Alistair Cox Chief Executive, Hays

Shaking hands enthusiastically before a face-to-face meeting, sharing pens to scribble down ideas during a brainstorming session, bonding with our colleagues whilst taking part in a team building session. These are all innately human social interactions that we wouldn’t have thought twice about doing before the pandemic hit.

In our pre-COVID working world, it was interactions like these that kept our businesses moving – that made them and us feel alive. Humans are sociable creatures and it’s the way we engage and interact with one another that defines our organisations and thus how successful they are. Organisations are people and doing business is a people thing. That fact will always hold true.

However, social distancing will fundamentally change the way we engage and interact with each other in our professional lives – in the same way and at the same rate that it has already changed our personal lives. A few months into the crisis, the very thought of greeting friends with a hug, going to a music concert or simply enjoying a dinner indoors with extended family now feels inappropriate or impossible to many of us while we continue to deal with the pandemic.

We have all changed fundamentally as a result of COVID-19. Almost everyone I meet has undergone their own life “reassessment” and they are determined to maintain some of the aspects they have been forced to adopt as a result of the global lockdowns. Of course we are all desperate for certain aspects of our former lives to return. But for many, we have also found new and better ways to run our lives. Those changes run deep, will be long lasting, and our workplaces won’t be immune to it.

Right now, many of us are undergoing a phased return to our workplaces, or at least planning so. It’s important therefore to appreciate just how much this shift in the way we interact with each other will fundamentally change the way we experience work, and how that work gets done. But the change to our organisations – to our people – won’t stop there.

Social distancing and newly formed habits and behaviours will also transform how we as leaders of people, attract those people in the first place, and keep hold of them. As I believe, people are our organisations, and, at the end of the day, it’s people and their unique skills that will get us through and get us thriving in the next era of work, post COVID.

People and their skills will power our recovery

Since the crisis hit, we as business leaders – regardless of the industry we operate in or where we are in the world – have been tasked with the challenge of a lifetime. That challenge throws different curv balls at us every new day. There is no instruction manual that we can refer to, no business school text, no management guru, to reassure us that we’re making the right decisions or that we are headed in the right direction. We can compare notes with others, but none of us have ever dealt with this before, so we are writing the playbook each day and each day brings a new issue to deal with.

We are all more than aware that the economic ramifications of this pandemic will be deep, widespread and long-lasting. Every day, we are immersing ourselves in analysis, reports, newspaper headlines and, importantly, feedback from our own businesses and from our own people. What we are finding is constantly shifting, and so too must be our response. However, our response must always be anchored in principles we hold dear and which are unwavering. Protecting ourselves and others for example. Maintaining connectivity across disparate and remote colleagues another.

Much of our immediate focus is on dealing with the ‘here and now’, and rightly so as we seek to keep our businesses active and as productive as possible. However, there is now a growing feeling of ‘opening up’ around the world as we hear more positive, reassuring stories of infection rates stabilising or decreasing in many countries, and governments slowly easing lockdown restrictions. So now we need to shift emphasis: we must plan for growth.

The $64 million question: “how do we do that?” Granted, we are likely to find ourselves in grave economic circumstances around the world. However, humans are resilient and adaptable so I am confident we will find ways – if we utilise our most precious asset – our people. As I said, people are our organisations so for organisations to survive and thrive, we need an appropriate people strategy as only they will get us through this. How we attract, retain, motivate and tap into the skills and ideas of those people should be at the very heart of your post-pandemic strategy. To do that in a meaningful and worthwhile way, you must first understand and appreciate just how much the talent environment has changed over the past few months.

What’s changed during the pandemic, from a people perspective?

Parts of the old, pre-crisis, rulebook for attracting and retaining talent have, to an extent, been thrown out the window. That’s because those interested in joining you have been changed irreversibly by this crisis. They expect different things from you now, and this shift demands transformations to your existing people strategy. If you’re to lead your business successfully in this new world, it’s time for a rethink. I don’t think this necessarily requires a complete overhaul of your current people strategy, but your approach will need to be transformed in a number of fundamental ways.

So, ask a few basic questions first. How exactly has the talent attraction and retention landscape changed as a result of the pandemic? What do you need to bear mind as you embark on this ‘rethink’? Here are a few of my thoughts:

  • Your employer brand may have suffered during the crisis: All eyes have been firmly focused on how employers have treated their employees during this time. Many have made mistakes, and I’m sure most would consider doing things differently if they could roll back the clock. But, whether you like it or not, your actions as an employer throughout this pandemic will be remembered by employees for a long, long time to come. There’s no getting away from that, so it’s important to honestly and objectively assess how your employer brand has been impacted, as you plan your refreshed people strategy in a post-COVID world.
  • Access to the skills your organisation will need has changed: Skills shortages – which were already at worrying levels pre-pandemic – have now been exacerbated. Added to this growing complexity, as we rewrite our playbook on how we return to growth, many existing roles within your organisation will need to change and entirely new ones will need to be created. You may well need different skills in key roles than you might have done pre-crisis. But there are two sides of the coin to consider here: 1. The likely future decrease in global mobility, which is inevitably coming, will make it more difficult to find and attract the skills you need. 2. The likely future increase in remote working should expand your potential talent pools, meaning you’ll be able to find skills in places you’ve never thought to look before. So, it’s not all doom and gloom, and there are definitely opportunities to be had if you start your thinking now. Remember, many highly talented individuals will be looking for an employer who “gets it” in the new world, so now you can put something interesting and appropriate in front of them that fits their needs and gives you the talent you need.
  • It might be harder to convince talent to join you: We can all sense it – and we’ve all been touched by it in some way – there is a sense of uncertainty in the air, and I feel it will be here for some time to come. Many who pre-COVID were considering changing jobs may have reversed their plans – opting for what they see as a more ‘stable’ option of staying with their current employer for the foreseeable future. However, there will be others who question how they have been treated by their current employer, or question their employer’s future prospects, and have used this time to reflect on their career options. According to a survey by Totaljobs, two thirds of workers are currently rethinking their career choices. Convincing either camp to join you requires a different approach.

Your historical people strategy must change, and it needs to change now

On the face of it, much of what I have to share is nothing new. In fact, these are trends that have been bubbling away in the background for quite some time. You’ll be aware of them, but might not have paid them the attention they deserve – putting them into the ‘too hard’ bucket or focusing on more pressing priorities, both of which are understandable in the old world.

The coronavirus pandemic, and the monumental changes that have come with it, have spurred the acceleration of these trends. So, if you haven’t given them much thought or focus before, now is the time to focus your attention.

1. Living and breathing your organisational purpose will become even more important:

In January this year, I wrote about the growing need for brands to define, articulate and embed their purpose – their reason for being – their ‘why’ – into the very fabric of their business in order to attract and retain the best talent.

Even before the crisis, we were seeing a marked shift in professionals feeling increasingly compelled to join purpose-driven organisations that were aligned to their personal values. After all, while there was a lot of good in the world before the pandemic, there was still a lot that needed to be fixed, and, increasingly, we as humans felt personally accountable to play our part in the solution. This inclination has only got stronger over the past few months.

The COVID-19 crisis has changed people for good. It has forced us to re-evaluate what really matters to us, and what really matters to the world. It has forced us to question if we are spending our time on this planet in the best way possible, recognising that we are just visitors. On the flip side, for some, it may have reinforced their views and made them stronger.

This is profound and will have a big impact on life-changing decisions around which employer to join. A strong, clearly articulated, ‘lived’ organisational purpose will help ensure the best people choose your organisation, not another. It can also bring your newly hybrid teams together and form a ‘rallying cry’, reinforcing a feeling of togetherness that will be so crucial in engaging and retaining talent in the next era of work.

So, take some time to consider whether your organisational purpose needs to shift in light of the crisis. Realign your brand messages, and without question, show in everything you do that you’re living your values both internally and externally.

It’s important too to take a considered approach depending on what stage of the crisis your business is currently grappling with. For instance, as many are in the early stages of easing lockdown restrictions, now might be a good time to ‘dial up’ any of your organisational values around compassion and kindness, as explained by employer brand experts, Penna.

2. Certain elements of your organisational culture will need to be accentuated:

The culture of your organisation is its personality. It’s what makes it different from all the others. It’s what attracts talent and makes that talent want to stay with you for the long-haul, no matter what challenges they face along the way. But company culture is fragile and requires each one of your people to play their part in keeping it alive. That has never been truer than over the past couple of months.

A strong culture takes years to build. However, if not managed properly, it can fade away in what feels like an instant. During the pandemic, your organisational culture will have been tested like never before and may be scarred. On a more positive note, as our Group Head of People & Culture, explains, “It can take adversity and challenging circumstances to remind you of how deep the spirit and culture of a company is.” Many of you reading this will have put culture at the centre of your COVID-19 strategy, and I’d like to hope that you’ve really benefited from that as you’ve navigated through this crisis.

So, take a step back and appreciate just how far your organisation has come over the past few months. At Hays, I’ve been continually impressed by how resilient our people have been to the changes and challenges thrown at them. I firmly believe that it’s been our strong Hays culture, which we’ve built over many years, that has helped to get us through this. It’s given us a “North Star” to guide our actions in a fast-changing and uncharted world. It’s been at the core of how we have taken decisions, asking ourselves whether those decisions fit our values of who we are. It’s given freedom to our people around the world to act and react as circumstances change so much and so rapidly. I hope you’ve noticed the same benefits in your own business.

However, we have to realise that there will be key elements of our company culture that may now need to be accentuated, not least because it’s likely that we’ll be moving to a more hybrid way of working:

  •  Demonstrate an even stronger commitment to continuous learning and upskilling:

During the crisis, those you’re trying to attract and retain will have seen that things can change in an instant. So, keeping their skills sharp is now likely to have moved up their list of professional priorities. From an employer perspective, one of the harsh lessons this crisis has taught us is the need to ensure your workforce is adaptable and agile. Developing the skills within your organisation is key to helping you do that.

So, going forward, you must demonstrate a strong commitment to building a culture of lifelong learning. Give your people the tools to direct their own learning in a personalised, digitalised way, provide incentives to promote lifelong learning and empower your leaders and managers to role model learning behaviours, equipping them with the skills they need to manage hybrid teams. If you’d like to find out more on this, my colleague Jane McNeill, Director at Hays Australia, shared some helpful advice on this in a recent blog.

  • Ensure everyone, no matter where they are based, feels included:

Every one of your people will have experienced the pandemic differently, meaning the very definition of diversity and inclusion, and what it means for your organisational culture is changing too. As we enter a new hybrid era of work, each person, no matter where they are based, must feel that they are included, that they are part of something, that their unique experiences and value are recognised.

So, open up lines of communication so that everyone, regardless of where they are working from, is able to have a voice and know that their voice is heard. No one must feel left out or ‘out of the loop’. Everyone must feel a strong sense of togetherness, community and support. When they do, great things will happen.

  • Inject more compassion and kindness and prioritise the wellbeing of your people:

We’re all going through an incredibly unsettling time, a time which has been filled with a roller coaster of emotions. This has led many to become more mindful of their own mental health, prioritising self-care and working to break pre-crisis bad habits. According to an Accenture study, 60% of respondents said they were spending more time on self-care and mental wellbeing. However, the lockdown is taking its toll on all of us. In a survey conducted in the UK & Ireland, close to two thirds (61%) rated their wellbeing as positive before the restrictions were put in place, but only 35% said it was still positive since the lockdown. A lack of social interaction, loneliness and boredom are all contributing to this worrying trend, and it’s likely the impact will be felt for a long time to come.

I’m sure the wellbeing of your people has been at the forefront of your recent efforts – doing everything you possibly can to help them deal with the intense stress and uncertainty they have been faced with. But just because we are starting, slowly, to see the green shoots of recovery, that doesn’t mean that focus should become any less laser-focused. Simon Winfield, Managing Director of Hays UK & Ireland shares some valuable pointers in this blog. As I said before the pandemic, it takes a human to be a leader of human beings. That sentiment has never ringed truer than it does today, as we enter a new hybrid era of work.

  • Fix any trust issues you have:

This is a topic my colleague Rowan O’Grady, President of Hays Canada has recently covered in-depth. Over the course of this crisis, managers the world over have experienced a revelation – their people can be very productive and engaged while working from home. They’ve realised they can trust their employees to perform, wherever they are based. But as we progress to a more hybrid way of working with some colleagues back in an office environment and others remaining remote, how do we build on and maintain this culture of trust? Rowan shares a few valuable points in his blog, such as:

  • Provide your people with the autonomy to carve out ways of working that really work for them
  • Involve them in problem solving and decision making where possible
  • Don’t blame your team for mistakes – instead, position failure as an opportunity to learn and develop
  • Think and act like a collective – make it clear that you are one team, not a collection of individuals
3. Ensure your current and future employees see a secure and confident future within your organisation:

Your people are worried right now. They are worried about how their jobs might change post-crisis, or whether they will even have jobs. This constant worry impacts everyone, regardless of seniority or role. As we well know, constant nagging concerns about the future won’t lead to good outcomes, not for your organisation or your people.

Now is the time to do what you can to make sure your employees see a secure future with your organisation – a future they have confidence in and feel excited about. So, take care of and empower them. If you don’t, the outcome could be disastrous, as Simon Lance, Managing Director of Greater China explains in a recent podcast: “…There have been more than a few stories of where companies have seen talent that they’ve developed over years, very quickly become disengaged and leave…It’s a tragic waste of talent, at a time when organisations really do need the very best talent to guide them through an uncertain landscape.”

Where possible, don’t neglect or put any pre-crisis promotion plans on hold. Revamp your traditional performance metrics and what ‘good looks like’ in a post-COVID world. Be transparent about your strategic plans for the future and make it clear how each person fits into the bigger picture. Give your people the freedom and autonomy to craft their roles and pursue their passions. Over time, all of this will build confidence in you as an employer.

4. Remote working should no longer be seen as just a ‘perk’:

The ‘luxury’ of working from home can no longer be reserved only for the trusted few or positioned as a perk or benefit. Pre-pandemic, many managers were cautious of remote working. Some didn’t appreciate or even believe in the benefits, others perhaps didn’t trust their people to get on with the job in hand when they were not sitting in front of them in the office. In most cases, the Coronavirus and the need to suddenly work remotely has proved them wrong.

I’m sure most leaders have been both encouraged and reassured by the high levels of activity and productivity that have been sustained since we’ve all be forced to work from home. Therefore, there are far fewer ‘excuses’ for those employers who have successfully operated remotely during this time, to simply force a revision back to the way things were before – expecting all employees to be in the office, every day of the week. I fully expect to see a permanent shift to more remote working where that is physically possible – giving your people the freedom to work from wherever they want to. In my eyes, that’s where the real flexibility lies. However, we have also learned that working from home is not necessarily the “luxury” we once thought it might be. Each of us have different circumstances, environments and pressures to deal with and a continually home-based environment does not work for many of us either.

At the same time, there is extensive research that shows how humans often operate better when together in a physical community as, after all we are a sociable species. The trick for smart employers then is to navigate a fine balance between these two extremes and find the right way for the business and its productivity, with the needs of each individual employee. If you’re not prepared to – or can’t offer that balance – then you will be on the backfoot from a talent attraction and retention point of view, post-pandemic. Important too, is the need to provide resources and equipment for your people to be able to work healthily and productively remotely, so this is another piece of the puzzle that needs considering.

All this doesn’t mean your office spaces should become completely redundant. You just need to think about how you might use them and what you might use them for going forward. The last few months have shown us that physical workplaces are not solely designed to facilitate the completion of tasks, as we once assumed they were. In fact, the real benefit these spaces provide is their role in bringing people together, facilitating collaboration, teamwork, learning, and building a sense of community. They are more a “village hall” than a “place to do tasks”. So, you must also think about how you can optimise your physical spaces in the next era of work. How much you will need, how it is configured, how and who accesses it when, what its prime purpose is and whether it is delivering a worthwhile return on investment, given it is likely to be a large part of your cost base. Your answers will be important in determining your people strategy.

5. Pre-pandemic benefits packages might not be relevant anymore

Talking of perks, some of the traditional employee benefits you may have offered before the pandemic hit may not be possible to deliver in the post-crisis world, and others just won’t be seen as valuable to people anymore. For example, the frequency of business travel in the new world is likely to decrease considerably. For those professionals who could have been attracted to an employer by the prospect of international travel, offering this to them simply won’t be possible to the same extent that it was before. Other financial incentives may not be possible in the same way as they were in the old world either as businesses manage their cost base – therefore other benefits must be provided to help bridge that gap.

So, think about the types of benefits that are possible to deliver, and will resonate in the next era of work. As we work our way through this crisis, we have started to see this movement happen already, with some businesses extending benefits to dependents and loved ones, providing access to mental health and wellbeing apps (Experian is offering virtual yoga classes) and access financial education. Some are even offering MBA programmes to furloughed employees. It’s likely this trend of revamping existing employee benefits packages will continue as organisations battle to attract and retain talent in the next era of work. As individuals reassess what’s important in their lives, business class travel, company car schemes and money might start to play a subservient role to wellbeing, freedom and accountability to run our own lives, or opportunities to learn and better ourselves.

6. Remote hiring and onboarding will become the new normal

Over the past couple of months, absolutely everything has been done remotely. In my world in Hays, that means interviewing candidates, accepting job offers and onboarding new employees into our clients remotely. We are currently facilitating literally thousands of remote interviews every single week and it has quickly become quite normal for someone to change jobs completely remotely and start their new role from home. This trend is only expected to increase as we enter a new hybrid working world.

This presents some challenges to you as an employer, as you strive to attract the best talent to help you navigate an uncertain world. But these challenges can be overcome with some careful thought and planning. So, here are a few things to consider:

  • How can you ensure that those remote interactions actually ‘feel’ like your organisation?
  • Can and should virtual reality technology play a more prominent role?
  • How should you assess candidates on their ability to work remotely and thrive in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world? My colleague David Brown, CEO of our US business shares some useful advice on this in his blog.
  • Should you weave in more casual social interaction or ‘downtime’ (such as virtual coffees) into your remote interviewing and onboarding process?
  • Would conducting virtual office tours, or simply provide photos of our physical office spaces help potential employees and new starters visualise their careers with you?

If you’re looking for more guidance here, we’ve created these remote interviewing and onboarding guides, which I hope you’ll find useful.

Yes, your products, your services, your technology, your processes are important, of course they are. But, when it comes down to it, it’s your people, both current and future, that will really set your organisation apart in the next era of work.

So, just as they have been transformed by the pandemic, so must your approach to attracting, engaging and motivating them. They might be the same physical people, but they now need something different to before, and do you know what that is? And can you give them it? After all, your organisation is nothing without its people, and no earth shattering crisis will ever change that fact.

This blog was originally published as a LinkedIn Influencer article.



Alistair has been the CEO of Hays, plc since Sept. 2007. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America. He completed his MBA (Stanford University, California) in 1991 and returned to the UK as a consultant for McKinsey & Co. His experience at McKinsey & Co covered a number of sectors including energy, consumer goods and manufacturing. He moved to Blue Circle Industries in 1994 as Group Strategy Director, responsible for all aspects of strategic planning and international investments for the group. During this time, Blue Circle re-focused its business upon heavy building material in a number of new markets and in 1998, Alistair assumed the role of Regional Director responsible for Blue Circle’s operations in Asia, based in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. He was responsible for businesses in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. Subsequent to the acquisition of Blue Circle by Lafarge in 2001, he also assumed responsibility for Lafarge’s operations in the region as Regional President for Asia. In 2002, Alistair returned to the UK as CEO of Xansa, a UK based IT services and back-office processing organisation. During his 5 year tenure at Xansa, he re-focused the organisation to create a UK leading provider of back-office services across both the Public and Private sector and built one of the strongest offshore operations in the sector with over 6,000 people based in India.