How to manage a workforce that will never be the same again

How to manage a workforce that will never be the same again

By Tammy Browning, SVP & President, KellyOCG

The Covid-19 crisis is shrinking the workforce, but there are ways for organizations to get through this and come out the other side stronger.

The pandemic is transforming the workforce. It’s not just our attitudes and priorities that are shifting, it’s the shape of the workforce itself. The world might be getting back to work, but it is not the case for everyone: the workforce has shrunk.

How can these depleted organizations thrive with far fewer employees, and what can they do to make the best of this changed world of work?

In my role at KellyOCG, I see companies struggling with this. In this series, I explore how they can respond to Covid-19’s existential impact on the make-up of the workforce.

First, let’s take a look at what exactly is causing the workforce to shrink.

What’s changed? Some people cannot, or will not, return to work.

The International Labor Organization characterizes the Covid-19 pandemic as the most severe crisis since World War II, and it’s easy to see why: at the height of the pandemic, 81% of the global workforce lived in countries with mandatory or recommended business closures.[1] That is staggering. As businesses start to reopen, it is clear that not everyone is returning to work.

Unemployment is one obvious reason for that. In the US, unemployment in April hit 14.7%,[2] the highest level since the Great Depression, and in the UK in April, the number of people claiming unemployment benefits rocketed 70% month-over-month to 2.1 million.[3] These national numbers are brought into sharper focus when you look at the impact at a company level. Global brands such as Rolls-Royce and British Airways have both announced significant job-cutting programs – shedding about 9,000[4] and 12,000[5] roles respectively – leaving sizeable holes in their workforce. Industries such as oil and gas have been hit particularly hard due to decreased demand driving oil to negative prices resulting in the industry shedding 26,300 jobs in April in the state of Texas.

But the pandemic also presents a set of unique personal challenges for employees. Forrester research[6] shows that 41% of US workers are simply too afraid to go to work – and that was back in March before the peak. Many workers, particularly those with health conditions, want ­– and in some cases, are encouraged – to exercise caution and stay away from their workplaces. This is understandable, but presents a big challenge to employers nonetheless.

That’s not all. Research shows that 40%[7] of US workers could, in theory, earn more from the state while unemployed than they could by going back to work. If you’re reluctant to return to work because you want to protect your health or that of your family, that financial support could be a lifeline. For companies, it widens the gaping hole in the post-pandemic workforce.

To top it off, a spike in early retirement during the pandemic[8] has landed another blow on the size of the returning workforce.

Combine these factors, and employers face a massive challenge as they look to bounce back.

Maximizing the depleted workforce

  1. Get organized with scenario-planning and skills gap assessments

At its peak, the pandemic forced organizations to make major decisions at lightning speed, but you must handle the return to work carefully and methodically. Assess the impact of the pandemic on your skills base, and plan for a range of potential future scenarios. I know we’re working hard on this at KellyOCG, helping clients stay connected to furloughed workers and supporting clients in their pursuit of new avenues to find skilled talent through Human Cloud platforms.

When our talent advisory practice created our Pandemic Planning Toolkit, we focused on creating conversations with executive leaders within our clients to discuss thought provoking questions about their current talent needs and business focus.  We were able to provide industry trends and examples of what other companies were doing to manage within current state. We also talked about possible scenarios around how their work and talent needs had changed and will continue to change. This included the work they need to accomplish today, expected gaps in the near to mid-term, and how this impacts their talent needs. 

Regular communications and staff surveys will help you to understand who is coming back to work, and what gaps there may be across the business as a result.

At the same time as assessing capacity in existing roles, you may have new roles you need to fill; make sure you understand exactly what you need, then reach out for ad hoc recruitment support as necessary – armed with all the information.

For example, during the pandemic a multinational healthcare manufacturer quickly increased production of critical equipment. It found that it didn’t have the right staffing levels to support that production, so they came to us for help; Kelly provided 40 qualified candidates in just a week. This might have happened at the height of the pandemic, but we expect more companies to need this kind of unplanned support as we move forward.

Unfortunately, the pandemic isn’t over and there’s no guarantee that it ever will be, with localized flare-ups reappearing across the world.[9] Organizations that plan will be ready for the worst. They need robust scenario plans that include details on how and where employees will work, in a range of potential circumstances.

When you create these plans, consult with your employees: the best way to find out what your employees want in any situation is to consistently ask for their feedback. What are they worried about? What would make them avoid the workplace? What would help them to feel safe? Open communication is the only way to find out.

  1. Overhaul your benefits to fit your workers’ new priorities

Some employees who had been temporarily laid off will be excited to restart work, but many will be reluctant to return to the workplace. You need to work hard to encourage them back to work and give them compelling reasons to return. People’s priorities and motivations have changed, which means that traditional perks – increased pay, higher status – may not be as prized as in the past. Earlier in this series, I explored how our attitudes to purpose and values have changed thanks to the pandemic, and organizations will have to react.

Take a people-centric approach to encouraging staff to come back. One example of this would be offering help and support for employees’ families. Yes, we rely on our staff, but who else relies on them? Children, parents, a spouse?

Enabling remote working and encouraging flexible hours is a crucial first step but think about going further. For example, invest in programs to support families, such as childcare contributions through payroll. If your employees know that their company is truly behind them and their families, the incentive to return to work will be much stronger.

You could also consider helping employees to repay student debt quicker, which would help them to rebuild financial reserves that might have run down during the pandemic. I truly believe that giving workers the chance to care for and provide financially for their families will be essential in encouraging them back to work – and keeping them for the long term.

  1. Invest in new technology to plug your skills gaps

Even the most organized, people-centric, forward-thinking companies may still face challenges in encouraging people back to work. And many that desperately want to bring their staff back may not be able to afford to.

Strategic investments in technology could offer these companies a lifeline, allowing them to boost productivity with fewer employees. Automation and artificial intelligence, for instance, have been transforming organizations for years now, but the pandemic has seen them become even more important to businesses.

One New York county IT department[10] quickly embraced AI solutions after the state governor ordered a 50% reduction of all government staff, which effectively eliminated the call-center team. To meet users’ needs, the county tapped into AI chatbot technology that allowed them to field frequently asked questions efficiently. This shows that if you think quickly and innovate, it could save the day. 

Things will never be the same again – it’s time to adapt

Do I still have a job to go to? Am I prepared to do it? Could doing my job compromise my health? Could I do it somewhere else, or at different times? These are the questions that some employees are having to ask themselves, and companies are suffering as a result.

But there are three things they can do to maximize a minimized workforce. KellyOCG’s Talent Advisory Services practice can help with this:

  1. Get organized with scenario-planning and skills gap assessments
  2. Overhaul your benefits to fit your workers’ new priorities
  3. Invest in new technology to plug your skills gaps.


I have seen companies cope with the crisis of the past few months with admirable resiliency. If these businesses can rise to this unparalleled workforce challenge today, just think how much they will thrive when things improve. And they will.


[1] International Labor Organization, ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work. Second edition, April 7, 2020

[2] CNBC, Unemployment is nearing Great Depression levels. Here’s how the eras are similar – and different, May 19, 2020

[3] Office for National Statistics, Employment in the UK: May 2020, May 19, 2020

[4] Financial Times, Rolls-Royce to cut 9,000 jobs to prepare for years of disruption, May 20, 2020

[5] Financial Times, British Airways to cut up to 12,000 jobs as aviation outlook darkens, April 29, 2020

[6] Forrester, “How Employees Feel About Coronavirus Now: A PandemicEX Survey Update”, March 25, 2020

[7] CNBC, It pays to stay unemployed. That might be a good thing, May 9, 2020

[8] SSRN, Labor Markets During the Covid-19 Crisis: A Preliminary View, April 24, 2020

[9] Financial Times, China says coronaviruses behind Beijing outbreak ‘came from Europe’, June 19, 2020

[10] MIT Technology Review, The pandemic is emptying call centers. AI chatbots are swooping in, May 14, 2020


Ready to connect with an expert?

Keeping up with the new world of work means adopting creative business strategies, and connecting with the talent who will make a real difference in your field. Lucky for you, it’s what we specialize in.

Contact us at 800.Kelly.01 and one of our agents will administer your request. Or, if you’d prefer, fill out the form to submit an email.