As the home of the EU institutions, Brussels has often been called the heart of Europe. Not only is it a major hub of EU policy making, it is a professional and political crossroads that is built upon a nearly constant flow of skilled and ambitious people to and from member states and beyond. In many ways, the “heart of Europe” is more than just poetic language – the circulation of these diverse talents is crucial for both the functioning and survival of the city, and the EU as a whole. With greater restrictions on movement, however, coupled with a growing hesitation to pull up roots and seek opportunities abroad, this system is facing an unforeseen and significant threat, and many organisations which rely on the dynamic talent market and secondments of national experts in particular are beginning to feel the strain.

We are all living through a prolonged period of uncertainty, and the still-unfolding consequences of Covid-19 reinforce the sense that we have yet to determine just how far-reaching its impact will be. On an individual level, this translates into a tendency to be more risk averse than usual, which can have serious knock-on effects as it carries over into the European talent pool and the wider job market.  

For associations in particular, which rely more on national secondments or are constrained by fixed mandates or rotational positions, delaying crucial recruitments or freezing planned transitions is not an option. Under the current circumstances, however, it can be a challenge in itself simply to find suitable candidates, let alone convince those who are willing to make major moves in a time of crisis. This is particularly true for the Brussels-based ecosystem of umbrella associations, for whom up to two-thirds of the Brussels staff can be seconded experts from national counterparts, and the large number of membership-based organisations who must face constraints both from their members, and within their own secretariats.

This is a potentially existential threat in itself, but the disruption to the natural flow of talent is actually a double blow: a shortage creates increased competition, raising the bar at a time when many have had to scale back and are still actively working to insulate themselves from a global economic shock. Even organisations which have the resources and infrastructure to reach farther afield to attempt to reach talent face unique situations on the ground from country to country or city to city, complicating recruitment even more.

With Covid-19 fanning the flames of risk aversion, the uncertainties of moving to Brussels – or any new city – for a new job need to be addressed, both when talking to hesitant candidates, but also with regards to increasingly concerned employers.

In order to be able to sign a new contract with confidence in this time of crisis, candidates need to have an exceptionally high level of faith in their would-be employers. Organisations looking to attract talent need to speak with extra empathy and understanding, and offer concrete examples and assurances of stability, growth, and office leadership worthy of trust up-front. 

In the midst of such uncertainty, it’s critical that employers also remember that before a new professional journey can begin, international candidates must often navigate a challenging personal journey as well: dealing with pandemic-induced demotivation and risk-aversion, overburdened public administrations, broader economic malaise, and the spectre of uncertainty hanging over the future.

This holds true for most if not all of the candidates that Brussels-based organisations will interview in the coming months. That being said, finding the appropriate talent to interview can be a greater challenge in itself these days. The same factors which oblige a new approach to interviews also have the impact of suppressing the willingness of candidates to even consider looking, and the proactive engagement and individual management necessary to unearth talent, identify strong candidates, and coax them into a position of confidence to consider a career change are often beyond the traditional capabilities of organisational infrastructure.

While the higher dependence on secondments means that these shifts are felt more acutely in Brussels, they are by no means exclusive to those working in EU affairs. Indeed, the transformations taking place in Brussels can be seen as a harbinger of things to come in other political hubs and in other sectors, as the long-term consequences of Covid’s disruption come into focus. Just because the impact on recruitment and talent management unfolds more gradually than the snap transformation to digital work does not mean that a failure to plan for and adapt to these macro changes will be any less of a potentially existential threat to individual offices and organisations.

What is needed is lasting connections that can be nurtured for the benefit of all involved. Clients and candidates alike now have a greater need to establish deeper relationships, and an executive search partner can be a key differentiator between long-term success and a failure to navigate talent shocks. Such a search partner brings both dedicated talent management expertise to help build confidence and facilitate sensitive conversations and transitions, as well as the additional networks and infrastructure necessary to supplement in-house capabilities, especially when looking to break through the invisible barriers that crises like Covid erect between candidates, employers, and the broader job market. In uncertain times, a trusted search partner offers a robust fallback option that ensures the talent pipeline stays open and that new opportunities reach those best suited to fill a mission-critical need, not just those actively looking for a new challenge in the midst of crisis.


Jason Descamps is Founder and CEO of Mavence, the global executive search partner & recruitment agency specialized in Public Affairs.