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Maintaining an Employer Brand In The Face Of COVID-19

See the transcript of this session from Dubai-based The Greenroom Group, which features an interview with i4cp CEO Kevin Oakes as he discusses the importance of leadership, purpose, and empathy during the pandemic, and how that will result in a stronger employer brand. 

HOST: Harry Glaysher (partner at The Greenroom Group): Kevin, thank you for joining us this evening. 

GUEST: Kevin Oakes (CEO and Founder of I4CP, Institute for Corporate Productivity): Thank you for having me Harry. 

Harry: A warm welcome to all of our guests. We hope that today, in someway or another, can support your businesses and operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a brief introduction, my name is Harry Glaysher. I am the Co-Founder and Partner of the Green Room Group, which is a talent consultancy, by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs. Today is the first of 6, COVID-19 related webinars, through which we hope to provide coping mechanisms for business and their operations in any region during these unusual times. The webinars are going to be talented related, with a concentrated focus on one talent vertical at a time. We start today with employer branding, which will then be followed by other webinars focused on the following themes, the order may change, based on speakers availability: employee experience, managing a multi-generation work force during a pandemic, COVID-19 talent mobility, culture adjustment for COVID-19 and finally, the notion of people analytics.  

I am very pleased to introduce our first quest speaker, Kevin Oakes. Kevin is the co-founder and CEO of Institute for Corporate Productivity, also known as I4CP. For those of you who are unfamiliar, I4CP is the leading talent research and data centre for developing human capital practices. Kevin, why don’t you tell elaborate on I4CP for our guests.  

Kevin: Thanks Harry and welcome everybody. To answer your question Harry, the company is a fairly old company. We started back in the 1960s, when we founded what was then known as the Human Research Institute. I took over around 12 years ago and rebranded it as the Institute 4 Corporate Productivity. Today we are doing more HR research than anybody on the planet, always looking at what high performing organizations are doing differently with its people and practices, versus low preforming organizations. Fortunately, we work with a lot of very well known, global companies. The size of the organizations that we work with ranges from corporations as large as Amazon and Walmart, all the way down to smaller ones. 

Harry: We had a brief discussion about the focus of your business taking a turn from, performance and identifying how to become a higher performer, to now providing guidance on how to survive and cope in these times. How have you found that? 

Kevin: Well I am very proud of our team. We started researching COVID-19 back in February when it hadn't really affected a lot of the world at that point. We then pivoted the focus of the entire company in late February, to helping organizations through this pandemic. To do so, we felt that one of the best things that we could do was convene these organizations so that they could talk to each other. One of our best ideas to date was becoming a convener of HR executives. We allowed them to share their experiences and their innovations, share what is working and what is not. We have had tens of thousands of organizations flood to these daily and weekly calls, to our site and to our research. 

Harry: Great. For those tuning in, you can access the resources that Kevin has mentioned on his website at,  

Kevin: I should mention that all of those resources are free and open to everyone. We made that decision very early on as we just want to be in a position to help.  

Harry: Did you receive any push back from the companies submitting strategies, in specific, concerned that the public are accessing their data?  

Kevin: No, not at all, we have noticed that people are just trying to help in these times.  

Harry: The importance placed on culture and brand has always been key, however you are a believer that it is now more important than ever. Please explain why that is?  

Kevin: I think this pandemic has put a microscope on leadership in a lot of organizations. I have had this conversation with several heads of HR, where they have seen true leaders emerge through this pandemic and also seen leaders who were not prepared for this. Mark Cuban is one of the leaders who has really stepped up and has been very visible during the pandemic. Mark has had a lot of really interesting things to say about the subjects of employer and corporate brand. We spoke on email a couple of weeks ago and he said, ‘how you treat your employees today will have more impact on your brand in the future than any amount of advertising or anything else’. And I completely agree. 

Harry: What words would you give to companies looking to foster compassionate leadership during these times?  

Kevin: Empathy is critical. We have seen that some companies show no empathy with furloughing or laying off employees, often laying off thousands from within their corporation via a Zoom call. There was a great example set a few weeks ago by the CEO of Airbnb, Brian Chesky, who had to lay off 25% of his workforce. He sent a wonderful email that I encourage people to read. What I think has been interesting Harry, is this pandemic has effected different companies incredibly differently. We have had a number of organizations in the hospitality or food industry, who have had to do furloughs and layoffs on a huge scale. However, other organizations such as Walmart or Amazon have been hiring during this pandemic.  

Harry: Employee well-being and employer brand, let’s touch on the connect between them. Do you capture the attention of the people? Do they want to come and work for you? Do you retain talent? You've mentioned that there is a stronger connection between the two, now more than ever. 

Kevin: Definitely. We are going to be seeing much more about employee well-being in the future. We did a recent study on holistic well-being that not only looks at the physical and emotional aspects of well-being, but the 6 components to holistic well-being: physical, emotional, mental, financial, community and career and social health. These 6 factors are what companies are putting a lot of work and research into. As I talk to organizations who are returning to the office, naturally the conversation is around the physical aspect. How are we going to make sure people are healthy? Are we going to keep the work environment safe for our workers from a physical standpoint? Although such questions are important and need to be asked, is it the mental and emotional aspects that I think are very important factors that companies need to consider. Many workers are not necessarily excited to go back to the office and are scared and nervous, therefore psychological safety is going to be just as important as physical safety in the long term. Numerous companies are recognising that their ability to deal with the mental and emotional side of their employees health is not great. In fact, our research shows that only 15% of companies feel as though they do a good job when approaching such factors. That means 85% of organizations feel they have room for improvement around that side of the equation, which is very significant.  

Harry: How can we get companies in the MENA region to put that in effect. They will go to your website, download the resources and they will tick them off one by one as the employees start to come in. It could be seen as a refreshed on-boarding process, which talks to them about their fears and how the company plans to lessen them.  

Kevin: Communication is critical here. You should make sure that employees encounter no surprises when returning to the office. As many people have been working from home, they need to know very clearly what the rules are when they return to the office. Although this information should have been passed on to them before they even step foot in the building. 

Harry: For many of the younger generation coming into the workplace, this is going to be the first really big hurdle since 2008. In addition to trusted referrals and positive portrayal of the company in discussions outside of the office, what other measures can companies put in place?  

Kevin: They will put incentive plans in place, but I think the key is to communicate. We have found that over 60% of successful organizations simply communicate their expectations clearly, of what they are looking for as an organization. That being said, many companies will put in cash and other forms of incentives to help instill employee referrals.  

Harry: In terms of monitoring how each department is performing in referring employees, if you see one is preforming well and another is not so much, is there a way to do cross-functional mentoring to increase performance?

Kevin: I would say you probably have more underlying issues there, which I would explore first. For example, if in one company you had a division that was referring a number of candidates internally and another that isn’t at all, my immediate guess would be that you have a cultural issue, which would be the first thing I would explore. Are there issues that are keeping people from being engaged in their work? We have a technique and a tool set called 'Organizational Network Analysis'. ONA looks at the communication and work flow inside an organizations. It essentially assesses who is talking to whom. This is a process that has really been championed by a professor in the USA, Rob Cross. ONA can really uncover who are the real influencers and energized/motivated people in your culture, versus who are the ones that are detractors and people who are generally not communicating.  

Harry: What sort of opportunities do companies have to emerge out of this pandemic with a stronger employer brand? 

Kevin: There is a lot of innovation happening today, which is something that employers need to embrace. The pandemic has given a lot of the workforce large amounts of time to think and reflect. Many companies are recognising that life won't be the same once we come out of this crisis, therefore we have to be prepared for a world that will be a little bit different. A while ago, we did a study called culture renovation, which looks into how companies have successfully changed their cultures and what they did to do so. One of the early things that one of these companies did, for example Microsoft, was paint a vision for the future. You don't want to change your culture by citing all the things that were wrong in the past or your financial woes. You need to look to the future, keeping everything aligned to your vision. This has a huge impact on employer branding long term. 

Harry: Kevin, thank you so much for talking the time to talk to us, great to have you on. Hopefully we develop more work in the future together.  

Kevin: I appreciate that, thank you Harry. I encourage people to take advantage of the resources on our I4CP website. Or if you have any 'Next Practices' that you would like to share, we would love you to send them in to us. We are trying to highlight all of the many innovative things that companies are doing to try and help others through this pandemic. 


Kevin Oakes
Kevin is the CEO and co-founder of i4cp. He is a world-recognized thought leader on the topics of corporate culture, the future of work, and learning, and is the author of the bestselling book Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company.