An overview of a crowd of people


Talent without borders: a brave new world

Borders should be no deterrent to recruiting the right people. We just need to take a more flexible approach to the world of work, says Matthew Gwyther


Talent is more mobile than ever before. Despite accounting for only about 13 per cent of the population, migrants now start more than a quarter of new businesses in the USA(1). In Silicon Valley, 57 per cent of prime, high-earning jobs are held by people born outside the USA.

In the UK, you only have to hang around London’s Silicon Roundabout for a short while to realise what a melting pot of different nationalities the UK tech scene has become. (Facebook in London has 65 nationalities represented in its workforce.)

Nevertheless, there are now many indications that the extraordinary wave of globalisation we’ve experienced may be drawing to a close. Drawbridges show signs of being hauled up. A new wave of nationalist and protectionist behaviours is appearing, demanded by different pressure groups, whether they are redundant rust-belt steel workers in the USA, fishermen in the UK or others elsewhere.

And it’s not just the passage of goods and services across borders that will be affected. The relatively free movement of people – aka human capital – is likely to be impeded.

One of the results of this will be that people you want in your company – the talent that’s the lifeblood of most businesses – may not be able to live and work near your office or even in your resident country.

In February of this year, Britain hit its cap on visas for skilled non-European workers for an unprecedented third month in a row. This deepens the staffing crisis facing the British National Health Service and other vital employers. When the monthly quota was reached in December and January for the first time in seven years, immigration lawyers had expected it would prove to be a temporary blip, but they now fear it is turning into an enduring problem.

Flexible incentives

So, what can be done? One inevitable upshot of this wave of protectionism is a necessity for companies to rethink how they house their staff across continents. The world of work, already far more fluid than it was two decades back, is set to loosen up even more.

This is a simple fact of the gig economy that’s developing – and to which many Millennials are already becoming accustomed. Indeed, rather than being off-putting, flexibility is seen as an attractor and an incentive to keep talent happy.

London’s Silicon Roundabout

London’s Silicon Roundabout is home to the UK’s tech scene


A recent study conducted by recruiters PageGroup(2) found that Millennials expect flexible working to be offered as a standard and not as an additional benefit. When we asked which benefits they wanted to see offered in the next five years, flexi-time was the most popular answer (67 per cent), followed by ‘flexi-place’ (57 per cent), and compressed work weeks (54 per cent). In addition to this, time in lieu (49 per cent) and career breaks (41 per cent) were high on their list. Numerous studies also show that women, especially those with dependent children, are more likely to ask for flexible working arrangements over a pay rise.

In the war for talent, where cross-border mobility may be impaired if you want the best, then flexibility will be an assumed part of the package. The late Steve Jobs of Apple summed up talent’s importance with this advice: “Go after the cream of the cream. A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.” Management guru Jim Collins agrees: “The single biggest constraint on the success of my organisation is the ability to get and to hang on to enough of the right people.”

Allowing workers to live and work where they want could be one way of getting and hanging on to the right people. Flipping open your laptop in a different environment rather than returning to your fixed workstation day-in, day-out is well on its way to becoming the new normal. And, if businesses want access to the richest sections of the talent pool, then offering this alternative is becoming a must. The rise of activity-based, agile working and the more recent phenomenon of co-working have been two of the most profound changes to workplace design over the past five years. They may become even more important in the years ahead to ensure the best talent is accessed across borders.


Matthew Gwyther is the former editor of Management Today and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s In Business