It is hard to find a workplace in any industry that is operating the same way today as it was when the calendar turned from February to March.
Covid-19 – and the social-distancing guidelines that are likely to affect all of us for many weeks to come – have turned the vast majority of us who are not working on the front lines of the crisis into virtual workers.
For foundations, it’s fortunate that technology facilitates continued work, though the adjustment to a virtual world has come at a time of incredible stress and uncertainty. Not only are many foundations mobilizing and granting money to help those impacted by Covid-19, they’re also attempting to make sense of what this crisis will mean to their finances, work, and work cultures.
As a result, a number of regular activities – such as hiring new employees – have come to all but a standstill in many organizations.
For some, the decision to pause or even suspend searches is purely economic, since the disruptions to the normal flow of business and the steep drop in the stock market are causing extreme uncertainty.
For others — particularly those who are searching to fill key executive-level positions— the pause has also been practical. It’s difficult to find time to move ahead with interviews and reference checks when you’re in the midst of a crisis.
That doesn’t even account for the fact that there’s a reticence to abandon traditional ideas about hiring – namely that you need to be able to meet candidates in person, look them in the eye, and shake their hands. Most hiring processes center on one or more formal, in-person interviews. If you even mention removing those meetings from the hiring process, both those doing the hiring and those being hired become uncomfortable – as challenging orthodoxies often does.
However, as someone who has helped identify and evaluate thousands of candidates over the years, I’d like to propose a somewhat radical idea: in-person interviews are an overrated and sometimes unnecessary part of the process.
Yes, meeting in person can be helpful for both parties to build trust as they enter into an important new relationship. And during normal times, when the option is on the table, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t meet face-to-face.
But in a world where we’re already learning how to work and communicate with our coworkers full-time over virtual platforms like Zoom and FaceTime, is it absolutely critical to meet in person?
Even before Covid-19, some were questioning whether we overrate what we learn from in-person interviews. In fact, organizational psychologist Adam Grant, the author of “Originals” and host of the “WorkLife” podcast, notes that we tend to rely too heavily on our evaluation of others’ in-person expressions, we’re often wrong in our perceptions.
Further, when the economic dust settles, it’s not unreasonable to believe that foundations will rely less on regular office presence. They may well adopt more liberal work-from-home policies.
The benefits are clear – less time and stress spent on commuting, curbing the strain on our environment, less money spent on office space, and more time with our families. And now that we’ve seen that we can still be productive in virtual environments, the barriers to making such a move are being removed – especially for foundations and nonprofits that could direct the resulting financial savings to help advance their missions.
If virtual communications, in turn, become a critical component of our new environment, hiring processes that emphasize virtual interviews could quickly become just as valuable to gauging a future employee’s ability to communicate and build trust as in-person meetings.
So what does this all mean for organizations that have paused their searches?
If you have the means and capacity, it might be time to adjust your plans and move ahead with a virtual process. Even if you don’t want to make a final decision until you can find a way to meet in person, you can make considerable progress using virtual tools – and you’ll be able to assess how your top candidates communicate and build trust in an environment that is likely here to stay for a while.
As a firm that does national searches, we’ve long relied on using phone interviews and videoconferencing as tools to help us screen candidates throughout the search process and have found that, without exception, what we learn during these virtual meetings is validated when we have a chance to meet candidates in person.
Simply put, if a person comes off as genuine and capable on Zoom, he or she does the same when sitting in a conference room with a hiring committee.
Even before the pandemic, we have conducted successful executive searches that are almost 100 percent virtual.
Last year, for example, our firm recruited and placed an executive director for a nonprofit that operates virtually with staff and prominent board members scattered across the country.
The process was similar to what you might expect had we conducted interviews in person. We set up an action plan and worked with the search committee through conference calls and video conferences. We interviewed candidates initially by phone and later through videoconferences with the search committee.
After multiple interviews and conversations, the search committee was quite comfortable selecting their finalist. And because everyone involved in the search was geographically dispersed, the two board members who were closest geographically to the candidate met with her in person as a final step. This required other members of the search committee and board members who were not present to trust their peers.
The meeting went well, references were contacted, and an offer was made and accepted. Today, I’m proud to report that the executive director has earned rave reviews from the board for her leadership – and for the impact she is having on the field.
At the same time, we must recognize virtual hiring does pose some challenges – especially if a candidate is hired and has to begin a new role with new colleagues without the benefit of being able to get to know them in person. This is fundamentally about trust.
Building trust is critical during anyone’s first days in a new role – and without physical proximity, we have to adapt some of our practices in order to build and maintain trust. Namely, we must communicate more regularly and proactively – and we must be more empathic to our peers.
Both of those traits – proactive communication and empathy – are key to success in any workplace, whether in-person or virtual.
It’s worth noting that it also helps to make time for impromptu conversations – the type that are common when you can pop into a colleague’s office or chat by the proverbial water cooler. There’s real value in picking up the phone to brainstorm with a coworker or planning a virtual happy hour or coffee break from time to time just to chat.
Ultimately, though, the quality of a person’s work is what builds long-term trust among colleagues. If you deliver on what you say you’re going to do – and the quality of what you deliver is high – you build the support of your colleagues and team over time.
This is true whether you work in adjoining offices or if you’re only checking in with each other via email and videoconference.
It’s difficult to envision a work world that isn’t altered dramatically by Covid-19 for months and years to come. Perhaps it’s time to start envisioning a new way to recruit and hire, as well.