The death of the handshake: COVID-19 has changed the way we hire, and there’s no going back

hiring during COVID-19

Julia Poloai (centre), head of culture and talent at Clipchamp. Source: supplied.

Of all the headaches the COVID-19 pandemic has caused small businesses and startups, figuring out to hire new recruits while social distancing is one of the better ones.

The crisis is changing the way in which we go about everyday life and everyday business processes. And hiring is among one of many things that may not ever go back to the way it was.

Sure, it’s a nice problem to have. But, how do you find the perfect employee, with the skills, personality and passion required for the job, when you’re meeting everyone over video calls?

And, is this another new normal we’re going to have to get used to?

Mina Radhakrishnan, co-founder of proptech startup :Different, which secured $7.1 million in funding earlier this month, has been hiring throughout the pandemic.

In particular, she’s been growing the startup’s tech and design teams.

That means, because the whole process is done online, there’s been an opportunity to use tools to replace traditionally in-person tasks.

Radhakrishnan and the hiring team are using digital post-it notes, collaborative drawing tools and coding platforms to conduct constructive interviews online, she explains.

“There are very tangible ways to be able to show work and share it publicly, which is kind of a nice thing,” she says.

Of course, for some roles, it’s a little harder.

“If you’re in HR and people, how do you show the work you’ve done? It’s difficult to have a tangible review of it.”

At the same time, :Different is in the process of hiring two very senior positions, Radhakrishnan explains — a lead product designer and a chief operating officer.

These are team members who will be working very closely with the co-founder, and who will have a certain level of seniority and impact on the business.

So, in these cases, “there is something to be said for in-person interaction”, Radhakrishnan says.

“We’ve done everything we can digitally and virtually. For them to get to this point we’ve gone through a lot of interviews,” she says.

“Of course [we’re] meeting with physical distancing restrictions, and having them in the largest conference room that we have that allows for the number of people per square-metre rules to be enforced,” she says.

“We also have a fairly large tub of hand sanitiser for everybody whenever they come into the office.”

Caroline Henshaw, head of people and culture at Mantel Group, notes that when you’re doing online-only interviews, you can miss out on what she calls “incidental conversations”.

Sometimes, understanding whether someone will be a good culture fit for the business comes from the way they act before the interview — how they treat the interviewer and the person at the front desk, or the questions they ask while walking back to the lift.

These interactions “can be quite telling as to what’s going to be important to a person”, she says.

When people are prepared for a 45-minute interview and a set of questions via video call, you may not get that glimpse into their personality.

At the same time, the interviewee doesn’t get to see what the office environment is like, or get a feel for whether they would get on with their would-be boss.

So, if you’re hiring remotely, it’s worth making time for small-talk, Henshaw says.

“Have a chat at the start and the end of the interview,” she advises.

“Don’t lose that and just make it a formal interview.”

Death of the handshake

As COVID-19 disrupts so many parts of everyday life, there’s another ‘norm’ that may well be out the window for good. The humble handshake.

Whether people are greeting each other by fist bump or elbow tap, we could be looking at the end of prospective employees being judged, first and foremost, on the strength of their grasp.

“People can make judgements about people when they first meet face-to-face,” Henshaw explains.

“On a Hangout, you are focused much more on the interview at hand, you can check your interview notes a bit easier.”


However, while some bias may be removed by the video interview, others could be inadvertently introduced.

Radhakrishnan notes the possibility of “extrovert bias” coming into play.

“You don’t even have the ability to get a vibe off of somebody, because you’re not next to them.

“You’re judging everything by what you see there,” she says.

“It’s easier for extroverts to have conversations continuously like this than it is for introverts.”

When everyone is working from home, there’s a certain level of ‘video call fatigue’.

Whether you’re a candidate in need of a job, or someone who needs to fill a position ASAP, it’s easy to fill your calendar with back-to-back video meetings. And that doesn’t do anyone any favours.

“It can just get so tiring,” Radhakrishnan says.

“It’s really important, both for the hiring manager and the prospective employee, to make sure that by the time you get onto this video call, you’re in a position where you can be engaged.”

Julia Poloai, head of culture and talent at Brisbane startup Clipchamp, says she believes there will still be people who rely on behavioural cues like the handshake and body language to make hiring decisions for quite some time.

But, at Clipchamp — which has been bringing on newbies at an average rate of two a week since the start of the pandemic — that was never part of the decision-making process.

“We do quite a lot of behavioural interviews, but it’s not about body language,” she explains.

Rather, it’s about their career history, the way in which they describe the work they’ve done, the challenges they’ve overcome and the problems they’ve solved.

“It really always has been about tangible evidence,” Poloai explains.

“If it’s someone’s job to be shaking people’s hands, then absolutely, have that be part of what you’re testing in that interview,” she says.

“For us, that hasn’t been the case.”

Clipchamp founder and chief Alex Dreiling adds that these body language cues are not what’s important to the company. His focus is on ability and willingness to learn, he says, on the vision of the business, and on diversity of thought.

“If we had face-to-face selling where the handshake was really important, and the ability to have a coffee and really bond over 30 minutes, then it might be different,” he muses.

“But we don’t have that. We’re a software company.”

For Dreiling, it’s more about “cultural alignment”, he says.

“Alignment around the values, alignment around the attributes we want to see in people, that’s far more important,” he explains.

“The things that are important to us we can basically assess over video conferences.”

No going back

Even as workplaces start re-opening and people move out of their makeshift home offices, Henshaw doesn’t think people will be inclined to move straight back to face-to-face recruitment and interviews with strangers in enclosed spaces.

The post-COVID world will require a shift in the way these meetings are conducted — and one we all agree on. Above all, we need to keep personal space and hygiene front-of-mind.

“We have to find a way to make it OK for people not to shake hands,” she says.

“There’s a power dynamic in an interview sometimes … If the interviewer puts their hand out, the interviewee is going to feel uncomfortable not shaking their hand,” she explains.

Companies have to be open about their policies here right from the outset.

“I think it’s really important that people change how they interact with people,” Henshaw says.

“We shouldn’t be shaking people’s hands and we shouldn’t be expecting people to.”

And, the COVID-19 experience has also proven that, in many or even most cases, if done well, hiring remotely works. In the future, we may move away from meeting all prospective employees face-to-face.

“To be honest, technology is good enough that we shouldn’t really need to do it,” Henshaw says.

“This gives us opportunities for us to interview people from wherever they are, which opens up a whole group of candidates as well.”

NOW READ: Lessons from Google and the GFC: Six crisis survival tips from :Different co-founder Mina Radhakrishnan

NOW READ: “You’re fighting fewer battles”: The women leaving corporate life for startupland


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