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How coronavirus has driven innovation in recruitment

This article was published in People Management

While almost a quarter of UK jobs were placed on furlough under the government’s job retention scheme, there has been a hive of recruitment activity happening elsewhere throughout the coronavirus crisis. Charter flights of Romanian workers were laid on to help farmers plug a shortfall in fruit pickers. Airline staff were redeployed to special new coronavirus hospitals or within other sectors (one Ryanair pilot temporarily switched vocations to become a Tesco delivery driver). And retired NHS and police officers were drafted in to help the country cope with the impact of the pandemic.  

The Recruitment & Employment Confederation reported permanent vacancies fell at their sharpest rate on record in April, but a number of sectors bucked the trend. Employer review and job site Glassdoor even introduced a ‘hiring surge’ badge so companies could highlight the fact their doors were still open. “While job openings have dramatically fallen since the start of the outbreak, companies are still hiring, albeit a lot less than before,” says Glassdoor careers expert Jo Cresswell. “Supermarkets are clearly bucking the trend by significantly ramping up recruitment, with roles from shop floor assistants through to warehouse workers and delivery drivers.” Other sectors hiring during the crisis include technology, banking, healthcare, pharmaceuticals and logistics.  

Those organisations continuing to recruit have faced a number of logistical challenges, however. Strict social distancing rules make it difficult to interview in person, HR departments are operating remotely so need to coordinate hiring programmes without the benefit of being physically together as a team, and processes such as right to work document checks have had to happen over video. Figures from analyst firm Gartner show 86 per cent of businesses have been conducting virtual interviews during the pandemic, and 85 per cent are using new technology to onboard employees.  

Care home provider Sunrise Senior Living UK and Gracewell Healthcare has had to ramp up the hiring process to fill more than 1,000 roles in recent weeks, according to HR director Sharon Benson. As well as recruiting for nurses, carers, chefs and housekeeping assistants, the organisation has had to ensure generous staff cover at all times in case employees need to self-isolate. 

In terms of the hiring process, there has been an initial screening via telephone followed by a virtual video interview on Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Onboarding has simply moved online, Benson explains: “We have fully adapted our induction programme by introducing a virtual classroom day, delivered by our experienced and knowledgeable training officers. This must be completed before any new team members step into one of our care homes.” Videos are used to show how certain activities should be carried out in practice, and employees can also access additional e-learning modules. A further step is a detailed risk assessment to find out whether candidates have had to self-isolate previously, and whether they have come into contact with anyone who has tested positive. 

Poultry supplier Moy Park also saw a surge in demand for its products, resulting in hundreds of new temporary vacancies. More than 500 people have started in technical and operational roles since it launched a recruitment campaign in March. “We have also retrained and redeployed people from other parts of the business, who have really risen to the challenge,” says recruitment manager Samantha Bucknell. As well as core production operative roles, Moy Park has had to hire more engineers, HR officers and technical staff, as well as keeping up with its industrial placement scheme for students. 

“We have adapted our team inductions to ensure social distancing – with measures including virtual ‘meet and greets’ with new starts and reducing the size of induction classes,” adds Bucknell. “We have also recently rolled out a ‘Buddy’ programme, whereby new recruits are partnered with [an existing staff member] to help them settle in and ensure they have the right level of training before entering the factory.”  

One key recruitment trend to emerge from the crisis has been increased collaboration across sectors and employers. Platforms such as People + Work Connect, developed by consultancy Accenture, connect thousands of people out of work because of the virus with companies that are hiring. James Reed, chairman of the Reed recruitment business, has also set up a ‘Keep Britain Working’ consortium of recruiters and business leaders to connect high job loss sectors and employers with vacancies. “Regardless of when the pandemic subsides, its impact on talent will be felt for some time, meaning it’s crucial businesses work together to help get people back into roles for the good of both their wellbeing and the economy as a whole,” says Eva Sage-Gavin, global lead for talent and organisation at Accenture.  

Indeed, many of those practices necessitated by coronavirus could stay for good. “During this period, we’ve really strengthened our processes and centralised some aspects of our recruitment activity, such as the initial telephone screening. This had led to double the conversion rates from application through to offer stage,” says Benson. “As part of our virtual interview process, we have built in some behavioural competencies, which we score and assess. These will definitely be included as part of our face-to-face interviews in the future.” 

Doing everything virtually has created an audit trail of data and everything has been documented more formally, she adds, which is an opportunity for the team to gain better insights into the candidate journey and make long-term improvements to each stage.  

Bucknell agrees the pandemic has helped to “innovate and rethink” elements of the recruitment process. “Incorporating video calling technology to allow for remote interviewing is something that will remain, at least for initial interviews. Similarly, our adapted induction programme has proved efficient, and we will continue with this alongside our Buddy programme in the long term,” she says. 

Nick Kirk, managing director of recruiter Michael Page in the UK and Ireland, agrees video interviewing has vastly accelerated time to hire. “In a typical recruitment process we might get a call, you’d have to tie up diaries to meet the client face to face, and then there’d be a long list, a short list, more diary coordination to meet with the shortlisted candidates…” he says. “Now we can arrange a Zoom call with the client straight after getting the brief, interview candidates and get them to ‘meet’ the employer over video all in one day. It compacts the whole process.”  

So there have been numerous positive learnings for recruitment professionals. But that isn’t to say a job market entirely altered and reshaped by the crisis won’t present a tough challenge going forwards. Kirk argues hiring trends will be dependent on how the country recovers. “We’ve learnt new terms like furlough, and that some recoveries are V-shaped or U-shaped. In markets where companies are gradually returning to work things are improving, but it’s very hard to know if every country will react like this,” he says. “Could employment face a ‘hand sanitiser’ moment when organisations suddenly look at bringing lots of people back in?” 

Retail specialist Mark Pilkington, author of Retail Therapy, says the retail hiring boom is likely to be temporary, with many people returning to their ‘normal’ lives with less to spend. But retailers that do survive may wish to create more enriching customer experiences to entice initially nervous shoppers back. And in turn roles will become “higher-level and higher-paid”, he says: “There will be a huge role for people in making sure stores survive, if retailers see this opportunity. Stores will be used to reflect the brand’s values and image, for recruitment and customer relations. They will pay people more to create that experience while making efficiencies in other areas, such as having less stock in store.”  

The constant barrage of figures detailing layoffs – temporary or otherwise – have made sobering reading over the last few weeks. But it’s encouraging to know that, in their rush to adapt to new restrictions, recruiters at those companies that are still hiring have risen innovatively to the challenge – and possibly won’t look back…  

How coronavirus has streamlined the way care workers are recruited in London – perhaps forever

There’s nothing like a crisis to focus the mind. And this was certainly the case for a team of local authority leaders, recruitment agencies, communications companies and inspection body Ofsted, which came together to respond to the urgent need for care workers in London.

Over a period of around two weeks, an existing recruitment portal was tweaked to deal with hundreds of new applications from across London boroughs. Agencies and recruitment advertising partners offered services on a pro bono basis and passed candidates on to the service. Even furloughed workers at hotel chain Marriott were directed to the portal.  

Registered candidates have a screening interview over the phone (at this stage many deselect as they find out more about the reality of the role). After that, the system manages the flow of DBS checks, references and training. The interview script for taking on carers was changed to ensure safety was a priority – anyone who was in a shielding household, for example, could not proceed. Document checks take place over video chat and those without previous care experience are able to access two days’ free online training from Care for Skills. Once the recruits are ready to go, their details are sent to the individual authorities to decide on deployment. Around 1,400 registrations came through the portal in the first two weeks. 

CEO of The HR Lounge Angela O’Connor, who joined one of the ‘Gold’ crisis response streams in April to lead the HR side of things, believes a lack of bureaucracy and the “getting your hands dirty approach” the team took should be taken into the post Covid-19 world. “It shows you can create an opportunity to bring people in without a long time to get them in post,” she says. “Each day we stripped it back to what was essential – no writing reports, no copying in people on emails unnecessarily. If we didn’t need it, we’d stand it down.”

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