(Photo by Chalirmpoj Pimpisarn/iStock by Getty Images)

Since the pandemic struck last spring, tens of millions of Americans have been thrown into unemployment. At this point, 25% of U.S. adults say they or someone in their household lost a job because of coronavirus-era layoffs, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

While the impact on the workforce this time was historically brutal, the pattern repeats itself in the business cycle when employers try to cut losses by reducing staff. Such moves may shore up the companies in the short run, but painful reductions in force have long-term consequences for the employer’s reputation and employee morale.

Yet there is a way to reduce layoffs through a method that could be more widely used: rapid redeployment. This method involves the immediate shift of a group of workers from one function to another to accommodate business change. It’s an internal tool that allows companies to retain tribal knowledge and enhance competitiveness by having employees undertake different projects that may require a new set of skills.

COVID-19 has inspired a wave of experimentation in this area, which now needs to be embedded in corporate culture. “We need to make sure that what we've learned and been forced to do over the last few months is something we continue to do,” says Jeanne Schad, talent solutions and strategy practice leader at Randstad RiseSmart, which focuses on outplacement and career transition services. Schad spoke at From Day One’s September virtual conference on managing change and building resilience.

Rapid redeployment is a good way to make a company more agile. “You have this dichotomy happening in the organization where some parts of the business are less busy or idle, and other parts are busier and needing to do things in a new way,” Schad said. “So with the assumption that people have transferable skills, we shifted people around to fit whatever the business needs were at the moment.”

Jeanne Schad of Randstad RiseSmart (Photo courtesy of Randstad RiseSmart)

In creating an agile workforce, established companies can borrow a page from companies in startup mode. “Those companies that are acting like startups and operating in this agile way, are actually doing quite well right now,” said Schad. Employees in an agile workforce are encouraged and feel safe contributing outside of their job responsibilities, and are constantly learning new things and encouraged to do things differently. “They have an orientation to the idea that they need to continuously learn in order to maintain their value, and that that's part of their responsibility to themselves into their own careers.”

Rapid redeployment can take many forms: internal gigs, stretch assignments, the deployment of teams to fill determinate roles, or by the tactical breaking-up of teams for the sake of internal assignments. All told, organizations that deploy these methods “are creating visibility into new opportunities within the organization for employees, and they're encouraging those employees to contribute in new ways.”

Career development is what, ultimately, helps keep the workforce agile. Rapid redeployment has been an effective solution for companies throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. But what about when masks come off eventually? “Employees are already developing their careers through these projects, these internal gigs, these stretch assignments, these new things they've been asked to do during the pandemic, and they're probably already leaning into this,” Schad said.  “So our first recommendation is just call that out to your organizational leadership. Encourage employees to own their development and give them the time and the tools to learn,” she said. In the long run, employers should add career-development tools to the company’s learning system, making sure to democratize them and make them available for everybody. Online learning and upskilling allows for people to bring skills into the organization, and leads to unexpected talent emerging from unexpected places.

And let’s not forget the role of managers. “This may be a culture change for your organization to share talent versus holding on and hoarding talent. So it's important for you to make sure you acknowledge that to your managers, and you empower them with tools to have more frequent and better-quality career conversations with their employees,” Schad said.

We’ve been through economic upheaval before, and so we know we can recover. This is the third major economic crisis in the span of less than a century. What’s more, the previous two, the Great Depression (1929–33) and the Great Recession (2007-09), were both fertile ground for major innovations. The 1930s saw the technology industry take shape, with Hewlett-Packard and Polaroid getting their start. Similarly, services like Uber, WhatsApp and CreditKarma emerged in the midst of the recession.

We will see this type of agility come through during COVID too, said Schad, who offered examples of the ways companies have been adapting to the new reality. She cites restaurants becoming grocery stores; health-care providers with multiple locations allocating their resources to underserved areas; and, during a recruiting and hiring freeze, seeing recruiting specialists use their already honed interpersonal skills for customer-facing roles. Yet, we’re less than a year into the pandemic, so we can expect even more substantial innovations, Schad predicted.

“It’s when underperforming companies go away that capital that [was] spent on them–not only the money, but the human capital–can be released to other, higher-performing areas of innovation.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this session: Randstad RiseSmart. Please visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.