Covid-accelerated recruitment digitisation to gain sophistication with hybrid models

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of recruitment activities among employers that continued to hire staff during the crisis, not least because it became necessary to digitise processes requiring face-to-face interaction almost overnight.

Those employers that recruited during the pandemic largely fell into two categories, says Katy Tynan, a principal analyst at research and advisory company Forrester. On the one hand, there were the organisations in adaptive mode, many of which operated in retail and leisure industries. They were forced to shift their operating model, restructure their workforce and recruit new skills to serve customers in new ways.

On the other hand, there were the businesses in “massive growth mode”, many of which operated in technology or healthcare and simply needed to expand their workforce. A common approach here was to broaden the usual geographic range for recruitment to access a wider talent pool.

According to Lauren Smith, a vice-president in research and advisory company Gartner’s HR practice, while some employers simply virtualised existing activities, others reworked their processes entirely in three main areas: interviewing, onboarding and administration.

In interviewing terms, there was a widespread move to video, a medium whose adoption had been growing steadily over recent times but which has accelerated over the past year, she says.

Virtual careers fairs for graduates were another method that started making their presence felt and the use of virtual onboarding platforms also increased in popularity, even though implementations did not always prove entirely effective.

“It’s been impressive how quickly organisations have been able to virtualise their processes, but if they didn’t redesign them to work in a virtual world, whether we’re talking about interviewing or onboarding, that’s where they tended to trip up,” says Smith.

Another key focus, meanwhile, has been on boosting administration efficiency by automating manual tasks, particularly in the initial stages of the hiring process, which includes CV screening. Some experimentation has also taken place around using technology like chatbots to set up appointments.

Focusing on the candidate experience

“There’s been a big desire to increase the efficiency of more impersonal tasks, which make sense to automate,” says Smith. “But more progressive HR organisations have also done a lot of work on mapping the candidate experience, especially in areas where people are preparing for an interview or thinking about accepting a job offer, which hasn’t been done before.”

But she acknowledges that getting the balance right between enabling maximum efficiency and optimising the candidate experience can be tricky. And the situation is unlikely to become any easier as hybrid offices and remote ways of working increasingly become the norm for knowledge workers.

“The bar is progressively being raised around the technology experience, which means organisations that do it well are in a good position to attract a more diverse talent pool”
Katy Tynan, Forrester

A key challenge here, says Nelson Furtado, a business psychologist at talent strategy consultancy The Chemistry Group, will be how employers make “hybrid decisions without operating a dual culture”, which means, for example, working out how to avoid discriminating against remote candidates if other jobseekers are interviewed on a face-to-face basis.

Another consideration will “involve testing assumptions around where the best talent comes from and what it looks like”, which will inevitably “change how employers source and look for talent”, says Smith. This shift is likely, among other things, to lead to a greater focus on employer brand and accessing talent pools across a wider geographical spread.

But as time goes on and more of the recruitment process is automated, the role of the recruiter is likely to change too.

“It won’t be just about ushering candidates through the process,” says Smith. “It’ll be about becoming more of a career coach to help people decide whether the organisation is right for them or not, but it’s still a work in progress.”

This focus on the candidate experience will also raise expectations about what technology is required to deliver.

“Applicants already drop out if they have a bad experience due to technology as they see it as a signal that employers don’t care about talent,” says Forrester’s Tynan. “So the bar is progressively being raised around the technology experience, which means organisations that do it well are in a good position to attract a more diverse talent pool.”

Two employers that have taken different approaches to digitisation in a bid to boost the quality of their recruitment processes are Capita and Advanced, whose approached are detailed below.


Case study: Capita

Capita has expanded its use of the behaviour-based assessment tool it introduced before the pandemic to assist with high-volume hiring after it was shown to help speed up the recruitment process and boost the suitability of new hires.

The business process outsourcing and services company takes on around 36,000 people for customer service roles each year. As a result, when it rolled out the system from Arctic Shores (AS) in January 2020, the key aim was to improve hiring outcomes, ranging from enhancing the candidate experience to delivering engaged, quality candidates.

Andrew Porter, the organisation’s group resources director, explains: “It was about how [to] undertake hiring at scale and volume quickly and accurately with a high degree of fit so you don’t waste time and money. Roles require four to six weeks of training, but if it ends up not being for them, it’s not a great outcome for anyone.”

How the process works is that jobseekers initially apply for a position via Capita’s recruitment system. On successfully answering a number of “killer questions”, they are subsequently sent a manual link to undertake the AS behavioural assessment, which explores the nature of their character and values. The aim is to fully automate this process in future to free up recruiters’ time to coach and support candidates more effectively.

“We’ve largely ripped up the CV and don’t rely on it at all. We want people who are keen to learn and grow and be part of Capita”
Andrew Porter, Capita

If applicants match the profile defined in the system, a 20-minute video interview is then held to assess “their personality, aptitude and willingness to do the role”, says Porter.

“The assessment plus a short interview means the process is very speedy,” he adds. “We did a lot of hiring last year to support projects for well-known clients and had to ramp up very quickly, but without Arctic Shores, we couldn’t have delivered at the speed and scale we did, given what we faced last year with the pandemic.”

In 2020, the tool was used to assess a huge 28,180 new hires across a variety of business areas, with nearly 23,000 going into customer management roles. Some 91.1% said they enjoyed completing the assessment and 87.8% felt it reflected positively on the firm’s brand.

Moreover, although hard data about attrition rates is not yet available, Porter says anecdotal feedback from the business indicates that “people are staying longer” and are “more engaged and more focused on the roles they’re brought in to do”.

As a result, the company now uses the tool for all of its volume hiring. It has also started including young people joining it under the government’s Kickstart scheme, which funds employers to create new jobs for 16-24-year-olds on Universal Credit benefits, who are at risk of long-term unemployment.

Doing so involved tweaking the ideal profile in the assessment system as most Kickstart applicants have little experience of the workplace. Also, rather than an interview, they are asked to think about and research a given problem and then create a five-minute video to share what they have discovered and what can be done about it.

“We’ve largely ripped up the CV and don’t rely on it at all,” says Porter. “People of this age group have little to no experience of working life, so why use one? We want people who are keen to learn and grow and be part of Capita.”

Once jobseekers have successfully navigated this part of the process, the final stage involves speaking to a hiring manager to explore mutual chemistry.

One of the key benefits of this approach so far is that it has helped the business recruit more diverse talent. For example, of the 27 individuals offered a place on the programme, 41% had not been to university and nearly 20% had relied on free school meals. Three out of five belonged to ethnic minority groups, two out of five were female and one in 10 were neurodiverse. About 100 people will be taken on under the Kickstart initiative this year.

The aim is also to adopt a similar assessment approach for the company’s apprenticeship scheme, which will start mid-year and include 60 candidates, about half of whom will undertake a new degree-level consulting apprenticeship. Evaluations are also currently taking place as to how the system could be used to “remove subjectivity from the front-end process” for more senior hires too.


Case study: Advanced

Advanced is currently evaluating whether to return to an in-person hiring model or continue to use the digital tools it introduced for recruitment purposes during lockdown as it starts to accommodate a more hybrid way of working.

The business software and services provider, which has 2,500 employees, takes on about 500, mainly entry-level, candidates in the UK each year. While some elements of its recruitment process, such as initial online screening and posting job adverts to relevant digital locations, were already automated, the pandemic accelerated this shift.

Nick Gallimore, the company’s director of talent transformation and insight, explains: “Video interviewing was forced on us by the pandemic as we couldn’t sit in the same room as people. We’d already used it a bit for the purpose of assessments where we might ask someone to video role play or pitch a product, but it was never at scale.”

The implementation of online coding tests, which had already been planned due to challenges over increasing the size and scope of the firm’s technical assessment programme, was also accelerated, and behavioural assessments were likewise taken online.

“Video interviewing was forced on us by the pandemic as we couldn’t sit in the same room as people. We’d already used it a bit for the purpose of assessments where we might ask someone to video role play or pitch a product, but it was never at scale”
Nick Gallimore, Advanced

But the shift initially proved tricky. After what was initially “a bit of a car crash” in using, and getting candidates to use, the Zoom communication platform, and subsequently Microsoft Teams collaboration system, effectively, Gallimore says the decision was taken to rethink the “logistics of the whole day”. These logistics included how assessments and tasks were facilitated, plus how best to communicate what would happen and what technology jobseekers would need to make it happen.

“The issue is that you don’t know what problems you’ll come across until you’re in a virtual environment and you do things for real,” he says. “It’s difficult to forecast because not being in the same room as candidates changes the whole experience.”

But as the company starts to adopt a more hybrid approach to working as things open up again, another set of challenges are also presenting themselves.

“Our view is that recruitment has either got to be completely online or completely in person, especially when you’re thinking about assessment centres,” says Gallimore. “There is space for a hybrid hiring model, where we meet some people virtually and some physically, but there are a number of questions there about how we create, ensure and maintain a fair and inclusive process and remove any potential online or in-person bias.

“We’re definitely not rushing to consider how we might bring things back face-to-face. Things are working as well online, if not better as we can now scale our technical assessment centre, and certainly, feedback about the candidate experience has improved since it was virtualised,” Gallimore concludes.