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The recruitment and people-based industries are responding in a myriad of innovative ways to the Covid-19 pandemic. One example can be found in Jessica Heagren who runs flexible working site That Works for Me. She started the hashtag #WeNeedPeople early on in the crisis to help match those who had lost work due to lockdown with live job opportunities. 

The initiative has had a huge response on social media and she has managed to do all of this while juggling working from home with three small children. We caught up with her to get the low down on how it happened – and what comes next.

TIMESTWO (X2): Tell us a bit about your background. How long have you been working in the recruitment industry and what’s your business all about? 

Jessica Heagren (JH): Five years ago I was a director in a well-known insurance company but, like many women, when I had my first and then second baby working in this environment became pretty impossible. I ended up leaving and found myself lacking direction – but after speaking to many mums just like me who had been in senior roles, I realised there was a lot of talent out there going to waste.

It was clear there was, and is, a market for placing people with serious skills who don’t want to work full time in businesses that couldn’t afford or were not big enough to need a full time professional in specific roles. I teamed up with my best friend, a hugely experienced programme director, and we spent over a year scoping and building – I also had a third baby! – eventually launching our social enterprise That Works For Me in December last year.

Our aim is to bring people into the workplace on terms that work for them, which provides businesses with incredible experience, skill and talent at an affordable price.

X2: When did you start the #WeNeedPeople movement and why?

JH: My family and I were shut away for a week before everyone else, and over that week we watched everything shutting down as we established our new routine. That Works For Me is made up of 75% freelancers, so over the course of the week I was contacted by more and more people saying they had lost work. I watched along with everyone else as restaurants bars and pubs closed and was surprised that no one was making the connection between so many food outlets closing and the increasing need for food from supermarkets, farm shops and other home-serving stores.

I thought about how we could use our workforce more intelligently during crisis times and wrote an article on LinkedIn. I talked about examples of previous times that could apply flexibility in today’s world – the gin distilleries making hand sanitiser, the Formula1 teams making non-invasive ventilators – and offered examples of where the freelancers of today could support those whose workloads had dropped off.

Then I started to make a list of organisations that needed more people in their sector temporarily – care, medicine, food suppliers, supermarkets, distributers – and put messages out across social media about bringing these groups together using #WeNeedPeople. I asked loads of people to share it and went through every call-out for someone to fill a position that I could find on LinkedIn to alert relevant people to the hashtag.

Gradually the big supermarkets and other brands started to follow the hashtag and, by then, I had a group of connections supporting the cause, who were tagging me in anything they saw.

X2: How does it work?

JH: Businesses can use #WeNeedPeople on their callouts for more staff on social media. People are now following this hashtag in order to find where they can help or find new work to tide them over during these times – they’re primed and ready to go to businesses who need them. Any opportunities I’m made aware of I add to a list of businesses and we now have at least 30 national organisations recruiting right now. I’m urging everyone to follow the hashtag, retweet and share any and all opportunities, and follow the hashtag if you’re looking for work or to help.

X2: How quickly did it take off and what have been the highlights? 

JH: It takes a big person to put their current skillset (and ego!) to one side and go and do something that many consider to be less skilled jobs, but I believe the people that do to be the heroes of this crisis. Sadly, not everyone thinks like this and some people cannot bring themselves to go fruit picking or shelf stacking for various reasons.  But there are some amazing people who have! There’s Sales Manager Holly Maxwell who has been all over LinkedIn, who’s now working on the tills at Tesco, and Paul Hudson the L&D Manager who is shelf stacking at Asda. There are other great examples of people choosing to support care homes.

A personal highlight was the story being featured by a national newspaper and having this initiative reaching the masses made it feel real.

Q: It’s a worrying time for the recruitment industry and recruiters everywhere – what message of hope have you got for them?

A: As with most things, this is a phase. If it’s a phase that goes on, everyone will find their new norm. But it means thinking differently NOW. This is not the time to bury your head in the sand. It’s the way you find new ways of working to achieve what you need to. There is no doubt this will heavily impact the world view of flexible working. Many organisations won’t be able to deny the financial advantages, and I suspect they’ll take the opportunity to reduce expensive footprints moving forward. That means that the relationship-driven business of recruitment will need to find new ways of working, through new technologies and different types of relationships.

Try things now while things are up in the air, so that when life settles back down, you have a plan of attack. No one knows which way things will go, so you’re not on your own. It can be exciting if you look at it in the right light!

Q: You’ve created a network of impassioned people now – what next?

A:  My mission in life is to stop skills going to waste and I love nothing more than innovation driven by situation. My immediate desire is to get more people using #WeNeedPeople, to come together and solve the problem and then I want to hear what happened next. I want to hear stories about people who have learnt from their exposure to people, businesses and ways of working that they might never have come across and how their new skills transformed their approach to their day job.

I want to collate them, share and promote them, and hopefully encourage people to be brave by trying more things outside of their comfort zone. I truly believe that flexible working is best for everyone – and I hope that a positive to come out of this difficult time is to prove to people that things can work in a different way.