Brainstorm HealthBrainstorm DesignBrainstorm TechMost Powerful WomenCEO Initiative

The battle for talent is unlocking new definitions of flexibility and transparency

July 21, 2022, 2:45 PM UTC
"If you are only talking about compensation," said Merline Saintil, founder of Black Women on Boards, "you’re actually missing the whole point.” Saintil spoke as part of a roundtable discussion at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo., on July 12, 2022.
Michael Faas—Fortune

The Great Resignation has drummed up discussion about the need to give employees the ability to work on their own terms—in the office, at home, on a schedule that accommodates caregiving, or with time baked in for a sabbatical, skills training, or even hobbies. Compensation only goes so far, and many disgruntled or burnt out employees are walking away from handsome packages to live and work flexibly.

Despite signals of a looming recession, pay is not poised to be the top factor that gets employees in the door and keeps them there. In fact, business leaders are finding that this is a time to redefine and iterate on the strategies that have proven to make people feel supported.

“When you’re in a downturn, you need to lean into your competitive advantage, and that’s your talent,” said Sheela Subramanian, vice president and cofounder of the Future Forum at Slack, a consortium of companies dedicated to studying and improving the future of work. Subramanian, who spoke as part of a roundtable discussion at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo. last week, said that according to the Future Forum’s research, flexibility ranks second behind compensation when it comes to determining job satisfaction.

Human resource management company Gusto, meanwhile, also has identified this trend. Forty-five percent of job offer declines over the past year have been due to a lack of flexibility, said Emil Yeargin, Gusto’s head of talent, referencing a recent Gusto survey of more than 800 HR practitioners and 700 employees. And Merline Saintil, a board director at companies such as GitLab and Rocket Lab, and who is the founder of Black Women on Boards, said she constantly finds herself reminding companies that “if you are only talking about compensation, either in comp committees or the boardroom, you’re actually missing the whole point.”

But companies need to do more than institute new policies and norms about remote work or flexible hours. They also need to be transparent about the execution. How company leaders respond to employee questions about the process matters, Subramanian said. 

“So many leaders have been trained to have all of the answers. And if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that the future is unpredictable, and we’re living in an era of discontinuity,”  Subramanian said. “Transparency is really critical, in terms of being able to say, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘we’re figuring it out,’ or, even better, ‘I need your help.’” The Future Forum’s research also shows that employees whose managers don’t approach uncertainty this way, or who don’t feel like their leaders are being transparent, are four times more likely to look for a new opportunity over the next year. 

Gusto’s Yeargin offered a similar strategy of open-ended discussion and deferring to the employee, even as early as the hiring stage.

“Talk to the candidates,” Yeargin said. “You don’t always need to lead first with, ‘here’s our value proposition’. It’s more, ‘So, what are you looking for?’ ‘What are you interested in?’ ‘What’s not working well at your existing company?’” 

As leaders shift to being more deferential, it’s also time to rethink a top-down approach to management, Yeargin and his fellow panelists emphasized. As Charity Majors, CTO, Honeycomb.io, put it, “One of the most powerful things that we can do is really emphasize the fact that management is not a promotion, it’s a change of career.”

She explained how the best engineers and the best managers she’s worked with during her career are those who have spent time in both types of roles. Plus, this mindset fosters flexibility in one’s career: “When you strip the hierarchy out of this,” Majors said, “if you aren’t happy as a manager, you can go back to being an individual contributor without that loss of status.” 

It’s on leaders, however, to be willing to give up this hierarchical way of thinking and recognize that it’s how you behave, not your position, that makes you just that—a leader.

“Your title makes you a manager,” Saintil said. “People will decide whether they follow you or not.”

Clarification, July 21, 2022: This article has been updated to contextualize the statistic cited by Gusto’s Yeargin.

Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.