Covid-19 recovery: Employer brands will require ‘seismic shift’

Clockwise from top left: Andrew Baird, Mike Hanbidge (Blackbridge), Nick Ulycz, Jonny Briggs, Rebecca Foden and Dawn Hollingworth. Centre: Finn Lynch (Blackbridge)

How employers have treated their staff during the Covid-19 crisis will be the ‘acid test’ for candidates considering whether to join their organisations and will be a major factor in how they reposition their employer brand.

This was one of the key messages from a round-table discussion last week looking at the ‘legacy of the lockdown’, hosted by people communications agency Blackbridge Communications, in which employer branding and recruitment professionals predicted a “seismic shift” in how organisations present themselves to candidates as they recover from the crisis.

Since the coronavirus pandemic took hold employers in a multitude of sectors have had to make tough decisions about business continuity and cost control. Redundancies, pay cuts and lengthy furlough periods are the reality for many, and candidates and customers are likely to remember these decisions and how they were taken for some time.

I think a lot of organisations will have some explaining to do about how they treated employees recently, and many employer brands will need to be refocused to take account of mistakes that were made,” – Andrew Baird, Blackbridge Communications

“People will look at how organisations treated their employees who were leaving as a result of this situation,” said Nick Ulycz, chief operating officer at domestic appliance warranty provider Domestic & General.  “People see that its inevitable that there will be lay-offs and there will be redundancies, but the way in which you manage that and treat people on the way out will be something [they] will remember and will impact your brand in future”.

Rebecca Foden, head of talent acquisition and executive recruitment at Transport for London, agreed: “People will be looking at business outlook ratings and the ‘Covid-19 test’ – how did the employer treat its employees through this really difficult and challenging time?”

An example of how individuals are now thinking about brands can be seen in a resource compiled by communications and graphic design specialist Lewis Cotter, who ranked high street brands based on how they treated employees and consumers during the pandemic.

“It’s only a short step away from organisations being rated for how they treated employees during Covid,” suggested Andrew Baird, Blackbridge’s director of consulting. “I think a lot of organisations will have some explaining to do about how they treated employees recently, and many employer brands will need to be refocused to take account of mistakes that were made.”

One organisation that has been severely impacted by the crisis is Rolls-Royce, resulting in the pending loss of 9,000 jobs.

“Where we can, we do have roles internally that we can look to redeploy internal talent [into], so ultimately there will be a very significant reduction in recruitment compared to previous years. I wish it was a more positive story, but that is the reality that we’re living through at the moment,” said the company’s global employer brand lead Dawn Hollingworth.

She said the organisation will have to significantly shift its focus as it emerges from the crisis and begins to rebuild its brand. The need for an agile workforce is a reality, she said, with the linear career progression that people once expected looking less likely. The Rolls-Royce employees of the future will instead need to prepare to be able to transfer their skills around the organisation, based on need.

“I think we’re probably going to end up with an invitation to ‘come and build with us’ and the emphasis will be on a career with Rolls Royce, rather than a specific job path,” she said of the company’s future employee value proposition.

In terms of employer branding, Ulycz said there is likely to be a “seismic shift” in how organisations will need to position themselves to candidates as a result of the changes seen over the past few months.

“Industries that were once safe harbours are on the brink of collapse. Currently we’ve got 8 million workers furloughed and when that scheme comes to an end it’s inevitable that thousands of people will lose their jobs. I think all of those things create a significantly different context and it will be a significantly different market in which we seek to attract talent in future,” he said.

Foden advised employers to think about how they can position their brand around recovery and align and engage top talent to support wider recovery plans. “We’ve seen with Deep Water Horizon [that] BP didn’t do that. As soon as there was an upturn [in job availability] top talent actually left.”

Hollingworth, however, believed the principles that underpin a strong employer brand will remain the same, but the focus and the emphasis will change.

“We still need to be very insight-led in terms of how we approach candidates and employees, but the drivers are going to change. There will probably be more emphasis on flexible working, and maybe on job security,” she said.

“But I also think that employer brand professionals will need to be more focused on employee engagement and the retention of existing talent, and that brands in general are going to be more reliant on employee advocacy.”

The period away from the workplace, either working from home or on furlough, may have also led employees to question their “why”, said Foden, so there may also be a need for organisations to emphasise why their work is purposeful.

She said the financial crisis of 2008 gave many people who had been made redundant the opportunity to change careers and consider pursuing a lifelong aspiration. The current crisis could result in many doing the same.

However, Hollingworth felt that traditional employee values, based on security and the provision of basic needs, will need more prominence.

“Call me a cynic, but I tend to look at the brand construct as a bit like Maslow’s Hierarchy. People will be looking to see that their basic needs are met in the overall proposition in terms of remuneration, benefit, wellbeing, etc. And having a compelling purpose on top of that will be the icing on the cake.”

Asked about the lessons learnt during the Covid-19 crisis and what their one take-away would be in terms of employer branding, the panel said the actions of leadership would be a key driver.

Employer brand professionals will need to be more focused on employee engagement and the retention of existing talent, and that brands in general are going to be more reliant on employee advocacy” – Dawn Hollingworth, Rolls-Royce

“Purpose will unquestionably still be there, but I think organisations will need to look at leadership. You’ve got a real answer to it in terms of whether the leadership has done a good job during Covid or not,” said Jonny Briggs, group head of talent acquisition and inclusion at Aviva.

He said the suggestion that ‘agility’ would need to focus heavily in employers’ values would not be possible in more risk-averse sectors, like insurance.

“We will probably get behind the agile in some parts of our business, but other organisations may be able to charge ahead,” he said.

Baird said the crisis had provided “plenty of learning opportunities” for employers, particularly at leadership level. “A lot of the senior c-suite actions were not consistent with articulated values. If I was running a substantial business, the things I would learn in terms of branding is that if I am going to have values, make sure to stick to them in times of crisis,” he said.

Hollingworth advised organisations to keep on their toes, as what candidates look for in a role is set to evolve at a rapid rate. “We need to let go of a lot of the assumptions we’ve previously had, and expectations too, and work hard to keep our finger on the pulse in terms of what our employees now need and what is driving them and keeping them motivated. Similarly, with candidates, what does their new ideal proposition look like?

“Even though we may not be able to put our foot down on the accelerator right now, being aware of the landscape around us is going to be more important, because I think there’s going to be more twists and turns that we haven’t even anticipated yet.”

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