How the Coronavirus will change work in general (and recruiting specifically)

The Coronavirus has had a profound effect on the world of work. In some ways, the changes are immediately apparent and in others, only time will tell. And yet, this is not the first time a global pandemic has afflicted us. What can we learn from previous pandemics and what should we expect to happen soon? In this article, I am looking back at the history of global pandemics and making a few predictions concerning the world of work in general and recruiting specifically.

How did the black death affect the world of work?

Have you heard of “The Black Death?” also known as “The Great Bubonic Plague?” It was probably the most destructive pandemic in history, killing an estimated 200 million people worldwide in the 14th century. Historians have speculated that the Black Death killed somewhere between 30 percent to 60 percent of the Europe’s population and reduced the overall world population from approximately 475 million people on the planet to 350 – 370 million people on the planet. It took 200 years for Europe’s population to recover to its previous level, and some regions (such as Florence, Italy only recovered by the 19th century.

So how did that affect the world of work? Well, for one thing, With such a large population decline from the plague, wages soared in response to a labour shortage. And that was just one repercussion. Listen to this quote from The Guardian that gives a bit more insight:

“Probably the most destructive pandemic in history, killing an estimated 75 million to 200 million people worldwide in the 14th century. “It altered the course of European history and, in the end, world history,” says Professor Tony Barnett at the London School of Economics. “Some have argued that it established what we call modern capitalism.”

The significant loss of manpower not only depressed the economy of the time but forced people to change the way they worked. Before the plague, the main source of income in East Anglia, for example, was growing crops. But the Black Death claimed so many lives in the region that survivors turned to rearing sheep for wool as that required much less manpower.

This lack of manpower also brought new equipment. For example, prior to the plague, men used spears to catch fish, but those who survived had to invent new devices to catch the same amount of fish with less manpower. That is how big fishing nets came into being.

Many believe that the Black Death ended feudalism, the system of service in return for a grant of land, which burdened the peasant with many obligations to his lord. Since so many peasants and artisans died of the plague, those who survived became more particular about where they worked.”

How did the Spanish flu affect the world of work?

Another pandemic that perhaps, you’ve heard about recently, is the Spanish Flu of 1918.  Lasting from January 1918 through December 1920, it infected 500 million people – about a quarter of the world’s population at the time. The death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest epidemics in human history.

For deeper insight, listen to this quote from “The National Interest” which compared the Spanish Flu to the Coronavirus:

“The immediate economic consequences of 1918 stemmed from the panic surrounding the spread of the flu. Large US cities, including New York and Philadelphia, were essentially temporarily shut down as their populations became bedridden. As in Italy now, businesses were closed, sporting events cancelled and private gatherings – including funerals – banned to stem the spread of the disease.

The economic consequences of the pandemic included labour shortages and wage increases, but also the increased use of social security systems. Economic historians do not agree on a headline figure for lost GDP because the effects of the flu are hard to disentangle from the confounding impact of the first world war.

The long-term consequences proved horrific. A surprisingly high proportion of adult health and cognitive ability is determined before we are even born. Research has shown the flu-born cohort achieved lower educational attainment by adulthood, experienced increased rates of physical disability, enjoyed lower lifetime income and a lower socioeconomic status than those born immediately before and after the flu pandemic.”

A silver lining inside the Spanish flu

Without a doubt the Spanish Flu was devastating. However, if there was a silver lining to be found in all that tragedy, it is with the Women’s Rights movement that prospered during that age. The Spanish Flu disproportionately affected young men, which in combination with World War I, created a shortage of labor. Listen to this quote from “The Conversation” which went into detail on this phenomenon:

“The worker shortage caused by the flu and World War I opened access to the labor market for women, and in unprecedented numbers they took jobs outside the home. Following the conclusion of the war, the number of women in the workforce was 25 percent higher than it had been previously and by 1920 women made up 21 percent of all gainfully employed individuals in the country. While this gender boost is often ascribed to World War I alone, women’s increased presence in the workforce would have been far less pronounced without the 1918 flu.

Women began to move into employment roles that were previously held exclusively by men, many of which were in manufacturing. They were even able to enter fields from which they had been banned, such as the textile industry. As women filled what had been typically male workplace roles, they also began to demand equal pay for their work. Gaining greater economic power, women began more actively advocating for various women’s rights issues – including, but not limited to, the right to vote.”

History is repeating itself, again

Okay, a quick review on the major points. Or rather, the things that caught my attention the most because I can see history repeating itself before my eyes.

  • As a result of past global pandemics, the way people worked had to change
    • I see that today with more people working remotely, than ever before. A search on Google trends shows a VERY sharp increase of people searching “working from home” in the past few weeks.
    • I have also noticed the evolution of the handshake for people who are interacting in-person. Among the changes, greeting one another with feet taps, hat tips and “live long and prosper” Vulcan greetings.
  • As a result of past global pandemics, disenfranchised groups become more influential and begin to flex their influence.
    • In the past, the disenfranchised group was women. Nowadays, that might be the disabled. I mean, think about it, now that so many are forced to work from home, companies are likely more open to hiring this demographic. They are now in a position to be more competitive since they can work from home where, presumably, they have the tools they need to be productive at work. Kudos to Microsoft, who is a leading advocate in this and SAP who have been pretty consistent over the years.
  • As a result of past global pandemics, salaries increased for those with certain skills.
    • I think that will certainly happen for industries that are booming despite the Coronavirus slowdown. More on that later.
  • As a result of past global pandemics, businesses involving large gatherings were closed and layoffs occurred.
  • As a result of past global pandemics, those who were sick, attained less education, more physical disabilities and lower income over their lifetime which contributed to a severe drain on social security systems. 

You know, even as I examine past pandemics and their effect on the world of work, I do see some unique consequences with the Coronavirus that are not evident in The Black Death, The Spanish Flu or other pandemics (I didn’t mention) like the Zika virus, EBOLA and the Swine Flu. I’ll now point out those unique consequences and the positive effect to the economy.  

The silver lining in the coronavirus – more jobs (eventually) at home

The difference the Coronavirus brings to the world stage that previous pandemics did not, is the long-term disruption of global supply chains. China is a MAJOR manufacturing hub that the world depends on. In so many words, if dependency on China is not upended, the ramifications to business overall will echo worldwide. We got a glimpse of this reality with the SARS epidemic of 2002 emerged out of China. The New York Times compared SARS to the Coronavirus and made several observations, here are a few quotes…  

If customers cannot buy what they need from China, Chinese factories could, in turn, slash orders for imported machinery, components and raw material – computer chips from Taiwan and South Korea, copper from Chile and Canada, factory equipment from Germany and Italy.

This could potentially disrupt global supply chains,” said Rohini Malkani, an economist at DBRS Morningstar, a global credit rating business. “It’s too early to say how long it is going to last.”

Similar worries accompanied the outbreak of SARS in 2002 and 2003, when the virus emerged in the southern province of Guangdong before spreading across China and around the world, killing nearly 800 people in at least 17 countries.

China had just joined the World Trade Organisation, gaining access to markets around the globe. It was harnessing its seemingly limitless supply of low-wage workers to produce cheap consumer goods. Its economy centred on exports. Its consumer market remained in its infancy.

In the years since, China’s annual economic output has multiplied more than eightfold, to nearly $14 trillion from $1.7 trillion, according to the World Bank. Its share of global trade has more than doubled, to 12.8 percent last year from 5.3 percent in 2003, according to Oxford Economics.

“If you run out of widgets that are essential to production processes and all those widgets come from China, then it may well be that your production lines go to a halt,” said Ben May, global economist at Oxford Economics in London. “These problems are likely to be popping up all over the world.”

This became a problem in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which devastated manufacturers. Many companies assumed they were buying parts from a diverse range of suppliers, protecting them from shortages, only to realise that critical components were produced by single plants.

I think, if nothing else, this Coronavirus has been a wake up call on how much the world depends on China for its economy. Let me rattle off a few stats; according to Forbes Magazine

  • China is basically 18 percent of Brazil’s exports and is its single biggest foreign market for Made in Brazil.
  • China is responsible for 25 percent of Korean exports and roughly 11 percent of its GDP.
  • Iron ore has made China account for 34 percent of Aussie exports worldwide. China accounts for 6 percent of Australian GDP.

I think where possible, countries will begin to move away from China and produce more of their essential items at home.

There will also be a boom to home delivery services; if Amazon is any indication. They are hiring 100,000 new workers in the US. The hiring spree is to cope with an unprecedented surge in demand for online deliveries during the outbreak. And if they are hiring like that, I imagine the same would ring true for Federal Express, UPS and others. You can also count Pizza Delivery in that equation as well. For example, Domino’s is hiring 10,000 drivers.

I can see that also for the drone market as such could be used to make deliveries as well. In fact, Valuate Reports, which offers an extensive collection of market research reports, said recently that the global market size of Drone Software and Solutions was USD 726 Million in 2019 and growing at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 38.89 percent between now and 2026.

And according to a report published by Allied Market Research, the global video streaming market is projected to grow from $38.56 billion market in 2018 to $149.34 billion by 2026. And I suspect that with so much of us being quarantined, that those projections will be surpassed.

This means a few things:

  • Depending on how long this pandemic lasts, companies will have to pivot in some way to appeal to customers who are spending more time at home. Those who can do that are able to retain their workforce and possibly grow.
  • I think it means freelance recruiters will shift their focus towards clients that serve in the markets I mentioned and others that are booming; while others are contracting.

I think the fact that some companies are still hiring en masse that recruiters will still be busy, even now. As such, some recruitment processes will have to change as we ride out this pandemic. How? I can think of a few ways.

How recruitment has to change because of the Coronavirus

Okay, one way you could (or should) adjust your recruitment process during this pandemic is to be more sensitive when making your initial contact with a candidate. I suggest taking a moment to acknowledge the obvious while being careful not to appear callous. Umm… for example, maybe say something like this in your initial outreach to passive candidates.

Hey, You!

How are you feeling? So much is going on in these uncertain times that I know its easy to feel overwhelmed and more than a little nervous about the future. I truly hope that you are yours are coping with all the crazy brought on by the Coronavirus. Here at Company X, we appreciate our employees and are keeping their safety top of mind. This is why we have enacted a work from home policy.

We’ve also put some of our business services on hold as we sort things out. It is a short-term solution to what we hope will be a short-term problem.

All that being said, life goes on and so does business. Your work history was brought to our attention recently and we were impressed by what we saw. So much so, we wanted to reach out and schedule some quality time to get to know you as a candidate. We are using a video interviewing platform to conduct all of our interviews these days. If you are interested in speaking with us about X position (details below), I would be more than happy to add you to my calendar and to forward instructions on how to connect virtually.

Thank you for your time and consideration.



Companies have been interviewing for some time now yet, many people are unused to it and do themselves a disservice when they do not meet a recruiter’s unspoken expectations. Among them:

  • Removing distractions in the background, such as a cluttered background.
  • Dressing improperly for the video interview
  • Not minimising noise potential in the background (dog barking or children entering the room)

And while it may be routine to send instructions alerting candidates to your expectations, I think recruiters should not judge candidates too harshly if some of these protocols are broken. With so many of us sheltered in place and quarantined, options might be limited. Below is a prime example of what so many working parents can identify with.

Finally, have plenty of examples of how your company has embraced remote work culture. For example, at Proactive Talent, we have virtual lunches where we meet online and engage in small talk, vent about our issues and bond as a team. We also, at random, get surprises in the mail. Quite recently, boxes full of snacks have managed to find their way to the doorsteps of several of our employees.

I have also heard of someone dressed like a Disney princess leading a virtual sing-a-long with the children of several of our workers. It is things like that which attracts passive candidates, keeps people loyal to your company and championing your brand online. 

It just so happens that Proactive Talent started as a 100 percent remote culture and to date, 70 percent of our people work remote. There are several resources that are freely available on our blog on the topic of remote work. Here is a quick list of the more popular items.

Oh, by the way, if you’re in need of advice related to Talent attraction, hiring practices or managing a remote workforce, make an appointment with our CEO – Will Staney. He is freely sharing his advice for a limited time as a way to help businesses cope with the Coronavirus outbreak. Click here to connect with him now. Tell him I said, “hi.”

In closing, I’m curious as to how you think recruiting will change as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. Leave a comment below? Please and thank you.

Cover image: From source

This article first appeared on Proactive Talent blog.

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2 Responses to “How the Coronavirus will change work in general (and recruiting specifically)”

  1. Pearl Hong

    Interesting article, but I did not want a history lesson, rather a focus on recruiting strategies. And sending an email to a name on a database whom I have not contacted in over 2 years commencing with “Hey, You! How are you feeling? ” borders on the farcical. Funnily, I have been receiving these types of emails from recruiters. Recruiters who I have not had any contact with in the last 3 years. It is a poor strategy to execute and expect positive results.

  2. Pearl,
    Thank you for reading my article and comments. Regardless of rant or rave, I always appreciate the time and consideration of those who read my work.
    RE: Reaching out to old contacts
    I respectfully disagree with you; reaching out to old contacts and networking with them is immensely productive.
    Reason being, some candidates are inundated with recruiter requests and shun recruiters as a result. They also limit the information about themselves on LinkedIn as a measure to reduce, what they consider to be, recruiter spam.
    By reconnecting with old contacts, you are potentially networking with passive candidates who may be hiding from recruiters and/or whom are more experienced and connected than when they first entered your ATS. (That Junior Software Developer you spoke to a few years ago might be the Senior Software Engineer now that you have been looking for.) Networking old contacts is a strategy I recommend often because it has worked for me throughout my career. Relying solely on new contacts dismisses your previous efforts that could very well be bearing fruit for you now.
    RE: How are you feeling?
    To your other point, the pandemic is the #1 news story in the world. Some are coping well and others are not, asking people “how they feel” is not inviting them to a therapy session. However, it is suggesting that you have a sense of empathy that they might appreciate. I think it is myopic to think that everyone thinks as we do which is why, different approaches are warranted. At best, with this approach, you connect with someone you will eventually hire or whom may refer someone to you that you eventually hire. At worse, they delete your email. In either case, the Recruiter is (primarily) extending their humanity at one of the most troubling times in history and (secondarily) promoting hope by suggesting that life goes on and work continues along with it.
    It seems to me that recruiting now comes down to two pathways:
    Choice #1: Approach people with empathy and hope and quite possibly, make a meaningful connection with their fellow human.
    Choice #2: Ignore the reality of the times, do business as usual and risk the employer brand of your company becoming “that cold and callous company who doesn’t care about people, just a bottom line.”
    I would choose option #1 every time because who would want to work for option #2?
    I suspect that we will have to agree to disagree on this matter. Whether we do or not, I understand that these are interesting times. I wish you well and hope to be of service to you in the future.


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