The impact of COVID-19 on talent assessment practices in South Africa

Recently, our TTS research team launched a research project where we interviewed several of our key clients to better understanding the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown’s impact on talent assessment practices.

Specifically, we approached 41 of our key clients, a large proportion of which represented larger enterprise businesses, to take part in the study. TTS consultants then conducted in-depth interviews with key stakeholders during the period of late July to early September of 2020.

Our intention was to evaluate how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the way our clients run their businesses, and also to see if there have been corresponding shifts in their talent management and assessment practices. While we continue to work closely with our clients in recovering from the impact experienced, we thought it would be interesting to share some of the overall trends that were identified in a number of areas.

Business impact on clients

Without a doubt, the commercial impact has been substantial. In line with the economic downturn and GDP contraction reported in South Africa, we found that 75% of our participants reported experiencing a negative commercial impact on their business.

A third of participants reported revenue losses of more than 50%.

In response to the downturn, more than half of our participants responded by changing their business strategy, with key adjustments primarily related to releasing new products or revising existing products to take account of changed circumstances.

Talent management shifts

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been felt not only commercially and on organizations’ business models, but also on their HR initiatives. Roughly half of the participants reported giving increased attention to employee wellness programs during the lockdown, as well as enhancing their flexible working programs.

20% of our participants re-deployed or re-trained their staff given the impact of the pandemic on busines operations, while 14% of participants highlighted various initiatives related to the digital enablement of their staff.

Investment in the digital enablement of staff is likely to pay off in the future, since three-quarters of our participants believed that remote working practices would continue even after lockdown and social distancing have eased.

Reasons given for this shift include:

  • Increased efficiencies and effectiveness leading to time and cost savings (for both organizations and staff),
  • Staff starting to consider alternative ways to structuring their working day,
  • Broadening the reach of talent sourcing and applicant attraction beyond the organization’s immediate geographic locations or applicants’ willingness to relocate.

While several advantages of continued remote working were highlighted, there were also some concerns.  Many participants sited challenges to innovation and collaboration, as well as losing feelings of connectedness among colleagues and team members.

As such, several participants anticipated a blended or hybrid approach incorporating some office time and some remote working, and many expect increased spend on training and talent technology tools to empower effective remote working post-COVID.

Changes to hiring and recruitment practices

As could be expected, given the negative commercial impact experienced by the majority of participating organizations, two-thirds of participants reduced their short-term hiring activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a quarter noting a complete freeze on recruitment for all positions within the organization.

When asked to consider the likely impact of the pandemic on longer-term hiring volumes – looking beyond the next six months – a quarter of participants still anticipated a reduction in activities, though none anticipated the complete recruitment freeze to continue.

Unsurprisingly, given the enforced remote nature of operations for many organizations operating under lockdown conditions, the participants reported an increased uptake of digital tools to facilitate their work, including the use of video interviewing.

Two-thirds of participants reported using “live” or “two-way” video interviews. And several participants reported having to move their assessment processes online, with some planning to make the migration permanent.

Restructuring and retrenchments

Despite only one participating organization reporting going through a major restructuring process as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, still 20% of participating organizations did undertake some staff retrenchment as a result of the pandemic.

When asked whether any retrenchments were anticipated in their organizations over the next six months, two-thirds of participants replied in the negative, with a further four participants reporting their organizations were in ongoing restructuring processes that commenced or were planned prior to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa.

The post-COVID future

Finally, when asked about what the talent management space could look like in a post-COVID world, over 80% of participants felt their talent functions would return to normal at least within the next year, with a third anticipating the return to normality occurring in the next three months.

However, a number of participants felt that the process could take up to two years and was more likely to require adapting to a new normal rather than returning to the old normal.

Despite this, a quarter of participants did not anticipate having to make fundamental changes to how their organizations operate in a post-COVID world and reported comparatively few changes to talent assessment due to the impact of COVID-19.

For the remainder, the top three change areas mentioned include:

  1. Increased virtual or remote working with flexible hours
  2. Ongoing digitization and digital transformation, and
  3. Remaining agile and responsive to a changing world.

Final thoughts

The impact of COVID-19 on talent assessment has wide-reaching implications for how organizations operate, both in their everyday operations and talent management practices.

A clear learning from the reported experiences of participating organizations for us was the central role played by technology in enabling operations to continue despite the ensuing national lockdowns. Adopting such technologies required an openness to adopting new ways of working and new technologies on the part of organizations and managers.

Despite some organizations intending to return to their old ways of working in the post-COVID world, we believe the pandemic has served as a flashpoint emphasizing the importance of utilizing best-of-breed talent assessments and technologies to maintain and improve effectiveness, efficiency and candidate experience.

Embracing new technologies like one-way virtual interviewing, AI-mediated assessments, and online assessments will help to future-proof organizations in the event of future shocks to business continuity.  We remain optimistic that lessons learnt during this challenging time will have long-term benefits for our clients and the IOP profession as a whole.

If you would like to know more about this research or future projects, contact us at