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So you hired someone during a pandemic lockdown. Now what?
"So much of what people learn at the beginning of their job is informal. You overheard the person next to you, you met someone in the hallway. All those things we now have to formalize."
Before the lockdowns, Cara Brennan Allamano and her hiring team at online learning company Udemy had a recipe for wooing, then welcoming, new hires. It revolved around face time in San Francisco, São Paulo and four other offices scattered around the globe. There were office tours, orientation, a full slate of team meetings and, of course, a welcome lunch.
"There's a lot of things you can rely on," said Brennan Allamano, Udemy's senior vice president of people, places and learning. "We have beautiful offices everywhere, so somebody would walk into our office and get excited about the ping-pong tables and all that."
Now, Brennan Allamano and her peers at other tech firms are racing to reinvent hiring and onboarding systems, trying to transport them online without sacrificing the more intimate essence of the old way. In the process, they must not only navigate a chaotic job market and avoid pitfalls like faulty virtual training, but answer murky social questions about how to make remote candidates and workers feel like part of a team they've never met. And now is no time to make a bad hire.
Most of these efforts — like everything else right now — draw on a mix of live and on-demand video. What's clear is that it isn't easy. Last week, Sundar Pinchai said as much when he wrote in a memo that he planned to slow hiring at Google in part to focus on "onboarding the many people who've been hired but haven't started yet."
But there are also opportunities, some executives and talent consultants say, as the transition to virtual onboarding has forced savvy hiring teams to be more rigorous, organized and creative, perhaps with lasting implications for recruiting, diversity and team-building. The challenge has also built a camaraderie that often resembles group therapy among HR executives like Brennan Allemano, who co-founded an advisory and investment group called PeopleTech Partners.
"One of my friends is the chief people officer at Zoom," she said, referring to Lynne Oldham, who is also in the unusual position of bumping up hiring during a steep downturn. "We just kind of roll our eyes and are like, 'Oh my gosh,' because the next two years of work on our road map is kind of here."
Hiring managers know they are dealing with candidates and new employees feeling immense whiplash as they take a leap of faith during a precarious time. Tech workers starting new jobs are publicly posting screenshots of Zoom meetings, selfies in new company swag and diary-like posts on LinkedIn.
"If I wasn't nervous enough to start a new job, just throw in a global pandemic," wrote a recruiter who started last week at online benefits manager Bamboo HR. A new sales head at Facebook gushed about his online onboarding process but lamented that "My picture at 1 Hacker Way will need to wait."
At Udemy, Brennan Allamano's team rolled out a virtual office tour cobbled together from old videos and photos to help new "Udemates" visualize what their futures could look like … someday. The company, she said, is in no rush to set a date for reopening offices, instead shifting from temporary work-from-home solutions to "remote-first work."
New hires now watch videos including "Change Agility for Organizations" and "Best Practices for Working Remotely." Aiming not to neglect corporate culture, Brennan Allamano is brainstorming ways to be "high touch" while socially distant: video dance-offs, biweekly pet happy hours, a "twin contest" where co-workers dressed up like one another.
"So much of what people learn at the beginning of their job is informal," she said. "You overheard the person next to you, you met someone in the hallway. All those things we now have to formalize."
For all Udemy employees, a new "Work From Home Canvas" asks them to "think purposefully about their wellbeing and needs while maintaining high impact during the COVID-19 pandemic." The colorful three-page document has fill-in boxes that span the gamut of work and life, including nutrition and sleep goals, OKRs and professional growth goals, ways to stay connected to work teams and family, and home-office improvement to-dos.
At the growth-stage startups that work with Adam Ward, a partner at tech talent consultancy Growth By Design, some parts of the onboarding process have been more affected than others. The former recruiting director at Facebook and Pinterest said initial confusion about day-one essentials like shipping hardware and completing hiring paperwork have mostly been ironed out. It helped that the federal government temporarily eased I-9 identification review requirements, and some companies offered employees stipends to purchase home-office equipment.
Now, consultants like Ward are being enlisted to help develop online training materials and rubrics for evaluating video interviews. Most clients, he said, favor a mix of livestreams and on-demand videos that new hires can work through on their own, typically with an extended timeline.
"We see onboarding now being elongated and interwoven with actual work," Ward said. "This is maybe a better way to onboard than companies thinking, 'This is our only chance to deluge them with company information and indoctrinate them, so we're going to block out all of their email and meetings.'"
While recruiters, chief people officers and consultants swap war stories and advice, many are wondering what lessons should survive after the lockdowns. HR industry publications are buzzing with early data on whether video interviews could help decrease in-person unconscious bias in the hiring process and improve the tech industry's lack of diversity.
Ward has seen companies develop more concrete evaluation procedures and more structure in interview processes, rather than free-flowing whiteboard tests. There's also been a potentially beneficial shift toward pragmatism, since it's harder to keep up illusions of corporate polish at home.
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"One of the things that's interesting is you can just make it more live and less staged," he said. "Orientation or even interviews are a little bit of this Kabuki theatre where it's highly stylized. Everyone's got their best face on, but it's not the reality of how we actually work."
Yet if online hiring can be made to feel natural, that doesn't remove the profound tension of the moment. Brennan Allamano said that as the crisis first unfolded, some job candidates expressed "a ton of anxiety, a ton of fear" about making a major life decision. And while more are taking the leap, she said, she feels pressure to make sure everything works out.
"I don't want to sound like Suzy sunshine," she said. "There's a ton of risk here."
Lauren Hepler ( @lahepler) is a former reporter for Protocol covering how people live and work in Silicon Valley. She previously covered development, energy, and tech for The New York Times, The Guardian, the LA Times, the Silicon Valley Business Journal, and others. Lauren can be reached at email@example.com (just ask for Signal), and you can share information with her anonymously via Protocol's SecureDrop. She grew up in Ohio and lives in Oakland.