05 December 2021 17:32:44 IST

Kamal Karanth is CoFounder of Xpheno, a specialist staffing company he has been building since 2017. Before turning an entrepreneur, Kamal worked as MD of Kelly Services and as Director APAC for Randstad, where he built teams that grew and created extraordinary results. Today, his team members are making an impact as leaders across the talent acquisition, HR, and staffing domains. A movie buff and cricket enthusiast, Kamal is a believer in relationships and has been writing monthly columns for The Hindu BusinessLine since 2016. LinkedIn ranked him among the top voices of India in 2020 for his consistent influencing blogs and vlogs around workplace dynamics. He is a talent specialist in RPO, IT staffing, and executive search.

2021: When businesses revived but talent flew off

A paradoxical year when, even as businesses saw an upswing, there was a change in talent dynamics

In less than a month, when the 2021 work calendar ends, what will you remember it for? That you were able to hold on to your job, got a hike you never dreamt of before, started a new career with an attractive joining bonus, the liquidity you earned by divesting your ESOPs, your stock market gains, your company went public, got funded or the year when you recruited and lost your colleagues like crazy?

The oxymoron

Financial results or retention of key talent? A year ago, this question was possibly not a difficult one to answer. If CEOs were asked if they wished for their business revival or wanted to work with their existing team longer, most would probably have opted for the former. It’s only natural that leaders thought about survival when the pandemic hit them, and many of the sectors got blessed with a recovery quickly.

However, the digital revolution-led recovery has been bittersweet at best. As much as many enterprises today are celebrating their business successes, they never imagined that they would be celebrating the fruits with a bunch of new colleagues. Doesn’t author Julia Fierro’s quote “the fighting machines that kept the country safe, and the coffers full” resonate with the 2021 trend?

Paradox of success

An abundance of access to money, technology wave, and maybe FOMO (fear of missing out) resulted in investors converting 41 start-ups to unicorns in the first 11 months of 2021. That alone has not been enough to attract or keep their existing talent with them. Recently, a founder celebrated the unicorn status on Twitter only to criticise talent who refused to join his firm a few weeks later.

The irony is that the valuation metrics of firms like his also contribute to the multiple, high-value job options in the market that talent is exploiting to its advantage. Should we say you live and die by the same sword?

Engagement deficiency

For the longest time, HR practitioners have preached the need for building engagement with employees. Many models, including flattening the organisation structures, more face time with supervisors, informal cultures, reduced appraisal cycles, innovative rewards and recognition systems, reverse mentoring, flexible financial benefits, frequent offsites, attractive office facilities, have been tried with varying success.

Yes, the last 18 months challenged the execution of most of these, and the Zoom world made all these more transactional and less human. Leaders who initially focused on business revival/survival couldn’t transform themselves to lead a remote workforce in an engaging way when the enterprise financial fortune eventually turned around. Perhaps the organisations and HR did not comprehend the quiet transformation brewing in their employees' minds. It became apparent to the new generation of the workforce that their employers were focused on survival and financially opportunistic in the organisation context. I would say the employees pretty much copied the same template when the pandemic fears waned.

Entitlement is here

In 2021 employees showed more entitlement in their talk and deeds wherein the employers were caught napping with their old landlord mindset. When employees asked if they would get a better raise than last year, we said wait till things become stable for the enterprises or the next cycle. When our best employees walked, some of us were late or refused to engage with them with either new roles or compensations, whereas we ended up paying higher for their replacements.

We told ourselves we don’t counter offer or want to hire money-minded people but ended up negotiating that eventually with leavers or new hires. We were reluctant to share the financial gains with the staff who generated them but were forced to give joining bonuses to future employees. One glaring fallout of 2021 is that the existing and future employees have become more demanding of their employers, and for some reason, it does not sound unreasonable anymore.

No pressure please

With mental health, empathy becoming the new buzzwords, supervisors are advised to go slow on employees, and it must be said has been exploited well by some. As the “I need a break” segment of employees grows, the critical work gets transferred to, let’s say to a more ‘I can take more’ kind of employee. In a way, the pressure is merely transferred to a more resilient colleague.

Supervisors are nudged to act sympathetic and accept more delayed and mediocre work thanks to the lenient and forced understanding the organisations asked from the supervisors. Are you observing that the manager's work has become more stressful by accepting shoddy work or correcting it oneself, or getting it done from others?

Show me the money

Have you been the kind who was shy of talking about your salary raise? In 2021, suddenly money was no longer a dirty word in our conversations. Job aspirants are now starting discussions with, “What's your budget? I have an offer for X. If you can offer more, let’s start the interviews”. The best part is that nobody gets rejected for such defiant starts.

2021 has been a conundrum of business revival, talent flight, engagement deficiency, employee entitlement and most importantly, the emergence of money as the critical conduit for the employer-employee relationship.