Agile Talent6 minute read

Why Top Professionals Prefer Agile Work

As the demand for greater flexibility and variety in the workplace continues to rise, explore why top tier professionals are turning to agile work to advance their knowledge, expertise, and careers.

As the demand for greater flexibility and variety in the workplace continues to rise, explore why top tier professionals are turning to agile work to advance their knowledge, expertise, and careers.

Sib Mahapatra
Contributing Editor, Toptal Insights

Sib Mahapatra is a growth consultant and entrepreneur with a keen interest in the future of work.


From financial analysts to software developers, the best professionals in the world are overwhelmed with employment options. It comes as no surprise, then, that recruiting skilled talent is one of the most pressing challenges for businesses today: a recent Toptal survey of global business leaders indicated that 78% of respondents view talent acquisition as a primary risk to organizational success.

This figure holds true across industries and across vocation―high-quality product managers, accountants, and programmers in industries as diverse as agriculture and retail are in short supply. And when they do arrive, they tend not to stay long. Jobvite’s recruiter survey indicates that 30% of new hires have a tenure of fewer than three years.

It’s this high employee churn, as well as scarce talent, that comes with an immense cost to organizations. One recruiting platform notes that it takes an average of 43 days to fill an open software developer role, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars of costs from productivity loss and recruiter salaries. In the aggregate, disengaged employees cost organizations between $450 and $550 billion every year. Hiring agile talent can significantly reduce the cost and volume of challenges associated with recruiting the best professionals. And from our survey of global business leaders, it’s clear that organizations are doing just that―91% of companies who participated in the survey said that they are now using high-level agile talent.

Compensation and Benefits Aren’t As Important

How can savvy organizations come out on top in the battle to recruit the best talent? The trick is providing top professionals with what they value—from discrete benefits to a clear path for career development. When it comes to wooing coveted white collar professionals, most companies traditionally offer everything from attractive compensation and stock options to health insurance, lifestyle perks, and even personal mentorship from top executives.

But competing through salary and benefits is expensive―on their own, benefits add on an average of 30% to the total cost of a compensation package. Moreover, these tactics don’t work as well as they used to do. According to Glassdoor, a 10% increase in base pay increases the odds that an employee will stay at a company by a mere 1.5%. In addition, a 2015 study by the Freelancers Union showed that 50% of all freelancers wouldn’t stop freelancing for any amount of money. Managing your own workload, deciding which projects to work on, and choosing clients are advantages that agile professionals favor over compensation and tangible benefits.

In order to achieve durable success in recruiting top professionals for the future, it is vital to understand that the benefits they value in a work environment are not the same as they used to be. Below, we draw from a wide variety of recruiter and talent surveys to introduce three key workplace preferences shared by top professionals and explain why they are best served by an agile model.

1. Variety

According to a survey by Qualtrics and the venture capital firm Accel, almost 70% of millennial professionals said that the longest they would stay at a job they enjoyed is three years. A staggering 42% of employees earning $75,000 or more intend to quit their jobs in the next six months. And Gallup shows that even among the cohort of professionals that are highly engaged with their job, 37% are constantly on the lookout for new opportunities.

This data implies that even highly compensated, engaged, and happy employees are still flight risks, continually scanning the horizon for new work experiences―namely, agile opportunities. On the other hand, agile talent can manage their own workload—creating time to learn new skills, select projects based on their own interests and preferences, and obtain access to a host of additional cultural and physical benefits.

Rather than fight this tendency―which is perhaps catalyzed in many western countries by robust economies close to full employment, and a secular shift in the demographic preferences of younger workers―enterprises can make themselves more appealing to skilled professionals by embracing the desire of top talent to avoid stagnation and explore a variety of new work opportunities.

By agreeing to facilitate—and even encourage—agile engagements with high-performing professionals, organizations can employ and harness the most talented workers.

2. Flexibility

The World Economic Forum identified the “changing nature of work” as the single largest driver of business change in the 21st century. With the help of rapid advances in enterprise collaboration tools like Zoom, GitHub, and Slack, the quality and productivity gap between on-site teams and their remote equivalents has substantially diminished―and depending on who you ask, disappeared entirely. This creates an opportunity for forward-looking organizations to differentiate from their peers and provide talent with greater freedom and flexibility to get work done in their own way.

From the perspective of individual workers, the notion of creating a custom work environment is a true differentiator. In a piece published on Toptal Insights, one of Toptal’s own elite network members notes that remote work boosts productivity by allowing white-collar professionals to work at the time and location that suits them best.

From the perspective of enterprises located in expensive markets, recruiting talent from a wider geographical area―which offers greater compensation variance―lets them provide compensation that is highly attractive to top talent on a relative basis while also saving money when compared to the enterprise’s local market rates.

Many organizations are already headed in this direction. Toptal’s recent survey indicates that 45% of respondents expect the amount of remote work performed to “significantly increase” during the next two years. Within the next decade, allowing top talent to work when and how they want could be table stakes; at the moment, this attitude represents a substantial competitive advantage.

3. Opportunity to Develop and Advance

This is one value that hasn’t changed at its core―top professionals care about advancing their careers. But they now have new tactics to go about it. According to Glassdoor, job title stagnation is one of the largest impediments to employee retention; every additional ten months an employee stays in the same role makes them one percent more likely to leave. And a survey by Udemy said that 57% of workers ranked opportunities to learn and grow as one of the most important aspects of workplace culture.

Agile talent are unbound by the traditional constraints of full-time employment. They are in a position that allows them to manage their own timing and work schedule, opening up more time to enhance their expertise. For example, they are able to attend more workshops, conferences, and training courses than full-time employees. This can help them fast track their knowledge and networking―vital attributes for agile talent.

Above all else, top professionals prefer agile work because it provides unique opportunities for career growth. By working for a diverse array of teams and leaders, professionals develop adaptable, tangible, and transferable soft skills in the workplace― while burnishing their portfolios and resumes with projects from a variety of companies and verticals. Top talent working in technical fields also benefit from exposure to a broad array of frameworks and tools, instead of being stuck coding in a single software stack.

To lock down the best talent, enterprises must provide a steady but diverse diet of challenging and fulfilling opportunities. One of the most effective ways for a single organization to accomplish this goal is to retain top agile talent on a flexible basis by reassigning them to different internal projects according to their work preferences, their desired lifestyle, and the needs of the organization. This has the added benefit of making the company more agile overall.

Give Top Professionals What They Want - Agile Work

Evidence from a variety of sources in the talent and recruiting space―along with Toptal’s own survey data―sheds valuable light on the vital question of how to attract talent in a very competitive environment. Many factors are out of the organization’s control. Recruiters and human resource managers can do little to affect the charisma of a founding CEO or the “curb appeal” of a company’s mission and products―for example, Elon Musk and Tesla.

But the best way to outperform in finding talent is to pay attention to what the most talented professionals actually want. By doing so, it becomes apparent that their desires and qualities have evolved alongside collaboration technology, organizational best practices, and demographic shifts over the past decade.

Variety, flexibility, and advancement—in a word, dynamism—are the new order of the day for top talent. These qualities are supplanting a more rigid system in which a reliable salary and benefits package were the only requirements to attract and retain the best professionals. The enterprises that thrive over the next decade and beyond will play to these objectives by adopting the approach that gives top talent exactly what they want: agile engagements that allow them to fulfill their career goals in new and exciting ways.

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