Retaining top talent in SMEs: 4 key tips from experts in HR

Published on 10/06/2022 by David Jani

As a small-to-medium-sized enterprise (SME), finding and keeping top talent can be crucial for long term success. The world of human resources is always changing and, to get a better idea of how to hold on to experienced staff, GetApp has spoken to those in the know. 

Top talent in SMEs standing on a pyramid of wooden blocks

It’s not always obvious what to look out for when assessing recruitment, company turnover, and talent retention. However, turnover can have a big impact on your business’s growth. 

To get a better idea of how to manage turnover and understand the employee retention issues affecting companies today, GetApp UK interviewed three experienced professionals in the HR world. These conversations revealed 4 key insights small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) should take into account to keep the best talent on their payroll.

1. Remote working is here to stay

Arguably one of the biggest shifts in the last two years in the way companies work has been the rise in flexible/remote working practices. 

Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, UK companies had to pivot to remote working at breakneck speed. GetApp’s own research at the time showed that 64% of businesses surveyed had switched to operating mostly virtually by the end of 2020. 

However, now that social distancing rules have been relaxed, this has not led to an immediate return to the previous status quo.

Recent data from the Financial Times shows that offices are operating at just one-quarter of their capacity. It, therefore, seems that even companies that are committed to a full-time return to the office are not succeeding in doing so in practice.

The 3 professionals we spoke to also emphasised that employee expectations on remote or hybrid working could have a serious impact on talent management and retention for UK SMEs.

Andy Ingham, the Senior Vice President of Sales for EMEA and APAC markets at recruitment software firm Bullhorn, argued that a rigid approach to in-office working can alienate dedicated staff.  

Quote from Andy Ingham on the importance of employee trust for talent retention

This sentiment was also echoed by Michelle Minnikin, Culture Captain at Work Pirates, who pointed out, when organisations have a blanket policy, it suits nobody.” She also added that it is much better to champion a working policy that is “based on individual needs/preferences”. 

Sam Wellalage, Managing Director and Founder of, went even further, stating:

Remote and flexible working needs to be taken seriously by all companies. The COVID pandemic is probably the worst thing that happened to everyone, but the best thing that came out of it for employees was that they showed employers they can be trusted to work fully remotely.”

He also highlighted the fact that the industry a company operates in can have a big impact on employee expectations with regard to flexible and remote working. 

“In the Crypto/Blockchain industry 95% of the global companies we work with are fully remote and we see many employees are leaving their normal workplace, in favour of jobs which are fully remote. More and more people are becoming digital nomads.”

2. The pandemic has made workers reassess their circumstances

It will come as no surprise to most that the pandemic has led many people to reassess their living and working arrangements. This is very much the case for a large number of the UK workforce and has led to talk of a “Great Resignation” as the pandemic situation wanes.

According to a recent survey of 1000 UK workers, 29% are looking to change jobs this year. So, what warning signs should employers look out for to avoid losing talent?

According to Sam Wellalage, there are two factors to watch. The first is how in-demand a person’s skill set is and the second is their age. 

“People with skills and experience in highly sought after jobs have the option to resign anytime they want and to do something that matches their values. Equally, the younger your employees, the higher chance of them resigning.” 

The turnover of younger employees seems especially fluid right now and this has been reflected by research. A recent study by Ipsos found that a higher percentage of those aged 16-34 are planning to look for a new job in 2022 compared to those in the 35-54 age bracket. 

Michelle Minnikin also emphasised that the cultural shifts that arose during the pandemic may make employees look at their current job with more scrutiny. 

Michelle Minniken quote on employment opportunities

She also added, “there has been a huge increase of people leaving organisations to work for themselves”.

It seems clear from these accounts that companies should be mindful that the members of staff who have the most potential job mobility or impetus to change could be more likely to leave if they aren’t adequately looked after. 

There is much more flexibility in the job market today. In fact, there are more job vacancies than unemployed workers for the first time in the UK since records began. This gives employees a lot of leverage in where they can choose to work.

Employees are also coming back to companies they previously left

However, whilst there is a shift from people staying put in jobs to exploring new possibilities, it’s important not to overlook employee loyalty to respected employers.

Andy Ingham for example talks about the “Great Return or Great Boomerang”, whereby employees that left during or prior to the pandemic are coming back to old employers out of loyalty.

He offered the following advice for UK SMEs to capitalise on this trend. “A good tactic to tackle job vacancies might be to attract old employees back, possibly in similar roles.”

3. Don’t forget the “human” side of human resources

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to HR, and it’s important to remember that companies are communities of people and each person has their own distinct needs.

As a GetApp UK study recently found, there has been a 14 percentage point drop in positive mental health in the UK workforce since the pandemic began. This is requiring businesses to engage more with the individual needs of their staff and invest in well-being resources such as corporate wellness software.

However, our own findings also showed that many of the biggest causes of workplace stress involved increasing workloads, repetitive work, and lack of managerial support. These are all issues that could cause workers to consider a potential exit from a company.

Therefore it is important for HR teams and managers to interact with staff members to learn if these issues affect them. It can also help them to discover their potential to avoid becoming stuck in a rut. 

This of course is sometimes easier said than done.

“Nobody can ‘motivate’ or ‘make’ someone happy. Help employees understand what motivates them, what makes them happy, and allow them to do more of that in their work (job crafting, developing their strengths, self-managing teams, etc.)”

Michelle Minnikin, Culture Captain at Work Pirates

Michelle also recommends not just seeing technology as a “quick fix”. Instead, it should be complementary to a people-first strategy. In other words, “get the basics right before jumping into technological solutions. Don’t do things to people. Listen to people and give them ‘permission’ to create their own solutions.” 

“Equip employees with the resources and support they need, creating psychologically safe environments where people are developed and their potential is realised.”

When does technology make a difference in HR?

HR is ultimately a people-first profession. However, technology still plays a big part in helping it work effectively too.

As Sam Wellalage explains, it is not always feasible (or even possible) to get the clearest view of what is happening within your workforce without suitable HR software tools. 

“Working with tens of thousands of data, HR teams can definitely benefit from having the right technology. From various application tracking systems to employee rewards schemes, there are a number of tools they can use.”

HR software tools that can help small-to-medium companies

As already mentioned, there are many tools out there to help manage employee incentives, speed up recruitment, and get a clearer picture of how your staff are doing both productively and on a human level.

These include options such as the following:

Employee scheduling software to keep on top of employee workloads and requested annual leave.
Benefits administration software for improving and managing employee incentives.
Applicant tracking systems to help streamline the hiring process for new staff members.
HR analytics software to track and analyse employee data and gain insights into how your company is working.
Corporate wellness software to establish and monitor health and wellbeing programs for staff in your workplace. 

The software used in businesses for staff management therefore can be seen as an assistant rather than the driving force behind an HR operation. 

However, as Michelle Minnikin explains, it is important to understand the real work to influence positive changes needs to come from management and HR teams themselves. This may require hard work and difficult reassessments.  

“Technology can *support* change, but real change can only come from people doing the right things – which are not necessarily the easy things.” 

4. Beware of turnover traps

Staff turnover is very often the nemesis of successful HR management. It can have dire effects on workplace morale, company spending, and can suck up time and resources. 

One of the biggest problems of high turnover is the start of a negative feedback loop within a business. As the quote below illustrates.

quote from Sam Wellalage about the dangers of high turnover on company culture

These can lead to serious knock-on effects that can harm business performance.

“Company objectives become largely misunderstood and communication also becomes a problem. When this happens, a company will not be successful. This is what high employee turnover does to a business at ground level.”

Michelle Minnikin also echoed the danger that noticeable staff turnover can have within an organisation on other more settled employees. Namely, it has the unwanted effect of giving talent the impetus to leave due to the coinciding shifts in workloads and pressure in the company. 

“It (turnover) has a massive impact. Greater uncertainty, more work for those left behind, and higher stress levels for everyone.”

What to do when employee turnover is high

It is critical to watch out for telltale signs of increasing staff turnover. However, it can’t always be avoided and reacting properly is your next best option.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) recommends taking the following action when your turnover numbers start looking less than healthy.

– Assess the situation properly and work out where people are leaving from in the business and why.
– Approach staff with a flexible mindset and aim to accommodate employee preferences on working hours.
– Create a company culture that is fair and equitable.
– Pay attention to employee wellbeing and respond appropriately to issues such as stress and presenteeism.
– Make sure employees have opportunities for progression and growth.
– Give staff the chance to have their say about the company through opportunities for dialogue, surveys, and grievance systems.

What are the key takeaways for SMEs?

As we’ve seen from our discussions with experienced HR professionals, SMEs need to be more on top of their staffing situation than ever. 

Having just come out of a major global crisis and with much uncertainty still ahead, employees aren’t necessarily willing to wait for solutions to take hold. This means proactivity, humanity, and care must be taken into account to avoid staff looking for the exit. 

It’s therefore important for HRs and managers in small-to-medium companies to keep the following points in mind:

  • Blanket policies on remote work do more harm than good. It’s essential to assess the preferences and practicalities of such policies before forging ahead.
  • Companies should pivot from a hiring focus to an employee retention focus in order to avoid the loss of experienced talent.
  • Employees won’t hesitate to pursue other opportunities if they feel unfulfilled where they are today.
  • Watch out for staff turnover before its effects spread around your business. Prevention is far better than cure in this case.
  • Technology can provide management solutions but it’s important not to forget about the ‘human’ impact human resources can have.
Looking for human resources software? Check out our catalogue.

Note: Questions and responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

This article may refer to products, programs or services that are not available in your country, or that may be restricted under the laws or regulations of your country. We suggest that you consult the software provider directly for information regarding product availability and compliance with local laws.

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About the author

Content Analyst for the UK, providing key insights into tech, software and business trends for SMEs. Cardiff University graduate, travel enthusiast, keen home chef and F1 fan.

Content Analyst for the UK, providing key insights into tech, software and business trends for SMEs. Cardiff University graduate, travel enthusiast, keen home chef and F1 fan.