Keep calm and trust the virtual process

Leap forward 10 years and imagine a conversation between two Gen Z colleagues discussing their future careers, “My Dad tells me that not so long ago, interviews were only held in person. That meant taking a day’s holiday, a long, expensive train journey and often an overnight stay. You met with the potential employer the next day for 45 minutes. That’s it. You then racked up more carbon emissions with the train back home”. To which his colleague replies, “Are you sure he’s not pulling your leg?”

Put like that, it makes you question whether it does makes sense. While we mustn’t devalue the importance of understanding a place, its people and its challenges, we should think more creatively of ways to assess this than by candidate simply turning up at the front door!

No-one could foresee how abruptly the current Coronavirus pandemic would accelerate a more sophisticated approach. In the months ahead, our public services will be stretched and challenged to the limit, whether that’s coping with healthcare needs, frontline delivery or just aiming to provide continuity and reassurance to communities. There’s no doubt that leadership will be under greater scrutiny and will need to step into the spotlight to visibly lead their organisations. So, how do you balance the restrictions of the traditional recruitment process with the urgency to continue to build effective, resilient leadership teams?

For some time, colleagues in GS have been comfortably using video conferencing to conduct Preliminary Interviews. We have invested heavily in technology to overcome the most common problems of poor connectivity and quality that might lead to less fluid, interactive conversations and hinder perceptions in an interview.

Our success in adopting this approach, particularly at Preliminary interview stage, recognises that very senior candidates are often applying for more geographically dispersed positions. They are willing to relocate if offered the position, but in the meantime, they have their current job or other duties keeping them busy and an entire day travelling does not offer the best return for our public services.

But what about the final stage of a process? Can a virtual interview really work then? We are pleased to report that several of our final interviews have progressed virtually in the last few weeks with appointments made. While some of the hesitance to this approach is rational, the main barrier tends to be more psychological.

The most common stumbling block will be the perception that technology takes over and obstructs the human interaction – “I want to see the whites of their eyes; I want to be able to read their body language” will be an immediate reaction. Some will miss the opportunity to show off the powerful handshake and make the all-important eye-contact? Oops – No handshakes, certainly not for the foreseeable future!

But what about this eye contact issue? As a long-term student of occupational psychology, I too see the value of reading someone’s body language, but too often we misread these signals and unconscious bias leads us to reach the wrong conclusion. That doesn’t matter whether someone is 200 miles away or two metres across the table. There is something comforting about seeing the individual in the room. There are practical ways to overcome this anxiety.

Body language is important, but facial expressions are most important. So why not ensure that cameras are positioned close enough to catch facial expressions of both the interviewers and the candidate. Placing the webcam, situated at the top of screens, as close to eye level as possible ensures better eye contact for each participant.

Likewise, if there is more than one participant on a panel, have a test run between the panel to ensure that everyone is familiar with the technology. Make sure you have an agreed host who will lead the conversation, provide any instructions and put everyone at ease from the outset. Agree before the interview begins the preferred method for questions or interruptions to avoid speaking over one another. Get used to using the ‘mute’ button so that background noise is eliminated, and the host should signal if anyone forgets to unmute themselves as they contribute. Many systems allow a ‘record’ button so interviews can be replayed should there be any need for clarification amongst a panel.

In many ways, a virtual interview requires better preparation and that’s got to be a good thing. As we emerge from this pandemic, all future leaders will oversee organisational cultures that are used to and expect remote working. Just viewing the satellite images of how much cleaner the world’s air has become over the last few weeks gives even more evidence of the benefits of our embracing a greener approach adopting of virtual meetings. There’s never been a better time to adopt a virtual approach.

We are very happy to advise you on how to conduct virtual interviews and panel interview to enable validated, well governed and transparent decision making with confidence.

Jon Houlihan, Practice Director at GatenbySanderson

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