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Why Employers Should Look Beyond COVID-19 to Build Their Workforce

Nicholas Wyman
Nicholas Wyman

Employers should take a long-range view, especially in times of crisis.

It's a bumpy road to a post-COVID-19 recovery. Countries that have declared themselves free from the coronavirus are trying to snap their economies back into action and fend off the dreaded second wave.

They offer some insight into what lies ahead for the U.S. and what we are already dealing with: paralyzing business uncertainty, disrupted global supply chains and school education, food insecurity, erupting inequalities, and shifts in trading partners.

And this is what the U.S. looks like to outsiders. As a business owner operating within North America's borders, you might feel like giving up. More information can breed confusion and inaction, but it doesn't have to.

I'd like you to consider taking a long-range view to anchor your thinking and to help you navigate through the impacts of COVID-19. An anchor moving you along? Sounds counterintuitive. Think of it as a temporal guide that is both about time and being more worldly.

The temptation is to focus on what's close at hand – your business and your customers – just to get by and get through this. Gritted teeth and tentative steps. Recruitment is the last thing on your list, but could that hinder the sustainability of your business?

Employers, you should look squarely at COVID-19 and beyond to build a workforce starting now. Hear me out; there's a rationale here that I hope might intrigue you.

  • Cocooning your business within your comfort zone offers little cushioning to pivot against future uncertainty.

  • A "tweak and business as usual" approach isn't your best bet. "Be different" could be your new motto. "Pivot" is this year's buzzword for a reason.

  • Position yourself as a vector of positivity with a healthy dose of reality. Think Dr. Carol Dweck's Growth Mindset.

  • Train your sights on the sectors that are sparking our economy back to life and how your business can connect to them. There's a host out there once you start looking. 

  • Scrutinize your news feed for sage advice, subsidies, and grants; there's plenty out there to tap into.

  • Put the end-user of your product or service first, not your customer – successful businesses do this.

  • Rewrite your playbook in business. This is time to work in and on your business, but you've got to really mean it this time. Small businesses can be nimble, so they are better positioned than behemoth enterprises.

  • Consider if and how trainees and modern apprentices could be an excellent fit for your business sustainability.

  • Short of time to strategize? Look at what chunks of your business you can automate or delegate, such as to virtual staff – freelancers, gig economy workers – for project work.

  • Take solace that these successful companies started in a recession: FedEx, Disney, Microsoft, HP, Hyatt, Uber, Airbnb, and General Motors. They weren't the norm, but would you want to be in these circumstances?

Whatever the industry, it is unlikely anyone will be returning to "business as usual." There will be long-lasting, even permanent shifts, in many markets, as consumption patterns and shopping habits evolve post-pandemic. At the same time, remote work and other shifts in how we work, rapidly adopted of necessity in crisis, are likely to become permanent features. You know this.

Many businesses want to keep staff on but face fewer customers or forced closures with little cash flow to cover wages. Mothballing your business or shutting it full stop rather than going bankrupt might sound like a solid option. But, you'll be on the back foot when the economy gets going again. The goodwill you've built up in your business will vanish.

There's help for businesses to avoid mass layoffs and keep workers on their payrolls: free advisory services, loan resources and local assistance via the U.S. Small Business Administration or your local district, for example. Experience is an expensive teacher. Why not talk to other business owners listen to their advice and gain insights from others' mistakes so you can track your path to continuous learning about business?

Then go to the people who know your business challenges intimately. Quiz your staff about their ideas to help your business pivot, because they have definitely got skin in the game. What have they heard from their own network? Can they see connections for opportunities you can't?

If you're lucky enough to have a workforce that celebrates diversity – not just in name – ask yourself if there are different countries that might find your products and services beneficial? Perhaps an ideal market is in another region, country or continent than the one in which you've been operating. You won't know unless you read widely, talk to people extensively and get active on the business powerhouse that's LinkedIn.

In the short term, consider lifting your profile by making a meaningful contribution to your community, whether that is done by repurposing your facilities, managing volunteer efforts or forming an innovative partnership with another company. Orienting locally during a crisis can have profound positive effects on the health of the community and businesses.

You're not alone, even though every business situation is unique. Be open to solutions and innovations, both locally and internationally. Get inspired by what other companies are doing across the globe, thanks to the World Economic Forum, too.

We've seen innovation in the retail sector. During the shutdown, restaurants pivoted to home deliveries where they could. Now, where they're reopening, companies such as Presto have stepped in to hand them a free app to make safe, contactless dining a possibility. You've also heard of manufacturers switching over to making in-demand health products.

Being different (to your competition and your pre-COVID-19 setup) could well be how businesses will prosper, although there will be major losses in some sectors of the economy. COVID-19 will create more opportunities for businesses providing technology and data-driven products and services in areas such as supply chain logistics, cloud IT, and automation, as companies seek to develop operating processes and systems which can withstand future shocks of this nature. How can your business operate in one of those ecosystems by finding a connection?

While you might be tempted to keep a steely focus on your customer as always right, look beyond the direct buyer of your product or service to the actual end user. Follow their behavior. It's more nuanced than just keeping your customers' customers happy. Consider who is in the ecosystem in which your business operates.

A study published in the latest issue of the Journal of Marketing confirmed this. Researchers used artificial intelligence to find that successful companies no longer put their customers first. They instead focused their marketing on building relationships across industries. In addition, they were alert to the end user of their product or service, which wasn't always their direct customer. 

That long-range view makes sense for building your workforce with trainees or apprentices who you can expect to be with you on your business journey through and out of COVID-19. It's a way to build diversity, engender loyalty and mold your team members so they earn while they learn, and gain nationally recognized qualifications. America's apprenticeship system has bipartisan support and is all the stronger for that. It needs to be.

The jobs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution demand broad, agile skill sets. Hopefully, we are looking at a new era of investments in training that address existing shortages and meet the workforce expansion opportunities that will come out of this crisis.

Flexibility and understanding are how businesses will get through this.

Image Credit: fizkes / Getty Images
Nicholas Wyman
Nicholas Wyman Member
Nicholas Wyman is a workforce development and skills expert, author, speaker, and CEO of the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation (IWSI America). Wyman is a leader in developing skills-building, mentorship and apprenticeship programs that close the gap between education and careers around the world. IWSI works with a range of companies, governments and philanthropic organizations all across the globe, including Siemens, Nissan, Ford, and Mercedes-Benz as well as the Commonwealth of Virginia, the United Kingdom and Australia. Wyman frequently lectures on workplace job innovations, and appears on national broadcast programs. He is a regular contributor to Forbes and Quartz, and was named LinkedIn’s #1 Education Writer of the Year. His award-winning book, Job U, is a practical guide to finding wealth and success by developing the skills companies actually need. He is actively involved in school to work programs focusing on STEM education. A third-generation writer, Wyman began his own career by learning a trade. He was named Australian Apprentice of the Year in 1988 and went on to captain Australia’s gold medal-winning Culinary Youth Team. He has an MBA and has studied at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government and was awarded a Churchill Fellowship.