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How COVID-19 is going to reshape hiring forever and that’s a good thing

BY Barbara Hyman

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COVID-19 has forced a lot of us to become remote workers by default, but more and more companies are now declaring it is likely to become their new norm, with little understanding of what successful remote teams look like. To be frank, a lot of us are doing it wrong.

Zoom exhaustion is a thing. The reality of working from home for many of us has become long days trying to get small tasks done between back-to-back video calls.

Organisations like Automattic, GitLab, InVision and Buffer, made the choice to operate fully remotely a long time ago and have a lot to teach us. The founder and CEO of Automattic, Matt Mullenweg, a company with over 1000 remote workers spread across 75 countries, chose remote as the working norm for two key reasons: to access a broader pool of talent, and to unleash productivity.

Mullenweg is the poster boy for remote team advocates and has put a lot of thought into what makes it successful. He describes five levels of remote work maturity. Most companies now forced into WFH are at Level 1 – we have just moved our way of doing things to a different location and are following the same daily routines that we always have.

Mullenwag describes Level 5 as the ‘nirvana’ for remote work where your distributed team works better than any in-person team ever could. He says his company is not even there yet.

 So, what are we all doing wrong?

We have missed one of the drivers of remote work productivity gains which is asynchronous work- which needs asynchronous communication. This simply means that work doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone. Productivity and flexibility for employees come when we don’t all have to get in a room, virtual or otherwise to do our work. That means communicating in writing, not by video.

Forcing people to do video meetings also risks continuing to drown out team members who don’t thrive in a live group setting. The introverts. The deep quiet thinkers. The ones who prefer to reflect on an issue and not be forced into making a contribution because everyone else is on Zoom right now. Again, written communication solves for this.

It’s quite simple, if you want a fully functioning remote team written communication is the way you have to do things. It has to be the way you define a business problem, debate the key issues, and fast track from idea to execution. Jeff Bezos cottoned on to this years ago. Amazon requires every meeting to be guided by a six-page memo laying out all the key issues. Everyone, regardless of their title, has to read every word. Bezos turned written narrative into a competitive advantage, recognising that writing clearly requires clear thinking. Effective written communication is a foundational building block of a successful remote workforce. GitLab, another fully remote organization with over 1000 employees across the world highlights this fact in their Remote Work Playbook (see page 19).

But here is the clincher, this ‘new productivity hack’, how you write, whether via text, Slack, Wiki or on Google docs also impacts your hiring processes, because at what point do any of us test for written communication skills when hiring? If you want to hire people who can work autonomously, be productive and who can collaborate you need to test their text communication, requiring a radically different approach to talent acquisition.

Mullenweg worked that out early in Automattic’s remote working journey and all their job interviews are via text. The other obvious benefit of this approach is it means there is far less room for bias. In contrast, put someone in front of a camera for a video interview and the bias risk is amplified. Hiring going forward has to test for written communication. This is not something you can ignore anymore.

If you speak to C-suite about why it’s taken so long to permit remote work, the word trust will come up a lot. Bottom line, managers don’t trust that people will actually work when at home, creating instead an unproductive culture of ‘presenteeism’. To manage the risk of hiring ‘slackers’, the other thing you have to test for is motivation, which now becomes super critical in your hiring process.

Other personality traits that relate to good remote workers include discipline. As Mullenweg says, the underlying culture of a remote workforce is not only built on top of trust but on discipline “Trust emerges as the glue that holds the entire operation together. You begin shifting to better — perhaps slower, but more deliberate — decision-making, and you empower everyone, not just the loudest or most extroverted, to weigh in on major conversations.”

The advantage here is that we stop Big ‘P’ personality-based hiring. We have all made those hiring mistakes – being seduced by the person who tells a good story, can articulate well, has “personality’. In a remote work environment, of asynchronous work, by having a group of people self-motivated to do the work, the big talkers and non-doers quickly get discovered, and results become far more visible to everyone.

What may not be known to many people, is that testing for all of this – written fluency, clarity of thought, motivation, discipline, can all be done via text analysis in the hiring process. Testing should not be just limited to the skill of writing, but also to the motivation behind expressing something in writing, which requires more effort and thinking than speaking it out. If someone is not motivated to express themselves in writing when a job is on the line, you can assume what it might be like once they are working in a role.

The power of Natural Language Processing (NLP) based machine learning models that can tell you all of this immediately is here today. From just 300 words, we can infer writing skills, personality traits, job hopping motives etc which really means there is no excuse for not hiring for the key skills required for remote work right now.

Noam Chomsky, a pioneer of language studies said it best …

“Language is a mirror of mind in a deep and significant sense. It is a product of human intelligence … By studying the properties of natural languages, their structure, organization, and use, we may hope to learn something about human nature; something significant, …” (Noam Chomsky, Reflections on Language, 1975)

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