In today’s transformative and disruptive business environment, companies must focus on innovation if they hope to stay in front of the competition and keep up with the economy’s rapid pace of change.

Innovation is often thought of in terms of a technological breakthrough such as artificial intelligence (AI) or the successful integration of a new tool like robotic process automation (RPA). Too often, companies ignore the importance of also projecting an “innovation brand” and maintaining an innovative culture by continuously evolving hiring, onboarding, and upskilling processes.

One thing is for certain: Whether or not a company is perceived to be innovative by both current and potential employees is now a key factor in the escalating war for talent.

Building the Innovation Brand

The market has perceived innovative companies to be high-tech firms or startups, which were the first businesses to offer employees sleek workspaces and millennial-friendly perks. However, shifts in the market including lower unemployment, the growth of the millennial workforce, and the introduction of Gen. Z professionals have forced many companies to evolve and embrace these changes. It is no longer enough to offer office snacks and work-from-home Fridays. Today, companies have to do more if they want a leg up in recruiting and retaining talent.

By fostering and promoting an innovation brand, businesses are more apt to attract talented professionals and retain current employees who possess the future-focused skills necessary for companies to succeed both today and in the future. In fact, a recent EY survey found that the majority of employees (69 percent) are willing to jump ship for a similar job at an organization that is recognized as an innovation leader. As companies focus on future-proofing their business models, they can’t afford to lose top talent because they lack an innovation brand.

Maximizing Innovation Via Onboarding

New and entry-level employees can often play a major role in innovation as they bring new skills and perspectives to an organization. Despite this fact, our survey revealed the existence of a large disconnect between senior executives and entry-level employees in how they view their ability to innovate within their own organizations.

Nearly all (96 percent) of senior-level executives feel there is a channel through which to introduce new ideas to management in their organizations, while only half (55 percent) of entry-level employees agree. In order to combat this issue, companies need to ensure that they have in place a strong and centralized onboarding process that fosters communication and empowers employees to innovate. Such systems create better conditions for innovation and help remove barriers such as bureaucracy and hierarchy that so often stifle progress.

For example, EY centralized its orientation onboarding program for experienced hires almost two years ago in the US in an effort to provide new hires with a personal network at the very beginning of their careers at the company. New employees have the opportunity to network with peers, facilitators, and even retired partners who host an opening plenary and share stories about their EY experiences and careers. Through this onboarding framework, employees are better equipped with the right people in their pockets to help propel innovative ideas and solutions forward.

Retaining Those Willing to Innovate

In an environment where future-focused skills are at such a premium among talent, it is vital not only to recruit innovative thinkers, but also to retain current innovators within the company. Employees are on the front lines of a business, fighting an everyday battle toward profitability and results. In the push for greater profit and innovation, companies must be careful to not lose sight of the fact that maintaining a healthy work/life balance for employees is critical not only to the overall success of the business, but to innovation as well.

Promoting a healthy work/life balance to prevent burnout and inspire creative thinking was the top action cited to encourage innovation in our survey. In order to best foster a culture of innovation, it is important to give employees the flexibility to recharge both inside and outside of the workplace. When employees are provided with a culture that supports their overall well-being, they are more likely to feel a greater sense of connection to the company’s overall mission.

Innovation Through Upskilling

Three-quarters of survey respondents (76 percent) agree that new technologies will evolve the nature of work that they do. To meet this reality head-on and to ensure that workers feel they have the skills necessary to thrive in this changing environment, companies must embrace and promote learning and upskilling programs for employees. Such programs have multiple benefits for a business, such as future-proofing its current workforce, retaining and attracting top talent, and helping to build an innovation brand.

At EY, we’ve embraced ongoing education and training through our EY Badges program, which allows our employees to develop future-focused skills and gain the credentials needed to stay in front of the rapidly changing market. With EY Badges, our employees are taking innovation into their own hands by investing in their careers and advancing their skill sets in areas such as data analytics and artificial intelligence.

While innovation will certainly remain a buzzword throughout 2018, the differentiators for companies that truly adopt innovative mindsets will lie within their cultures. Attracting and recruiting talent will remain competitive endeavors, but the companies that come out on top will be those that equip their employees from the outset with the tools to grow and innovate together.

Carolyn Slaski is EY Americas vice chair of talent.

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