Organizations that consider themselves forward-thinking say they want all of their employees to be fluent in digital. An inspiring goal, sure, but one that is misguided. Having an active Facebook account or ordering groceries through a slick delivery app does not mean that someone automatically knows anything about digital strategy. Digital is like any other profession – it is based on specific expertise.

Where organizations are correct is that digital has steadily been shifting how nearly everyone works, be it externally (social media, websites), internally (Salesforce, Teams), and with data and business intelligence (Tableau, dashboards). But digital in its largest sense changes so rapidly that no matter how digitaliterate your managers are, you still need dedicated people to manage your online channels and the customer experience – from paid media to customer service – you offer digitally.

No wonder then that digital profiles are at a premium. Even (read: especially) in a covid-infected economy, digital talent gets snapped up without hesitation. There are so many opportunities that the market forces are on the talent side. Poaching is the norm since the difference between top and mediocre talent could mean the difference between being seen as a digital leader or a digital follower.

So how do you attract and retain digital talent in a hyper-competitive labor market that favors people who jump from opportunity to opportunity on their way to the top? I’m going to focus on how companies can create a place where digital specialists want to work, a place where digital talent can flourish. And if HR teams can articulate these qualities to prospect employees, they can get a leg up on the competition.

In no particular order:

Give them the keys to learn

Companies hire people for a combination of three reasons. First is to obtain expertise in a domain like paid search, or launching a product in e-commerce, or familiarity with a particular industry/brand. This is combined with a level of professional skills like negotiating and project management. Finally there are the soft skills like being personable and a team player. In today’s job market most job desks try to include all three aspects, but the immediate focus and first filter is expertise. It’s reflected in how we present ourselves. I don’t say that I’m Tony, a supportive team player, I introduce myself as a digital expert with nearly 15 years of experience.

Expertise is easier to qualify in the hiring process since it can be inferred from the time spent working in different roles on a resume. Professional skills can also be inferred from results that someone has created in the past, like say increasing online revenue from 6% to 20% probably means that the candidate is able to turn strategy into action and is able to scale up initiatives. The soft skills come last since you have to see them to know them. Anyone can say that they are beloved by their team, reality could be markedly different.

Alas, as we are finding out in an economy whose order is rapidly shifting and where career paths meander more, soft skills are more important than professional skills or expertise when it comes to being successful. Being organized, motivated, and enthusiastic enables candidates to surmount new challenges more easily, obtaining the necessary professional skills and expertise in the process. This is why recommendations from former coworkers are so important. A large majority of jobs are found through professional relationships/networks, it is almost certainly true of digital profiles. Nothing is better than having someone that you trust in your organization present and vouch for a candidate, precisely because they can validate those soft skills.

Increasingly we are seeing companies offer career development paths that include topics like managing emotions and inspiring people, not just focusing on things that are easier to teach like expertise. Expertise remains very important, of course, and many companies have partnerships with online learning platforms to provide customized digital academies. A great resource, sure, but one that I have always seen to be under-exploited. After a long day of work in front of a screen, who wants to slug through three modules about CRM churn? That learning is a task.

Here is what I mean about giving your people the keys to learn: you need to make training and upskilling into a bonus and not a task. The digital space has a wealth of events, many of which take place in cool cities over the course of a couple of days (whenever this whole pandemic ends). Events offer excitement, a large view across verticals, and the chance to meet new people. They are also a break from the mundane. Most importantly, they are the best way to stay on the cutting edge of technology.

I recommend offering at least one conference per year where your digital teams can go to learn and network. The company sends them, puts them up for a few days, and covers a few nice dinners while their staff get enlightened and establish bonds. The key is to let the team choose where they want to go. If you can make it a team-building, even better.

And really hone in those soft skills. Give people the luxury of taking time off from work to work on individualized evaluations and coaching. Lumping a whole division together for two days to talk about leadership is significantly less effective in my opinion then creating a weekly or monthly rendez-vous that is catered to each individual. Again, it is crucial to let the employee decide which area they want to focus on.

Funding a visit to a tech event and personalized soft skill coaching are two huge benefits that show that your company is serious about the relationship they have with a given employee. You want them to improve themselves and you want them to explore. Those investments can pay off in terms of loyalty and pride in working for a company.

Don’t fence them in

There are two ways to fence people in at work: career-wise and physically.

Start with career progression. It is already hard to move people up in an organization since there are fewer and fewer positions the higher you go. When you apply that to digital teams, they are mini pyramids inside of a bigger pyramid. The tendency is to treat digital experts as being experts only in digital thus closing off doors to taking roles in adjacent teams. To recruit digital talent you need to make them feel like there will be future opportunities beyond their first salvo in the company.

You need to communicate what those opportunities would look like and the role that the HR development team plays in helping employees along. L’Oréal, one of my former employers, takes a radical position that most people should change roles about every two years and they propose opportunities that are not limited to one area of expertise. L’Oréal is a world leader in beauty, they have all the expertise they need. They understand that they can teach expertise to their employees who have shown a willingness to try new things and who possess the soft skills to make it happen. Familiarity with the L’Oréal group and enthusiasm are much more valuable.

Many of my former colleagues have gone on to work at places like LVMH and L’Oréal precisely because they know that once they are in the group their career path can take many different forms, across many different brands and even many different departments. That can be scary for the employer, having to pay someone for their career experience when they have less expertise, but it is freeing for the employee. Getting stuck is one of the worst things that can happen in a career. It leads to irritability, shutting down, slacking off, and then complaining – the venom that poisons corporate moral across a team. Knowing that a new role is just the beginning can help people project and stay with a company especially in the context of digital where we don’t know what the landscape will look like in three years.

And, please, please do not insult your digital experts by making them come to the office every day. Physically constraining people by not allowing flexible work from home/anywhere is another way to fence people in, and for the top digital talent who considers themselves above such requirements, it can make recruiting harder.

Even as we find ourselves a year into the global covid pandemic, some businesses still make people come to the office – people whose profession requires no physical attendance. I’ve written about this before and the need for the office phenomenon to die off. If you do not trust your people to let them work from where they want, you should fire them.

For those you trust, let them be free, and if you want them to physically be there, give them reasons to come! Create an ambiance of conviviality. Provide perks like breakfast once a week or organize activities that are more fun in person. Provide great tech infrastructure so that people can work faster and on more screens than they could work with at home. Sure, even the foosball tables at the Google offices are a signal that coming to the office can include having a good time.

Many people will show up because that is how they work the best and they like the work/life separation. You don’t need to insult them by writing rules about being physically present at work. Giving them the choice makes their actions more empowering.

Make sure the grunt work is already done

Mary from accounting wants to know what a cookie is. Kevin the CFO’s daughter spends all her time on TikTok. Both like to chime in whenever they interact with digital teams; Mary when she asks about the increase in fees from the tracking agency and Kevin when there is a marketing presentation for the Executive Committee. While we might roll our eyes, Mary and Kevin are both affected by new technologies as consumers, and so their interest should be encouraged. This is the digitaliteracy that many companies want to achieve. But who should do this job and how?

Many of the roles that I’ve held included a part about digital upskilling and being available to teams that had questions. I’ve organized and participated in many a digital day. This is the sort of corporate knowledge infrastructure that is necessary to allow for digital acceleration. You can think of it as being the snow plow that tries to free up the road so traffic can pass.

But we are getting to a point where digital is becoming such a key part of the organization that an organization should be able to provide the keys to the snow plow, and not push the digital experts out in to the snow with shovels. Wintry imagery aside, I’m talking about facilitating cross team information sharing and having systems in place. Take sharing best practices. I’ve been a part of newsletters, Slack groups, blogs, and countless other ways where people try to share best practices across an organization. None of them is definitively better, it depends on team leadership, participation, and existing tech habits. But business intelligence (BI) programs exist that can go much further, archiving and rendering sharing searchable.

Having a good BI platform in place means that digital experts can share and receive information without having to build something themselves. This removes a big hassle and makes finding information much more seamless. It tangibly improves the quality of work. Same goes for dashboards. One of the promises of digital is ultimate measureability, yet all too often a company foregoes investment in unified dashboards that help everyone gain visibility on key metrics. Working in a place that has dashboards in place is far smoother than working at a place where dashboards are forever “on the horizon.” Having these systems in place means letting digital experts focus on delivering what they’re paid to do, with the help of the company’s BI and without bogging them down in tangential projects.

Open the doors of the possible

Ephemerality has been the biggest driver of the creative explosion on digital channels since Snapchat burst onto the scene. Freed from the chains of posterity, brands can leverage digital to take risks and push boundaries in ways never possible before, even in the earlier days of digital. And since content is temporary it means that brands have to communicate frequently (read: all the time).

There are enough examples now of brands blazing new trails that experimentation must be encouraged. I’m not advocating from straying too far from a brand’s universe, on the contrary. Digital channels and new features across platforms let brands reinvent and twist the ways that they present themselves and the worlds they are creating.

It’s not about finding the best new Artistic Director and letting her get to work with an unlimited budget (although if you can do that, then that’s great!). It’s about figuring out the most effective ways to communicate via a certain platform to a certain audience and applying those best practices to your content. Digital teams should therefore have leeway when it comes to proposing, creating, and adapting institutional content.

The alternative, being forced to take standard content from other media and use it in digital, really curtails how interesting a digital role can be in a given company. Of course budgets are limited. Of course profitability of digital content for organic social media is hard to prove. But it is important that a candidate know that the digital team is involved in this process of content creation so that they can apply best content practices to their particular responsibility, be it social media, an e-commerce site, or a CRM program.

Over pay

If there is one place that you should not cut costs, it is your payroll. Companies are nothing without people operating together. No products will be produced. No services provided. No sales netted. Sure, you can find someone cheaper, but that means that your products will be worse, your services less reliable, and your margins thinner. You will also find yourself scurrying after talent as waves of people leave to more enticing jobs.

Identify what a good package looks like and peg that to systematic raises. You shouldn’t be paying people so much that they will never leave, but no one who has talent and brings value to your organization should leave because they are not getting paid enough.

All of the HR people out there right now are reading this and rolling their eyes. I am not an organizational expert and I have no experience with the day to day of HR teams. Like the prospects of job evolution within a company, there are very real limits to how much you can increase everyone’s pay in a given year. But there is also only so far you can go if you have to onboard new team members every six months because people are not sticking around. Recruitment costs as a portion of salary are 11% in France. Why not get that number down by flipping some of that spent money that goes to recruiting services and give it to your good employees?

In the digital space, a quick scroll on Linkedin will show you jobs that are available often with their corresponding salary. Salaries vary wildly based on things like location (cities pay more than the countryside) but some things are still relatively constant. A company seeking an SEO expert with an offer of 32K euro is not going to cut it anywhere, since an “expert” needs at least a few years of experience to build up expertise that can be valuable. Entry-level jobs can justify low salaries in exchange for providing valuable experience, but when you go hunting for a specialist, you should be prepared to offer a special wage.

Companies that get a reputation for paying well are entitled to a tsunami of job applications for each opening, which is a big assist in finding great people to work for you. Be clear with candidates that your company is willing to pay top dollar for top talent. That generous offer coupled with the prospect of significant raises in the future is strong motivation for accepting an offer and sticking around.

In sum

It’s true, all of these points could potentially be applied to many a position and employee in a company. Who doesn’t want to work for a company that helps them grow, with great infrastructure, that asks them for imput, gives them license, and pays them well? But they are particularly salient for digital profiles in today’s international job market. The headhunters who communicate these tangible benefits the best will get a leg up on the race to the top.

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