Attracting and Retaining Top Talent in the New Normal

Our Senior VP of North America Jody Robie recently hosted a webinar with BABCNE and Rick McKenna Founder of My Things App which will be launching in August to discuss the challenges businesses will face attracting and retaining talent in the new normal. The British American Business Council of New England fosters business development and networking opportunities between the United Kingdom and New England, and they invited Jody to share her expertise to help businesses on both sides of the Atlantic achieve hiring goals when emerging from the pandemic.

Rick McKenna:

With COVID-19, Black Lives Matter protests, global economic turmoil, tensions rising with China, and a presidential election; it’s no wonder businesses need a hand today. And that’s why we’re privileged here to have Jody with us to talk about how to face these challenges. Jody is a senior vice president here in the US for Talent Works International. Jody has worked for more than 20 years designing and developing world-class marketing strategies for companies around the world. She started a career in the broadcast industry as a reporter, producer, account executive and sales management manager for multiple TV stations in Boston currently, Jodie runs a North American office for Talent Works International. TWI is a global talent attraction firm headquartered in the UK. She’s been with them for more than six years helping clients leverage the team of brand and insight specialists, creative marketers, and global recruiters. She has helped research, validate, implement, and activate employer brand for companies of all sizes ranging from Babson College, Hearst Broadcasting, Erickson, iRobot, Shopify and Kronos.

Jody Robie:

I really am in that mix of people that nobody wakes up and says, I’m going to become an employer brand strategist when I grow up. For those of us, and Rick and I talked about this, the little bit who started in the broadcast industry, everyone wanted to be a reporter and then suddenly you saw there were lots of other jobs, and I kind of fell into this business. I had a couple of clients and I’m going to date myself in the dot com era. And they were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in print, doing full page ads and hoping to get one response.

And I sort of tapped into the recruitment marketing space on the side of the broadcast sales and said, “You can really reach people by using broadcast and online.” And here we are 15 plus years later, and it seems preposterous that anyone would do a print ad. So I’ve been very privileged to be able to work with a lot of really interesting companies locally, and then moving into national, international with a couple of stints with global recruitment process companies, one called Alexander Mann that some of you may have heard of.

I came to Talent Works at a time where we had about 40 people. We had one office in the UK. I was the first official US employee, even though we had a presence here. And I just felt like I really bought into the premise. There are a lot of recruitment marketing agencies out there. There’s a lot of brand specialists out there. There are a lot of outsource recruiters, but there weren’t a lot of companies that kind of did it all and were able to sort of flex and be customised based on budgets that weren’t necessarily at the 10,000 a year higher scale. And last year I sort of became more formal and became an owner in the business. I am passionate about what we do. It’s been an exciting ride. It’s been made more exciting over these last few months, which we’re going to talk about with the COVID, but I understand and appreciate what everyone’s going through. And hopefully this will be helpful.

Jody Robie:

I do get the benefit of talking to a lot of different folks every day. Everybody is sort of in the same boat of trying to figure out, we’ve been on pause. What do we do now? And that’s what I want to be able to address today. Believe it or not, it is a really good time to market yourself. It’s a really good time to hire. I have a lot of my peers, senior level women that I’ve talked to last few days who have made major role changes, because it’s a time where people are looking for the right talent to bring the business through this COVID window that we don’t know when it’s going to stop or start.

So I think that as we see what’s happened, and I think the Black Lives Matter movement is really also just hit on top of what’s going on and companies that were sort of understanding where they were from a COVID response, suddenly found themselves back into a hole of uncharted territory, things that people weren’t really worried about, like having flexible working for employees or worried about starting up those resource groups suddenly have become front and centre. And I think we can talk a little bit about that today.

Has the crisis changed what employees look for in an employer?

Jody Robie:

I think you might be surprised to know that regardless of level, the number one priority that we’re hearing about is safety. It’s not about the money. It’s not about the title. It’s about, am I going to be safe working for this organisation, senior level included. Am I going to be required to be in an office? I work with a lot of healthcare organisations and even assisted living and even tech. Suddenly, no matter what company you’re in, you are starting to look at having to understand protective equipment and hand sanitising and social distancing. And whether you are making $15 an hour as an admin, or you’re a very senior executive, those rules still apply. So it’s kind of taking that to a new level.

And I also think this has been a life and death situation, especially in the States. I mean, Massachusetts, where I’m based was at the beginning of the disaster. And really the rest of the world was looking at us right behind Italy as just being an awful place. So I think in Massachusetts, we all have snapped out of it pretty quick to realise you need to wear a mask and need to do these things. Now we’re one of the safest states because of those precautions. So it’s been a very interesting transition where we were way behind. My kids are probably going to be, actually be in school in a hybrid model. Whereas I was talking to clients in Atlanta today that that’s all been reversed.

So I think when you think about the employee volume of what they really want, when they make a new role, they want to do a job, but they want to have a job that’s meaningful work, that they feel safe. And I think from a BLM perspective, they want to make sure it fits what they want to as a criteria of an organisation that they feel it’s on the same social justice line. And those are new factors that I think are universal across the level and across the type of industry.

Can you define what employer brand is and why your employer and consumer brand are so important now?

Jody Robie:

Sure. Employer brand, I like to describe as the dark arts, don’t really know what it means. And essentially companies will come to us and say, “We don’t really have an employer brand.” And my response will be, “You do have an employer brand. You just may not be managing and controlling it. And if you want to get a quick look at what it might be, take a look at sites like Glassdoor.” So how are you perceived in the market? How are you perceived as an employer from the folks that work for you, or what is the perception that people think about working for you? And the difference between that consumer brand, that employer brand is sometimes they’re very aligned and sometimes they’re very different. Organisations like Aspen Dental, if you see their marketing brand, it’s very sort of soft and friendly and encouraging and helping people who’ve never worked, never gone to the dentist, not be afraid of coming and you know, the soft music.

And then if you’re working for them, it’s an extremely, really, really busy, hardcore, amazing opportunity, but it’s work hard, play hard, sort of an aggressive approach. And so the types of people that they need to work there are very different than the types of customers that they’re catering to. And so it’s understanding that you want to be the same organisation, but what people think about you as an employer versus what they think about you as a product is different. And when you think about organisations like iRobot, you mentioned, people know iRobot because of the Roomba. They make vacuums. So you have that understanding of like, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of them,” but maybe you’re not thinking of being a sophisticated UX designer or an engineer, or when you’re looking at retailers, like BJ’s no one really thinks about working at BJ’s in a senior level marketing role. They’re thinking about I’m working as cashier.

So it’s making the connection of what’s special about you as an employer. And most importantly, what’s authentic about working there. What’s distinctive and what’s going to be relevant for that, somebody isn’t going to come and join and be surprised that it’s not what they expected.

Rick McKenna:

So Talent Works International is more than just trying to find people, but also help to sculpt the message around the brand and package the job descriptions.

Can you explain to me more specifically on how you can shape that employer brand?

Jody Robie:

I think when we first started working with an organisation, it’s really a conversation about what are some of the challenges that you’re having and what’s happening right now with your sort of internal and external talent? Are you finding that you’re losing people at a certain time, like after two, three years that they go on or do you have people that stay for 20 years? Are you having trouble hiring in certain discipline areas? And sometimes we look at things on more of another great acronym is called a USP, a unique selling proposition. So it might be how do you hire IT talent for a hospital system. So it’s really understanding where do you need some help with the messaging? And do you actually know what you’re known for? So the first step really is research and insights.

So taking a look internally, focus groups, conversations, really being able to get a clear picture of what is that first line experience being an employee. And sometimes we segment that by, by role types, by geographies. It might be folks in India versus folks in Massachusetts versus the UK, and then being able to take all that together, boil it up into a messaging framework that says, “Look, no matter where you are or who you are, this is kind of the drinking, the Koolaid. The people that are successful in this organisation have this type of criteria, these types of attributes, these types of personality,” and you really want to have an employer brand, allow you to come back with something that a candidate can look in and say, “I want to apply,” or, “You know what, I’m totally qualified, but this doesn’t feel like where I want to work.”

It’s almost as important that you have the people who aren’t going to be the good culture fit step away as it is to just get more and more people to apply. So it’s validating that experience and allowing people to really understand, what do I fit in? If you are the type of person that wants to wear ripped jeans and tee shirts, and all of the imagery on a website is stock photography of people in suits. You may not want to apply. And that may not really be the case. So I think it’s being able to understand, can you, in 30 seconds or less someone take a look on a website or job posting or a Glassdoor profile and realise, okay, this is what they’re looking for. I fit in or I don’t.

What trends do you expect to see in talent acquisition going into the new normal?

Jody Robie:

Yeah, that’s a tricky one. I think my answer is changing as each week goes on, but I can tell you that what organisations don’t want to do is go through another round of heavy layoffs and furloughs. It’s very, very difficult, I think talent acquisition and recruiting has been hit, especially hard as has marketing and sales. If we take a step back and we look at sort of March, April, May, and June, interestingly enough, I feel like in the US we were a couple of weeks ahead of the UK. So when I was seeing things in March, end of March, UK was still a little bit normal. They hadn’t quite had the effect with business. And now I see us kind of getting a little bit ahead in the recovery because it’s been a long time for Massachusetts and New England companies to stand still.

So I think what really is the advice is that organisations are starting to look commercially and say, what can we do to keep the people we have to make the right decisions so that if there is a second wave and we have to readjust, we’re not going to have to go through this again. So I think the biggest trend I’m seeing is outsourcing. I’m seeing, instead of bringing back 12, 20 recruiters that might be bringing back or keeping, a 20, 30, 40%, and then using firms, us, someone else to be able to say, “Hey, can you guys just take this piece off and then get us the candidates and can go on because we don’t have, we don’t know what the forecast is.” What’s is tricky is we don’t know. We don’t know the forecast of next year. Some people don’t want to start to hire for numbers that they’re not sure what will happen.

Rick McKenna:

Yeah. And I think that gets right into my next question. Before COVID-19 hit, unemployment was historically low. Employers large and small are having a hard time finding anyone. But I think there’s a perception out there that with the artificially inflated higher unemployment numbers, 18%, whatever that number is, that companies don’t need to focus on recruiting right now that it’s easy to find people. I suspect that’s not the case.

Should companies really start redoubling their efforts now to find the top talent?

Jody Robie:

I mean, the irony is this is the best time that you could possibly recruit for, because you have a couple of perfect storm, but people that are home and available on LinkedIn, online, not travelling, not in meetings 12 hours a day. We have that time that we normally don’t have. I mean, I spend a lot of time on planes usually, so I am definitely more responsive to a LinkedIn InMail than I normally would be if you’re running through airports and trying to get from meeting to meeting. So people are willing to have a conversation. And I think people are wanting to put their options out there. I do think, it’s the devil you know versus the devil you don’t. Are they more afraid of losing their job where they are so that they’re willing to take move, or are they too afraid to leave because they’ll be the new kid in the new place. We’re also working with Hyundai-Aptiv on a new driverless car campaign. They’re getting massive responses because it’s cutting through the noise and people are excited to see that someone is hiring and hiring now.

Rick McKenna:

Well, I think that’s good advice because finding top talent is the heart of most businesses. And if you can find good ones now hold on to them and find them and identify them. So right now, we’re all right now on a zoom call and there’s all sorts of other digital formats to work. This whole remote work is a different world.

What can leaders do, know, think about how do they educate themselves on how to manage people remotely? 

Jody Robie:

It’s really interesting. I think when you think about what’s happened in the last year, two years of this war on talent, which is a completely overused term, but basically it’s, it’s been a candidate’s market. So companies have been forced to do things that you never would have predicted. Unlimited vacation, unlimited food, unlimited time to do whatever you want, come in whenever you want to, with this perception that that is what’s going to allow them to get the best talent to have the best talent stay. Organisations like Google have really sort of led the way. And what’s happened more recently is that those priorities have changed. I think companies, especially for like technical talent, marketing talent recruitment, HR, there has still been, and especially here in New England, there is a bit of a parochial view that you want to see people in an office and build that culture physically. Candidates won’t necessarily take a job if they feel like they have to be in an office five days a week.

Well, suddenly no one’s been in an office for five days a week. So organisations that have built their foundation on face to face culture and that’s how we do it have had to scramble because they can’t go back and say, that’s mandatory because they’ve been able to survive with people being remote. So I do think it’s been important not to make generalisations. Some organisations, people want to be back together in person. You know, our company is starting to open up our one of our offices in the UK, I think it’s probably because we have air conditioning, but also because people want, if you’re working in an environment, then you want to be part of your team. You want to have the option to come in in person if you can. Other offices that are more reliant on public transportation, there’s a little bit more concerned about safety.

And so I think when you think about the culture of people being remote, those of us who’ve worked for global businesses are very, very used to Zoom formats and Skype meetings. And we’ve been doing them for years. I think for folks that haven’t had that experience, now they have. You show up, you’re on time. I think the professionalism around having your cats climb on your head, people are kind of getting over that in the beginning, kids are going to come in and out because kids aren’t in school right now, but it’s really setting some ground rules. It’s saying, I’m seeing companies do things like these are the hours you need to be available. What’s happening is that people are on the verge of burnout because they’re at their desk when they wake up and they’re at their desk before they go to bed.

And then that’s not really helping with efficiency or effectiveness. And it’s really being able to put in things and say to employees, make sure you take a lunch break. Our marketing director is on the call and we were kind of joking about this yesterday, but it was, it was 10, 11:00 in the morning, I hadn’t had breakfast and she hadn’t had lunch and she’s in the UK. So it’s, you have to be able to start to let your employees build in those breaks and build in the rules of engagement that make it effective, whether you’re together in person or not.

Rick McKenna:

I think the expectation of access 24/7 is not a good thing. That some format, some structure in that day, allowing time to refresh, to wash your children, eat your lunch or whatever. I think that’s all important.

Jody Robie:

I mean, I think one thing that has been really positive for companies that have been sort of burned by that and the candidates haven’t wanted to come is that they now have an option to go back to candidates that are not in market that are the right talent. And I think this also helps with the sort of diversity excuse like, “Oh, we can’t find anybody in Maine or in Boston. That’s not this type of person.” Now, the world’s kind of your oyster and organisations that we’ve worked with, including Shopify have gone full remote. You could be anywhere in the world. And I think that’s a trend that we’re probably going to see continue because the commercial real estate costs and not being able to predict the sales if you can get out of a lease and people can be effective remotely, you’re going to see more and more companies switch to that quickly.

Rick McKenna:

Yeah. I think you’re absolutely right in that, but that brings us to another question. Because of financial turmoil, companies have been forced to let people go, to furlough people. It’s just a fact of life. If there’s no money in the till you can’t pay them and people have put their lives into a business and have been let go, how do you rebuild that trust? How do you get them to come back and say, “Hey, we’re back in business. We want you back.”

How do you rebuild trust with employees?

Jody Robie:

It’s a tricky one. And I think one of the things that we’ve practiced and recommended is you need to keep up that engagement when you’ve had furloughed employees, if they really are furloughed and there are folks that you want to bring back. So we personally came up with some schemes to include doing training sessions. So training sessions with expertise across the business, once a week, anyone could participate, especially when folks weren’t as busy as normal and March and April. We also have no work Wednesdays. So an hour we would do things like trivia. And again, these are global teams being able to participate. So that culture piece is really critically important. Our marketing team continued with information about the business, great successes, wins, client wins. And then the leadership. In our case, we do a weekly call.

So Neil, our CEO, myself, we’re leaders, and the majority of the staff, we do it on a Friday and end of day Friday, UK time. And we just let everybody know exactly where we are. This is what’s happening. This is what we’re covering. These are people that have come up furloughed. I think that transparency and that authenticity is key. The companies that are really being challenged are the ones that are saying you’re furloughed, but you’re stopping the communication. And that’s where you start to get the negativity on Glassdoor or the way that it’s been done. There’s been a lot of cases. I mean, look at what’s happened with organisations like the Four Seasons in Boston. And I don’t know if you follow that story, but I mean, they just did a furlough. They did lay off all these folks that had been there for years and years, and the employees were quiet about it. And they almost got to a point where business leaders and those bread and butter clients who’ve been having lots of drinks in the Bristol Lounge said, you got to treat these folks better. So the power’s in the employee and the power is in the perception. So really try to take advantage of what you can. I think people understand the need to furlough. People don’t understand not being treated well.

Rick McKenna:

I think that’s perfect the way you just summed that up. You have to be better with people. We have the tools in place. We have social media, we have phone calls, just let people know what’s going on. And I think there’ll be better for it. And the employees, if they’re brought back, will be a little more responsive and more willing to say, “Yeah, I trust you again.”

Rick McKenna:

So if you watch the news or you, you don’t live under a rock, you know there’s crisis in the streets in many cities across the US and across the world in reality. And I think it’s about time that diversity takes center stage. Personally, I think diversity is one of our strengths and makes United States unique. And companies need to figure out how to become diverse, how to recruit diverse talents, but how to make a genuine and real as part of their brand.

Can you talk about what companies can do to really push and make diversity a priority?

Jody Robie:

I think there’ve been diversity programs and messaging and strategies for years. And I think as over the last sort of six or eight weeks have had a lot of conversation with chief diversity officers and folks in my network. And there is definitely that, like we told you so. We’ve been talking about this for a very long time. I think the reality is it’s starting to affect business. And that’s when people start paying attention. At the most genuine level it’s do your employees feel included? Do they feel they can be themselves regardless of their lifestyle, the colour of their skin what’s going on in their life? It might be that they have a special needs child. They might have an ailing parent. They may have come from, they may be suffering from different situations, but can they bring their true self to work and feel safe again as an employee?

And what are you doing as a company to make sure that people not only can get recruited, but can stay. I think that’s the challenge is that folks can do lots of very aggressive sourcing and recruiting and do campaigns to bring in folks of colour or women into tech roles. But if the behaviours don’t change, once somebody comes, then people will leave. So it’s kind of a two prong process. It’s what can we do to say, and to be authentic and really be welcoming to bring people in. And if we do work in developing a strategy which makes candidates aware, then what do we do once they’re there? That comes through training, learning, development support, and a lack of tolerance if behaviour is not acceptable.

What can Talent Works International do to help companies become a more inclusive workforce or workplace?

Jody Robie:

I think that the first thing we did was really asked the question, what are you doing that people take for granted? Employee resource groups, ERG is something that a lot of companies don’t promote. They don’t actually tell candidates that these groups are available or they don’t know why they’re available. And for those of you not in the HR space, it’s groups, like it might be the working mother group. It might be the African-American engineer group and it’s really welcoming and helpful for folks to know. Your company may not overnight become a more diverse place, but if you can at least show that you’re putting in the effort and it’s on the radar and you want good people to come and help drive that from the culture, we can help with that messaging and communication. So we’ve done campaigns and concepts for companies like Akamai and Erickson, where everything from look and feel that’s on social and sort of promoting like global diversity month in October or different holidays and events to being a little bit more hardcore, which is here’s the annual report of our numbers.

Here are the numbers of people. This is what’s changed year after year. We’re not hiding behind it, we’re showing it. Or we have a goal. And the goal is going to be X by 2025. And we’re putting it out there on web and on any reports. And we’re sharing that information. So our expertise is in that marketing and the communications around the initiatives and making sure that it’s seen by the right people at the right time. And it’s always being adjusted. I think companies from a sort of an HR scorecard standpoint, the ones that have been serious about this for a long time, like the Harvard Pilgrims and the Tufts, that is tied to performance, it’s tied to bonuses. It’s if you don’t have folks that meet different criteria on your team or your interview panel, you will pay for it personally. And I think we’re going to see more and more of that trend coming back.

Rick McKenna:

If I’m an employer and I am going to do an RFP to look for a partner in firm, what do you say that makes Talent Works International the choice for me as an employer, if I’m ready to start expanding my workforce.

Jody Robie:

 I think what’s really unique for us is that we don’t come with a rate card of having to sell a technology or having to build a website or having to agree to a number of roles to be outsourced, to be worth our while. It really is being able to listen to what the challenge is and use the right resource internally. We’ve worked with many, small, medium, and large brands and helped them sort of find that authentic new, fresh way to position themselves. And then I think in the last five or six years, we’ve taken that research and insight and being able to turn that into something useful that equals hires. I think the employer brand and recruitment space, and that’s kind of where my background was, it was separate. You would just be spending all day, come up with great headlines and concepts and videos, and really 300 page flash websites that took a year to build, but those days are gone and no one wants to have the time or the expense, unless you can actually show the ROI that we’re doing this and this is what’s going to result. You’re going to actually hire the right people that fit the culture.

And I think because we do look at things from a research perspective first, we have an in house research team. So it might be looking and doing talent mapping to understand this is why you’re having trouble hiring in this market, it’s not so much that no one wants to work for you or that you think your salaries are too low. It’s that you have 40 jobs and there’s 4,000 openings in this market with companies that are better known. So what do you need to know about the market around you? What’s the internal, external perception of folks that maybe haven’t heard of you do they think of you? So we do a lot of surveys and we really try to bring that full perspective of this is what we know internally, this is what we have found out externally. This is what people think about you. This is what we think are sort of diamonds in the rough that nobody knows.

I mean, a really quick story. I’m working with a company called L3 Communications. They basically said people work for them to help save lives. They do pretty advanced technology. They’re kind of like a Raytheon type of business. We did focus groups and what never came up with all the leadership was the fact that they had every Friday off and software engineers had every Friday off. And it had been that way for so long because they’re on contract with the government and it’s 40 hours, but nobody thought that should be on the job description or on the website. And once we had that little bit of information, they had massive response because it was true. It was unique. And it didn’t derail the reasons why people wanted to stay and that helping save lives was more of the retention message, that recruitment message was have an amazing career and have time with your family too.

Rick McKenna:

Fabulous. So companies with one position to fill a hundred positions to fill, what’s your sweet spot?

Jody Robie:

I think we probably do best with companies that want to partner with us on our expertise. So we can only do what we can only do. So if a company says “You can’t change anything about the messaging and we want you to hire a thousand people,” that’s probably not the best fit for us. So we want to be able to have a honest partnership and say, “This is what we think is missing about how you position yourself. Can we talk to a few people, have some briefs?” But I think for the most part it’s employer brand projects and for sourcing, it is one to a thousand, pretty much as far as being able to staff up. We’re always recruiting and we’re always pipelining for ourselves so that if somebody suddenly says, “Hey, we’re going to need to hire 20 software engineers in Minnesota. Can you guys help us?” We will be able to do that in a few weeks and just get a team set up to do that.

So it’s a nice position to be in. We try to be really customised and our growth has come that way. As clients have asked us to. We used to just be doing the research and just doing the recruiting and really the digital and the advertising agency part of our business, which is award winning, came from clients just saying, “Can you please be the ones to build our website? We don’t want to give it to somebody else. You guys understand us.” And that’s how we’ve grown as a business.

Rick McKenna:

Perfect. Well, on behalf of the British American Business Council and my company, My Things, a mobile app, I want to thank you, Jody, for your time. And for everyone else, who’ve participated in this call. Before we close, Jody, how do we reach Talent Works International?

Jody Robie:

So the easiest way is the website or feel free to reach out to me, jody.robie@talent-works.com.

Rick McKenna:

Terrific. Thanks so much, Jody. And thanks everyone for participating.

Jody Robie:

Thank you very much. Have a good day, everyone. Stay safe.

Rick McKenna:

Take care.