Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the rise of remote recruitment

Author: Graham Brown

With social distancing guidelines and the increase in remote working due to the coronavirus, employers have been forced to rethink how they recruit and select staff. Graham Brown reports on the rise of video interviews and remote onboarding of new starters.

The UK economy and labour market have been rocked by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, with more than six million employees on furlough and many employers announcing recruitment freezes. However, while some industries have been hit hard, others are seeing an increase in working hours and demand for staff. The Office for National Statistics found that while recruitment has all but dried up in education, construction and entertainment, more than a quarter (26.6%) of employers in health and social work are actively recruiting for the short term, along with one in 10 wholesalers and retailers (10.7%) and manufacturers (10.5%). With social distancing measures in force and remote working the new norm, we explore how HR is adapting its recruitment processes.

Finding applicants

Employers do not seem to be struggling to find applicants for roles. While data from recruitment technology firm WaveTrackR shows that UK job postings in the week 20 to 26 April were down 67% on pre-March figures, applications were down by only 10%. This is corroborated by research from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation in April that found permanent staff supply fell at its slowest rate since June 2013, while temporary candidate numbers rose at their quickest rate since July 2012.

Video interviewing

While the coronavirus pandemic has not significantly impacted the volume of job applications employers are receiving, social distancing rules are forcing them to rethink their usual selection methods, with many organisations - including Amazon and Microsoft - choosing to replace in-person interviews with online alternatives. Virgin Media, for example, is currently recruiting for more than 500 call centre jobs, based in Sheffield and Teesside. Its careers website tells potential applicants that the company is "taking steps to fast-track recruitment... by using video interviews to allow you to start sooner". The company has uploaded a short video to explain the process to candidates, together with a list of hints and tips to help them prepare for their interviews, from how to create the best lighting environment to what to wear. It is also running regular online "chat events" where shortlisted candidates can raise questions or concerns with the recruitment team before their video interview takes place. The interviews themselves are pre-recorded, which means that all candidates receive a consistent experience. "Candidates are able to start the process immediately after applying, or they can wait a couple of days to do some pre-interview prep," says Sharron O'Donnell, head of resourcing at Virgin Media. "If they haven't completed the interview after a couple of days, we send them a reminder email to check if they are still keen on the role and to ask if they need any additional support."

Technology requirements

There are numerous video conferencing platforms available, most of which are free to use or have free usage plans, and most applicants will have access to a camera on their laptop, smartphone or tablet. And logistically, video interviews offer a greater degree of flexibility than in-person meetings - recruiters can schedule them at short notice, without having to worry about candidate travel or finding suitable premises. They can also be recorded and re-watched later, if recruiters need to refresh their memories about a candidate's performance - or if they want to get a second opinion from a manager who was not present during the interview.

Diversity and inclusion implications

However, video interviews should not be considered a like-for-like replacement for in-person interviews, as they can bring some unintended consequences. Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser on resourcing and inclusion at the CIPD, says it is essential for organisations to think through the potential impact that shifting to online selection can have on the inclusivity and diversity of their recruitment processes. "Organisations need to ensure they are not putting people off from applying because they are less tech-savvy," she says. "Equally, they need to make sure they are not limiting their pool of applicants if they're using video interviews. For example, neuro-diverse candidates might be excellent at problem solving but not perform well on camera."

Virgin Media recognises that some people might not feel comfortable using video technology, and it has built various support mechanisms into its process to help people who might need it. "We are able to edit the timings of the video interview to allow extra time for those who need it, and all our interviews are subtitled," says O'Donnell. "And we have developed our bespoke communications, help pages and live video chats to help build confidence in the new process."

McCartney also has some words of caution for employers using video CVs - a short visual recording prepared and used by candidates to apply for a job - to help screen candidates prior to a full interview. "If organisations are using video CVs, they will be able to see a person's age, gender, ethnicity and hear their accent in a way that might not come through from a traditional CV," she says. "Therefore, it's really important that organisations put in place practices that reduce bias and create a level playing field. This could include diversity and inclusion training for hiring managers; consistent guidance for candidates; and ensuring there is plenty of structure, rigour and challenge throughout the selection process."

McCartney offers three tips for reducing bias when using remote recruitment methods:

  • use structured interview questions, so that candidates' responses can be compared fairly based on evidence;
  • have an assessor, not involved in the interviews, to challenge ratings of candidates and provide further objectivity; and
  • make sure that any tests or assessments used are relevant to the role and role-specific skills and competencies are tested.

Managing new starters

A successful recruitment campaign can be undermined by an ineffective onboarding programme, and social distancing guidelines bring new challenges. Some employers have responded by delaying the starting dates for employees hired just before or during the lockdown - HSBC, for example, pushed back the start of its graduate recruitment scheme this year from July to October.

Others are turning to remote inductions to onboard new starters - recruitment consultant Robert Walters reports a 37% increase in the number of queries it is receiving from employers on "how to effectively onboard new hires remotely" in the past six weeks.

Onboarding challenges for employers

For remote onboarding to be successful, employers need to get several things right. The first challenge is to ensure new starters have access to any equipment they will need to work from home. GoCo Group, which operates the GoCompare price comparison site, introduced remote onboarding when the lockdown began and has so far brought in almost 30 new starters using its new processes. "Getting the new starters' laptops to them and making sure they have all the access they need to hit the ground running on day one is our biggest challenge," says Milly Blenkin, talent programme manager at GoCo Group. The company now ensures delivery of a laptop to new starters on the Friday before their Monday start, followed by a call from the technology team first thing on Monday to help them set up. New starters then spend the rest of their first day completing their induction with the talent and people team using Microsoft Teams video conferencing to talk face-to-face and share screens, and the rest of the week is a combination of meet and greets with departments via Teams across the group, and a compliance and information security induction.

A second major challenge is helping new starters to feel at home in their new role. GoCo Group uses Slack, a group messaging app, to help ensure new starters are included in all relevant conversations from the start. "We make sure they are added to the relevant Slack channels (groups) for their role and their area of the business from day one," says Blenkin. "We also make sure all new starters attend their remote meet and greets together, on the same call, so they can meet each other as well and know they are not the only ones in the same remote boat."

The company also uses Slack to address a third major obstacle to remote onboarding - integrating new starters into the company culture and helping them form relationships with their new colleagues. "We have several fun, light-hearted Slack channels - like our 'Dogs Everyday' channel - where new starters can join in the daily conversations, get to know everyone and learn about the GoCo culture," says Blenkin. "We have also introduced a 'Meet the Newbies' page on our intranet homepage with photos and bios of our new starters, and we encourage colleagues to reach out and say hello. We are also running a 'Coffee Meet and Greet' with our Exec team where, if they wish, new starters can put their names forward to have a virtual informal coffee with the CEOs of our different brands, along with other colleagues from across the Group. And we are running Friday quizzes across our different brands, which we encourage new starters to get involved in to meet people across the wider business."

Look after new starters' wellbeing

Chris Hickey, UK CEO at Robert Walters, offers further advice for employers that are implementing remote onboarding. In particular, he emphasises the importance of looking after new starters' wellbeing in the current climate. "It's important to provide reassurance and support to quell any anxieties or uncertainties new employees might have with starting a role remotely," he says. "Your new starter will also want to impress and could be tempted to overwork at the outset. Make sure you instil the importance of unplugging and maintaining work-life balance from the outset."

He points out that "digital onboarding is a learning curve for all parties, so there are bound to be teething issues when implementing it for the first time," says Hickey. "After week one, be sure to ask your new team member what can be improved. Perhaps they could have benefited from a more organised system, or would have appreciated fewer meetings and more down time to get settled in. You won't be able to improve your process if you don't ask."

At GoCo, the business and talent team catches up with all new starters on their 30th day to have a "virtual coffee" and understand how their onboarding experience is going. "All our new starters have responded really well to the remote onboarding process and we've seen bonds forming very quickly," says Blenkin. "We have always prided ourselves on our culture, especially as a flexible, agile, tech business. So our new starters being welcomed as they are is proof, I think, that we're walking the walk and not just talking the talk."

While technology is the tool to drive remote selection and onboarding, the personal touch from HR is more important than ever to ensure meaningful engagement with new starters.