Pandemic Brings Shift in How Companies Attract, Retain Talent

In his own work and in his volunteer efforts for MichBusiness, Todd Hohauser has talked to a lot of company CEOs about their concerns as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

And over the last year or so, he said, the number one concern of CEOs across a variety of industries is finding talent. With more jobs available than people to fill them, it has become a big concern.

“We’ve known there would be more jobs than people for a long time,” said Hohauser, CEO at Harvey Hohauser & Associates, a Troy, Mich.-based strategic recruiting firm. “The number one issue CEOs and leaders are struggling with is how to get people. It’s mostly line-staff, plant floor and frontline workers. There are a lot of moving parts with unemployment and COVID. It’s the number one issue that companies are struggling with, and it’s not a short-term fix.”

And it could be getting more difficult, not only to find new talent, but to keep current employees happy, if recent studies are any indication.

Jon Brickner, Thriving Workplace Architect at HR Collaborative, a Grand Rapids-based human resources firm, said recent polling indicates that half of today’s employees are considering leaving their jobs this year.

Jon Brickner

Of those, according to a separate study, 25% expect to leave their job “when the dust settles” from the pandemic.

“The pandemic has been a perfect time, with many people working remotely, to have quiet conversations, to explore their options,” said Brickner, a people strategist with more than 15 years of experience architecting human capital solutions across a variety of industries. “There are a number of different factors going on, none of which we have direct control over.”

Among those factors:
• Unemployment, which Brickner says a Workforce Institute study expects to return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year.
• Remote work. A study by Envoy, Brickner said, shows some 47% of people figure to leave their jobs if remote work isn’t an option. Some 41% of employees would take a slightly lower salary in exchange for the flexibility to work remotely.
• What Brickner called “lopsided competition.” Indeed, perhaps the country’s largest job board, has told recruiters job postings are up 20% over their pre-pandemic levels.
• On the other hand, according to Brickner, only one in ten postings on Zip Recruiter contain the word “remote.”
• Household income. According to Brickner, the average household has 40% more in its bank account than it did a year ago.

“Whether that’s because of stimulus money, expenses being saved, etc., people have a bigger nest egg and they’re willing to take more risks,” Brickner said. “Then there’s virtual mobility (with remote work). That confidence is causing people to move out of the city and into communities with lower costs of living and higher quality of life.”

Brickner, speaking in a webinar, “Attracting and Retaining Talent in the New Normal,” hosted by the Best & Brightest Programs in conjunction with the National Association of Business Resources and Corp! Magazine, suggested several courses of action “in the recruiting space” for companies to address the issue:
• Rethink recruiting with an agile lens.
• Rethink compensation in terms of attracting talent.

“If you have a compensation philosophy and a compensation plan, things are probably going better for you than those without it,” Brickner said.
• Add flexibility, something Brickner called “a key piece,” as well.

“What we know is hybrid and remote work are preferred, but there is a larger focus on work-life balance,” Brickner said. “Even in organizations where remote work isn’t an option, the idea that flexibility isn’t there is absolutely a deal-breaker. Poor work-life balance was a bigger deal-breaker than lower pay.

“People are starting to be willing to take that tradeoff of pay for flexibility,” he added. “If you’re in an organization that doesn’t have remote work accessible, what other areas can you flex in to provide that flexibility? We’re certainly in a candidate-driven market.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a lot of impact on conditions of work, among other effects. Hohauser said the pandemic — and the surge in the numbers of people working remotely — has made changing companies a simpler decision for employees who are enjoying that kind of work freedom.

“It’s just getting easier and easier to move companies,” Hohauser said. “There’s a lot of negative side effects of COVID, obviously, but one of them on the workforce is that employees feel like it’s easier to work from home and some employers feel like it’s ok for them to work from home.

Todd Hohauser

“That’s really making it easy for people to leave and change,” he said.

Or not accept jobs at all. Hohauser talked about one e-commerce client for whom his company is doing an executive search. Since e-commerce isn’t that prevalent in Michigan, he said, his firm has had to look outside the state.

The client prefers in-person service and is willing to pay to help prospective candidates relocate; the advent of working remotely has the applicants reconsidering.

“We’re talking to executives in other states, and their number one query is, ‘We don’t need to move to Michigan, we’re all working from home now,’” Hohauser said. “It is more difficult now than historically to relocate people to Michigan, because they are used to working from home and it is easier to work from home.”

To enhance their ability to both find and retain talent, Brickner referred webinar participants to a series of “values” developed two decades ago by the Agile Alliance. “Agile” values, professed in the alliance’s Agile Manifesto in 2001, extols the virtue of companies having their values “focus on being adaptable and collaborative, prioritizing people over processes and using “working software” to get products market-ready as quickly as possible.”

According to Brickner, there are four agile values:
• Individuals and interactions over processes and tools, that is, making sure the candidate experience is a good one.

This includes attracting potential workers with what he called “intentional” job postings. He said many clients are still using five-year-old job postings, even for jobs that have shifted responsibilities.

“There are some great AI tools that can help cast a wider net, in terms of recommending some language, some augmented writing,” Brickner said. “There are still some great writers out there. Make sure you don’t have a glossy job ad that promises a lot of things you can’t deliver, or a long list of technical job descriptions that doesn’t appeal to anyone. You’ve really got to find that ideal posting out there and have it written right.”
• Responding to change, over following a plan. Brickner said companies who work this way are likely to be more successful.

“If you have this kind of mindset in your organization, you probably fared well through the pandemic,” he said. “You’ve learned how to pivot without letting go of the why or the reason you exist.”
• Collaboration over negotiation, which he said is “more about sitting down with a candidate and understanding what’s important to them first, instead of waiting until you get to the offer letter before finding out there’s a disconnect.”

HR Collaborative recommends a “menu-driven” approach to the back-and-forth with any candidate. Companies, he said, should understand what motivates candidates. One of the top drivers of performance, he said, is making sure the candidate is actually interested in the kind of work companies are offering.

Companies also need to be honest. One of HR Collaborative’s mantras is “if you can’t fix it, feature it,” especially for the newer generation coming into the workforce. They’ve seen their parents see it all, Brickner pointed out, and know the promise of the “quick elevator to the top” isn’t always true.

“They value transparency over everything else … it’s so important you’re honest about where you’re at,” Brickner said. “Lay your cards on the table early and have that picture of the candidate, so by the time you get to where you’re pressure-testing the offer … you understand what motivates the candidate and you know what’s appealing to them.”
• A working process over comprehensive documentation.

“A binder means nothing unless you have a working prototype,” Brickner said. “It’s more important that our sourcing and screening and selection processes are working.”

How to accomplish all of that can be an important choice. Most business leaders, Brickner said, have been taught that behavioral-based, in-person interviews are the best predictor of performance. And a non-scientific poll Brickner conducted during the webinar showed that 52% of the respondents felt that was true.

And that belief kept companies, when the pandemic hit, from filling key positions, because in-person interviews weren’t an option
“How many of our organizations, when the pandemic hit, said, ‘Oh my gosh, we still have some positions to fill, but by not sitting together, we can’t get a good read on this person?’” he asked, rhetorically.

So much emphasis, he said, was centered around the in-person interview in the recruiting process that it became the center point. Companies spend an abundance of time getting everyone’s schedules coordinated to be able to meet in-person with the top candidates.

Was it really necessary? In 2012, Google set out to answer just such a question. Its Project Aristotle embarked on a quest to discover how to build “the perfect team.” What did they find? Google actually found the in-person interview was no better than a coin flip.

“There are a lot of things that are correlated to success, but this is no better than a coin flip when it comes to performance a year later,” Brickner said. “What is important is to make sure you balance that with lots of things. You don’t want to over-rely on any one data point in the process, but you want to take them all into account to really get an accurate picture of your candidate.”

Figuring out who they are in this new pandemic normal is part of what Hohauser says is a “long-term” fix to the retention problem. Companies, Hohauser said, need to “work on their culture,” which means figuring out company values.Not knowing those values and the type of candidate who fits them, Hohauser said, could cause a company to mis-hire.

“Companies have to figure out what their core values are, and you don’t do that overnight,” Hohauser said. “You don’t just open up your dictionary and point to three words. You really have to do some self-reflection. You’ve got to figure out what your culture is based on — your values — because that’s your lodestone for talent. That takes time and companies don’t like that.”

But figuring out those values can be painful and, if not done properly, damaging. Patrick Lencioni, who has written several books on business and team management, said in a recent essay in the Harvard Business Journal that values can “set a company apart … by clarifying its identity and serving as a rallying point for employees.”

Coming up with strong values — and sticking to them — requires “real guts,” Lencioni wrote.

“Indeed, an organization considering a values initiative must first come to terms with the fact that, when properly practiced, values inflict pain,” he wrote. “They limit an organization’s strategic and operational freedom and constrain the behavior of its people.

They leave executives open to heavy criticism for even minor violations. And they demand constant vigilance. If you’re not willing to accept the pain real values incur, don’t bother going to the trouble of formulating a values statement.”

Of course, none of that means much without the company leader, what Brickner calls “the glue that holds it all together.”

Recent research shows 70% of engagement is driven by two factors, Brickner pointed out: “Who we work for and who we work with. Those two factors drive 70% of engagement, which drives profits and almost anything you can imagine.”

Modern leaders are flipping the script on leadership, he said. Their teams don’t work for them, they work for their teams.

“If your leaders are spending time micromanaging because you don’t have a system that shows where everyone’s productivity is, or if they’re gatekeeping … that’s the old style,” Brickner said. “Modern leaders coach, versus direct. They develop, versus evaluate.

They’re masters at commandeering resources. They find creative ways to go out and get their teams what they need. They favor transparency over gatekeeping, collaboration over competition. They foster inclusion and belonging. Of course, they embrace technology.

“Modern leaders need to be ‘tech teenagers,’ meaning, they need to be using technology as much as the people that are working with them and working for them,” he added. “The idea that it’s my job to just pull the reports and not use the system is an antiquated idea.