Competing in the War for Talent – Learnings from xDesign

Competing in the War for Talent – Learnings from xDesign

    Due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent shift in many technical roles now being offered on a hybrid or fully remote basis, the market has changed considerably. Many employers have had to adapt their working practices and rethink workforce and employee planning, management, performance and experience strategies.

    We are currently conducting research with Scottish tech businesses to find out how the past few years have impacted their resourcing strategies. We have been keen to understand on a wider level how recruitment and retention are holding up, what successes there have been as a result of any changes made, and to highlight the key trends and challenges shaping the recruitment and HR space.

    Our Founder and CEO, Denise Baxter, was delighted to take part in a recent session with the People team at xDesign, an Edinburgh-headquartered strategic digital delivery company providing design, engineering and agile product teams to companies across the country. She shared her insights on the changing face of the HR profession and the current recruitment landscape.

    The HR function has evolved greatly over recent years - from the policy obsessed presence within an organisation to being enabling, agile and data-driven to drive real business impact. This has been further accelerated by the pandemic to keep pace with the needs of today’s fast-moving business and talent landscape.

    Scotland’s tech sector continues to go from strength to strength, and with a predicted growth of 34,000 jobs over the next three years, talent is set to stay in exceptionally high demand. Attracting, retaining and developing the best people is more challenging than ever, yet vital for competitive advantage and success.

    Forward-thinking companies are focusing on building a strong employer brand, managing employee engagement, offering clear learning and development opportunities, and strengthening workplace culture.

    xDesign is a great example of an organisation getting this right. As a people-first technology business who have scaled at pace over the last 2 years, we asked them to share their experience, learnings and successes.

    What has been the biggest challenge for your organisation over the past couple of years?

    The biggest challenge was navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and moving to fully remote working, making sure we stayed connected with our people during this time and ensuring that we could support their mental health and wellbeing during a difficult time. We lost some of our big clients who were affected by the pandemic which resulted in us having to make some difficult decisions, but our people supported every decision we made along the way and understood that we were doing everything we could to make sure the company survived the pandemic. This was the moment that the business made sure that people are at the forefront of everything we do.

    What is your biggest current challenge?

    Our biggest challenge at the moment is the rapid growth that came after the pandemic. After the first year of the pandemic we had about 55 people and now we stand at around 250 employees. This rapid growth in such a short period of time has caused challenges as we mature our processes at pace and continue to make sure our people are at the forefront of the decisions we make. Making sure that the culture we had in place, in what was a relatively small business at the time, would remain consistent and allow us to scale to our current size without compromising on our core values as a business.

    What policies or procedures have you adapted or introduced to remain competitive?

    Some of the things we’ve introduced:

    • Generous shared paternity leave to bring in line with maternity leave
    • Quarterly benefits and salary benchmarking
    • Focusing on L&D - providing budgets, new training platforms and 6 L&D days per employee
    • Investing in an L&D department by bringing in a Head of L&D and now growing this team
    • O’Reilly learning platform
    • Bippit financial wellbeing platform
    • Vitality - virtual GP
    • More leniency and generous allowances for types of leave in the business - compassionate leave, parental leave, medical leave
    • A flexible working approach for employees to manage their working hours and where they work best

    Assuming you have moved to hybrid or fully remote working for certain roles, what (if any) impact has this had on your culture?

    We’ve worked really hard on making sure that we have managed to maintain our culture while moving to a hybrid model, and by doing this we make sure to keep things social in the business.

    Prior to the pandemic, we had one office and our employees were largely Edinburgh based. We’ve since added new office hubs and have employees based right across the UK, working office-based, hybrid or fully remote.

    We’ve also put a lot of effort into our mental health and wellbeing support to make sure all employees have a dedicated People Partner who they can speak to if they need to or if they have been absent from work due to mental health reasons. We have a process in place to help them return to work and talk about the support we can offer them, as well as making sure that we have access to platforms such as Vitality which is able to provide that EAP support if needed. We have Mental Health First Aiders in the business who run workshops and give presentations to continue growing awareness and support across the business.

    How do you keep your employees engaged?

    Whenever we have a social event, we always make sure it is accessible for remote workers. There are many events organised across the business by our Fun Club team - everything from pub quizzes and photography competitions to step count challenges.

    Did you offer any training or support to your line managers on how to manage remote teams?

    We provided a line management training course which was delivered during the pandemic and we incorporated remote team management. We have monthly line management forums to stay engaged as a leadership community, to discuss relevant topics and share insights and experiences, gather feedback and stay focused on our people.

    We also provided a lot of materials around mental health and wellbeing to guide and support our managers in navigating any issues with their teams. Our People Partners are Mental Health First Aiders and we have monthly mental health sessions to ensure we’re supporting our managers.

    What feedback or insights have you had from candidates or your employees which have shaped your thinking/practices?

    Candidates who offer or provide us with their feedback, whether they’ve been successful in their application or not, consistently enjoy our processes and buy into our company values and culture. Time and time again, what impacts candidates the most are the people involved and invested in bringing new talent to our business, who do a great job at representing the business and acting as ambassadors for xDesign.

    Employees are regularly asked for feedback on their employee experience - we gather feedback on various themes including collaboration, team and manager support, company culture, physical and mental wellbeing, fairness, camaraderie, and trust in leadership.

    What has been your greatest learning due to the workforce and workplace changes resulting from the pandemic?

    That our teams were incredibly effective and driven with remote working. This was a fear of ours before the pandemic but they proved to us that hybrid and fully remote working can work incredibly well and that people flourish in different environments, so it wasn’t a one size fits all approach. We are very much a people-first business and believe our people are incredible so we wanted to bottle our culture, especially from the pandemic, and the attitude that we are one team doing what we can to succeed in challenging times for everyone.

    What do you see as key to attracting and retaining the tech talent you require to enable your business growth in this candidate-driven, highly competitive landscape?

    We’ve scaled our Talent Acquisition team from one inhouse recruiter to a team of eight talent acquisition partners, and we have almost tripled our headcount in the last 18 months. As we support the pace of our organisational growth, we’re focused on delivering great talent to the business and positive, informed and engaging candidate experiences for those who enter our hiring process. In the face of a highly competitive and candidate-driven market, coupled with our efforts to simultaneously grow our employer brand awareness, our scaled team is able to respond to the current demands of candidates actively and passively seeking attractive opportunities.

    The war on talent has possibly never been so tough but the results we’re seeing is testament to the entire team involved in driving and supporting our recruitment efforts. There are various key factors contributing to our success in attracting tech talent:

    • Company-wide collaboration on a first-class candidate experience
    • Growth of our Talent Acquisition team who partner closely with the business and a team structure that allows us to hire at volume, at pace, and in direct response to our growing client engagements
    • Close collaboration on recruitment marketing activities and employer brand awareness strategy
    • Focus and collaboration with our People Operations and exec team on a strong employee offering and core company values and culture to allow us to respond to candidate priorities
    • Continuous review of end-to-end hiring processes
    • Adopting a flexible remote-first and hybrid working model
    • Adopting the right hiring tools, platforms and techniques to strengthen the reach to our target audience

    In terms of how we are retaining talent:

    • As we continue to grow our client engagements and expand into other regions, we remain a people-first business where our employees can thrive in their careers, focus on their L&D and growth opportunities and make a real impact, whatever their role at xDesign. Everyone has a voice and we succeed and fail together.
    • We have a strong, engaging and supportive company culture where people are seen, heard and valued, enjoy the work they do and are recognised for results, big and small. Recognition in various forms is a big theme in our business.
    • We’ve invested in the growth and expansion of our People team, allowing us to not only support business growth but also implement key initiatives and mature our processes at pace to support our employees, allowing them to succeed and thrive both in and out of work.

    In summary

    Smart, forward-thinking companies are in a stealth war for talent and the way in which they are managing this is making them either leaders in their field or simply unable to compete.

    We would like to thank Lorraine Rew, Head of Talent Acquisition, and the People Team at xDesign for their time and support with our research.

    If you would like an external viewpoint on your hiring strategy or to find out more about how we can support your organisation in building a people-focused, inclusive culture to attract, develop and retain right-fit talent, then we’d love to chat with you. Please contact our friendly team on 0131 385 0379 or email us at