What a blast we had at Google’s Melbourne HQ! People specialists from across the start-up community came together for breakfast and discussion on Hiring for Retention: finding the right talent, and establishing the right culture, for long-term teams.


With the current employment market, it’s perhaps never been more important to attract the right team members and help them stick around. But start-ups have it tougher than most; big ambitions, lean budgets and fast-changing needs mean burnout and attrition are everywhere.

The research linking productivity, work/life balance and job satisfaction is well-established (e.g. here, here and here). But time management is often perceived as in-tangible, so it’s an often-overlooked lever when thinking about hiring for retention.

Tova Angsuwat was the perfect collaborator to help me support the tech community through this challenge. Having led teams responsible for hiring +1600 engineers over her 10 years at Google, Tova’s an expert on hiring and retaining talent, and we quickly found our values were aligned.

So we co-hosted Hiring for Retention, part of Spark Festival and generously sponsored by the Google Cloud for Startups Program.

Drawing on my research and coaching work, I facilitated a discussion on sustainable productivity. To empower attendees to shape their own workplace culture, I provided a range of tactics and conversation prompts to discuss with their teams.

Tova presented Google’s research findings and led the conversation on attracting and supporting team members with the right skills and motivations to embark on lasting careers with you.

Top take-aways

While only attendees can benefit from the camaraderie and insights of our conversation, here’s a quick overview of the key take-aways.

1.        Identify and share your focus time

Making time for the important but less-urgent tasks is the most common struggle raised by my coaching clients. Attendees shared team feedback on this point: reactive schedules, frustrating energy slumps, and limited clear space between meetings are commonplace.

I armed attendees with a quick approach to identifying the time of day when they’re at their cognitive peak, encouraging them to block out that time for high-value, demanding tasks. Inversely, less-demanding tasks (like email, reading and admin) should be saved for their natural energy slump, about 7 hours after waking.

“We were already doing “deep work” status, but switching things around to when we’re cognitively on, role modelling balance, taking charge of the meetings you attend etc. are things I have started to encourage the team to do.”

Sarah Dobson, head of People Experience, FrankieOne
Conversation prompt: How can our team unlock people's focus time?

1.        Know your norms and exceptions

The group discussed what happens when availability and comms expectations are unclear, when time zones hardly align, and the always-on culture. Whether it’s your pre-blocked focus time, a morning run or an email-free evening, there could always be circumstances that justify negotiating a non-negotiable. How do you balance the need to respond quickly to crises, while supporting long-term wellbeing?

I raised the importance of creating explicit expectations for workplace time norms, as well as the situations where these norms can/should be temporarily set aside: a playbook for sustainable productivity.

“I really enjoyed your presentation and concrete advice for team productivity and wellbeing”

Jenna Lohan, Program Manager, POps Rotational Programs, Google

Thinking ahead about what these circumstances may be helps decision making in the moment, reducing stress and guilt. Attendees were encouraged to write an exception list. This may include certain types of requests from certain people. It probably includes certain types of family emergencies. But your manager probably doesn’t expect you to interrupt your work to immediately respond to every email.

Conversation prompt: What are our expectations around communications, availability, and priorities? What justifies an exception to these norms?

2.     Pick the problem solvers

Of course, hiring for retention is about the talent as much as the workplace.

In fast-growing teams, roles and responsibilities are often in flux. The skills you hired for at the start of the year may not be so critical today, when your product has pivoted and priorities shifted. And so, leaders may struggle to justify that specialist’s continued role in the team, or the specialist may lose motivation to stay, creating a short-term skill employment cycle.

Tova encouraged attendees to recruit for problem solving skills, not only for specific technical skills. She explained her approach at Google: asking hypothetical process questions. One way to do this is to think of a big, complex problem your company is facing where there is no right or wrong answer. Tell the candidate there is no right or wrong approach, and that you really want to understand how they think. Then observe how they walk you through their approach – which is more important than their outcome. That will give you a good indication for how they will solve the problems at your company. 

These questions demonstrate the candidate’s thought processes, rather specific experiences. As a bonus, this approach can also support team diversity, as hypothetical questions give more opportunities for candidates from non-traditional backgrounds, compared with behavioural questions.

“The tips Tova shared about understanding and testing your candidates on how well they understand and envision themselves a part of the company mission really stuck and we’ve just brought on a new corporate manager after the event.”

Anjali Kumanan, Founder, Your Stuff Made

3.      Share the backstage view

With the current employees’ market, businesses are working harder to present theirs as the workplace of choice. Attendees shared experiences where this resulted in over-promising and under-delivering to new hires, ultimately leading to some very short tenures.

Tova explained the risks of sugar-coating a role, advising that start-ups should share, not only their warts, but their fungus! Be authentic and hide nothing, no matter how much it makes you cringe.

Firstly, the truth always comes out, and your employer brand is likely to be discredited by any truth-masking. Secondly, sharing your challenges can help you find the best people to solve them. What looks like a black mark to you might be a shining opportunity to a motivated individual looking to really make an impact. Balance it with the good parts, but don’t shy away from sharing the fungus!

“What a wonderful event this morning! Thank you Tova Angsuwat and Jenna Polson”

Startmate Fellow
Curious about a workshop for your start-up, portfolio or community?
Book a discovery call to chat with Jenna about your vision of time well spent.