Learning to hire remote workers, remotely


Startups still hiring through the Covid-19 crisis are adapting to welcoming new staff remotely, as Peopley cofounders Debby and Phillip Clement explain

  • Businesses are coming round to the idea that remote work could be a permanent feature of their model
  • Hiring has traditionally involved an in-person gut feel – but this is hard to replicate over Zoom
  • SMEs can adapt well but must learn to use tech solutions to the best of their ability, not simply to speed up processes

Debby and Phillip Clement are cofounders of Peopley, an HR management consultancy that they have run as a virtualised, distributed business for three years.

They’re used to recruiting remotely. From phone interviews to online tests, it’s familiar ground. But as businesses adapt to lockdown, Peopley is now involved in recruiting remote workers – and Debby and Phillip have seen a shift as founders start to consider whether entirely remote teams could be a permanent feature of their business.

Confronting challenges

“There’s a huge difference between B2C and B2B approaches to remote work,” Debby says. “The latter is already much more geared up for it.” Some found it easier to cope with the ambiguity of lockdown as their systems went online without trouble. Still, businesses of all kinds have faced major challenges as they look to hire during lockdown.

In many businesses the hiring process has always been reliant on “in-person people systems”, as Debby puts it. Face-to-face hiring involves making gut assessments that are hard to replicate over video, she says. Having made a new hire, most businesses have then typically relied on having an in-person induction.

This has had to change. Businesses now must rely on digital tools, and Debby and Phillip point out the many ways that virtual onboarding could be improved for both the business and a new recruit.

What’s changed, and what works?

In lockdown, as remote recruitment becomes the only option, “the need for a slick system is enhanced”, Phillip says. “You can’t rely on that face-to-face gut feel, or running to the printer five minutes before a candidate arrives to print off their CV”. Firms must now improve their applicant tracking systems.

Hiring managers and entrepreneurs in SMEs, Phillip says, “are going to have to start learning new techniques to assess other people’s skills, and whether those people are going to be right for their organisation.” Remote recruiting has highlighted how many people focus only on the job when they’re interviewing a candidate, rather than looking at the whole person, Debby says.

Induction processes must change too, the Peopley cofounders say. Businesses hiring during lockdown might be scaling at speed, but without a good induction new hires might struggle to learn to use the system in time. Lockdown has shone a spotlight on the way that knowledge is shared within businesses, Debby says, and much has been reliant on physically sharing an office space. Businesses must improve their remote resources, internal intranet systems, and learning management systems.

Some companies have tried innovative ways of using technology to simulate a first day at work – like a VR tour of the office. While well-meant, Debby says, this is of little use to a new hire planning to work remotely for some time. One tactic Debby and Phillip have seen that worked far better was a stitched-together montage of each member of a team introducing themselves. “It was made on the spur of the moment and it was far better for it,” Debby says. “It was authentic, and human.”

What will we see post-crisis?

Having spoken to CEOs at the start of the pandemic who were worried about the lack of an office environment, Debby and Phillip have now seen a shift as business leaders realise that they could also stand to save huge amounts on renting large corporate spaces.

The cofounders also suspect that presenteeism in offices might be disguising how much work is actually done during the day. Remote work, on the other hand, emphasises how much is really delivered in that time.

On top of that, there could be a huge benefit in allowing businesses to hire the best talent from a wider field when not limited by geography. Local talent might be encouraged to stay, rather than fleeing to big cities – central offices could well become a base that is used for occasional meetings in person, rather than the everyday norm.

One of the most profound changes that the Peopley cofounders expect to see is an exodus of people from businesses that fail to care for their remote employees, or who do not build the tools for a successful remote culture. Communication is key in this regard, they say, and the role of managers will increasingly be supportive.

Yet despite the reliance on technology for the hiring systems to come, the Peopley founders firmly believe that it must be used well. “Technology has been used to make life easier for the hiring manager by just crunching more data,” Phillip says. “People will use technology to make things faster and save money rather than making things better.”

Some tools are appealingly innovative, but might not be the best solution, they say. “AI and a misuse of data, a misuse of tools like facial recognition – even ones which supposedly detect whether a candidate is lying – can be biased and won’t help the hiring process,” Phillip says. “Businesses must look objectively at their systems to make sure they’re making the system better, not worse.”

“Hiring managers who fail to adapt will increase the risk of a failed hire more than four-fold,” Debby says. “SMEs have the ability to adapt. As an SME the more human your interview process – the more you can differentiate and get incredible results.”

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