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An office building in London, UK on Tuesday, October 25 2022. Picture: BLOOMBERG/JOSE SARMENTO
An office building in London, UK on Tuesday, October 25 2022. Picture: BLOOMBERG/JOSE SARMENTO

It is now more than 25 years since the term “war for talent” was coined to refer to a competitive landscape for recruiting and retaining talented employees.

Yet even though we face financial, economic and political turmoil, the pressure to recruit and retain talent remains strong. Whether it’s airport staff, health professionals or accountants, there are visible shortages all around.

This modern-day battle for talent has many of the same sources — finding the right skills, competition from high-paying regions, bottlenecks in skills development, restrictions on the mobility of labour, changes in technology, and ageing skills of the workforce.

But there are new pressures calling into question how we work, how we interact at work, and when we work. These forces have consequences for talent and the organisational cultures of our post-pandemic workplaces.

Organisational culture is the glue that holds a company together, what makes it a welcoming place for some and perhaps a toxic place for others — culture can be seen in values, norms, and artefacts.

Values are the underpinning belief system, although not easy to identify. Norms are the way we do things around here, the actual practices and behaviours. The artefacts are the visible embodiments in the look and feel of an organisation — the rites, rituals, stories, myths, heroes, symbols, and use of language.

A strong organisational culture has been identified as positive for productivity, wellbeing, customer satisfaction innovation, reduced absenteeism, retention, increased vertical communication and attraction of talent. A negative or toxic culture is a natural turn-off for talent.

Sometimes culture is described as being like an iceberg — we can see the top with the artefacts, but the underlying norms and values are not visible, under the water. Recent trends suggest it is perhaps not an iceberg but rather an elephant that we can only really see when we are forced to stand back.

Three key trends are forcing us to stand back, explore our assumptions and look at that elephant differently: the pandemic working changes, the way men and women work and generational gaps.

The pandemic effects have challenged previous norms around how and when we are present at work. While these may appear trivial presentational issues, they also demonstrate that many of us now expect different levels of flexibility and control over our working lives, which were not available to many before March 2020. This post-pandemic environment led some to talk about the great resignation, and while that was exaggerated, a great reset is perhaps more accurate.

As organisations encourage employees to come back to work, or back to normal, they face resistance. A recruitment manager for a tech company recently explained the increased challenges of recruiting talent for teams led by managers with a 100% in-person preference. Yet if managers respond to these new demands by reducing in-person expectations they are faced with the challenge of how to build the cultural glue that holds organisations together.

Building an organisational culture when we only know each other in two dimensions or even simply by a thumbnail on the screen, needs a new approach and new tools. Organisations need to rethink how they create those attractive, high-performance, high-trust cultures.

The changing expectations brought about by the demands of working couples, with or without children, are a force for cultural change. The increase in women working in the formal labour market is one of the most widespread and influential trends in the modern economy. At the same time, men are expecting to have a life too. There has been a shift from the past when their careers were prioritised above all else and life sacrificed for responsibility to the organisation.

There is an interdependence in dual couple households that was once a private matter that can no longer be ignored by employers and organisational cultures. Recent research shows successful career couples want to work together, do not want to struggle, and actively avoid past gender traps. For organisational cultures this means setting boundaries that support expressed values and needs, and allow for negotiating of new ways of working.

Organisational cultures based on more traditional career models risk losing talent as individuals vote with their feet. Organisations need to consider how they retain and attract women and men who have expectations of career flexibility within supportive organisational cultures.

Third, Gen-Z or Zoomers, born in the 1990s and 2000s, are coming to organisations with their own expectations. They are known to be self-driven, to care about others, to strive for diversity, to be collaborative, and to value flexibility, authenticity and non-hierarchical leadership. While we should be cautious about the stereotypes associated with generational categories, and intergenerational tensions are not new, they are nevertheless useful to identify as patterns.

It is highly likely that Zoomers have experienced challenges as a cohort living through the financial crisis of 2008, Rhodes Must Fall, Fees Must Fall, Black Lives Matter, and more recently Covid. These experiences have meant a more balanced focus on how work fits into their lives and a group deeply concerned about purpose and sustainability. In terms of organisational culture, they expect authenticity and organisations that walk the talk in terms of caring and claims to be responsible. That sustainability extends to their private lives and an expectation of cultures that support balance.

These three trends have consequences for organisational cultures and talent retention. They are also interlinked: Gen-Z and career couples are both expecting better support for their career choices; the pandemic effects and Gen-Z are driving concerns about purpose and why we work; and Gen-Z, working couples, and the pandemic, all demonstrate a legitimacy for a life outside of work.

These trends require leaders who are deliberate about their use of cultural tools to create a “digital propinquity” — a sense of closeness through working together, no matter what the medium. They need to underline a sense of organisational purpose and use symbols that represent inclusion, low hierarchies and flexibility. And they must show accountability, integrity, stewardship and citizenship.

• Smith is a professor and the director of Stellenbosch Business School.

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