Hiring in a Remote First World

June 3rd, 2020

Click here to read the original article published by Software Development Times.

After over two months of lockdowns due to the novel coronavirus, many states have started or are about to start the process of reopening. While some things will be opening up, many companies, especially those in the tech industry where remote work can be easily achieved, will continue to keep their employees out of the office.

A recent Bitglass report indicated widespread support for continued remote work. They found that 84% of survey respondents would continue to support remote work even after stay-at-home orders are lifted.

The coronavirus has also resulted in a significant number of layoffs and unprecedented numbers of unemployment in the United States, with the U.S. Department of Labor reporting that the unemployment rate hit 14.7% as of April. Still, there are a lucky few companies who are looking to bring on more employees, and they will need to navigate changes to the onboarding process. And as the economy recovers, companies might need to rehire for roles that had been eliminated. Likewise, there are a number of considerations for those looking for new positions as well.

Traditionally, most interviews for technical roles consist of multiple stages. First there is a phone screen, which may include some technical questions. That likely will remain the same, as it was already done remotely. Then, there is the traditional behavioral interview that everyone goes through, often conducted by someone from HR.

“In thinking through the differences, hiring in-person carries the benefit of being in the same room as the candidate, allowing you to interpret physical cues, get that ‘gut’ feeling about someone, and determine a cultural fit based on their behavior and interactions. On the flip side, candidates can see how the company presents itself and operates on any particular day,” said  Ken Schnee, general manager of the Media, Entertainment, and Hospitality group at New York-headquartered background screening and identity services company Sterling.

According to Schnee, hiring managers traditionally would say: “I would never hire someone without meeting them face-to-face.” This had been changing due to the rise of the gig economy, digital nomads, and remote workers, and the COVID-19 crisis has been another tipping point, Schnee explained.

“In addition, improvements in technology have conditioned the hiring process to become streamlined such that most of the elements of the in-person experience are now covered. Hiring managers can conduct interviews via online video tools and engage candidates with their teams to drive cultural interaction,” said Schnee.

The next stage of the interview process for a technical role would probably be a technical interview, or whiteboard interview, where candidates are given a problem to solve on the spot. With remote interviews, a whiteboard interview isn’t possible on a physical whiteboard. Online coding challenges are another approach to the technical interview that had been gaining popularity even before the forced switch to remote work.

Matt Mead, CTO of consulting group SPR, believes companies will turn to standardized tests to supplement remote interviews. He noted that for a while, fewer than 50% of companies he worked with utilized such tests, though there had been spikes in popularity every so often over the years. He predicts they will now be used as a failsafe if things like whiteboard interviews can’t be conducted.

As soon as it is safe to meet in person, Mead wouldn’t be surprised if face-to-face meetings continue, even for fully remote positions. This will especially be true for candidates that are local to the area the position is located in. Employers will want to meet with prospective employees face-to-face to get a sense of their interpersonal skills.

New methods of identity verification

Another one of the considerations for online interviews is identity verification. Schnee recommends identity verification be done early in the process, on top of background checks to ensure trust and safety for their employees, customers, community, and brand.

According to Schnee, it is possible to do identity verification remotely by leveraging mobile phones and AI. For example, candidates can take a photo of their government-issued ID along with a selfie. Then, machine learning can be used to validate their documentation and match the individual in the photo with their photo ID.

“We employ mobile phones, secure data connections, smart web applications, artificial intelligence, machine learning, optical character recognition, and rich databases of known good identity document patterns to enable rapid remote identity verification that is highly accurate and reliable. Many of these services are available now to companies who conduct hiring and onboarding remotely,” said Schnee.

On-site perks for attracting talent won’t translate to remote perks

If remote work persists long-term, it will likely change the way companies attract talent. Top tech companies often set themselves apart with special perks, like on-site fitness facilities, catered meals, or gaming consoles in the office, to name a few. While the main goal of perks is to keep employers in the office for longer hours, prospective employees might also consider them when choosing between roles.

“I think the problem is when you take these perks and you try and extrapolate them in a virtual way and I can do them on my own in my own home, I don’t think the employer benefits remain,” said Mead. As a result, those types of perks are likely to fade, though some, such as those related to health, and in particular mental health, may remain. “While I’m not a mental health expert, I can see with COVID and the anxiety and the stress it’s creating that we can see some perks in the area of mental well-being,” he said.

Mead believes that the new way to attract and retain talent is to connect with their passions. For example, younger developers are often interested in working for a company that they perceive to be doing good for the community and the world. “They will trade salary for this greater good. So I think making sure that organizations have identified, have documented, and are projecting the way that they create greater good in the economy and within the world is a way — rather than these perks that were geared towards on site — of attracting and maintaining talent,” said Mead.

He also added that talent attracts talent. For years companies have tried to utilize their own employees’ professional networks to attract talent, through the use of employee referral programs.

“Perks were nothing other than a way to attract and retain talent and I think those perks, honestly I don’t think they really work in this new remote work, and certainly not as well,” said Mead. “And so we’re going to have to look for other ways to differentiate. And I think they’re harder. I think it’s harder to do some of these examples that I’m throwing out than it is to bring in food for an office or set up some way to provide physical health for the employees.”

Advice for job hunters

While job seekers can’t utilize conferences to network currently, there are a number of ways they can set themselves apart from the competition.

Mead recommends they demonstrate their involvement in the IT community somehow. Applicants should be staying up to date on the latest technologies, in whatever way works best for them. “I think a red flag has always been and will always be a technologist or someone in IT that’s not keeping up with new technologies or has no familiarity, has done nothing to prepare themselves,” said Mead. “Even if their current job doesn’t require them to use aspects of the cloud, if they’ve taken no steps whatsoever to educate themselves on the cloud, to me that would be a bit of a red flag.”

In terms of the interview itself, applicants should also show they’re capable of using remote collaboration software by putting their best foot forward in an online interview. This means not only making sure that audio and video actually work, but ensuring that the lighting looks good, the camera looks good, and that there is no echo.

“I think in any interview, whether virtual or not, we assume that the candidate is putting their best foot forward, so if a candidate is unable to use virtual technologies to communicate, if they’re unable to communicate through the camera and express things in a coherent way, if you can’t do that through the camera and through a virtual environment during an interview, then I’m not going to assume as an interviewer that you’re going to be able to do that once I hire you and you’re part of a team,” said Mead.

What happens to the tech hubs?

The tech industry is heavily located in Silicon Valley and New York City, but if everyone is working remotely, will those tech hubs be eliminated?  Louis Cornejo, managing broker and president at Urban Group Real Estate, a San Francisco-based commercial realtor, doesn’t think so.

Cornejo finds it hard to believe that the collaborative nature of tech can be recreated virtually. He believes that eventually companies will want to get back to the office. Currently, Urban Group Real Estate isn’t seeing San Francisco-based companies wanting to downsize or not renew their leases.

This might not be the case for much longer as large tech giants embrace the work-from-home model. Earlier this month Twitter announced that its employees can work from home permanently. Immediately after Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s announcement, Mark Zuckerberg also made the announcement that Facebook employees can do the same. Google employees can work from home for the rest of the year, and Amazon and Microsoft employees through at least October, CNET reported.

If remote work continues long-term, and living in San Francisco or New York is no longer a prerequisite for a high-paying tech job, it could open up the tech industry to a much wider talent pool. In the immediate future, this could mean people from lower salary markets having the potential to significantly increase salaries by finding high-paying remote jobs in those higher cost-of-living markets, Mead explained. Mead does believe, however, that over time the markets will begin to fix themselves and that might not be the case anymore. For example, already Facebook has language in their remote work policy that implies salary adjustments if an employee is moving to a lower cost area, the Washington Post reported.

“While I do expect that employees will gradually begin returning to physical work locations as the world recovers from the COVID-19 crisis, we have also witnessed many companies creating policies that allow their employees to work remotely,” said Schnee. “Some hiring will inevitably transition back to in-person due to the requirements of the role and company interest; however, virtual recruitment will have a steep increase. Prior to the coronavirus, remote hiring had already started to grow. Our experiences during this crisis, combined with technology improvements, have increased comfort levels around hiring and placing someone remotely.”

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