Making the most of now: A checklist for balancing COVID-19 decisions with your long-term talent needs

Active Ownership versus Activism – What’s the role of shareholders?
29 March, 2020

As the pace of the pandemic varies significantly between locations around the world, there is no way to predict what the economic impact is likely to be. Predicted outcomes range from global economic recovery expected by the end of 2020, while other scenarios, whereby the viral spread is not contained, forewarn global recession on par with the global financial crisis with recovery unlikely until mid-2021[1].

Although the future is unpredictable, organisations have already been forced to immediately rethink the way they do business. By necessity, organisational decision making has been exceptionally fast paced to mitigate short-term risks – primarily for the wellbeing of employees and maintaining viable levels of operations. 

As organisations make these decisions, it is important that considerations of short and medium-term financial results be balanced with ensuring the organisation is equipped “to advance and benefit from the rebound”[2], especially when it comes to having the right people and workforce. 

In the spirit of the term ‘anti-fragile’, coined by the author of Black Swan Nassim Nicholas Taleb, organisations can also thrive and grow when exposed to stressors, volatility, randomness and disorder. “Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile get better.”[3] As such, we have identified some longer-term talent considerations to help you make the most of now.



1. Do not derail your future workforce needs

The “war for talent”, particularly for emerging and high demand skill sets, is currently and will continue to be top of mind moving forward. Therefore your view on your future workforce and talent needs cannot be completely taken off the radar as you think about re-structuring your organisation during this challenging and uncertain economic environment.  

Starting with alternative resourcing approaches may be an immediate response to balancing financial constraints without committing to actions that impede your future workforce plans. 

For example, shifting certain employee groups to a lower FTE for a temporary period may be more effective than committing to workforce shrinkage, which incurs redundancy payments and can impact your future talent pipeline. Now is also an opportunity to use and deploy the most needed skills in other areas of the business. For example, some contact centers are exploding with high demand – organisations can we move people with high interpersonal skills into centers to help manage this demand.



2.  Take this as an opportunity to increase cross-functional collaboration

At times of crisis, calling on the strength, diversity of thought and cross-functional collaboration of your entire organisation will be a critical success factor. The pandemic is showcasing the interconnectedness and transparency of the environment all organisations are operating in. This includes supply chains, publicity of how organisations (and their brands) are supporting employees during this time, and continuous sharing of BCPs with customers and employees alike. Use this opportunity to break siloes and flex your collaboration muscle to build a stronger, more connected organisation into the future. 



3. Test your internal talent bench strength for future succession planning

In a very real way, leadership mindsets and timely decision making are being tested. 

The lens through which leaders view the current situation will be instrumental to how they respond.  The need to balance the tension between ambiguity and risk has never been greater, whilst having the ability to flex and be agile, use their intuition when not all the information is at hand, and to work toward collective success. This current context provides invaluable leadership experience and essentials. As such organisation leadership teams, and their identified succession pipeline, should be part of the current planning and operations to gain invaluable leadership experience, whilst giving you visibility on the bench strength of your up and coming leaders.



4. Have a more holistic view on total rewards to strengthen your employee value proposition

Research tells us that thriving organisations inspire a sense of purpose for their employees, are resilient and their operations have a positive impact on society[4]. Organisations can take this time to re-engage employees with their total value proposition and elevate the connection beyond fixed pay. This can be done through fostering a united organisational culture to come out stronger through this disruption. This may be an opportunity to lean into other aspects of the EVP to build a greater sense of purpose for employees as well. For  example, by providing creative, one-off benefits such as Uber Eats vouchers – as employees can support  local community and businesses, organisations  can support employees’ remote working arrangements and provide creative means of engaging in team events. 



5. Understand how delaying strategic talent projects may impact your future requirements

When reviewing all strategic projects currently in the pipeline and assessing their viability and urgency in the current context, prioritisation should be guided by the anticipated time in realising the outcomes of the work. For example, in Mercer’s experience, external talent placement for succession planning positions can take between 3 and 6 months. Therefore, a delay in the succession plan itself will likely push out the placement timeline further which compounds any gaps in the succession risk profile.



6.  Consider the implications for  your remuneration review cycle

Just as there is no precedent for the current pandemic, there can be no precedent to guide “best practice” for remuneration reviews at this time. The decision for managing the annual review cycle will be informed and determined by the circumstances and culture unique to each organisation. For organisations assessing whether to proceed with the annual process, key questions include:

  • What would be the real value of the typical annual remuneration increase of 2-3% in light of employees being focused on their health, carer responsibilities and job security?
  • What may be the impact on the wellbeing and productivity of line managers and HR teams if they need to conduct this review in addition to managing the crisis?
  • If increases are perceived to be funded through reduced staffing or certain roles prioritised over others, could there be retention risks, negative engagement or the perception of inequitable treatment?
  • Would a standard increase to all employees be an effective way to encourage collective effort and motivation for one goal?
  • Are there significant external competitive threats for talent? While this competition for talent exists in normal conditions, in the current context, organisations should monitor whether competitors are better placed to recover quickly post-COVID-19 as well as if there may be some roles that are in even more demand in the external market.

In reviewing the considerations outlined above, the ultimate decision for organisations should take into account the best interests of the majority of stakeholders in a sustainable manner. 



7. Transition to the future of work, now

The future of work is now. As organisations work through this pandemic emergency, it’s important to review which contingencies are working well and areas where improvement is required[5]. This is an opportunity to test processes that could be embedded into normal business activities in the future and highlight new talent opportunities. For example, the experience gained working effectively with remote and distributed teams can allow organisations to not only introduce more ways to collaborate across the organisation, but also to tap into talent pools previously never considered. 



8. Actively monitor market hot spots to maintain forward momentum and mitigate talent risk

As organisations are faced with significant disruption to operations and ensuring the ongoing wellbeing of employees, it is important not to lose sight of external talent conditions. As each organisation starts to enact their plans for strategic pivots, this will materially change the dynamics of the external talent market.  Actively monitoring market trends will provide indications of whether certain industries, jobs or locations are returning to growth as well as how quickly this is occurring.



9.  Use the heightened need for employee communications to create great employee experiences and build your desired culture

The general advice for organisations for their level of employee communications throughout this period is to be frequent and consistent in order to drive transparency and provide a level of certainty. Employee communications is a key strategic lever for harnessing and building culture – and how organisations go about this can create a negative or very positive employee experience. With more teams working remotely, this also presents opportunities to build and strengthen relationships with leaders spending more time and effort reaching out and checking in on their colleagues as well as finding creative ways to engage and stay connected.



Stay up to date on our resources that  help organisations navigate COVID-19




Working with you through challenging times

Whether it was through the global financial crisis a decade ago to the COVID-19 impact that hit Asia since early January, Mercer has helped and will continue to help our clients navigate through the complexity and ensure your decisions today can boldly shape your future. If you wish to discuss any of your people or workforce implications in greater detail please reach out to your Mercer consultant.


This document reflects Mercer’s perspective as of March 24, 2020.




[3] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder, Random House, 2012

[4] Mercer, Thriving in the age of disruption; putting people at the heart of disruption. 




Mercer Australia
Workforce and Career
Mercer Australia
Workforce and Career

Mercer partners with leading organisations across the globe to help them grow their businesses through better talent solutions.
Drawing on the latest global research and insights, our specialists develop tailored, data-driven strategies that keep our clients ahead of the curve and leverage their strengths in increasingly competitive marketplaces.

From remuneration and benefits to organisation design and predictive modelling, we create solutions for building better workforces. Through our knowledge and guidance today, our clients have the tools they need to predict, define and build their best teams for tomorrow.


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