Caging the Unicorn: Talent Retention and Engagement


caging the unicorn

A widespread workplace revolution-taking place in Silicon Valley that is rippling across SV North, Silicon Beach and slowly traversing into other start-up and tech environment is what I call ‘The Caging of the Unicorn’ or professionally termed as upping the ante: Using the science of the brain and big data for talent rentention. These employees are individuals who through their skills and talents are able to perform the once believed to be impossible. They represent the agents actively transforming the world by breaking perceived limits to usher in a new world. These technology workers are the mythic creatures at play in real life.

The best of the best, the elite, the cream of the crop, the Unicorns organisations hire FORWARD to find expect the best perks, salaries, bonuses and stake in the company they work for – as standard. It’s rare to find wiggle room here.

But there’s more.

The widespread cultural revolution taking place among technology companies can be summed up in this phrase: treat the people who work hard for you well, and you will achieve great things. In today’s booming technology market, attracting and retaining the best and the brightest minds is the difference between falling off a cliff into oblivion and becoming the next global household name. To say the stakes are high may be an understatement. The stakes are gigantic.

The philosophy behind this trend is simple (common sense really): we do better when we feel better, thanks to the chemicals in our brain unconsciously activated daily. As the remaining shackles of the dreary gloomy industrial age break away, the innovative companies disrupting the old normal and steering us in the 21st century not only understand this philosophy, they practice it. Have we reached light speed yet? SalesForce, Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook, Zynga, Rackspace, Workday, Riverbed Technologies and, of course, Google are among those transforming the world and the workforce. One has to guess that the happiness level of these employees has a little to do with the sheer brilliance oozing out of every facet, and the shareholders reaping in profits by the bucket loads, and their major contributions to the world.

Let’s look at the science.

  1. When our career efforts are rewarded for our work, and we are acknowledged for our success – we get a hit of dopamine.
  2. When we’re productive in our career and balance our life with some outdoor activities, we get a hit of serotonin.
  3. When we trust the organisation we’re working for and feel a sense of ownership, enjoy the team, are engaged and have time to see the family, our brains emit oxytocin.
  4. When we hit the pain barrier on achieving a great result or exercise hard (where the work hard/play hard ethic is encouraged with onsite gyms and sports activities) endorphins are consistently high.

Fortunately, such life affirming activities (or what I refer to as ‘brain balance’ activities) keep employees loyal, engaged and retain the unicorns. Tech companies focus on added value compensation: Wellness (oxytocin), concierge services (dopamine) and entertainment (more dopamine) along with, of course, tax deductible free catered lunches and snacks (that’s a maternal feeding pattern right there with oxytocin). The big idea behind these practices is an appreciation of time as your most valuable asset. But realistically it’s a brain chemical cocktail to placate the unicorn so they don’t look anywhere else, until things get politically or economically turbulent.

These leading tech companies create a supportive atmosphere to meet the needs of their employees. Onsite yoga (serotonin and dopamine) is among one of the most popular perks being mainstreamed along with gaming rooms (endorphins/adrenaline) to get your frustrations out. Facebook and Google have gone so far as to implement on-site healthcare. Facebook also provides free computer accessory vending machines on campus and a whole lot more. When Google realized it was losing top female talent due to childcare costs, they implemented free childcare. According to Google, happy employees increase profitability because they are more productive. Anyone who relies on his or her creative brainpower for work knows how important a well-functioning mind is to achieving top-level performance. Play is critical to being creative. When was the last time you dreamed up something really brilliant when you felt miserable and depressed?

Time is an irrecoverable resource. These perks focus on freeing talent from the burdensome mundane tasks of ordinary life, as well as taking care of their emotional and physical well being to ensure they can focus on delivering the goods at work. This culture enables high-level performance and engagement. Without it expect your unicorns to trot off elsewhere in the foreseeable future, or to produce mediocre results. Talent retention in the 21st Century demands perks.

If you are still scrambling for evidence, let’s turn to big data. These practices are not being executed on just a hunch either. Big tech companies gather and measure data to make sure the proof is in the numbers by closely studying the impact of company policies on productivity. Google’s and Facebook’s human resources departments track the effectiveness of each perk offered by the company in terms of worker productivity and company earnings. To date their big data proves the more they take care of their employees, the bigger the profits.

These strategies keep the unicorn happy and productive to superpower the pioneering companies to new levels of achievement and success. To keep a unicorn happy, what can you do to activate the right brain chemicals to retain your unicorns?

Caroline Stokes is the founder of FORWARD Human Capital Solutions.  FORWARD does things differently for people in digital organisations who demand inspiring talent solutions for transformative results.

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