Of all the business impacts of Brexit and its associated uncertainty, the effect on your people is potentially the most critical.
Research by Albion Capital suggests difficulty in finding skilled staff is already among the biggest barriers to growth for SMEs, with skills in marketing, sales, business planning and IT particularly hard to find.
The market will tighten further in many sectors as migrant workers become scarcer, predicts Jeff Wellstead, a partner at The Pioneers management innovation consultancy.
“Brexit will see the continuation of a trend we have seen for some time. The price of both skilled and unskilled labour will go up at a time of sluggish overall economic growth and price pressure,” he says.
“One of the implications of this is that companies have to be more effective at utilising the talent they've got on the payroll today.”
Investing in retention, by keeping people motivated over the long term, makes better economic sense than having to handle the effects of constant `churn and burn' as people become disengaged and move on.
That's especially important in challenging times. If the leaders of a company are feeling uncertain about business direction at present, that insecurity will be filtering through to employees too.
In a small enterprise, the signs that someone is thinking of a new job are often clear. “Sick time, drops in performance, sluggish responses, internet surfing and seeking referrals from fellow workers are all indications that someone has `checked out',” Wellstead suggests.
He counsels businesses to deploy employee feedback software, such as Culture Amp and TinyPulse. These tools go beyond satisfaction scores, making simple analytics affordable to SMEs.
“Companies that measure people, beyond just employee engagement, and who understand what this data is telling them, will have a huge competitive advantage,” he adds.
Good motivation among existing employees will also fuel your recruitment drive, since it will be reflected on the employer review sites that are now routinely scanned by potential applicants.
A competitive package, a welcoming atmosphere and a compelling story about the company's goals are all key to reeling in the right people. And these shouldn't stop in the period between job offer and starting date, which Wellstead sees as an often-overlooked danger zone.
Having witnessed a frenzied atmosphere in the tech industry - with successful candidates sometimes using their new job offer to seek a better deal with a different company - he predicts similar post-Brexit competition in other sectors.
“You need to build and maintain friendly human voices, faces and connections during that crucial period just after an offer of employment is signed, and well before your new hire walks through the door,” he adds.
Unlike other business decisions, these actions can't be put on ice pending Brexit clarity, Wellstead warns. Businesses need to invest now to prepare for a talent drain.
“Focus today on your top 50%, understand how they're performing well, and look at how they're rewarded and recognised,” he concludes.
“If you're not offering career or learning opportunities, constructive feedback, coaching and mentorship, or not offering them tasks that stretch their capabilities to keep them engaged - then you're at risk of losing them.”
5 ways to manage your workforce in uncertain times
1 Focus on employee experience from the start
Reach out to people as soon as a job offer is made. Make them feel welcomed, excited, valued and involved - even before they formally join the team.
2 Share your story
Ensure everyone, including the most junior team members and support staff, are fully aware of your company's goals and what sets it apart.
3 Cherish your indispensable people
Identify the over-achievers in the company. Then empower them and understand what they do differently and why, so you can spread these behaviours across the organisation.
4 Track sentiment systematically
Monitor employee engagement, and consider using simple analytics to track underlying factors.
5 Offer support
Be proactive in engaging with your people at times when they're likely to be under maximum stress or uncertainty.