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Meeting "Empowered Candidates" Where They Are: How Startups Can Prevent the Great Resignation

Annie Zaleski
Journalist

It's no secret that the pandemic upended employment across multiple industries. As the world starts to reopen again, employees are asking themselves new questions and companies are facing new challenges.

 For many employees, one of the biggest byproducts of working from home for the last 15 months is a decreased desire to work in an office. In a joint survey of over 200,000 people in 190 countries conducted by Boston Consulting Group and The Network, the percentage of employees who sometimes worked at home in October and November 2020 sat at 51%, up from 31% pre-pandemic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the survey also reported that an eye-popping 89% of respondents said they wanted to continue working from home at least sometimes post-pandemic.

Sarah Hawley, CEO and Founder at Growmotely, a platform that matches skilled professionals to long-term remote positions, isn't surprised. "Who wants to take back their commute? Who wants to take back all of that getting ready in the morning, getting the house organized? There's so much energy that went into commuting to and from the office." Expending energy at the office can also be difficult, she adds: "People don't want to go back to also having to manage yourself in an environment with all these other people. Not everybody wants to do that all day, every day."

Hawley has been a big proponent of remote work even before the pandemic. She closed her then-company's office in 2014, and hasn't had a physical space for her endeavors since, after realizing she saved money on not just rent, but on office supplies, utilities, and other extras. "I had a lot more freedom and flexibility, and so did my team," she says. "My business actually became better, because we had to create better systems and processes and training and onboarding and structures in a remote environment."

For many employees, working remotely during the pandemic will ideally be a harbinger for more permanent changes. A recent Slack survey found that 97% of Black knowledge workers in the U.S. wanted a fully remote or hybrid office going forward. Only 3% of Black employees wanted to go back into work full-time in-person, compared with 21% of white employees.

This 97% statistic is telling, says Dr. Cox, president and head of C-suite inclusive services at Feels Human, a business dedicated to helping leaders develop and refine organizational culture. "Those numbers tell us that our business practices or management practices…employees know that they have been ineffective and unhealthy. And they've just put up with them because we all have to have a paycheck."

The benefits of going remote

Companies that more recently eschewed a physical headquarters are finding immense benefits. interviewIA, a technology company focused on helping companies be better interviewers to improve the experience of remote virtual hiring, decided to go remote six to nine months before the COVID-19 pandemic. After closing a $2M seed round in April 2021, they felt ready to hire two new employees—and decided to open up their search nationwide.

"We sat down and defined exactly what we were looking for [in an employee]," says Ubaldo Ciminieri, interviewIA's CMO and head of strategic partnerships. "When you actually sit down and do the work to define what you need for someone in this role to be successful, it's amazing the things that don't matter. Location was one of those."

For a project coordinator role, the application pool was more diverse and included people from different backgrounds; in fact, they ended up hiring someone from a diverse background who lives in Georgia.

Jamie McCormick, the director of HR at Betterworks, which offers enterprise OKR software geared toward performance management and goals, says her company also received a much-needed competitive edge after deciding to shift to an all-remote structure. "Being able to open up our roles to the entire remote United States just provided us so much more opportunity to tap into candidate source pools and sources and also diversify," she said, noting they've recently hired employees based in Oklahoma and Idaho.

"A large base of the recruitment that we do is product UX and engineering. And so being in the Silicon Valley and the South Bay, we really had a hard time because we're competing with Amazons, and Facebooks, and Googles. The amount of money that those organizations [can offer] and their comp strategy is always going to be above market. So we had a really hard time with recruitment."

Hiring remotely helped Betterworks' bottom line—in fact, McCormick says the company had their most productive quarter ever—but also aligned with the company's strategic imperatives.

DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) is really important for us, and it's something that we include in our recruitment strategy, and just overall HR strategy in terms of equity.

She says, "Getting diverse thought—thought processes—and different experiences really contributes to the work that we're able to do."

Ciminieri has also observed a greater emphasis on DEI within operational strategy. "A lot of organizations—and a lot of leaders in organizations, I think that's more important to point out—are making diversity, equity, and inclusion an actual strategic priority," he says. "It's not just a nice-to-have anymore. By doing that, they're really focusing in on, 'What are the things that we need to change, truly change—put money behind, put training behind, put support behind as an executive, as leader of this company, in order to really truly become more inclusive and diverse?'"

How startups can hire and retain top talent 

This increased emphasis is heartening since, going forward, employees are looking for concrete evidence that the founders are "interested in and taking active steps to build inclusive cultures," says Dr. Cox. "No lip service." Candidates will be doing their homework on potential employers, she adds: talking to existing employees, looking at business social media accounts, researching how the company is being talked about in the news, and seeing whether there's diversity on the leadership team.

Dr. Cox also notes that social justice—a term that includes not just diversity and inclusion, but also climate change—is also top of mind. "People, especially the younger workers, are saying, 'Clearly, you guys that have been running the show all these centuries don't have a clue what you're doing, because you're destroying the planet, you're treating people poorly, and we don't have time for this. By tomorrow, you need to tell me what you're going to do to fix this.' I think there's that sort of conversation where it's more urgent, it's more real and authentic."

Startups should also be prepared for employees to have higher expectations for the hiring process. "I don't know if it's specific to our organization, and I don't know if anyone else has seen this, but we've had some pretty brazen candidates and applicants, in terms of what they're asking for, what the expectations are," McCormick says. "So we've had a handful of situations where we've had folks who are very transparent saying, 'I'm interviewing with another organization, but I'm not going to finish up my process with them for another week. And I'm not going to be able to let you know whether I'm joining you or not.'"

McCormick, who's spent her entire career in recruiting, says this is becoming more common.

Candidates are very empowered and realize that their skill sets are really wanted and needed, but also being in COVID, and having some time to slow down and think about their lifestyle and what they want, they're not settling.

"And they're very specific, in particular about what they want. They're expecting the employers to meet them, versus in the past they'll kind of mold themselves a little bit to meet the needs of the company.

In response to these empowered candidates, companies need to be transparent and consistent—for example, don't walk back or rescind a hybrid or remote work policy after implementation—and also cognizant that managing a diverse global workforce has some differences.

"Particularly if you start to employ people in different parts of the world, their needs are different—their wants, their desires, what they value is different," Hawley says. This extends to benefits: She notes that Growmotely offers a benefits marketplace that allows for greater flexibility. "So instead of the company deciding what benefits they want to offer their team, we're accruing benefits dollars, so to speak. And then the actual individual team member can choose the benefits they want to purchase or use because they'll be more relevant for them."

For companies unsure if going the remote route makes sense, Ciminieri offers reassurances. "I'm definitely seeing the trend toward more organizations opening up to that possibility of someone being able to work from anywhere. A lot of that is driven by the fact that, one, we saw it work. We saw our companies survive—some thrived—and still get stuff done. [Some could] even be a little bit more productive than before, potentially.

"So why not?" he continues. "Why not open it up to a global workforce. And then you throw in the opportunity to truly recruit from anywhere—I mean, it's a huge opportunity in terms of diversity, in terms of tapping into a talent pool that you never would have thought of before. That trend is huge. I think it's definitely going to stay."


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