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By Stormie Haller, Director of Marketing at Able

Humans are social creatures. It’s always been in our best interests to surround ourselves with others – we tend to feel safer, happier, and more fulfilled when we’re part of a tribe.

This fact has made the isolation caused by COVID quite a challenge. And as the most human of human industries, in which everything revolves around relationships and connections, staffing professionals have felt the effects of isolation more acutely than most.

What’s more, as the pandemic was raging, social issues were also being highlighted. The BLM protests held a mirror up to our society, and many of us didn’t like what we saw, leading a wealth of organizations to pledge to do better.

Now that the dust kicked up during 2020 is beginning to settle, it’s perhaps time to pause and reflect on the wealth of very human issues highlighted in the last year and a bit. Today we’ll be taking a look at four of the most pressing social challenges in staffing, and how your firm might deal with them.

1. Remote work

Before we get into the effects of remote work, we should first define it. Let’s class remote work as any role in which a worker spends more than 50% of their time out-of-office. 1.5% of the US workforce worked remotely 10 years ago, 3% of the workforce worked remotely pre-COVID, and 42% of the workforce has the ability to work remotely.

Is remote work the future?

At the height of the pandemic, 40% of the US workforce — almost everyone who could— worked remotely. We all gained some firsthand experience, often finding the work from home dream — the money and time savings, the comfort of the couch, setting your own schedule — didn’t align with the work from home realities — the kids running around, the melding of personal and professional lives, and, most pertinently, the feelings of isolation.

It turns out that after this experience, most want to avoid both 100% in-office work and 100% remote work. The consensus is that there isn’t a consensus at all: above all else, the post-COVID workforce wants flexible working arrangements, where they have control over their work. Smart employers will offer that, but doing so may lead to another major challenge.

Culture: The defining challenge of remote work

Creating a sense of cohesiveness and togetherness within a disparate team is a significant challenge. Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams simply don’t replicate office culture that well, particularly when it comes to the intangibles like in-jokes, water cooler chats, and knock-off drinks.

New members of a remote team can find things particularly hard, and not just on an interpersonal level. If you’re surrounded by more experienced colleagues you tend to pick up on things that they do, and learn far more quickly. 

Flexible work arrangements that allow team members to enjoy a bit of office time can help to mitigate the negative effects of remote work. But staffing firms will still have to work hard to engender a sense of culture and camaraderie into a workforce that will be disparate to some degree.

2. DEI

From the culture shock of remote work, let’s now turn our focus to a more subtle and insidious challenge. It was not only highlighted during the pandemic, but during the 2020s Black Lives Matter protests too.

It’s time to talk about diversity, equality, and inclusion, or DEI.

Why is diversity, equality, and inclusion important?

It’s human nature: you need to fill a job, so you look for the sort of person you know can do it – someone who looks, sounds, and thinks exactly the same as those who have done it before. It’s so hardwired into our brains that to break from familiarity is to take a risk.

In staffing, we tend to hire like us and hire for culture fit. This second, more recent trend has only served to exacerbate the first — for some employers ‘culture fit’ has become a catch-all excuse for refusing any candidate who strays from their current monotony. But the risks of such practices are huge.

Armed with an array of life experiences and different ways of thinking, a diverse team will attack a problem from all angles, or indeed see a problem or opportunity where a homogeneous team may not. Study upon study has found diversity is good for business — this McKinsey paper offers a nice summary of the numbers — so arguments for homogeneity and culture fit are becoming increasingly nonsensical.

How COVID has affected DEI

A knee-jerk reaction to all modern problems is to turn to technology for the fix. But for a very human issue, technology is at best limited in its usefulness, and at worst counterproductive, as artificial intelligence and machine learning tend to reinforce existing biases. Solving such deep-seated issues can therefore seem an intimidating prospect, particularly in an isolated pandemic environment.

The numbers tell us that COVID has pushed working women back to 1986. So many have had to leave or press pause on their careers, simply because they’re expected to take care of the family. If these women are to get back into the workforce we’ll need to rethink work history gaps, because most candidates will now have one through no fault of their own.

A lot of employers are more afraid of overreacting to the problem of DEI than they are of the problem itself. On a human level, this makes sense, because DEI demands change, and most employers and leaders are quite comfortable right where they are, thank you very much. It’s the classic “slippery slope” mindset.

The truth is that there is zero data to support the idea that you get lower-quality candidates when you try to create a diverse hiring pool. If you have that mindset, it’s not a matter of lowering a high bar, it’s that the bar is set in the entirely wrong place.

Now that we’ve gained a sense of the problems at hand, it’s time to discuss potential solutions.

3. Acquiring diverse talent

Staffing firms don’t need to be told that people are their most valuable resource – they tell their clients that every day. The need to acquire talent that is both diverse and adaptable to a fast-changing workplace is self-evident, so let’s dive into the how.

5 techniques to acquire diverse talent

  • Understand your situation: To fix a problem, you must first understand the problem. It’s time to find out your numbers. Analyze employee data and identify DEI issues (fewer women in leadership, more POC in casual roles, pay disparities, etc.). Show your findings to your executive team. Approach it not as a problem but as an opportunity – diversity is good for business after all. Work with them to establish goals and thresholds that will ensure the benefits of diversity are realized.
  • Be transparent: Don’t hide your DEI numbers away, even if they’re embarrassing. Recognizing the problem is the first step to addressing it, and top talent will appreciate that. Publish your numbers, and share your plans to improve them with the world.
  • Create a culture document: Create a document that tells potential employees what your brand stands for and where it’s going. Outline the behaviors and policies that support those values. Make this information public so that potential workers can get a sense of your culture, and to hold your firm accountable — you’ll be far more compelled to follow through on your DEI promises if you’ve publicly outlined your approach.
  • Mitigate unconscious bias: We all have unconscious biases, we just have to learn how to work around them. Use skill sheets instead of resumes, taking out any information that isn’t relevant to the specific job at hand. Build a diverse interview team. Train hiring managers on identifying and mitigating their own biases.
  • Actively attract underrepresented demographics: To be open to DEI is not enough. This is a problem that demands affirmative action. Ask yourself: are your interview processes as inclusive as they could be? Are your job descriptions too masculine, or do they use unnecessary pronouns? Remove the temptation to hire for cultural fit. Work to actively attract a diverse range of candidates by developing relationships with HBCUs and alumni groups. Get your employer brand in spaces it’s never appeared before.

By combining all these strategies, you’ll seriously enhance your DEI credentials, and enjoy a far more diverse stream of applicants. 

But hiring in a DEI-friendly way is only half the battle – retaining that talent is another problem altogether.

4. Retaining diverse talent

As we enter the final leg of this relay, we’ll grab a baton full of assumptions. We’ll assume that you’ve overcome many of the challenges relating to remote work and DEI. We’ll assume that your new and improved firm has managed to hire a perfectly diverse, adaptable, and high-end cast of talent.

And we’ll focus on the new challenge: retaining them.

5 techniques to retain diverse talent

  • Bring empathy to leadership: Modern leaders bring empathy to their role. They know that a happy, fulfilled, and stress-free team is a productive one, so they consider and try to meet their team’s needs. Special consideration is given to those who deserve it, like workplace minorities, new mothers, and individuals facing personal hardship.
  • Clearly outline your culture: As outlined above, clarity and transparency are the keys to DEI success, and a company culture document plays a key role in providing both. Inclusivity shouldn’t be a word on the wall – it should be a clear and tangible part of your culture document, complete with goals and how you’ll achieve it. Make this document available to any and everyone. 
  • Identify DEI issues and offer real solutions: Once identified, begin solving your DEI problems with small actions. Form a committee to come up with strategies and KPIs. Source input from your team. Offer real solutions to real problems.
  • Create a culture of communication and trust: If you create a culture in which people feel comfortable speaking, your employees will tell you exactly what they need from you. Trust enables constructive conflict. It enables hard conversations to be had. The result: better solutions that deliver better results.
  • Always work to be better: DEI isn’t a process with an endpoint — it’s one of continual improvement. You should always be thinking of ways to be more diverse, more equal, and more inclusive, to communicate better, and to create a healthier work environment. Set up teams whose sole focus is to push your DEI efforts forward, and design strategies around continual improvement.

While it may not come particularly naturally to us humans, the benefits of DEI are clear. Happily, the ways and means to capitalize on DEI are also becoming clearer and clearer.

Sure, the events of 2020 represented a challenge in the space and will continue to do so for some time, but these challenges can be seen as an opportunity for diverse, equal, and inclusive firms to separate themselves from the pack, to offer the sort of work flexibility that top talent will increasingly demand, and to enjoy the endless opportunities that such efforts serve up.

Stormie Haller is the Director of Marketing at Able, a SaaS platform for onboarding automation. She has spent the last 9 years focusing on data to drive creative marketing and sales efforts. She’s passionate about reducing the tension between sales and marketing teams to ensure a great experience throughout the entire sales funnel. Stormie holds a degree in Advertising from Kent State University with minors in Business and Marketing.