The four key themes of talent management - and how they've been affected by the pandemic

The four key themes of talent management - and how they've been affected by the pandemic

Author: Dr Maggi Evans, Occupational Psychologist, Consultant & Coach, Mosaic Consulting
 

It’s safe to say that the COVID-19 crisis has thrown talent planning in the air. With increased uncertainty, it is tempting for organisations to focus all efforts on the immediate talent challenges – how to manage remote working and how to create as much job security as possible.

These are all important, but we also need to be keeping an eye on the future. We need to be exploring the possible scenarios we will be faced with and taking action now to ensure that we are well positioned to attract, motivate, develop and retain the talent we need in the future, in an agile and responsive way. And future planning isn’t all about putting firm, long-term plans in place; it’s equally about the actions that we take now, the things we do to build foundations and to manage talent successfully in the short and medium-term.

The four emerging themes of talent management

In order to research and explore how talent management has evolved since the advent of the pandemic, I held five roundtable discussions in collaboration with Hays, with representatives from large and small organisations – covering both public and private sector. In total, 30 senior leaders were involved, largely based in the UK, but many representing global organisations.

The conversations focused on people, talent and work – and explored changes made so far in response to the crisis, changes planned for the next few months and longer-term challenges to be addressed. Across these different time horizons, four themes emerged from our discussions:

  1. Location of work – office-based work, remote work, or hybrid work; where work happens and how to set people up for success
  2. Workforce planning – understanding the short and long-term talent needs and how to achieve these through redundancies, changes in working arrangements, reviewing organisational structure
  3. Personalisation – flexible working arrangements and additional support to suit individual employees, helping everyone to thrive in the workplace
  4. Culture – reinforcing workplace belonging and culture in a hybrid world, differentiating from other employers and creating a clear employee proposition

These four themes are all crucial to our short and long-term talent planning agendas, with implications such as the type of people needed, the skills that should be developed, the way work is organised and potential career development opportunities.

Overall, there was a strong desire from the senior leaders in the discussions to invest time in reviewing talent strategy, using the pandemic as a catalyst to update the approach to talent, so that it is adding more value to the organisation.

How have these key talent themes been affected in the medium-term by the pandemic?

In the next blog, we will explore how we can look to the longer-term; asking how we can reinvent ourselves in the new era of work – based on these four talent themes. But for now, we’d like to reflect on how each of these themes were impacted during the outset of the pandemic, and how they continue to be affected in the medium-term.

1. Location of work

The overnight transition to remote working was certainly a challenge for some businesses, but was aided by significant uptake of technological tools (in particular, video conferencing). This shift meant that managers needed to find new ways to empower and trust their teams to deliver – something which has historically been seen as a barrier to remote working.

But the success many organisations have seen during this period means that a lot are expecting remote and hybrid work to be a long-term feature of our professional lives. The ‘default setting’ of face-to-face meetings has changed, but such a move is not without challenges. As we’ve moved beyond the novelty, some of the ‘cracks’ are starting to appear and we are clearer on the challenges of the change to hybrid working. Those involved in our discussions were keen to understand the following issues:

  • When is face-to-face really needed and when will it add significant value? This was largely thought to be in the early stages of forming a team and when working collaboratively on a challenging issue that requires innovation.
  • What do team members really want; what combination of remote and co-located work would they prefer?
  • How can people be involved in any decisions about changes to office space and working practices?
  • How can people be supported to develop healthy, productive and sustainable working from home practices?

There’s a lot in the media about how many people working from home do not have a proper desk set up, which has therefore caused bad posture and new aches or pains. In fact, Versus Arthritis recently discovered that 89 per cent of workers suffering with back, shoulder or neck pain whilst working from home have not informed their employer, as reported by Personnel Today. Managers therefore need to be thorough when checking in on remote workers – asking them questions about their physical health.

The solutions to the above questions were different for each organisation, and when we held our discussions, they were described as ‘work in progress’. However, what was important was to be creating dialogue, to be openly asking these questions and listening to different views.

2. Workforce planning

In the early days of the pandemic, we witnessed a fall in demand for many organisations’ products and services, resulting in leaders needing to make very rapid decisions on short-term structures. This is where governments worldwide stepped in; some offering paid employee leave schemes to enable short-term cost management while our future felt very uncertain.

Some organisations took other approaches to short-term workforce planning, such as employees agreeing to a four-day week (with pro-rata pay), a reduction in senior salaries and redeployment of team members, with one individual covering several roles.

Whilst we still are living in a level of uncertainty, we are now adjusting to ‘expect the unexpected’ – far more so than we did earlier on in the year, when it was assumed we would soon switch back to ‘normal’. So now, in the medium-term, business leaders are needing to place an increased emphasis on exploring future business scenarios and understanding how to plan the workforce around these.

The issues which were most prominent in our discussions were:

  • How can we predict or model customer demand in a rapidly changing situation?
  • How can we balance the tensions between short-term cost, employee engagement, customer service and long-term needs?
  • What are the skills requirements of managers, leaders and workers in a different world, and how can we start building these skills now?

These were recognised as challenging issues to address. There are no easy solutions, but again, the starting point was seen to be asking the right questions.

3. Personalisation

Not only have we seen a rapid change in location and workforce planning, but we’ve also become aware of how the pandemic has affected people in very different ways. What’s been wonderful to hear from business leaders, is how willing they have been/are to flex the work demands according to an individual’s circumstances. For example, some people have had their working hours changed or expectations have been reduced to enable flexibility for new responsibilities – such as home schooling. Other organisations have been proactive in providing access to office equipment and furniture.

This kind of personalisation has been further shown through an investment in mental health support from organisations. Leaders play a big role here, and the strongest leaders are those who have introduced open conversations with their team members, and those that understand their employees’ personal situations and challenges – discussing how they can offer support and adapt expectations.

There are ongoing issues and concerns regarding personalisation. Three concerns were raised in particular:

  • How to reduce the risk of burnout. One concern that has been present for many months now, is the risk of burnout. Many employees have felt increased pressure, particularly if their co-workers had perhaps been placed on paid leave or made redundant, resulting in professionals struggling to prioritise their work and to switch off. An important step in combatting this concern is for organisations to offer tailored, personalised support and coaching to give their employees the confidence to push back and say ‘no’ sometimes.
  • Fairness. Personalisation carries huge risks that some workers feel disadvantaged. For example, if I don’t have school aged children, why should I be expected to do more? If I’ve worked when others have been placed on paid leave arrangements, why should I share the rewards with someone who’s been paid to stay at home? Communicating the decisions you have made, being transparent, listening to concerns and involving people can all help employees to feel that they are being treated as individuals – and in a way that is fair.
  • Future hopes and needs. For many people, the pandemic has been a profoundly changing experience. Some people are experiencing significant grief, and this will impact their hopes for the future. Others have found a new sense of purpose and now want something different from their work. Personalisation needs to recognise that different people are on very different journeys and we need to support them in different ways.
4. Culture

The final theme of talent management that has seen a significant shift during the pandemic, is organisational culture. With many workforces suddenly spread across different locations, with near to no physical contact, we all relied heavily on technology to communicate.

Having spoken to many business leaders, it seems as though in the early days of the pandemic, there was a significant investment in communication as a tool to support people through the change, and to show that the organisation cared. CEOs were sending frequent video messages to their business and teams were having daily calls for updates on what was happening and how the plans were developing.

But actually, this extreme level of communication in the early days is simply unsustainable; some workers ended up spending their whole days on back-to-back video calls, leaving little time for tasks and responsibilities.

Despite this, there will be alternative methods for businesses to keep their culture alive whilst operating a hybrid working model. But the leaders we spoke with were all grappling with the following questions:

  • What is our culture?
  • How can we communicate and sustain our culture in new ways (without relying on physical spaces and events)?
  • How can we develop and create new mechanisms, stories, symbols of our culture?
  • How can we involve our people in these changes?

Questions business leaders need to ask themselves before rethinking their talent management

Talent management during this difficult time has certainly been a challenge for most business leaders. But while we’ve faced a lot of adversity, this has also provided us with an opportunity to reflect and shift our mindset – something we perhaps may not have made time for before the pandemic.

So, before we move on to exploring how businesses can re-think their talent management in the new era of work, business leaders need to ask themselves the following questions:

  • What are our key learns from the shift to remote work at the outset of the pandemic? What was successful? What could have worked better? And what do we do next?
  • What are our top talent management priorities for the new era of work? What type of people do we need?
  • How has our culture changed during the pandemic? How can we nurture and sustain this in new ways?
  • How have our employees fared during this period of change? How can we help and support our people to thrive?

Now that you’ve had the chance to think about your organisation’s current talent management situation, read the next blog in this series to start making plans for the new era of work.

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