Keeping afloat in Hong Kong’s tech ‘talent tsunami’

April 27, 2022 09:34
Hong Kong will inevitably always have to compete with other parts of the world for tech talent.Photo: Reuters

The employment environment in Hong Kong’s tech industry is currently undergoing a talent shake-up. With a tech talent supply shortage, the power is in the hands of job seekers rather than organisations, triggering an urgent re-evaluation of hiring processes, job specifications and talent-retention strategies.

Hong Kong will inevitably always have to compete with other parts of the world for talent. In order to do so, business leaders must understand the various drivers of talent movement, particularly as this movement has been exacerbated by the recent disruptions to the Hong Kong corporate lifestyle. In particular, it is the tech industry that has suffered from the recent “talent tsunami.”

Tech leaders in Hong Kong now need to understand why there is such a movement of talent throughout the industry, gauge a suitable response, and ultimately meet the changing needs of their workforce.

Organisations that remain closed-minded to these changes overlook a critical threat to their top assets. Those who do not adapt will be left underwater and lose out to those that do.

The generation game

Over the past few years, we have seen a shift in what employees are really looking for from their employer, particularly for younger generations such as Gens Z and Y. We might think that this is all pandemic-related, but the reality is that this process started even before COVID-19 hit.

While Gen X workers typically look for stability in employment, Gens Z and Y aren’t afraid of change, averaging just 18 months within a company in hot pursuit of rapid career growth and development. Gens Z and Y tech workers in Hong Kong usually have a risk appetite to secure the best role, and they may reject job offers if they have a poor candidate experience during the hiring process. While the employment market progressively turns toward being majority Gens Z and Y, it is no surprise that organisations have seen shifts in employee behaviour and need to quickly adapt in order to attract, retain, and manage talent.

The need to look at talent management with fresh eyes was then accelerated by the pandemic’s rapid shift to a hybrid work-frame. Suddenly, employees felt disconnected from their companies, often going long periods with no physical interaction with colleagues or clients, and leaders’ efforts to engage with them in a meaningful way were simply not resonating. This disconnection led to existential questions: where am I going? What do I want to do? Is this what I want? These pandemic-driven personal revelations, combined with Gens Z and Y’s willingness to seek new challenges, have created the perfect storm for organisations. Then we add macro factors to the equation.

At the same time, as employees were questioning their futures and organisations were caught on the back foot in trying to retain them, we saw an explosion in the number of exciting potential new environments for talent. With emerging technologies and digital transformation, particularly in Hong Kong, we have seen a proliferation of fast-growing new tech companies securing funding and snapping up talent, seemingly unaffected by the impact of COVID-19.

Cue the “tech talent tsunami”.

Stemming the outflow
Economic and social disruptions in Hong Kong have caused many talented tech workers to leave the city. Also, many companies have implemented a work-from-home policy, so local tech talents can also work for foreign companies through remote means, making it more difficult for companies to keep and hire tech staff locally.

Organisations in the current space need to combat this turmoil in the talent market by taking a number of preventative steps. The first (and most important) step is to understand and accept the reasons behind the changing workplace dynamic and create locally nuanced talent strategies.

Similarly, organisations must be wary of large-scale kneejerk reactions to industry trends. Ultimately, attracting and retaining talent still boils down to the individual employee, who can be motivated by a myriad of reasons, including the challenges of a job, money, options, and personal beliefs.

We generally find that in Hong Kong, candidates and employees have a very high chance of switching their fields after starting their careers. They are more attracted to career opportunities that provide access to the latest cutting-edge technology suitable for future demands rather than strictly on compensation or the workplace environment. Giving them a better understanding of their potential career advancement and showing them the latest innovations of the corporations will be crucial in attracting and retaining talent.

We are also seeing candidates negotiating for flexibility over on-site perks. Previously seen as the “gold standard” for talent retention, free food and in-office services are becoming less attractive as employees spend more time away from the office – instead, one key area that employees are increasingly interested in is the ability to work in hybrid work environments or a flexible work-frame.

Growing in the new age of talent

In order to stay ahead of the talent curve, organisations need to consider two things. Firstly, navigating the shortage of manpower, mainly within the tech industry, and secondly, balancing remote work with workplace engagement.

One major problem is that there are many roles where it takes a significant investment of time and resources to train someone well, resulting in organisations being wary of engaging with flexible workers and freelancers. Notwithstanding, global freelancing throws in other challenges such as time differences and performance management.

However, diversification of employment alternatives may be useful. If you can break down the projects or assignments into pieces, you can semi-outsource the task. This “plug and play” work can then be complemented by a core group of employees, providing the deeper knowledge, company DNA and organisational engagement required to complete the bigger picture. This allows companies and workforces to remain flexible in a changing market landscape, making it easier to secure top talent across the board. Combined with talent from non-traditional sources, and flexible working arrangements, organisations can shrink and expand as needed while supporting the needs of their full-time employees.

Moving to higher ground

Before the pandemic, the challenge of employee engagement and connectivity in Hong Kong was previously not an organisational hurdle as employees tended to physically work from the office. But now COVID-19 has pushed Hongkongers to adapt and creatively meet the new and dynamic needs of a workforce. For example, corporations did not encourage working from home before as they were concerned about employees’ performance, productivity and discipline. Now, they have become emboldened and put more trust in their employees after seeing the success of remote working during the pandemic. Freelancers and similar approaches to remote working have always existed, but not with the level of organisational involvement and responsibility they have today.

To manage this shift, internal stakeholder management should be more than simple communications; it should be engagement, connectivity and relying on your highly trusted core staff to ensure contracted roles remain entrenched within company culture. Managers should be trained to adapt to managing virtually, ensuring that age-old rituals that connect people are not only done on site, but are also done virtually: virtual town halls, team lunches and buddy systems.

Finally, understanding that individual goals and motivations are just that: individual. Catering to this diverse set of needs is regionally unique, yet universally relevant, as workforces and role definitions continue to change at a rapid pace.

The message is simple: in order to stay above water amidst the talent tsunami, Hong Kong must learn to embrace flexibility and understand the changing needs of workers. Pandemic-driven digital transformation in the city is changing how employees and organisations alike view the concept of talent, as well as careers in the field, and both sides will need to swim with the changing tides.

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Regional VP and Head of Enterprise, Payoneer