Following more than a year of economic disruption, the balance of power appeared to have shifted from talent back to employers. With unemployment rising around the world, many organizations that struggled with talent scarcity before COVID-19 expected greater availability of talent in the post-pandemic era — but the opposite is occurring. In the first markets to roar back to life, such as the U.S., job vacancies are rising and in-demand skills are harder than ever to find.

This presents significant challenges to companies preparing for growth during the recovery ahead. Access to talent, especially those with the critical digital skills that have been in high demand, is more constrained than ever. Even blue-collar workers are difficult to acquire as many have decided to stay out of the labor market. For businesses to attract talent during this critical time, companies must offer a compelling reason for talent to join their organization.

The challenge, however, is that many companies during the pandemic have simply stopped investing in their employer brand, believing it’s unnecessary during times of rising unemployment. But even during these times, because of the ongoing digital transformation, an employer’s reputation is critical to talent attraction. Organizations that have completely lost focus on their employer brand and are now just restarting their efforts may find themselves behind in the race for the best talent.

Randstad research and labor market data show employer brand is still critical to winning great talent, despite widespread perception that the labor market has transformed. In fact, the more that the global economy has changed, the more workers desire the employee value propositions they prioritized before the pandemic. What this tells us is that companies must continue to invest in their employer brands to ensure they are viewed as an employer of choice.

the importance of employer branding 

Employer branding is frequently misunderstood, which often leads to insufficient or poorly directed efforts to build a company’s reputation. In essence, a company’s employer brand is how well it’s perceived internally and externally as an employer of choice. This perception has a tremendous impact on its ability to attract and retain talent, which can also affect labor costs.

Often, an organization’s employer brand is intertwined with its corporate brand. The two are complementary so a strong corporate brand can lift a company’s attractiveness as a workplace. Conversely, a poor corporate brand can drag down that organization’s ability to procure talent. Whether a company’s employer brand is an asset or a hindrance often depends on the strategy and activation of the brand.

Some key elements of a strong employer brand include:

  • well-understood values and culture
  • workplace transparency
  • authenticity
  • brand evangelists and promoters
  • well-defined employee value propositions       

lessons learned from the pandemic

One of the challenges for employer brand managers at many organizations during the pandemic has been diminishing interest in brand investments. With hiring reduced, high levels of unemployment around the world and budgets slashed, staying focused on brand management has been challenging for some. Investing in their employer brand became less of a priority in 2020.

This was based on the perception that during the economic crisis that followed global lockdowns, employer brands needed less attention. Many organizations adopted zero-based budgets, imposing constraints on talent acquisition functions. Workforce safety, business continuity and virtualization of their workforce became much higher priorities during this time.

Ironically, these priorities helped strengthen many companies’ internal constituents. According to Randstad’s December 2020 Workmonitor research, most workers surveyed said they felt greater loyalty to their employers based on their company’s pandemic contingency plans.

Have the actions of employers during the pandemic affected the external perception of their employer brand? Our 2021 Randstad Employer Brand Research seems to indicate little movement globally.  On a regional basis, however, the attractiveness of companies has fluctuated in COVID-19’s wake.

We found that the average attractiveness of top companies around the world has not declined in the past year. Of the 34 markets in which we surveyed working-age adults, the attractiveness of employers decreased in 10 markets while increasing in 17 others. Of the remainder, the trend is unclear.

Regionally, the results varied. The average attractiveness of major companies declined in three European markets, all of which are located in the continent’s southern region.

In contrast, Asia reported a decline in five markets Randstad surveyed. In Japan, Australia and New Zealand, the attractiveness of top companies rose.

In the Americas, two South American markets reported higher average attractiveness, but the trend is more negative in North America. 

Additionally, most of the top companies in each of the markets we surveyed kept their place among the top three, indicating that the pandemic did not significantly alter the local workforce’s perception of leading employers. We did, however, observe changes in the leadership position in 25 of 34 markets surveyed.

top company attributes remain unchanged

When the pandemic initially forced lockdowns around the world, the top attribute desired by workers was thought to be job security. While this remains one of the top benefits survey respondents desired, it did not displace the two top considerations: salary & benefits and a good work-life balance. We did find that COVID-19-related measures such as working from home and ensuring a safe working environment were important, although not game-changing. So despite the hardship imposed on the daily routines of working-age adults, they still desire the same benefits as in previous years. 

reconsidering strategies beyond 2021   

As we reported in our 2021 Global Employer Brand Research report, in a world of change some constants remain. What does this mean for your talent attraction strategy?

Talent scarcity is again rising, which means investing in your employer brand is a must. The pandemic has produced many unexpected dynamics — workers reassessing their career choices, women forced out of the labor market in large numbers, a shortage of hourly, blue collar workers — so adhering to any strategy developed prior to COVID-19 may produce poor outcomes. Any activation strategy and messaging developed going forward needs to account for the seismic shifts that have occurred in the workforce.

To do this, you must continuously assess your employer brand strength internally and externally. Only by understanding the perception of all stakeholders — employees, contingent workers, job applicants, passive candidates — can you effectively develop the right strategic and tactical approaches for enhancing your brand.

Finally, inviting a third party to help you conduct regular brand strength assessments and strategizing goals and initiatives may be a cost-effective approach during these times of budget constraints. Investing in internal knowledge and capabilities is an effective approach, but doing so takes time and considerable resources. Even organizations with considerable internal resources can benefit from the advice of a neutral third party. 

With the pandemic significantly transforming the world of work, companies face new challenges in their talent acquisition strategy. Even as they grapple with so much change, companies shouldn’t overlook the importance of maintaining a strong and attractive employer brand in the war for talent. 


about the author

Jan Denys

director external communication and public affairs labour market

Jan is a labor market expert. With his academic background and his position as Director External Communication and Public Affairs at Randstad Belgium, his analyzes give us a better understanding of developments and trends in the labor market.