Entering a two-way street: How hiring transformed in 2021

A conversation with’s SVP of People Strategy Samantha Lawrence
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· 8 min read

As we reflect on the biggest challenges of 2021, we sat down for a Zoom chat with Samantha Lawrence, the SVP of people strategy at the digital hiring marketplace, which counts among its clients Capital One, Dropbox, and Mount Sinai Hospital. We asked Lawrence to help us understand and contextualize the biggest hiring trends of 2021 and what shape these changes may take in the year to come.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What was the biggest surprise of 2021 in hiring in your estimation?

It’s funny because it shouldn’t be a surprise, but I think one of the things that definitely took me by surprise was just the sheer turbulence that the Great Resignation caused in so many different industries. What it ultimately did is it created much more of a two-way conversation with employees. Employees demanded more from companies than ever before. It wasn’t this one-sided relationship where companies are saying, “Hey, prove to me your value.” It really became employees saying, “Okay, well, what else are you doing for me? How are you keeping me happy and engaged, beyond the normal benefits or pay?”

What are some of the biggest changes or challenges to hiring in the past year?

At the beginning of the year, companies realized, Okay, this is our new way of life. This is the new normal. We can’t continue to hold off this hiring. We need to figure out how to hire [in a pandemic]. And so they started doing it. And I think a lot of teams started feeling new challenges around the onboarding experience, from the very technical of, “Oh my gosh, how do we process I-9s?” to the more nuanced, like, “How do you meet new people when you’re on Zoom all day? How do you make sure it doesn’t feel forced, and you are creating a sense of community?”

It gets more complex as you fast forward through the year, and you see certain companies really want to figure out a hybrid work model. You saw HR teams really struggle with how they balance these experiences, both within the hybrid side and the remote side. Do you commit to only onboarding people in-office? Do you commit to only having certain things happen virtually? One thing HR teams have had to really think through is, How do you make sure you’re not creating a two-class workforce, with some people being in-office and some people being remote? How are you creating this great employee experience across both of these working models?

How do you do that?

It’s hard and something I talk a lot about with my team. I’ve said, “Listen, guys, a lot of the changes that we’ve made here internally have been out of necessity, right? We’ve had to respond to the pandemic. We’ve had to respond to our business shifting.” But what is so nice is that in the latter half of 2021, and definitely looking to 2022, we have this opportunity to be incredibly intentional with our culture. One of the things I think about investing in for 2022 is asynchronous communication. It’s incredibly important, I think, if you are going to have hybrid-working models. We do not, we have committed to being a fully remote workforce. That said, we do maintain offices in our major markets, which are San Francisco, New York, and London. Sometimes I worry how we make sure we’re not just doing events that are targeting our employees who happen to live in some of those major hubs. Asynchronous comms are super important, because that really gives people the opportunity to say, “I’m going to be able to work on these hours, or have the flexibility to drop my kids off at school, but not miss how important decisions have been made, or what important updates were given at a certain meeting.” That’s a super big one.

Also doubling down on our investment in our management, so that they are being retrained, essentially, into this new way of working. These are the new expectations of employees, and how do we operate in this new environment?

I think the other thing that is really important to me, when I think about building our culture, is we are really pushing forward flexibility. There’s a lot of flexibility that we have built in—flexibility and autonomy—that we have built into our teams’ schedules or their working experience. Some of the things that we’ve done is to say, “With flexibility, comes balance.” Just because you need to drop your kids off, or pick your kids up for school, I don’t want you necessarily catching up every single night until 9pm, because burnout is a real thing. So extending our shortened-workday Fridays was a huge win for our company, because we saw people were just on a lot more. And so we said, “Hey, this is something we’ve always enjoyed as typical summer hours. As long as we continue to do what we need to do, let’s just call it quits here, two o’clock local time on Fridays, and give people that chance to really log off or recharge or do whatever they need to do to kind of reclaim that time.

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Sounds lovely. Talking about recruiters specifically, what are the most important lessons for recruiters that you have taken away from this past year?

There’s two things. One is that I’ve just seen the need for recruiters to become so much more strategic and proactive than ever before: Targeted, personalized messaging. Developing that outreach to candidates, thinking through how we segment these individuals. Are they the right people to deepen our pipelines? And they need to do that, quite honestly, before certain positions even get open, because of where the market stands today. And there’s such pressure, between attrition and companies that want to grow because they have taken off during the latter half of this pandemic.

And to piggyback off of that, I think in 2021, and something we’ll see in 2022 as well for recruiters, is turning to tools that help make them more efficient in their processes, to help them source that underrepresented and diverse talent.

What was the most common mistake you saw companies making in 2021?

One of the things in 2021, which I think will definitely break out in 2022, is the compliance around remote work. You see a lot of companies who have hired in new [geographical] areas. The different federal and state [regulations] and taxes—we have seen some big mistakes there, with employers a little bit in the weeds, in terms of how they do [remote work] appropriately. That means things like PEO platforms will continue to grow, because they just make it so easy and compliant, especially for those smaller orgs, to be able to grow their global talent bases, to be so much more competitive in those spaces. That is something that we’ve seen some mistakes on, for sure.

Looking to the year ahead, can you share what you think are the most important things for companies to prioritize in order to attract and retain talent and prevent turnover?

I think employer brand is going to be incredibly important in 2022. You know, in 2021, I think it really found itself as being one of those top priorities. And I think that for companies to continue to attract talent, and to stay viable, they're really going to need to effectively communicate, what their benefits are, their perks, their culture. They will need to prioritize that as well as different initiatives.

One thing that we've talked about internally and I think other companies will too, is really thinking about an employer brand role. Someone who can spend a good quantity of their time thinking through: how do we convey our culture, our values, our vision? How is it moving through different pieces of our business, right from the recruitment experience all the way through the offboarding experience?

I think in 2022 DE&I will be really strong in recruitment efforts, because it's something that's just being demanded from candidates. Teams need to be incredibly forthcoming in terms of what they're doing. They need to think through their policies, both within the employee experience, but also the recruitment process.

Companies who continue to double down on those efforts—not creating this performative culture of DE&I, where they're just trying to check a box—but where they're really putting together comprehensive programs that really show the importance of diversity and inclusion, they're creating an opportunity for employees to feel that they belong in their organization. They are the ones that are going to continue to attract and retain top talent in their businesses.

You think there are a significant number of people out there who may be looking for a job and may be choosing between some offers and DE&I would be the deciding factor?

100%. Yes. What I've seen in our own personal candidate pool and offer calls that I have been on, it's come up more than ever before. It's not a “nice to have,” it's a must have. It has to be evident that it's not just an HR initiative. I think that sometimes gets lost, right? Like it's only part of the recruitment strategy, or it’s only part of the people team strategy. It really does need to flow throughout the organization organically within your leadership teams.

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact John Del Signore via the encrypted messaging app Telegram (@John_Del_Signore) or simply email [email protected].

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.