If the recent COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything, it is that when we have to, traditional working practices can be suspended or modified surprisingly quickly. I have spoken to plenty of senior local government officers over the past few months, and it is clear that although they have been fully focused on and dealing with a terrible public health emergency, it has also created the conditions to usher in new way of working.
One chief executive told me they have managed to bring in flexible and modern working practices in about two months – when it would have otherwise taken about two years. A more effective use of technology and the widespread adoption of Microsoft Teams and Zoom has enabled working from home and business continuity with far less disruption than could have been imagined just months ago.
More interestingly, leadership teams recognise that virtual enablement has not just led to continuity in terms of business as usual but it has facilitated greater collaboration within and across organisational teams. Perhaps it’s the greater informality of everyone working around the virtual kitchen table that has led to more creative thinking and ‘can do’ attitudes.
Understanding the long-term implications of these changes is the next big question, and one that will affect the wider economy not just the public sector – particularly when it comes to the use of office space in our town and city centres.
Just as our clients have been adapting to the conditions and getting on with delivering services, so have we at GatenbySanderson. While the initial priority, of course, for many of our local government clients was centred on frontline services and supporting communities, it quickly became apparent that leadership would need to play a dual role in planning for recovery and developing new strategies. Recruitment and development programmes have been central to this shift in planning and resource management.
It is also apparent that we and our clients quickly worked out that recruiting during ‘lockdown’ is not quite as difficult as we thought and indeed several previous assumptions have been turned on their heads. Namely:
Do we need to hold face to face briefings?
A usual executive recruitment process would kick off with the lead consultant travelling for up to two or three hours for the briefing with the hiring officer. The meeting would last about an hour, then two or three hours back. The assumption is that meeting face to face engenders trust and understanding, and you build a better rapport. Yes, that is all true to an extent, but if the virtual equivalent is as effective, more time efficient and can add greater insight, then that has got to be a good thing. We have used this opportunity to add greater value through the additional expertise we can bring into these meetings, as it is so much easier for more people to participate. For example, I have involved many of my colleagues as well as the client’s stakeholders.
Do preliminary interviews need to be in person and in the office?
This is perhaps one of the key lessons learnt in terms of new ways of working. Of course, the traditional view would be that you need to ‘eyeball’ the candidate to truly assess their personality and approach, to check out their body language, and offer a nuanced view. But virtual interviewing is also pretty sophisticated in its own way – you can see the candidate, a rapport can be developed, and in reality it is not that difficult to assess their suitability. The big advantage in terms of efficiency is a reverse of the previous one – it is the candidates who save time and effort, not the interviewer. Many candidates would spend hours travelling to one of our offices (or to the client) for a one-hour interview (and often have to take a day or half a day’s leave); a virtual interview means hours saved and nothing spent on travel. In gathering opinion from clients, we have some who now ardently support virtual interviewing in terms of its potential to be more inclusive and reduce any potential bias. I can really see this aspect of a recruitment process staying beyond the crisis.
Do final interviews need to be in person?
This is perhaps the trickiest area to navigate. We have found that most clients do, ideally, want to meet the final three or four candidates face to face. There is something intrinsic about that personal contact, when the hiring organisation and indeed the candidate are going to make a huge decision which will affect both parties for years to come. That said, we have run multiple assignments when final interviews (and accompanying stakeholder panels) have been on MS Teams and it has all been straightforward. But there have been occasions when the final preferred candidate and the hiring manager have decided to have a socially distanced meeting just to ‘seal the deal’. I can see why this is the case – and when things get back to some sort of normality, I suspect that final interviews may become a blend of virtual and ‘face to face’.
Some of the above are observations based on what we have seen over the last few months. This is increasingly played out in more formal research we are undertaking currently. From the data we have gathered to date, it is clear that organisations view this period as a point in time to re-think current process and accepted norms. The accelerated thinking and implementation of new ways of working is one leaders do not wish to relinquish. Though virtual working has given clear benefit in terms of time efficiency and a reduced carbon footprint, nearly 30% of our respondents think the most important reason to maintain a virtual process is that thinking differently will help attract greater diversity and inclusivity. This has got to give everyone pause for thought.
We have all had to change the way we work, and despite the tragic circumstances, it has shown us that we can be equally or even more productive when focusing on what really matters and trusting in technology. Better still, let technology be the catalyst for a wider review of accepted norms to achieve greater inclusivity and increased engagement. It will be fascinating to see in two years’ time which of these changes really stick.
Luke Judd is a Partner with GatenbySanderson’s Local Gov Executive Search Practice