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Oct 16, 2020
This article is part of a series called Branding.

No one would deny that planning is key to success. Developing a long-term plan usually contains two key components: a company vision and a corresponding business strategy to enable completion. But to make this possible, you need to find talent that will thrive in your unique environment. This is why talent attraction and employer branding are so essential to long-term organizational success.

But what happens when a crisis strikes? What do you do when your five-year plan goes out the window? How will you attract and retain talent then? How will you look after your people? Will you live up to and honor the promises of your employer brand? 

In the wake of COVID-19, many employers were forced to answer these very questions. By exploring new challenges that companies were facing around high-volume hiring, remote work, and caring for their people, you can learn valuable lessons to challenge your own thinking and recalibrate existing norms. 

Lesson 1: Remarkable change is possible in a short space of time.

There’s a famous Einstein quote that I absolutely love. You’ve probably heard it before, but I believe it’s very applicable to our current situation: “In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.”

Let’s be clear: There’s no denying that COVID-19 has been incredibly challenging — physically, mentally, and socially. But in the face of tough times, it’s amazing what people can accomplish when the pressure is on.

Asda, one of the United Kingdom’s largest supermarket retailers, is one such example of this. With 165,000 employees and 630 bricks-and-mortar stores,  changing talent acquisition strategy is more akin to moving a supertanker than quickly shifting a power boat. Yet despite the numerous challenges of working in a large corporation with multiple competing stakeholders, the company accomplished massive in an incredibly short space of time.

In the days following a nationwide lockdown, Asda’s talent team had no time to overthink or make long, drawn-out decisions by committee. Its biggest decision was to move back to a manual process of talent review in order to make hires at pace. This might seem illogical or like a step backward, but according to the company, it was necessary to find the right talent. 

As a result, Asda (a wholly owned subsidiary of Walmart) was able to hire 23,000 employees in a matter of weeks. Under normal circumstances, all of this would have seemed impossible. Putting technical practicalities aside, the single most important lesson here is that transformative talent acquisition plans are possible in an incredibly short space of time when people pull together. 

Meanwhile, Amazon is another testament to this idea. While widespread hiring freezes are common across the industry, Amazon has benefited financially from the pandemic and is looking to invest its earnings back into its people. On August 18, the retailer formally announced its intent to create 3,500 new technology jobs across six U.S. cities. What’s more, Amazon is actively hiring a further 20,000 positions across its warehouse operations.

While in normal times, hiring more than 20,000 new employees in a few weeks might seem absurd, the level of commitment, dedication, and flexibility needed to make this happen shows that TA professionals are actually capable of much more than we might think. 

As TA and employer brand professionals, we should use Asda and Amazon’s ability to pivot quickly, make drastic changes, and hire top talent at scale as inspiration to accelerate our own internal goals and objectives. 

Lesson 2: Location will be democratized. 

As we reflect on the past year, it’s clear the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way many organizations view remote working. Let’s not underestimate the impact of this on the talent space. Yes, we’ve seen a general shift in recent years towards a more flexible work/life balance, but no one could have predicted such a massive change in such little time. 

According to a study conducted by the World Economic Forum, 98% of employees said they would like the option to work remotely for the rest of their careers. When asked what people like about working from home, the top benefits included a flexible schedule (32%), the ability to work from any location (26%), no commute (21%), and increased time with family (11%). 

Think about what remote working means for the future of talent acquisition and employer branding. It’s no longer just a nice perk to throw on top of a salary; remote working will actually change where and how companies source talent, too.

For example, a company that requires its employees to be physically present at a centralized headquarters can only really look for talent within a given radius. With remote working, though, employers can search for talent anywhere in the world. The knock-on effect of this could enormously impact and enhance the employee experience, particularly aspects of productivity, diversity strategy, social mobility, and internal progression. 

From a cultural wellbeing perspective, research from FleishmanHillard found that 80% of remote workers felt healthier, less tired, more human, or more connected to their family since transitioning to remote work. A further 85% said that advantages of remote work make for a better work/life balance. 

While remote working may not be for everyone, having systems and processes in place to enable full-scale deployment can help your organization attract, retain, and engage talent in ways that weren’t previously considered. 

Lesson 3: Put your people first.

We can all agree that the events of the last few months have made us realize the true value of human connection. Whether it’s family, friends, or colleagues, it’s the people in our lives that bring us true joy and fulfillment. For organizations and talent professionals, putting your people first is not only pivotal to maintaining long-term brand reputation, it’s also the right thing to do. 

When times are tough, there’s a natural tendency for employers to cut back financially, often to the detriment of employee happiness and wellbeing. While furlough schemes and wide-scale layoffs are inevitable for some businesses, it’s still possible to handle these situations with honesty and empathy by putting your people first.

Airbnb and Hilton are two great examples of companies that did exactly this. Through honesty, openness, and a willingness to admit the truth, these employers addressed employee fears, answered pressing questions, and set the groundwork for a stronger future.

Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky released a statement in early May on the company’s website addressing the difficult challenges the business faced. In light of plummeting travel and tumbling profits, Airbnb had to reduce its staff by 25% to keep the company afloat. Rather than sugarcoat the truth or attempt to skirt around the subject, Airbnb addressed the crisis head-on and provided a very honest and transparent account of how they arrived at the decision, what they are doing for staff that are being let go, and what happens next.

This included additional context and information around severance packages, as well as a commitment to ensure the health and safety of employees that had been let go. Airbnb covered 12 months of health insurance for every U.S.-based employee and committed to covering health insurance costs for international employees through the end of 2020.

Hilton, meanwhile, has gone to great lengths to assist furloughed staff in finding alternate employment. It has partnered with a number of companies, including Amazon, CVS Health, Walgreens, Albertsons, and Publix, to help find temporary work employees.

To help furloughed staff find new, temporary roles, Hilton also created an online portal that allows workers to have an expedited recruiting and onboarding path to a number of different partner companies. In this instance, Hilton has shown real vulnerability and accountability by helping its employees find new means of subsistence. 

Taking decisive action will pay massive dividends for the hotel chain, not only by enhancing its employer brand reputation, but also in the eyes of its customers. Such acts of goodwill show that employers can face difficult times with a high degree of empathy, compassion, and honesty.

Silver Lining of Hope

As we reflect on the lessons of this year, it’s abundantly clear that change is here to stay. In times of adversity, employers will be tested to innovate and find new ways of working. But when we embrace the struggle and focus on what you can control, then we’ll find there’s a new silver lining of hope at play. 

Whether it’s achieving more than we ever thought possible, redefining where and how we work, or putting our people first, these lessons can propel us to work even smarter and achieve greater results. In doing so, we can work together to challenge the status quo and reconsider how we move forward as an industry.  

This article is part of a series called Branding.
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