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How the Pandemic is Changing the Rules of Talent Management

Coming out of the pandemic, some organizations will be leaders in treating their talent as a renewable resource, while other organizations will be left behind, focusing too much on wholesale layoffs and other wasteful practices. This is the moment to get your organization on the right side of that equation.
Greg Simpson

What does CVS Health Corp., one of the world’s biggest health care companies, have in common with Gap Inc., the ubiquitous casual clothing empire, Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., the iconic hospitality chain, and Delta Airlines, one of the world’s largest air carriers?

At first blush, not much really. The four companies represent four distinct sectors of the global economy. But, dig a bit deeper and you’ll find that they share a common goal: to find jobs for people displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

CVS, which has seen a surge since the pandemic struck, is desperately trying to hire 50,000 temporary workers to work in warehouses and stock shelves in their stores. To meet its needs, CVS partnered with the Gap, Hilton and Delta to fill those jobs using some of the hundreds of thousands of employees who were laid off or furloughed.

The unique partnership started when Jeff Lackey, chief recruiter at CVS, reached out to human resource contacts at companies he knew were being battered by the pandemic-related economic shutdown. “I’m grateful for the spirit of the partnerships,” Mr. Lackey told The Wall Street Journal. “I tell people, we only have one enemy right now, and it’s the coronavirus.”

The ad hoc agreement between CVS and the other companies was very popular with displaced employees. In some respects, maybe too popular. After creating online portals to apply for the open jobs, CVS was inundated with 900,000 CVs to fill those 50,000 positions.

The intent of the CVS partnership was noble and forward-thinking, but it was also somewhat impractical. CVS was responding rapidly to meet its own needs and help furloughed employees but the way in which they’ve done it isn’t sustainable.

Although the other companies are only “lending” furloughed employees to CVS, the thinking behind this partnership reflects a new emphasis on talent as a renewable resource that will allow organisations to thrive in the post-pandemic economy.

“We have to acknowledge that as we come out of the pandemic, and people start to go back to work, they won’t all be going back to the same jobs or doing the same things as they were before,” said Alan Wild, the former Head of Employee Relations and Engagement at IBM. “The challenge for employers is, ‘can we use this moment to figure out how to retrain and re-skill our people to get them into different jobs?’”

Prior to the pandemic, far too many organisations were struggling to find the people they needed to grow and achieve strategic transformation objectives, Wild said. The global skills shortage left many of the world’s biggest companies hamstrung and concerned about meeting future talent needs. This dearth of talent had already prompted many of these companies to reframe their human capital strategies to avoid the wasteful fire-and-hire approaches of the past.

Wild had a front-row seat for this now-outdated mode of talent management. During the early part of the 2010s, Wild said IBM was rapidly trying to transform its business to keep up with advances in AI and machine learning. To do that, it started on an aggressive campaign to shed hundreds of thousands of employees with outdated skills and acquire a nearly equal number of new employees with more contemporary skills.

“At that time, we were so focused on restructuring and hiring new people, my budget for firing people was six times my budget for retraining people,” said Wild, currently global affairs director for the Washington-based HR Policy Association. “On what planet did that make sense?”

Fortunately, Wild said IBM quickly realised that there were not enough external candidates to meet their needs. And that many of the people they were firing could meet current and future skill needs with some retraining. As the decade evolved, so too did IBM’s talent strategy.

By the end of the decade, IBM’s approach shifted profoundly, and the company became a global leader in retraining and reskilling. “Like so many organisations, we had a lot of muscle-memory built up around firing and hiring and needed to learn new muscle memory around re-using, retraining and redeploying,” said Wild. “And that’s what we did. I got my people invested in performance management and training. Eventually, we made the whole thing mainstream.”

Now, as more organisations are planning ahead for a post-pandemic recovery, there is a growing interest in renewable talent management strategies. Ironically, Wild said the pandemic created an opportunity for organisations to excise the fire-and-hire mentality once and for all and replace it with mechanisms to match current employees with future job needs.

The organisations that lead in adopting a renewable talent strategy will not only solve skill shortages more effectively, they will also build a superior employer brand. However, those organisations that lag behind will find the task of finding people with future skills is even more difficult than it was before the pandemic.

“When we come out of the pandemic, we’re going to have certain organisations that are leaders in the way they focused on creating opportunities for the future,” Wild said. “And we’ll have other organisations that will continue to emphasise layoffs and other wasteful practices. This is the moment to get your organisation on the right side of that equation.”