Unemployment is still rising, and economists continue to argue about exactly when the job market will start to improve, but companies that wait until the upturn is in full swing to adjust their staffing could find themselves at a disadvantage. This was just one of the stark messages delivered at [the] Beating the Recession conference in London organized by The Sunday Times HR Business Network.
Businesses must put the message out there that you are a successful enterprise and are looking forward to opening conversations with top talent.
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC [Trades Union Congress], talked of how the unions are attempting to work with employers as they travel the long, slow road to an upturn in the employment figures, but also admitted that they have challenges of their own: their members' average age now exceeds that of the general workforce.
There was a strong feeling that businesses should start examining their workforce talent strategies now, reported Glen Kieran, managing director of Project Leaders, a partner of the HR Business Network. "It struck me that the conference agenda had caused many delegates to start thinking about assessing who in their business would be important in the upturn," he observed. "Sometimes these are quite different from the people who were important during the recession."
"It's obvious how difficult it feels right now," continued Kieran, "but in the next six to twelve months businesses are going to have to start putting the message out there . . . that you are a successful enterprise and you are looking forward to opening conversations with top talent."
Getting the message right can be a delicate balancing act, particularly if you are trying to let some people know that you are open to recruiting great performers at the same time that you are making redundancies or applying pay freezes in other areas. And the flip side of this is the need to keep an eye on staff to reduce the chance that they will be wooed away.
"The difficult jobs market is masking retention rates," said one of the event's keynote speakers, Peter Flade, a managing partner at Gallup. "If things are better in six months, people who are not engaged will leave. People are thinking of jumping ship now but will hold out until things are better. And even now your best people will be able to find jobs. There is always a market for high performers."
Poor engagement could mean that you lose key staff just as the business starts to get busy again -- and right at the time when the jobs market turns back in favor of job candidates. Much of the groundwork will have been laid by how the organization behaved when dealing with redundancies or other cutbacks, but focusing on staff development now is one way of motivating people and ensuring that they are trained in the skills the business needs for the upturn, said Flade.
Kieran added: "It appears that now is the time to identify who is important and make sure they know they are part of your vision for the company's future. Emphasize that there will be a recovery, and show how you are well-placed to ride out the recession."
Flade believes we are past the worst of the downturn but argues that companies cannot assume the coming upturn will look like what happened in the past. "People are preparing for a new reality. They have started to realize that good performance, processes, and people may look completely different in the future."
This in turn requires a "gap analysis" to assess which skills the business will need in the future, which ones it already has, and which ones it will have to find or develop, said Ian Tomlinson-Roe, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the professional services firm, in his presentation on the future for HR. "The recession has forced many organizations to review their business models and hence how many people with which skills they need," he said. "Many organizations have made, or are going to make, significant changes, so action is needed now to deal with the short- and medium-term requirements."
The biggest mistake companies can make is failing to develop an overall staff strategy for the upturn, [Tomlinson-Roe] warned. "Identifying the key components -- workforce planning, talent management, reward, performance management, learning and development -- is vital. So is identifying the dependencies. For example, an organization can have a great talent management system, but if the rewards are not enough, it will not be successful."
This article is adapted from one originally published July 19, 2009 in The Sunday Times. Reprinted with permission.