Coronavirus: How companies are handling hiring under lockdown

Josh Peachey's picture

When the UK Prime Minister announced on the evening of Monday 23rd March that the country was to go into lockdown, daily life was unexpectedly altered in a way that has cost people their jobs, caused companies to file for bankruptcy, and everything to be put momentarily on pause. 

The collective focus of the population has been forced towards the coronavirus pandemic, in some way, shape or form. Whether it’s reduced advertising revenues or forced cancellations of key events, companies in a wide range of industries are having to change their offering to maintain business. 

Senior business leaders across the majority of companies have had to stop, reassess, and cut costs as they expect turbulent times ahead for revenue. 

Whilst hiring activity amongst 100 of the U.K.’s top tech companies has fallen 31% in the last month, fintech scale-ups like TransferWise and digital bank Revolut don’t seem to be slowing down with 45 and 324 live vacancies respectively. 

A remote-working approach for many has seen events go virtual, including our own, as we hosted Prolific North’s first webinar - ‘How to handle your PR in the midst of COVID-19’ in early April. Less-affected companies that are still hiring are having to do so remotely, which some consider a good opportunity to improve how we hire, analyse and retain employees. 

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A closer look at some of the companies that are still hiring, predominantly more tech-friendly businesses, can help provide some foresight on how post-pandemic companies can become more adaptable.

Benefits of remote work

The move towards remote working was already happening well before lockdown came into action, and it’s been a while since staff members from different businesses physically had to meet up to do business. Some companies, like Digital Interruption, see greater productivity from working remotely, despite the majority of the cyber sector opting for the on-site method.

As a cyber consultancy and security provider, the Manchester-based company has trained hundreds of technical teams all over the world. Co-founder and security consultant Saskia Coplans tells me: “There is an idea that we should be on site to respond quickly to our clients but the reality is, when we're on site we're often only dealing with a few key members of the teams we're helping. 

“When we’re remote, we get to work with everyone in the organisation as we're embedded in the same communication channels that are being used across the business.”

Saskia Coplans, co-founder and consultant at Digital Interruption

The business has always been set up to function remotely, with the option to work either from home, on-site, or wherever else, always available to the employee. Saskia says this is down to a desire to look after the workforce’s mental health, and enabling them to manage their own daily out-of-work responsibilities.  

“We all have stories about months of having to travel on Sunday to be on site for Monday morning, just to find what we're testing isn't ready or is available over the Internet anyway,” she says. “This has a serious impact on our mental health, relationships and ultimately our ability to do a good job.”

The security specialist believes that a lot of other consultancy-based businesses are missing out by not implementing an at least partially-remote system, and it goes further than just reduced rent or travel costs. When it comes to finding great staff, Saskia says: “many companies miss out on potentially brilliant consultants because they can't absorb their need to work remote, whether that be because they have caring responsibilities, issues with traveling, or whatever else.

“At Digital Interruption, we have low general sickness because we encourage our staff to take personal days where needed without question. We've found that by giving them the space to deal with problems as they arise, employees don't end up booking off large blocks of time to deal with stress-induced illnesses and burn out.”

Who's hiring?

According to Michal Wisniewski, Founder and Managing Director of FLOCK, it’s the growing industries that are looking to hire at the moment. He said: “I can see increased hiring activity in public sectors, manufacturing of food and health-related products, grocery shops and tech businesses that have contracts with public sectors.”

His SaaS company, FLOCK, is an employee retention and productivity platform that has seen an uplift in users now that more companies are operating remotely. He expects similar ‘enabling companies’ such as Zoom and House Party to recruit more over the coming months. 

Michal Wisniewski, Founder and Managing Director of FLOCK

Unsurprisingly, there’s been increased usage of software solutions such as Zoom, which saw its daily active users jump from 10 million to over 200 million in the first three months of 2020.

Tech solutions, such as Michal’s FLOCK, and the likes of Slack, Asana, Trello, Google Hangouts & G Suite, were designed to improve working processes and boost productivity irrespective of the lockdown restrictions we’re now dealing with. Companies that adopt these software solutions now, especially if they hadn’t previously, are likely to continue using them well after lockdown has ended for the simple reason that embracing productivity-software can save time, freeing up employees to do less admin.

One Northern company that has hired (and onboarded) a new staff member remotely is Razor, a digital transformation firm in Sheffield. As the company operates in one of the lesser-affected sectors, it hasn’t had to change how it operates that much. 

As Razor CEO Jamie Hinton puts it: “Maybe this is all highlighting bottlenecks and strains. Maybe it’s highlighting areas of underutilisation and inefficient processes that were never exposed before.”

Interviewing remotely

Jamie tells me that there has never been a better time to find people. “Most importantly, we haven’t changed our plans and we are still recruiting. We haven't delayed bringing new people on. Of course it’s different - the challenge of finding new and different ways of doing things is invigorating and we love it.”

Razor CEO Jamie Hinton

For those companies trying to figure out how to hire during the pandemic, Jamie says that it’s time to get rid of the traditional method. “Sure it’s hard over the phone, but that’s OK as you get a different perspective. 

“Video calls are the next step. In these situations, you may actually find out a lot more about how they function and respond so take it as a positive. Set tasks that someone can do remotely. Use pair programming tools to do remote pair programming and collaboration tools to explore how they think. This is a great opportunity to learn new techniques and ways of working.”

In contrast, Michal from FLOCK argues that the process of onboarding, engaging and retaining staff is harder than ever before. He does also indicate that being forced to hire remotely has provided an opportunity for companies to improve the hiring process, saying that they “should invest more in technology to enable better assessment at the interview stage.”

In his opinion, the top three traits to suit remote working are whether the candidate is trustworthy, autonomous, and driven by self-development. These common characteristics, on top of hard skills, are what he recommends searching for while recruiting. “Now, soft skills are becoming more important than ever before.” 

What to look for

When it comes to video interviewing, Michal adds that “tools like Hinterview, SparkHire, or LaunchPad provide a very comprehensive solution to watch all your candidates on video answering your predefined questions.” The tools even use artificial intelligence to analyse the way candidates speak to predict future performance in a specific role.

He points to screening tools to help improve chances of getting the right candidate, identifying Aptitude & Skills, Personality and Values/Culture fit as the three main indicators, that can also help a company develop an employee after they’ve been hired.

  • Aptitude & Skills – If your role requires specific skills, such as coding, these tests are particularly useful to sieve through candidates. A simple search online will bring up hundreds of assessments available for a variety of skills, IQ or EI.
  • Personality – It’s also possible to screen for various personalities that fit well with a specific role. Michal argues that whilst traditional psychometric tests, such as Belbin, 16 Personalities, and others might find you a desired personality type, there are a number of challenges when it comes to user-friendliness and actionability. One online tool that he recommends is Crystal, which assesses someone’s personality based on the way they behave online.
  • Values & Culture Fit – According to Michal, it’s the values that really determine the performance of an individual within a certain company culture. A candidate may have the best skills and the best personality for the job but if their values are not aligned and they are not motivated, it is just not going to work. 

In times like these, and further into the future, values are going to be the glue that keeps everyone together, especially when working remotely. 

Room for inclusivity?

According to the founder of Sparkleclass.com, the different methods of recruiting that companies are now being forced to use can also help make the process and in turn, the workplace, become more inclusive. 

Rachel Morgan-Trimmer, a coach and consultant who has autism and ADHD, says that traditional interview processes have always been challenging for neurodiverse individuals, to the point where many struggle to get a job. “This is despite evidence that neurodiverse workers are more productive and learn faster than their neurotypical peers.”

She suggests that employers ask individuals what they'd like the first step to be – whether that's a phone interview or video. She said: “Giving them these options – and the option to review their answers afterwards – can help reduce anxiety around the interview process by allowing them to perform in a way they feel more comfortable, and by giving them the ability to clarify or elaborate after the event.”

Rachel Morgan-Trimmer, Consultant at Sparkleclass.com and MD of SugarCat Publishing

The more options that are available during interviewing remotely can help if the candidate is intensely private, or has a terrible internet connection and doesn't want to admit to it. By reducing these stresses, Rachel believes employees can prove to be more productive, especially if they’re allowed to work to their own circadian rhythm. 

Under the current circumstances, it’s up to everyone to manage their own time and workload. Letting customers work to their own clock is something to test and take note of for improving practices post-pandemic. 

Logistics of onboarding remotely

If hiring is the process of finding the right person to join a company, then remote onboarding is the challenge, and opportunity, to establish a productive and powerful working relationship. 

The first few days for a new member of the team can be formative and making them feel welcome can be considerably more difficult without an office to welcome them into or a physical presence to answer their every question.

In a recently-published whitepaper, The Cards & Payments Network outlined that assumptions shouldn’t be made about what the new employee will need to start working from home: stable internet connection, good ergonomic setup, as well as any hardware or software such as laptops, screens, accessories, email address logins and any necessary passwords. All of this pre-onboarding should be sent over to the new recruit the day before their first day. 

Planning workload, setting expectations, and managing training are all key parts of the onboarding process and still need to be done well if you’re wanting to get the most out of a new remote hire. 

Ultimately, successful onboarding under the current conditions will come down to one thing at every stage of the onboarding process: effective regular communication. Setting up weekly one-to-ones, or even daily catch-ups during the first week, will give them the opportunity to talk about future plans, clear up confusion, and help improve their overall productivity. 

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