Ice Cold Talent

2020 sparked a never-seen-before shift in recruitment and hiring. HR Grapevine exclusively reveals how Iceland are ensuring this transformation delivers what the business needs…

Words by Jade Burke | Design by Matt Bonnar

Words by Jade Burke

Design by Matt Bonnar

The talent a business attracts and retains can make all the difference to organisational success. There are some pretty big business winners backing this up. Apple’s Co-Founder Steve Jobs believes in this. Author and former Apple SVP Jay Elliot details his former boss’ strategies for hiring in his book Leading Apple with Steve Jobs, which quoted the business leader saying: “Go after the cream of the cream. A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.” Data has also proved how crucial hiring top talent is to business leaders, as PwC’s Annual Global CEO Survey found that eight in 10 CEOs are either extremely or somewhat concerned about getting access to the skills their business needs. This is up from just over 50% in 2012. In addition to this, new candidates are getting snapped up incredibly fast. In fact, Talent Now found that top talent is only available for just 10 days before getting hired, all of which suggest the importance of finding the right hires for a business.

Iceland has had to adapt and balance it’s volume recruitment processes and business requirements

Talent minefield

Prior to COVID-19, getting hold of top talent was not as easy as employers had hoped. Employment levels had reached a peak, with ONS figures stating that in February 2020 the employment rate grew to a high of 76.5%, giving candidates the upper hand when it came to seeking new opportunities. Fast forward several months and times are different. Employment has nosedived as 700,000 jobs have been lost, according to latest government data. Whilst this might suggest the power has shifted to employers, who might be able to get the pick of talent they want – there are countless examples of job adverts where thousands of candidates apply for a solitary position – recruiters and talent teams are still citing difficulties.

Not only have talent teams had to adapt their pipelines and shift strategies to a remote and blended working world many are citing, as per a recent LinkedIn study, that the pandemic had negatively impacted their organisation’s ability to hire. In fact, brands with huge pulling power, such as Adidas, BuzzFeed and Etsy, have frozen hiring completely. For Iceland, however, it’s a different story.


In fact, for the grocery retail sector, it’s been a good year. Throughout the duration of the pandemic, grocery sales have been resilient, with market analyst Kantar revealing that in the beginning stages of the pandemic, sales in the sector shot up as a whole by almost 15%. Within that, Iceland achieved the second biggest sales leap at almost 30%. Citing a growing demand for home deliveries alongside this – reportedly, this area of the business has grown 300% – Iceland are looking to hire.

Yet despite business being on the up, this growing recruitment demand doesn’t come without its own challenges – and it is Jeff Uden, Head of Talent at Iceland, who has been tasked with solving them. In an exclusive interview with HR Grapevine he shares how “Iceland has had to adapt and balance it’s volume recruitment processes and business requirements… implementing a new mass recruitment process that helps sifting of volumes.”

The candidate experience is going to be how do we keep that human touch to it all

Iceland’s recruitment shift

One of the first challenges was sifting through high numbers of applicants – as a well-known supermarket chain, it’s unsurprising to hear that during the first four months of this year the firm received over half a million applications. As such, Jeff reveals that the business had to introduce a new system for recruitment, that allows its talent team to review the high number of applications it receives “We have had to get into that world of being able to identify what is the best way of doing that bulk recruitment,” Jeff continues.

But it wasn’t only a shift to dealing with volume. Due to unprecedented business changes, employees had to work from home wherever they could. As a result, Iceland’s talent head explains that this meant the business had to revise every single talent process it uses, meaning teams had to review their ways of working. For this to be successful, Jeff adds that changes should be ‘embraced’.

He says: “There are a lot of businesses that have gone through the same. I think what every business and every talent leader needs to do is to take on board those learnings from what’s actually happened up till now and just embrace that in everything as they go forward.”

  1. 1970

    The first Iceland store opens its doors by Malcolm Walker in Oswestry, Shropshire, selling loose frozen food.

  2. 1995

    Iceland grows to 752 stores and has enjoyed 25 years of sales and profit growth.

  3. 1996

    Its unique free home delivery service is introduced and is extended nationwide in 1997.

  4. 1999

    The business launches the UK’s first nationwide home shopping service.

  5. 2006

    Round pound pricing is rolled out and Iceland begins its sponsorship if ITV show I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here!

  6. 2012

    Iceland is named Best Big Company to Work For in the UK, and Most Improved big company. CEO Malcolm Walker is also named Best Leader of a big company in the UK at the Sunday Times Best Companies awards.

  7. 2016

    The chain is named Britain’s top online store in the annual supermarket survey conducted by consumer champions Which?

  8. 2019

    Iceland is named the UK’s top supermarket for customer satisfaction by the Institute of Customer Service for the second time.

Human touch

But what about getting the talent a business needs to be successful? Jeff believes it all boils down to the candidate experience, something that businesses have had to rethink due to the pivot to remote work. However, this might require a lot of work. Up-to-date LinkedIn data has found that nearly 46% of hiring professionals said the outbreak has negatively affected the candidate experience at their company. So how exactly should HR leaders and talent professionals be tackling this?

According to Jeff, it is crucial that employers do not become complacent and rely on technology to hire individuals, to ensure that the human touch is maintained. “It is going to be even more essential that that (candidate experience) is right particularly in a non-physical world as such because I think there’s going to be more stuff going online and that’s how we’re going to look to continue things as we go through it,” he shares. “The candidate experience is going to be how do we keep that human touch to it all. Because if we’re not careful, as we are in a world where technology has been forced to take over in the last six months or so, there could be a tendency for some of the businesses to then keep operating in that way. And that way of operating will have been a necessity through the COVID crisis, but it doesn’t mean it needs to be a necessity as it goes forward.”

From other conversations I’ve had with other HR leaders, the D&I agenda does seem to have slipped


Building an employer brand

Employer branding has also long been considered a key driver in attracting talent – so much so that LinkedIn’s 2016 Employer Brand Statistics results found that 72% of recruiting leaders worldwide believed that employer brand has a significant impact on hiring. Elsewhere, 59% stated that they were actively investing more into employer branding.

Jeff also suggests that HR and talent leaders need to take a look at their employer branding, particularly during this unusual time where businesses are being closely watched in regard to how they have dealt with the uncertainty. This is echoed in research from a previous Glassdoor Harris Poll, as it found 84% of active jobseekers list company reputation as an important factor in their decision to apply to a position – meaning getting the employer branding and candidate experience on point is vital. Looking through Iceland’s online site, it’s clear that employer branding is crucial to the business, as strategies on sustainability, open dialogue with staff members on company purpose and a promise to deliver equal opportunities in recruitment and employment are all visibly evident.

In addition, Jeff notes that as potential candidates are unable to physically get a feel for an employer’s brand due to remote working (at Iceland the HR team and other head office staff have been forced to work this way due to the pandemic), talent leaders must portray their culture and working life in other ways to attract new recruits. “The employer brand message now needs to come to the fore within the candidate experience as the opportunities for individuals to touch and feel the brand and culture ‘physically’ have now substantially reduced,” he explains.

Placing an emphasis on diversity

Ensuring that candidates are selected from a diverse pool that is inclusive of everyone can also be tricky to achieve, however, there’s no question that hiring virtually can actually open a business up to individuals they wouldn’t necessarily be able to when based in a physical workplace. For example, a potential candidate who is based in Glasgow, now has the opportunity to join an organisation that was previously only based in London thanks to remote work.

Despite this, Jeff warns that, at least initially, activities which were geared towards immediate business continuity took precedence, which has resulted in D&I being placed on the ‘back-burner’. A recent study of global leaders shared by McKinsey in May this year also supports this notion as 27% said that their organisations had put all or most diversity initiatives on hold due to the pandemic. “From other conversations I’ve had with other HR leaders, the D&I agenda does seem to have slipped. And in terms of a crisis that we are currently in, with all of the other activity whether that be recruitment, retention, furlough – the focus on carrying on business in a crisis has caused some of those conversations to go on the back burner,” he explains.

If we don’t also assess those skills as part of that recruitment process then it could create issues for us further down the line

Research has also pointed to the business benefits of diversity; Harvard Business Review previously revealed that companies with higher-than-average diversity have 19% higher innovation revenues. With this in mind, Jeff strongly advises that talent and HR leaders remain focussed on the D&I agenda despite these unusual circumstances, pointing out that if this continues to ‘slip’, the knock-on effect it will have on recruitment will be damaging, as he continues: “We have spent so long as a profession getting D&I high on the agenda, is for that to slip because it will be difficult to get back into that position.”

TA during the pandemic

86% of organisations are conducting virtual interviews to hire candidates during the pandemic
Gartner HR

By early 2021, 57% of organisations expect normal hiring levels to resume

58% of TA professionals said that a major impact of coronavirus was going to be transforming in-person interviews to virtual ones

In February 2020, there has been a 47% reduction of applications across all industries

A recent study found that 41% believe a greater emphasis on remote working would unlock a greater supply of skills
Remote, 2020 Global Workforce Revolution Report


Power of talent

As the HR department continues to evolve, equally the way in which talent acquisition is handled will likely do the same. This is particularly true in the new world of remote and blended work which has gone on to demonstrate the power of talent and recruitment when it comes to the future of a business. For Jeff, it seems that talent acquisition leaders must now ensure they are equipping themselves with the necessary skills to take their people to the next level during this time, while also adopting new software and technology in order to achieve the very best talent acquisition strategy to attract and retain individuals.

“The way in which we do recruitment going forwards actually it’s just as important now to understand how they come over from a virtual online world because for many managers, within our head office for example, that is how they are now going to need to manage,” he shares. “They are now going to need to manage remotely. And actually, if we don’t also assess those skills as part of that recruitment process then it could create issues for us further down the line.”

From Iceland’s own stance on recruitment, headed up by Jeff, it seems the organisation is on the right track to continue securing the top talent that’s out there. While supermarkets have proven to be successful during the pandemic, with grocery sales on the up, other talent professionals could certainly heed Jeff’s advice when it comes to talent acquisition and the ever-changing future of this sector.

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