Global pandemic. Recession. Racial and political unrest. Major hurricanes and wildfires. Murder hornets and locust swarms.

No doubt about it: 2020 was an annus horribilis

As the availability of the coronavirus vaccine continues to grow, there’s hope for 2021. Even so, spiking infection rates signal a long, challenging winter ahead, and the economic downturn means few businesses can expect a return to pre-pandemic “normalcy” anytime soon. And yet, leaders need to make decisions in these uncertain times that mitigate risks and seize opportunities — not just to survive, but to thrive in 2021. 

In this piece, we’ll look at five risks and opportunities related to hiring and retaining talent that employers will face in the coming months. We’ll offer results-based strategies derived from a recent Indeed survey of 808 full-time U.S. employees working remotely due to the pandemic along with insights from HR and talent attraction leaders, including a former recruiting executive at Apple.

1. Minimize employee burnout through active listening 

First, the good news: 60% of respondents say their work performance at home is just as good as it was in the office, and 13% believe their performance has improved.

A good starting place is simply asking employees how they’re doing.

However, other results from the survey suggest this at-home productivity comes at a price. Nearly half of respondents (48%) say they’re working more hours at home than they did at the office; 63% credit this increase with their failure to take breaks. Similarly, employee burnout levels have remained high throughout the pandemic, according to research firm Gallup — with fully remote workers now experiencing more burnout than on-site workers. These findings suggest remote employees are struggling to draw necessary boundaries between work and home. 

How, then, do leaders manage the risk of employee burnout in these uncertain times? Start by encouraging breaks and vacation time. Managers should set an example: when their direct reports see them take time off, those employees won’t hesitate to ask for the same. 

In addition, leaders can help by creating safe environments in which exhausted employees feel encouraged to talk about personal challenges affecting their performance, notes Paul Wolfe, Indeed’s senior vice president of HR. 

Without knowing how employees are struggling, managers can’t offer any meaningful help, Wolfe explains. A good starting place is simply asking employees how they’re doing. Then, listen carefully and with empathy to their answers and follow up by working with them to secure the help they need. 

2. Some 42% of parents say they might need to quit their jobs in 2021

Seven in 10 parents in the Indeed survey report that balancing their work with their kids’ online learning is especially challenging.

Instead of focusing on their daily to-dos, focus on managing their body of work.

That balancing act and the stress of managing childcare duties at home can push parents into actions that impact not only their jobs, but their careers. In fact, nearly three-fourths (72%) anticipate having to reduce their work hours to accommodate their children’s remote learning. 

However, mothers especially are bearing the educational brunt, with 71% saying they’re leading their children’s remote schooling. And an alarming 42% of all parents say they might need to quit their jobs in order to accommodate their children being home. 

To minimize the risks of losing the parents — and mothers, in particular — in your organization, take a fresh look at employees’ priorities, goals and deliverables. Instead of focusing on their daily to-dos, focus on managing their body of work. Encourage them to set a schedule that allows time with their children while also enabling them to meet their deadlines. 

3. See opportunity in uncertainty

Many companies paused hiring or reduced headcount in 2020 due to economic uncertainties. But others continued to hire. As of June 2020, more than one-third of businesses said they were hiring at least as much as before, according to an Indeed poll.

For businesses with the necessary resources, a recession can offer an ideal hiring opportunity, explains José Cong, head of talent acquisition at Humane — a software and hardware startup currently in stealth mode — and a former recruiter at Google and Apple.  

For example, Apple’s first iPod was released in October 2001 as the economy was recovering from terrorist attacks in the U.S. Despite the downturn, Apple moved aggressively to hire talent to further develop the iPod product line, Cong explains. 

“We realized there were some companies that weren’t in a position to invest in talent, which created an unstable environment for their employees,” Cong says. “So, it was a lot easier to recruit great talent at that moment, which helped us stay ahead of the rest of the industry.”

4. Remote work can mean a more diverse workforce 

The pandemic propelled a rapid surge in white-collar professionals working from home, many for the first time. By June of 2020, an Indeed poll found that one-third of companies had shifted their employees to remote work.

This resulting potential — hiring without geographic limitations — is one of the pandemic’s greatest unexpected opportunities. By maintaining a virtual, remote workforce, you can save money by hiring outside expensive metro areas where your physical offices may be located. In recent months, Shopify, Twitter, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and others have embraced remote workforce models, according to Harvard Business Review, giving them the flexibility to hire beyond their traditional geographical borders.  

What’s more, a combination of remote work and virtual hiring technologies means you can attract qualified professionals who can’t afford to (or don’t want to) live in expensive cities. The wider geographical diversity can help increase your organization’s ethnic and racial diversity, enabling you to find the best talent wherever it is and gain a competitive advantage.

5. Risk being vulnerable with employees

When leaders share their own vulnerabilities (within professional boundaries, of course), they set an example for employees and make it easier for them to do the same, Wolfe shares.

The perceived risk of appearing weak is actually an opportunity to show emotional leadership.

Often, employees are uncomfortable sharing their problems with managers or HR for fear of being judged. “So it’s up to leaders to set an example and share their own struggles, which can help employees become more comfortable expressing what they’re experiencing,” Wolfe says. 

Showing vulnerability may feel risky to a leader. But sharing doesn’t mean someone is weak; the bravery to do so is actually part of being a strong leader. “Our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability,” says author Brené Brown.

In other words, the perceived risk of appearing weak is actually an opportunity to show emotional leadership — which pays big dividends. When a leader demonstrates vulnerability, they’re being authentic. Leaders who are authentic build trust among employees. And trust is the second most important driver of workplace wellbeing, according to a recent Harvard Business Review Analytic Services survey

On to bigger, better things in 2021

If nothing else, 2020 showed us our ability to endure unanticipated difficulties and adapt quickly — and often on a large scale. Now that we know we’re capable of more than we’d thought, we may be better able to rise to whatever challenges 2021 has in store.   

“We’re on an entirely new journey,” Wolfe says. “It’s a journey I believe will lead many of us to something bigger and better than we could have imagined.”