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5 things talent leaders need to think about during the current crisis

By Universum on 18/05/2020

A colleague recently observed that in business planning, there is “regular time” and “coronavirus time.” By that, he meant that what we thought was wise and true even one week ago seems completely outdated today. News is arriving so fast and hot that many feel powerless to make short- to medium-term business decisions and plans. 

This type of planning paralysis is understandable, of course. In a letter to clients on Sunday, Goldman Sachs revised its expectations for real GDP growth in the U.S. to 0% for the first quarter (down from 0.7%), and it now sees second-quarter growth contracting to -5.0% (from its original forecast of 0%). And Morgan Stanley says a global recession in 2020 is now its “base case” scenario.

“This hits the heart of the economy, and it hits the economy on all sides,” explained Diane Swonk, the chief economist at Grant Thornton. “It’s not just that we’re slowing down things. We’re actually hitting the pause button, and there is no precedent; there is no mold for that.”

Labour markets will take a massive hit—and it’s a situation that’s difficult to compare to previous downturns due to the way it will decimate some industries (e.g., travel and restaurants) while boosting others (e.g., teleconferencing and online education). Even those industries protected in the first months of the downturn may, by summer, feel supply chain pressures that drag down profitability.  

For those working in employer branding, recruiting, and development, the future seems fraught with unknowns. Even so, there are immediate issues that require our attention, even if we don’t know what lies ahead. That’s because when this crisis does end (and it will end), companies that have invested with an eye toward resilience will be ready to emerge stronger and ready to sprint.  

Let’s review the most practical, critical things talent leaders should be focused on in the months ahead:  

1. Create a revised recruiting game plan:

Realistically, your company’s recruiting efforts will contract in the months ahead. Few organizations—save those in very specific industries and niches—will be spared. This period of contraction, however, is a good opportunity to pause and refocus. Which efforts will serve you in the downturn? Which will position you to emerge stronger? 

a) Strengthen virtual hiring/selection: How well does your company currently use technology to recruit, target, and hire virtually? Where can you shore up virtual hiring? How will the college recruiting season be impacted and what needs attention immediately? Are you prepared to move to 100% video-based interviews? Develop a game plan to address critical chokepoints in this transition.  

b) Plan for ‘critical talent’ (attraction/retention): Your company’s recruiting and hiring efforts may slow in 2020, but don’t let an overall slowdown undermine your focus on critical talent. If you haven’t done so already, identify mission-critical roles inside your organization and develop a targeted approach for talent in those areas. Engage in scenario planning to understand how different levels of the slowdown may affect critical talent recruiting and retentionand develop a plan to deal with these problems in advance. Keep in mind, while certain roles were not considered “mission critical” before COVID-19, they may be so today. For example, cyber-security efforts are currently on hyperdrive as hackers exploit companies’ transitions to dispersed workforces. And retaining and supporting front-line workers who interact with customers may be a new area of focus, given the fear your employees may experience in interacting with the public.  

2. Revisit your gig work strategy

For many companies, using freelance or “gig” labour has been a way to access critical talent on short notice without committing to full-time employment. Now, in the face of the coronavirus epidemic, gig workers have become even more attractive, as they are often accustomed to and equipped for working virtually, and able to be “turned on” and “turned off” as demand requires. Even as I write this, however, the ugly underbelly of gig work is also in full view during the current crisis. Stories of Uber drivers returning to work while still presumptive positive for COVID-19 abound because they have neither sick leave nor adequate health insurance in most cases. Use the current crisis to evaluate: Which workers are needed on a full-time basis, and which are appropriate for gig labour? What benefits (and costs) could the company incur by weighting more heavily to gig labour? What protections can your company offer gig workers that make it both a profitable and ethical choice? What systems must you have in place to support more freelance labour? Use this period as a planning exercise to revisit whether gig strategies that were once overlooked now make more sense. 

3. Commit to an employer brand ‘moment of truth’

Famed screenwriter and storyteller Robert McKee once said, “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.” So, too, is it for your employer brand. What choices will you make under duress that will reveal your brand’s essential nature? What actions will you take that employees will respect, even if some of those choices are difficult? French luxury goods giant LVMH is in the midst of turning its production lines over to making masks and hand sanitizer for hard-hit French health workers. Many retailers and dining chains have rushed to revise their sick leave policies to make sure they don’t pressure employees to return to work while still contagious, but only Darden Restaurants (owners of Longhorn Steakhouse and Olive Garden) has permanently changed its sick leave policies for all employees, according to the New York Times.

For those working on the front lines of talent attraction and development, these types of business-changing decisions aren’t usually within their purview, of course. But other, smaller actions can also pay dividends:  

  • Outside of business-critical decisions about financials and healthcare, what kinds of emotional support are available for those facing months of isolation in their homes?  
  • How can in-person events be replicated virtually, preserving the sense of connectedness while staying safe at home?  
  • Take time to solicit ideas from employees to meet unforeseen needs. What types of challenges are they facing that you can address remotely? What resources can you ‘tweak’ to support the new normal?  
4. Remote employee engagement

For many organizations, the COVID-19 crisis has suddenly propelled them to adopt virtual workplaces. The early rush will be to settle technology concerns (“Do my employees have the right equipment to work from home?” “Are our systems safe from hackers?”) But before long, we must also consider how we support morale, productivity, and development across our virtual teams. Before anything, think about communication. For many organizations early in their crisis planning, they may focus on what’s most expeditious — but ultimately you’ll need to find out how your remote employees prefer to communicate and stay connected. And the answer isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.  

Yes, weekly phone calls help corral dispersed groups, and video-based coffee meetups help the group stay in touch. But companies will also need to invest in platforms that support distributed work—and these solutions will pay dividends long after the COVID-19 crisis has passed. What tech platforms does your organization currently use to help teams collaborate (these can include project management, virtual communications, digital asset management, or dozens of other collaborative categories). Do these also support a dispersed workforce? Where are the gaps? Finally, remember that not all engagement must be practical. So much of what keeps teams cohesive is about shared values, social interaction, and even charitable activities. Consider virtual trivia battles, fitness challenges, or even efforts to help those most affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, such as healthcare facilities or hard-hit small businesses.  

5. Right-sizing and reskilling for tech transformation

As an old boss of mine used to say, “Never waste a good crisis.” That quote has been attributed to everyone from Winston Churchill to Machiavelli, but the essential message is important: A crisis has an accelerating power, demanding change in areas where change is long due. For many companies, this means accelerating digital transformation, talent right-sizing, and reskilling. Use times of crisis not to make hasty, reactive decisions (though these will certainly be part of the mix), but to think about how this crisis can embolden your company to push ahead with digital transformation, or to imagine how your workforce must adapt to a new marketplace. 

The months ahead will be challenging in ways we can barely imagine today. This week, many organizations are in crisis mode, repositioning employees, evaluating supply chains, protecting employee health and security, and running new (and troubling) forecasts. Talent leaders also have much to consider. After the basics are attended to, there’s good work to be done to help our companies emerge stronger and ready to capture the growth that will return, be it next quarter or next year.  

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At Universum we advise you on how to develop and implement a strong Employer Value Proposition (EVP), that will be the strategic foundation for all future communication and shapes the employee experience.

About Universum

Universum, part of the StepStone Group, is a global thought leader in Employer Branding. With over 30 years of valuable experience in the field of employer branding, we have established ourselves in 60 markets globally, and our diverse workforce is physically present in 20 countries. We are uniquely positioned through our talent surveys to deliver key insights to recruiters about what future talent is looking for in a company. Our data-led, human and meaningful output has attracted more than 1,700 clients, including many Fortune 500 companies, as well as global media partners that publish our annual rankings and trend reports. Find out more at