Managing a professional services firm is always a unique challenge, as it is a business model completely built on a foundation of people. Product companies can sell the fruit of their labors, but service companies’ fruit, as it were, is their labor.
This is why attracting and retaining top talent has always been a focus for professional services firms. The ability to maintain a team of experts who can advise, consult, and design and implement plans—often while translating complex industry lingo and concepts into layman’s terms for clients—is paramount to the success of any professional services firm.
The way we do business has changed, however, in the wake of COVID-19, and while this has posed certain challenges, some of the disruptions brought on by the crisis have a silver lining. In this article, we’ll discuss key strategies that professional services firms can leverage in the post-pandemic environment to more effectively seek and secure new, high quality talent.
How COVID-19 has changed the talent landscape
Historically, crisis is accompanied by either a freeze on hiring or by downsizing, and the recent pandemic is no exception. According to the Pew Research Center, “unemployment rose higher in three months of COVID-19 than it did in two years of the Great Recession.” While professional services is less impacted by this trend to-date when compared to other sectors, it is not immune.
One specific area of opportunity is in securing emerging talent, as larger firms may be enacting hiring freezes until they can better identify the path to economic stability in the coming months.
Another area is the radical shift in views toward working from home. Today, a great number of experienced professionals that previously worked in major cities and was inaccessible to firms in smaller geographies is now potentially part of the small-firm candidate pool. For example, a civil engineering firm in central Maryland may now be able to virtually attract and hire an experienced P.E. who previously worked for a major firm in Baltimore but who is now open to working from home for a boutique firm with a more intimate culture.
Furthermore, this change has created new economics to consider, as workers accustomed to commuting from lower-cost geographies to major urban centers for work are now recognizing the savings in time and money that comes from staying at or close to home. An attorney who can work from home in the Richmond area instead of commuting to an office Northern Virginia can save tens of thousands of dollars per year – and may be willing to share that savings with a small firm that is comfortable supporting a flexible work-life balance.
Still others are finding themselves suddenly spending the majority of their time in communities that used to be vacation or family destinations, and which are now their primary place of residence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Did you ever consider hiring an accountant for your firm who now finds herself living essentially full time on the Eastern Shore, perhaps near aging parents that would benefit from closer attention? This person is now a potential candidate under conditions that previously would have been unthinkable for most companies.
Thinking about talent strategically
Firms that adopt a long-range view and capitalize on this unique moment have the chance now to bring on high-quality additions to their team – and this can create lasting momentum for the future.
One quick and easy exercise that professional services firms can perform to kickstart the process is to brainstorm with managers. Are there individuals you would love to have working with you, or wish you had hired at some point in the past? Start by checking in with them to see if they may now be available before moving on to sourcing other leads. Also, keep in mind that many professionals now working from home may be open to flexible work opportunities with a new firm.
Expand your talent search
The business landscape has been fundamentally changed by this experience, and the quick move to remote working conditions doesn’t represent a stop-gap measure so much as a sea-change that can equate to expanded opportunities for professional services firms. Whereas in the past firms may have had to limit their talent search and recruiting efforts to a certain radius conducive to commuting, the prevalence of remote working conditions now opens the door to an expanded geographical area. With a much wider pool of talent from which to recruit, options increase, and firms can be even more selective and strategic in their talent acquisition efforts.
Prioritize employee experience
There’s one catch when it comes to having an expanded pool of newly available talent—every professional services firm with the forethought and initiative to take advantage of it will be competing for top recruits. It becomes vital then, not only for talent acquisition but also for retention, to prioritize the employee experience. This means putting yourself in your employees’ shoes and creating a working environment that, even if remote, is supportive and takes their needs into account.
Now is the time to revisit HR policies and compensation packages to ensure they benefit your employees in the new business normal. For example, building in a provision for flexibility and paid sick leave can make all the difference for an employee whose children’s schools may not be convening in person, and can help employees feel more invested in your firm’s success.
Another area to consider is equity. An associate looking to ‘make partner’ at a major firm can spend a decade or two climbing the ladder to achieve an equity role. In a small firm, you can consider offering equity much earlier to the right future leaders who can help you keep the firm growing well into the future.
Vet talent for today’s essential skills
While it remains vital to ensure that prospective additions to your team have the credentials, experience, and depth of specialized knowledge needed to expertly serve your clients, the post-pandemic environment has cast the spotlight on other skills which must now be given even greater consideration if your talent acquisition efforts are to be successful.
Often termed “soft skills,” the ability to communicate, to lead, to be flexible, to learn quickly, and to innovate have moved up in the priority list of desirable traits in a new hire. Just as now is the time to revisit HR policies and working conditions, so too is it the time to reexamine interviewing protocols. If not already present, professional services firms would do well to incorporate questions that ascertain how the prospective employee handles change, adapts to new circumstances, and can use imagination as well as critical thinking to respond to unforeseen challenges.
As we work to navigate the new business normal, it can help to do so with the right talent on board. By utilizing these strategies, professional services firms can capitalize on the unprecedented opportunity that now exists post-COVID to seek and secure new team members who will help them to not only survive crisis, but build a stronger, more profitable and resilient organization in the long term.