The vulnerability of employer brands during Covid-19


Employer branding expert Celeste Sirin on the factors impacting employer brands during and after the pandemic.

It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said that “the only constant in life is change”. This cannot be more accurate with the Covid-19 pandemic putting the entire world to the test. Companies and employees have been scrambling to adjust to this overwhelming tsunami of change. Humans are dealing with mixed levels of palpable emotions varying from uncertainty and anxiety to stress and isolation, together with financial risks and insecurities. No one has the answers.

In addition from President Ramaphosa agreeing to an admirable 33 percent in pay-cuts for his entire executive committee and provincial premiers, we have seen listed companies such as Capitec, FirstRand, ABSA, Pick n Pay and many more announcing pay cuts over the next three months with the purpose of contributing into the Solidarity Fund.  However, over and above this tangible monetary contribution and the support received from employers in establishing employees in their new remote working environments, research confirms that the latter are looking for more. The need for employee engagement has accelerated with employees now having to work remotely. 

Companies that are getting it right consider concise, open, honest, and transparent communication from their leaders to be of paramount importance. The same research confirms that while 52 percent of newly remote workers feel more anxious working from home (versus the 18 percent that doesn’t), this anxiety can be reduced and productivity increased, through managers clarifying their expectations. Creating a sense of trust also plays an enormous part in social distancing and remote working, as Josh Bersin highlighted in his article People First, Economics Second

“Companies that pay close attention to their employees’ needs, drive ongoing communications and manage expectations will increase trust, teamwork and resilience”.

Employer brands are under pressure more than ever before, with media channels quick to unveil those organisations that are mistreating their employees by putting “profits-first, people second. Organisations have no roadmap and are having to learn quickly as the pandemic continues, with shining examples of companies that are getting it right. The consumer market is tuning into this behaviour and will quickly stop purchasing from companies demonstrating any evidence of them not looking after their people.

Globally, countries are in different stages of social distancing and lockdown, with employees having to adapt to their new remote working environments. Companies have had to accelerate a new way of managing and engaging their workforce amidst this economic crisis, with the future still unclear. As leaders continue to navigate these muddy waters, many lessons are being learnt along the way, some of which I’ve outlined below.

Employee engagement

We are living in a paradoxical time where social distancing is encouraged yet in both our social and business world, there is a stronger bond of togetherness. Leaders have had to reassess employee engagement, with a strong commitment towards honing in on the personal needs of every individual worker.

Remote working

The option of migrating certain employees into a remote working environment might’ve been a consideration for some organisations, but without any firm commitment from others for a variety of reasons - lack of trust, non-conducive home set-up, nature of the job, and so forth. Covid-19 has now proven that through the right technological set-up and proper leadership, this organisational shift and adaption is very possible.

The alternative workforce

With some companies forced to downsize and/or lay-off their full-time employees, companies will err on the side of caution when seeking to hire post-Covid-19. To date, research confirms that most companies are using alternative workers transactionally not strategically with the focus being on placing the right talent where and when most needed. This has also been the result of companies not always being able to access scarce skills, which might very well persist, into our “new norm” way of working.

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Accelerated adoption of technology

Generations across all ages have progressively graduated through digital transformation, which has undoubtedly assisted us in shifting into a “less contact” world. Many people have had to fast-track their digital learnings in order to remain operationally productive and connected through Covid-19.


Working from home has its fair share of benefits and challenges, one of which is the amount of time saved, on not having to commute to and from one's place of work. The challenge is then to maintain an efficient work schedule, with assurance to logging off and preventing blurring the lines that separate work and play while working from home.

Internal mobility

Internal mobility for employee retention and engagement has always been a vital topic. Research confirms that if employees aren’t provided with the opportunity for continuous learning, they will be quick to move to other companies that will meet this requirement. Covid-19 has necessitated some companies having to deploy employees on a temporary basis into essential roles to meet the business demands over this period. This once against highlights that companies often overlook grooming their trusted talent within, before looking outside of their organisations.

Out with the old, in with the 'new' normal

While we cannot predict how different the workplace will be post-Covid-19, the best is yet to come with employers and employees quite clear on which working environment is possible and mutually beneficial for both parties. Upon returning to the “new norm” companies will no doubt undergo a period of transition having had to conquer trials and tribulations along the way. 

Companies need to start preparing themselves for this as employees challenge their “old world of work”. To date, employees have enjoyed the flexibility, no commuting and spending time in traffic congestions, improved empathy and closer attention from leaders, enjoyment of internal mobility of possibly having been required to deliver on additional responsibilities, ongoing lessons of digital technology making remote working conditions possible and more. The question is what areas of this new working environment will be adopted by companies as the “new norm”?

There is a little doubt that companies are already speculating how they will be reorganising and managing their talent structures post-Covid 19. Both employers and employees continue to experience work quite differently, to how it was prior to the epidemic. This will have a direct impact on talent expectations, internally and externally, with CHRO’s having to relook at how they attract, engage and retain their people. This coincides with how employer brands look towards crafting their employer value propositions going forward, where past key drivers might very well hold no relevance in our new world of work.


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