American commerce has long been grounded in a kind of Darwinism: It’s about the survival of the fittest in an expansive and cutthroat economic ecosystem. The strongest companies survive; the weak go extinct.
It used to be that creating an economic powerhouse meant reducing employees to numbers on a chart; looking at dollar signs and profit margins; and shedding the weight of unnecessary labor whenever a company needed to be stronger, faster, and more nimble in the marketplace.
In today’s world, however, this method of generating growth and security is obsolete. The 21st century has seen many significant disruptions that have rippled across economies and instigated pivotal shifts in how companies operate (9/11, the Great Recession, and Hurricane Katrina, to name a few). COVID-19 is the latest of these major events, and it, too, is forcing change.
The virus is unique in that it presents both a long-term public health crisis and widespread economic uncertainty. Perhaps more than any other national catastrophe, COVID-19 will permanently change the way we live and work. Our American values, economy, and work ethic will never be the same.
A New Approach to Business
Becoming the strongest, fittest company built for survival in a pandemic requires a radically new and unprecedented approach: humanization. What are the roots of a healthy, sustainable company that consistently outperforms competitors in a volatile marketplace? All-star talent.
As an executive recruiter, I am in the business of matchmaking. I identify and understand the needs of companies, and I help them meet those needs by pairing them with the right talent. This process has always called for careful attention to human psychology and the ability to anticipate trends and changes in the marketplace. What we’re seeing now is a fundamental shift in what makes employees tick, and that shift will only be exacerbated by broader post-pandemic trends in recruiting and hiring.
Traditional hiring and retention strategies were grounded in trading time for money: Companies evaluated the return on investing in employees and offered compensation accordingly. In the face of COVID-19, however, flexibility, inclusivity, fair compensation, and trust are becoming some of the most compelling incentives for employees.
Cutting commutes out of the equation has helped employees finally find the right work/life balance. Now that employees have the freedom to dictate more of their schedules, flexibility is a highly valued benefit. Being able to spend time with family and invest in physical and mental well-being is often more compelling than a giant paycheck for today’s employees. And delivering this flexibility is worthwhile for companies: The right person for the job with healthier work/life balance will outperform other candidates and give you a better return on your investment.
Thrust unprepared into a remote reality, employers have been forced to give their teams unprecedented levels of independence. This new arrangement has shined a glaring light on the amount of trust — or lack thereof — employers place in their employees.
Employees now have more control over their schedules, work environments, and priorities. While some company leaders have balked at the inability to micromanage, the higher level of trust is empowering employees. Now that they have more say over how they work, employees find their work more meaningful. Recognizing the value in this shift, some companies have embraced nontraditional methods of performance management that emphasize maximizing engagement over maximum productivity. As it turns out, focusing on employee engagement and satisfaction may be a better way to increase productivity in the long run: It caters to the well-being of the people doing the work, not the work itself.
Equity in the Workplace
The spread of COVID-19 has coincided with renewed activity from the Black Lives Matter movement. While the movement has raised vital questions about our country, economy, and history, the universal truth that C-level executives should take away from this turbulent cultural moment is simple: Employees must be seen, acknowledged, and understood. It is in the best interest of both employers and their employees if company leaders cultivate sensitivity and a nuanced understanding of each individual. Allocating the right time and resources to seeing each person for who they are will increase employee performance immeasurably.
Fair compensation is another pillar of company loyalty, and it goes beyond traditional notions of financial strategies to keep employees where they are. Fair compensation means more than merely beating other offers a candidate may have, giving employees enough of a raise to quell their complaints, or considering the costs of living. It is even about more than wage gaps, sexism, and equality in the workplace — although those facets of company compensation cannot be overlooked.
In the age of the internet, employees know their worth. Establishing a standard of fair compensation for roles across the board contributes to the creation of a solid company reputation. It also helps retain talented employees who value fair compensation for themselves and their coworkers.
Caring for employees as individuals is a powerful way to get them to care about your company. That loyalty sets your business up to be the strongest, fittest company equipped for survival. Employees are looking for more intangible incentives — like community, leadership, ethics, and a clear company mission — than ever before. Establishing such high standards of employment starts at the top of the organization, flows downward, and strengthens every level of operation as it trickles through the chain of command.
Looking Ahead: Surviving and Thriving in a Post-Pandemic Landscape
COVID-19 has left individual employees and massive conglomerates alike feeling concerned about economic security and longevity. In the current economic climate, it is critical for employers to recognize the value of an employee who cares about the company enough to help it weather storms of crisis and loss.
Mitigating high-level and middle management turnover can help ease the strain of company layoffs, furloughs, and the economic hardships that have come with the spread of COVID-19. It isn’t only about employees keeping their jobs — it’s also about companies knowing they have bases of employees willing to invest in their work for the long term. How employers navigate the uncertain terrain of COVID-19 and care for their people in challenging times will go a long way toward determining company loyalty levels.
In terms of adapting company hiring processes to post-pandemic conditions, I urge hiring teams — whether internal or external — to abandon the age-old culture-first approach to finding new personnel. The workforce is more remote than ever before, and an innovative thinker with the most relevant experience will be a far greater asset than someone who simply aligns with the company culture. Be astute in your surveys of potential candidates and delve deeply into each contender’s experience and personality to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and needs in relation to the demands of the role at hand.
The age of COVID-19 has forced many Americans to endure economic hardship, but the horizon is not as bleak as it may seem. The virus is creating a movement toward a much more thoughtful and holistic approach to hiring and retaining employees. It is encouraging greater cooperation and stronger relationships between employers and employees and revolutionizing how we balance work and life. COVID-19 is bringing humanity back to our Darwinian economy, and the results have endlessly positive potential.
Shawn Cole is president and founding partner of Cowen Partners Executive Search.