How COVID-19 has rewritten the rules of the war on talent

Key takeaways

  • COVID-19 has led to many companies to impose hiring freezes as they continue to navigate the economic implications.
  • The opportunity exists for recruiters to leverage underutilised capacity and redeploy talent to areas of the business with higher demand.
  • The longer term benefits of recruiting from within includes reducing attrition rates and acquisition costs while increasing employee engagement.

COVID-19, for all of its challenges, has shown what ingenuity, collaboration and quick thinking can achieve. When government-led restrictions called for businesses to upend their day-to-day operations, such as moving to remote working or suspending them altogether, the role of the recruiter changed almost overnight.

Even before the onset of the pandemic, businesses were concerned about the need for the right people and skills to help them navigate the war on talent exacerbated by the needs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). According to PwC’s annual CEO Survey, 78 percent of Australian CEOs said that a lack of available skills is a top threat to business growth. For years, the common belief has been that the ‘right’ skills exist beyond their own workforce. And global trends indicate that for employees, it is easier to find career paths that leverage their skills outside their current place of work than find a pathway within.

COVID-19 may have fast tracked a solution to this long running challenge. In March, for example, PwC Australia found, like many companies, that parts of the business suddenly had excess capacity, while others remained busy with strong recruitment needs. However, with the introduction of a temporary hiring freeze, it became necessary to look within to find the right skills to meet our needs. In doing so, we discovered this approach led to some tangible, immediate benefits for the business.

Creating a talent revolution through data

Over the past few months, we observed changes to corporate Australia that would normally have taken years to occur. One of these is that leadership has sharpened its focus from having people in the right role to finding people with the right skills to meet future, inevitably digitally-driven needs. Often, this shift has meant looking beyond an individual’s employment history. 

For this transformation to occur, talent acquisition teams need to be enabled with the technology that allows them to understand the skills of their workforce at the organisation level, as well as the ability to understand the pockets of demand within the business. For larger organisations in particular, the workload in some areas will be unevenly distributed. For us, this was enabled by digital platforms that created a ‘marketplace’ to allow human resources to match an employee’s skills — and potential — with the needs of the business, regardless of which business unit they belonged to. The platform listed all known skills across the firm, and their availability, cross checking against demand. 

We found people were keen to explore opportunities to leverage their skills in new places. For example, some members of our internal tech help desk were redeployed to junior client facing roles in our Cloud Platform team. The immediate benefit of these opportunities was tangible, with employees becoming energised by the potential to apply their experience in parts of the business they’d previously not been exposed to. 

According to a recently conducted internal survey, 71 percent of our people said they believe they can achieve their personal career goals, while 89 percent of new starters reported a high level of engagement just five months into their employment. 

Solving problems with new perspectives

There is a wave of technological advancements in the talent acquisition space that enable greater intelligence and insights when it comes to finding the ideal candidate. Platforms that harness artificial intelligence and behavioural science to create a gamified experience for employees can help businesses understand employees’ hidden traits. For instance we have been able to identify the powerful soft skills our consultants possess (such as learning agility, attention to detail and risk appetite) that complement harder learnt skills (such as cyber, audit and tax). 

What we found is that while the DNA of a technology implementation specialist, for example, is different to that of an auditor, there are surprising overlaps that can be found when in the pursuit of trying to solve the ever increasingly complex challenges of your customers and clients. These insights can then be used to discover and introduce new ways of solving important problems.

Changing the human resources model

Tech is just one dimension however; it’s crucial that businesses also address the cultural barriers that exist within the different business units of an organisation, which make it difficult for people to move from one to another. What has been encouraging to observe in such a short turnaround is the number of cross-functional moves that have taken place and how open leaders were to considering high performers for any number of assignments regardless of their technical background. For example, a consultant working on business recovery work can use the project management skills gained for the benefit of audit business work.

While the data collected in the platform has enabled our people to leverage their skills in new and unexpected ways, it has also created an opportunity for two opposing ends of human resources to work side-by-side and reimagine the entire function.

With platforms in place to catalogue individual skill sets, talent acquisition and learning and development teams can work together to identify internal supply and demand as well as support the learning journeys of our people as they move from one area of a business to another. We’ve personally seen a positive outcome in greater internal talent mobility as a result of COVID-19 — evident in the increased levels of collaboration and agility across the firm which is giving rise to more flexible career models. 

Benefits for the business

We’re also seeing other unexpected benefits from this model, including a culture of innovation being fostered by ‘learning through experience’. Enabling such a culture leads to multiple positive outcomes, including career development and a better employee experience. Importantly, for PwC, our model has enabled us to redeploy a significant number of people impacted by the firm’s restructure program.

In the longer term, such skills-based internal mobility models are likely to reduce attrition rates in businesses, with employees carving out diverse careers within the one organisation. This will also reduce the need to recruit externally, both of which represent significant costs to business operations.

COVID-19 won’t last forever and the war on talent won’t disappear. 4IR has in many ways been sped up by the pandemic, demanding skills be deployed in different ways. The potential to reimagine the way this talent is found, and nurtured — backed by technology — will help ensure businesses can meet the challenges to come.

With thanks to Rob Dunderdale.