by: Jared Whelan, Matlen Silver, Senior VP, Sales & Operations

Someone recently asked me “What are the top 5 lessons from the pandemic you learned about building strong relationships with clients and consultants when the world went remote?”

We talked for 45 minutes about those lessons – there were plenty. I am sure most of us have gone through a similar exercise at some point in the last year. I quickly realized that each lesson mentioned somehow tied back to one common thread: making people a priority again.

Not the sale, not the close, not the number of requisitions, but the person. We say we are in the business of people when it comes to IT staffing, but I think we can often lose sight of that amidst our daily grind and the pressure to perform. The pandemic and all the havoc it wrought, gave us a chance to reconnect with our purpose and focus.

The Lessons

Although challenging, I did manage to narrow down the list of lessons. I created the list because they are easily digested, and also because it gave me an opportunity to really dive in and dissect my professional outlook and how it may have been re-molded this last year.

Patience and Adaptability

When the work from home mandates became a reality across the nation, I would classify the change as drastic for most businesses (and for some, catastrophic). In IT staffing, where remote work and virtual networking are not exactly alien, we are still predominantly an in-person, relational industry…and that changed overnight. We are accustomed to sitting down face-to-face with clients and consultants over coffee or lunch or meeting. Being relegated to video call or phone as the only option was definitely a curveball.

It wasn’t just “working remote”, it was remote work coupled with isolation. In a normal remote circumstance, you may work off-site, but if need be, you could still schedule an in-person meeting with someone without any obstacles to connect. With the pandemic, those opportunities ceased. Client sites shut down, in-person interviews were not permissible, financial forecasts were thrown into doubt, and fear of the unknown was creeping in. From a strictly logistical standpoint, not all parties were even set up yet for a remote-only work environment.

We found that some clients and larger organizations struggled more than others because their infrastructure had to expand rapidly over a grand scale. Sometimes we think simply having the budget can make things happen, but bandwidth affected us all, and the larger companies had more ground to cover. The logistics were daunting – supply of laptops, enough software licenses and technology to maintain effective communication, not to mention data security. These things may have been available to a degree, but now they needed rapid implementation on a massive scale – and in some instances, for the first time. I’m sure many people found they never knew what they were capable of until they were forced to face these challenges.

We were fortunate; from an infrastructure standpoint, my experience at Matlen Silver was that we were able to adapt and pivot quickly – we already had the tools in place. Our teams all had laptops, we all used a video-conference tools, and we even had desktop dialing capabilities. Most, if not all, possessed a certain level of a work-from-home experience and home office setups already established. And yet, many of us, our clients, and our consultants were still not completely ready for 5-days remote from home.

Knowing not everyone possessed the same level of operation for remote work, we had to be mindful of the situation and navigate against uncertainty, changing guidelines and, quite frankly, fear of what was happening.  When we were able to connect with clients, we had to account for the unexpected – faulty connections, remote work distractions, and even more importantly, the notion of considering someone’s personal circumstances. Did they have a sick relative or friend? Were they in a high-risk category? How were they coping with potential mental health issues?

Considering the individual’s circumstance above all was a necessary shift. Meetings were certainly more predictable pre-pandemic. With an all-remote environment, we had to account for varying set-ups for consultants and clients alike. For instance, you may be working with someone who lives as an individual with access to a private home office, remote-ready and without distraction. On the other-hand, your contact may have had to transition to a home office surrounded by their family members, who were now all mandated to be home – children engaged in virtual learning, an overtaxed internet connection, and limited quiet space for phone calls and video meetings. Everyone’s situation was different. Their challenges were different, which meant our challenges were different. Adapt may be an overused word to describe our response, but it’s the best word for a reason.

Showing Empathy and Creating Intentional Meaningful Engagement

Staffing was built around interpersonal connection and delivery, so the way we have traditionally done business was turned upside down. But I do believe it will always be about relationships – I don’t see that going away. Our approach will just shift.

Existing relationships were nurtured easily – you have empathy already, and people wanted to connect, they were happy to connect. If you had a standing relationship with someone, it was easier to foster those relationships through that timeframe of how long we were going to be remote – and for some, we still don’t know!

Developing new relationships and generating new business posed a much greater challenge. It wasn’t about a lack of demand – that actually increased throughout the pandemic. But so much of what we do is based on establishing understanding and trust, and doing that virtually is a greater challenge.

We utilized many of the same practices we did in the past, but interactions now had a different feeling that was hard to put your finger on. Of course, persistence to talk with someone didn’t change. Once we were in contact, however, whether it was via phone or a video meet, it was impossible to replicate the intimacy of in-person meetings. Was a rapport established? Did I “read the room right?” – these things are difficult to gauge via phone call or video screen.

How do you build trust with someone you never met and didn’t know when you were going to meet them?

We had to be intentional about creating meaningful engagement. More often than not, it meant not talking shop. It meant getting to know someone on a personal level and showing empathy towards their surrounding circumstances. We showed greater understanding when the unexpected happened, like the interruptions from kids running on camera or dogs barking or ring doorbells buzzing. I think we all loosened up a bit, rolled with it and maybe put things into a little more perspective.

We were all humanized to a large degree – the clear lines between home and work were shattered and, because we were all dealing with a common obstacle at the same time, it provided some levity.

The humanization and erasing of the work/home divide, in a sense, helped open conversations with ease. There was an element of letting our guard down that created comfort and real conversations that overtook the professional formalities we often employ. Even from a practical sense, remote work gave us the opportunity to modify our workspaces and potentially show our creativity. Our backgrounds, our office set-up, our pets, a picture on the wall – we noticed them now, which was disarming and created icebreakers or avenues of conversation we may not have had normally. These were intentional meaningful engagements and experiences that weren’t forced or scripted – they were simply genuine.

Reliable References Build Trust

We had to rely heavily on our network and introductions from mutual, trusted contacts. Clients were more likely to work with someone with references because the normal vetting was more difficult in the all-remote situation. New contacts tended to lean on introductions and references when giving requisites.

We’ve already established it’s more difficult to build trust in the absence of personal meetings; calling on a mutual contact to provide some insight on working with us became even more important during this time – your network is your net worth. And partners needed to know you were listening. As a person who is trying to build a relationship with someone, if I can be a sounding board or a diversion from the grind, I’m happy to be that. Building real trust and making a true connection will always trump a sales pitch. In this shutdown scenario, if you wanted to make it all about business, you were missing the long-term benefits of relationship building.

You can’t build trust through a sales pitch – you just can’t.

We had to create common ground in lieu of the traditional common ground that previously happen by default from location, or venue, or event. When working with a new client, you couldn’t meet at a restaurant they would enjoy or over an activity you have in common. Phone calls and video calls can be so routine, monotonous and impersonal – but they were the sole communication tool for quite a while. It forced talent professionals in our industry to see past immediacy because we had to put in more work to build the relationship.  An immediate engagement could not be the goal – we should be setting up the relationship for the long-term success in building one that is mutually beneficial. People in our industry needed to realize how to serve without expecting a return. It’s cliché, but true: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

We understand the trends, but we have to make room for surprise adjustments

We were braced for anything at the onset of the pandemic. And even though the job market shut down for a hot minute, in reality, our industry for professional IT services opened up rather quickly…even boomed in some cases. With technology, we were able to move ahead, and our ability to support our clients was enhanced without talent location restrictions. All positions were up for grabs for anyone living anywhere – it was the best person for the job, period. The talent pool and search range expanded exponentially. With Matlen being a national company, we were able to accommodate that change very well.

Something surprising, however, was the inability to leverage cost savings for our clients. We had thought, with the availability of talent in different locations, we could secure market salary for a professional in Alabama, for example, who would now be working remotely for a New York City-based company. In previous scenarios, the New York client would be able to realize costs savings in the pay rate due to the market cost-of-living difference and the benefit of remote work. That didn’t happen.

Because so much work needed to be done and the demand was so high, offers were skyrocketing. And if you didn’t pay, another company was willing to do it. And work-from-home was no longer a benefit to sell – it was now quite literally the mandate.

It’s actually been promising, as we are seeing historic lows in IT unemployment. Now that companies are onto phase 2 of their digital transformation since the pandemic forced them into phase 1, the demand for tech skillsets will only increase from here. And projects which were delayed will need to be fast-tracked.

As we move into recovery phase and begin to return to a semblance of an in-person workforce, we recognize elimination of the location barriers will be a benefit, but with adaptation. The mindset of a stringent on-site workforce may not be the most productive standpoint to take given the massive change in work habits we just underwent. It will be incumbent upon us as talent professionals to counsel our clients on models that include adaptability and flexibility…or they risk losing out on the better talent.

Of course, we will have to continue to expand our market knowledge and national network in order to provide our clients with the best possible service. Remote work, or some form of it, is here to stay. The sales side will have to adjust, and recruiters will now become experts on markets and talent in places they might not have historically.

We looked internally as well

I would be remiss if I didn’t include building strong relationships with colleagues as part of my lessons as well. We are in the people business, and you’ll find that in many service firms, the talent professionals will thrive off one another. The pandemic took away that peer in-person connection and the ability to engage with one another directly when servicing our clients and consultants. We work as a team and rely on each other heavily – nothing is accomplished on your own here. It was important that we spent time keeping up with those relationships as well – from leadership to sales to recruiting to the back office.

While we certainly considered our existing relationships, we had to pay special focus on new ones. There were occasions where a new hire in our own company was hired 100% remotely. How do you build a relationship with someone who has always been remote whom you’ve never had the chance to engage with in person?

You do so deliberately. You make those “water-cooler” moments happen without project talk or deadlines. You schedule time to learn who they are during a 15-minute-virtual coffee and talk about nothing work-related. You call them randomly to see how their day is going. You build a new peer relationship to emulate the company culture.

Certain things are not going back to the way they were, and I’m ok with that…

When I started this reflection process, I realized this last year allowed me to step back and focus on things I may not have during “business as usual” times. I learned best practices and meeting ideas from a really well-hosted zoom call that kept my attention. I learned new things about clients and consultants and colleagues because we were intentional in asking questions that might have previously happened in passing…or might not have. I learned more about other’s home lives than I knew before – even by accident, like when someone’s child would be singing in the background or a dog busting into the room and jumping into someone’s lap. And we all learned that what previously might have been a “mortifying moment in my professional career” was really not that big of a deal after all…

We are in the business of putting people to work – hopefully in a position they love within an environment that values them. And for many of us, the competitive and transactional nature of our business can absolutely dominate your day – or week, or month, or years. And of course, work is a significant part of our lives that is both serious and necessary for our sustainability. However, if I am to take inventory of the most valuable outcomes related to this pandemic, it has reinforced my focus on people and has refreshed my perspective on not living to work, but more so on working to live.