New Recruiting Strategies for a Post-Covid World

CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

Remember when companies would tout the perks of being in the office? It became a stereotype for tech startups to show off their catered lunches, their onsite yoga instructors, and their ultra cool workspaces. Those are not such big selling points anymore. Lately, more people want to work from anywhere. It’s just one of many ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed recruiting and hiring.

To better understand these forces the advisory firm Gartner recently surveyed 3,000 job candidates, and more than 3,500 hiring managers. The research details some of these hiring trends, and it points to some new ways that company leaders can more effectively shape their workforces, whether those employees will be remote long term, or will eventually return to their workplaces.

Here to tell us more is Lauren Smith. She’s a vice president at Gartner in the human resources practice. Lauren, thanks for being here.

LAUREN SMITH: Thanks so much for having me.

CURT NICKISCH: I have to admit, I was surprised at what your research found, and that is that the pandemic hasn’t really disrupted recruiting and hiring as much as it has accelerated trends that were already there before. How is that the case?

LAUREN SMITH: Of course, as everyone has gone virtual overnight the recruiting process has also had to become virtual. The big shifts that we’re seeing have been accelerated by the realities of the pandemic. Pre-pandemic we asked 3,500 hiring managers about their last hire, and they said that only 29% of them were highly prepared with the skills needed to do their current role, let alone that role as it evolves into the future. It wasn’t a surprise for us as we got into this research that heads of recruiting, HR leaders, and business leaders were already started to think that their current processes were not fit for purpose.

CURT NICKISCH: So then, along comes the pandemic on top of that, and what shifts are happening there?

LAUREN SMITH: There’s been three big shifts that have been accelerated by the realities of the pandemic, but definitely began before it. The first is the evolution of skills. The pace at which we work is changing making it challenging for us to accurately define jobs. Now, of course we’ve seen skills evolving pre-pandemic, but the reality is that this is now even more universal as organizations have had to shift virtual, or even those organizations that are still onsite requiring social distancing and new types of automation.

The second big shift is there’s a dispersion of skills beyond traditional talent pools, meaning that where we have found talent in the past isn’t necessarily the best place to find it in the future. And the third is new candidate expectations. Candidate expectations for work, for jobs, requiring organizations to rethink how they’re branding jobs, and how they sell them in the labor market.

CURT NICKISCH: Let’s start with that second one if we can. I want to talk about each of these, but you can work remotely, and if you worked for an employer before who didn’t look fondly on that things have definitely changed.

LAUREN SMITH: It has. One of the biggest reasons that our traditional approach of hiring in the known talent pools, the places where we’ve got in talent before that have been really successful, is that normalization of remote work. The move to remote work means that organizations are no longer tied to sourcing candidates based on their proximity to their office, or their headquarters, and this opens up talent pools in a way that’s game changing for organizations.

We no longer need to source around us, but we can source around where talent is. We’re no longer asking where are the best candidates in Washington DC, but where are the best candidates with XYZ skills, and of course this changes the calculation for candidates too as they’re looking for jobs no longer close to their house, but really anywhere that their skills match.

CURT NICKISCH: What have you heard from hiring managers, those 3,500 or so that you talk to, how are they experiencing this?

LAUREN SMITH: Absolutely. There was a lot of skepticism going into the pandemic, especially for those that have not had direct reports that may be virtual or remote before. Will they be as productive? Can we collaborate virtually? And as we’ve studied hiring managers reactions there’s actually been a fair amount of surprise that it’s actually gotten a lot better than they anticipated. Partially, that’s because everyone is in the same boat. Everyone has had to move to virtual, but the ability for individuals to actually get their work done is a lot better than anticipated.

Specific to recruiting, the ability to look beyond those traditional talent pools, to look at where the best talent is, again not just the talent that’s closest to an office, enables hiring managers to take a much broader view into what type of talent they would like, not just what talent is available. And recruiters and HR Leaders who are able to bring in that labor market expertise to say if you’re looking for someone with this technical skill you’re going to find it more likely in this area, and that’s no longer a limitation has really been game changing for both hiring managers and organizations alike.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s so interesting. We’ve always thought about people coming into a job, and it’s like what area do they sit with? What team do they sit with? Who do they work with? And even just the physical chair that someone occupies in some way frames how organizations think about what that person should or shouldn’t be doing. And when you’re working remotely, organizations are kind of liberated from that.

LAUREN SMITH: Absolutely. And it comes down to that first shift that I mentioned around the evolution of skills because so much of what hiring mangers traditionally do is look backward to the individual who may have had that job in the past. Where did we hire them? What did they do? And create a job description, which is I would like Jane, or Joe, plus those three other qualifications, making it very challenging for recruiters to look for the so-called purple unicorn out there.

The realities of remote work and the evolution of skills means that hiring managers can now stop thinking about who they would like to hire, but instead what is the work they need done, and this shift from looking at openings as an opportunity to hire, instead thinking about it as an opportunity to make a skills decision, is really liberating in terms of how hiring managers can think about both the openings on their team right now, and as more openings evolve post-pandemic.

CURT NICKISCH: Do you have a good example of an organization implementing that, or thinking that way, and how it worked out for them?

LAUREN SMITH: One of the organizations that we’ve spoke with had a very interesting activity. Every single time there was an opening of a critical role instead of just going through the traditional requisition process where you may ask a hiring managers about who they want to hire they instead made it a team activity recognizing that the team will be more in touch with the actual nature of the work that needs to get done, so when an opening was available they asked the team to come together and take it through an exercise to define the role, not what is needed in the past, but what’s actually needed moving forward.

Not only did the team have a better understanding of the job as it was evolving on a daily basis, and what was actually needed in terms of the interaction onsite, or not, they were actually able to identify major parts of the job description that were outdated, so not only were they able to define a role in a much different way than they would have if the hiring manager just dusted off an old job description, and a recruiter went out to the labor market, it was also a very highly engaging activity for the team, and something they’re now scaling across the whole organization.

CURT NICKISCH: Hiring managers can’t rely on in-person interviews in a lot of cases for this. What are some good replacements for that traditional approach?

LAUREN SMITH: As we all moved virtual the ability to have the traditional in-person interview where both the candidate can get a good sense of the office, but the hiring manager can meet someone in person has really disrupted the natural way we do interviews. As organizations have moved to more of a virtual interviewing process it’s really important to make sure that there’s a solid understanding of what good looks like. What are the skills that are required for this job? What are the experiences that a good candidate would have, or outcomes that they have achieved in previous roles?

Making sure that the interview process is founded on those, whether that’s virtual or in person is incredibly critical. In addition, hiring managers need to make sure that they’re being authentic in terms of communicating to the candidate about the current state of the office, the workplace, the culture, how it’s evolving. These are the types of conversations candidates today want to have. They want to understand what decisions have been made when it comes to hiring freezes, or during the pandemic where benefits or compensation effected. And hiring managers need to be able to have those answers, and where they don’t be authentic that some decisions are still being made.

CURT NICKISCH: Let’s talk about the third trend that your research uncovered, and that is that candidates are increasingly selective about whom they work for. I think just how the pandemic has changed the labor market, and the power dynamics, and hiring, and getting hired is really interesting. What did you see there?

LAUREN SMITH: Candidates increasingly expect companies to offer them not only competitive compensation and benefits, but also a compelling employee experience, and that was happening of course pre-pandemic. As people have gotten used to designing their own work experience, fitting their job into their life, candidates are just less likely to want to give up this new autonomy even if they do eventually return to an in-person work environment.

And so, we’re increasingly hearing from organizations that to attract top candidates today they need to offer a more humanized deal focusing on candidates as people, not just workers, and talking to them about how working for their organization can improve their life, not just employee experience.

CURT NICKISCH: The way you describe it there it sounds like the hiring process is almost like a buyers’ market where the people who are being recruited have more power in that relationship. At the same time, there’s very steep unemployment in a lot of places that have been affected by the pandemic where you would think that organizations would have the upper hand in that dynamic. It’s a little counterintuitive and I wondered if you could maybe spell out what’s happening.

LAUREN SMITH: Sure. The labor market right now, as you mentioned, is highly variable. For some industries demand has never been higher, especially those that are associated with healthcare, whereas others in hospitality and retail have not been hiring as much as they traditionally have. The reality today is as we want to emerge as an employer of choice for top talent irrespective of our industry we really need to make sure that we’re positioning ourselves in our jobs to be attractive moving forward, and this means that candidates will increasingly expect to influence the design of their jobs.

LAUREN SMITH: Now, of course, that doesn’t mean you just give candidates everything they want, but you do need to understand where they’re coming from to make sure that you’re not losing candidates and talent to the competitors.

CURT NICKISCH: In your research you said that companies need to quote “Employment value proposition.”

LAUREN SMITH: That’s right. That’s right. An employment value proposition is what are the attributes that we offer as an organization that’s going to be most attractive to candidates today. And we know that candidates today expect flexibility. They expect a feeling of autonomy. Now, of course depending on the job that’s going to look very different. For some roles with knowledge work this may mean enabling candidates to continue to design their work around life.

LAUREN SMITH: For others, where flexibility may look a little bit different you still need to think about how are you going to enable candidates, or employees, to have the flexibility to fit their work in life. Scheduling flexibility is a great way. We’ve seen a lot of organizations think about this for hourly employees for instance.

CURT NICKISCH: You’ve talked about autonomy, that that is something that workers now have experienced and don’t want to give back. What else are employers seeing that is something they need to build into that employment value proposition you’re talking about?

LAUREN SMITH: One of the other big trends is what we’ve come to think of as deeper connections. Understanding not just employees, but also their employees’ families and community. Increasingly, the realities of the pandemic mean that employers are working from home often with small children or their family obligations, and the reality is that organizations need to continue to understand not just what does their employee want, but what do the people around the employee need.

And we’ve seen organizations think about this in a couple of ways, whether it be opening up development opportunities to an employee’s family, or providing specific benefits specific for parents with children. As organizations have done this as a result of the pandemic it’s going to be very challenging to unwind and think of employees more as workers and less as people, so that’s going to be another piece that’s going to say post-pandemic.

CURT NICKISCH: Your research pointed out that a lot of workers have taken the opportunity with their autonomy, and with their ability to time shift their work to do a lot of professional development on their own, and that employers need to be aware of that.

LAUREN SMITH: That’s right. Of course, people were acquiring skills pre-pandemic. In fact, in a survey that we ran before the pandemic we found that 43% of candidates say they were self-taught in one or more of the required skills for their job, so we know this has been happening for a while, but this has been accelerated by the realities of the past year. There’s been a boom in online learning as employees are looking to try things out beyond their current role, or position themselves to be more marketable coming out of uncertainty.

It’s really important for organizations to recognize that all of the skills development and acquisition is happening, and as they’re trying to understand the realities of their own internal labor market think about asking their employees about the skills that they have today as well as some of the skills they’re hoping to build, or that they’re working on.

CURT NICKISCH: And at the same time, they need to be beefing up their ability to recruit talent outside of their traditional talent pools. What are some of the ways that companies are successfully doing that?

LAUREN SMITH:  One of the biggest reasons that there’s a lot of momentum, even pre-pandemic, around looking beyond traditional talent pools is all organizations today are focused on advancing the diversity of their workforce, so to go beyond those traditional talent pools it’s really important first to make sure they were auditing the current hiring process to identify where diverse candidates may be being excluded. This can be done by looking at data of recent candidates, going through the process, or creating journey maps of different candidate profiles to understand where they may be challenges.

For example, when speaking with a head of recruiting a couple weeks ago they mentioned that internal talent is being excluded at pre-application because they weren’t even aware of opportunities existing. We’ve also seen examples of self-taught talent being excluded in screening because of educational requirements listed on a job description, or diverse talent segments being excluded given the nature of our more traditional face-to-face interviewing processes.

Really understanding where we are at is most important because just looking for talent in nontraditional talent pools and putting them into our existing process is not going to get the outcomes we want. For example, one of the hiring managers that we spoke with had a really interesting approach to make sure that they were looking at candidate potential over candidate credentials. Sometimes we get confused associating credentials, or qualifications, with being a great candidate, but instead they looked at what are the skills that we need to make sure that a candidate can grow with us over time. They landed on things like curiosity, agility, teamwork, and really made sure that as they were looking at candidates from a variety of sources they were focused on evaluating against those things, not whether they had specific industry experience, or went to one of the six schools that they were traditionally recruiting from.

CURT NICKISCH: What you’re outlining makes a lot of sense. It also sounds hard, especially when companies are doing it in a new way, and HR and hiring managers haven’t always been in sync at companies even in the past. HR’s often seen as a siloed part of the organization.

LAUREN SMITH: Absolutely. One of the things that was most interesting as part of this research is we focused a lot of effort on what hiring managers need to do. Now, of course, hiring managers are going at things with their very best efforts, and recruiting and HR leaders need to recognize that we’re all on the same team here. We’re all about how do we bring in the best talent that can move our organizations forward.

And by focusing again on the skills that we need to build the workforce of the future, not just replace the workforce we had, that’s been one of the differentiators to make sure that we’re not in the weeds around a specific job description, or a candidate that a hiring manager wants to hire because they went to a similar university. Continuing to bring the conversation back to, what do we need as an organization? How are we going to partner together to bring those skills in?

I always say that HR shouldn’t think of hiring as an HR activity, as a business mandate. If we think about managers role around talent, not just about developing, and coaching talent, but also their role in hiring, how do we together bring in the next generation workforce that’s going to make a big difference? This posture alone makes a big difference as you think about bringing hiring managers and HR together.

CURT NICKISCH: If you’re a hiring manager what are a few things you can do the next time you look to hire somebody to really have impact? I’m just wondering if there’s a question you can be asking today that might not have just been a common question in the past, but gets to these changes.

LAUREN SMITH: The most important thing to do is to not just dust off the old job description when someone leaves your team. The first thing to do whenever there’s an opening is to pull out a piece of paper, or type on your laptop, what are the emerging, evolving, and expiring skills that I need for this role. Emerging may be new things that as the business is changing, or the nature of the team, that you’re going to need this individual to do.

Expiring are those skills that maybe the last person had that are not as important anymore. And evolving is probably the most important piece. As we’ve all moved to virtual work we can all think about examples of this. I’ve recently had to onboard a new team member virtually, even though I’ve onboarded someone many, many times the realities of what that looks like is very different.

And if a hiring manager is able to again map out emerging, expiring, evolving skills and bring that into a conversation with the recruiter it’s going to position us on much better footing in terms of what we’re looking for, not who we’re looking for.

CURT NICKISCH: And now, let’s say for somebody who’s applying for a job what’s something you should be asking yourself that might not have been part of the advice you would’ve gotten a year or two ago?

LAUREN SMITH: One of the questions that we’re hearing from candidates that they are asking now that they never would have before is a really direct question around what happened in the first few months of the pandemic at the organization? What did the organization do in terms of stopping hiring, or changing the nature of work? What are the safety precautions they’re taking for those that are onsite?

It’s very important that organizations are prepared for these questions, especially as they relate to what the path forward is. When am I going to have to return to the office? What is it going to be like when I’m there? Many organizations don’t have answers to those questions, and that is totally fine, but hiring managers need to be prepared that those questions are going to be coming, and they need to be able to articulate what is the decisions, who is going to make it, and what’s the timeline for it.

CURT NICKISCH: Lauren, thanks so much for coming on the show to talk about your research, and what we can learn from it, whether we’re doing the hiring, or being hired.

LAUREN SMITH: Thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Lauren Smith. She’s a vice president in Gartner’s HR practice. You can read more about this topic in the article “Reengineering the Recruitment Process”. It’s in the March-April 2021 issue of Harvard Business Review, and at

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.

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