are applying old rules to a new talent world and have virtually no competitive advantage to attract and retain talent. Every CMO on the planet should be seriously rethinking their training and upskilling plan for existing and new talent entering their organization. 
  4. Embrace hybrid everything. Did I mention that the majority of the US workforce will be freelance in the next 10 years? It’s prudent to start embracing hybrid teams now, so you will have an edge on both innovation and inclusion down the road. This means you need an FTE strategy and a freelance or independent talent strategy. 

Change is hard and we’re experiencing more of it than most of us had ever wished for at the moment, but the change in how work happens, who has the power, and how employers must approach their talent strategy is actually a really good thing for us in the long term. As one of my mentors says “The pain is the portal”. The sooner we embrace this change, the faster all of us can get to a way of working that actually works for our lives.

Founder of We Are Rosie | Follow Steph on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram

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