How COVID-19 is going to reshape hiring forever and that’s a good thing

COVID-19 has forced a lot of us to become remote workers by default. Now more companies are now declaring it is likely to become their new norm, with little understanding of what successful remote teams look like.

Zoom exhaustion is a thing. The reality of working from home for many of us has become long days trying to get small tasks done between back-to-back video calls. The founder and CEO of Automattic, Matt Mullenweg, a company with over 1000 remote workers spread across 75 countries, chose remote as the working norm for two key reasons. First, to access a broader pool of talent, and second to unleash productivity. He describes five levels of remote work maturity. Most companies now forced into WFH are at Level 1. We have just moved our way of doing things to a different location and are following the same daily routines that we always have.

Mullenwag describes Level 5 as the ‘nirvana’ for remote work where your distributed team works better than any in-person team ever could. He says his company is not even there yet.

So, what are we all doing wrong?

We have missed one of the drivers of remote work productivity gains which is asynchronous work- which needs asynchronous communication. This simply means that work doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone. Productivity and flexibility for employees come when we don’t all have to get in a room or via Zoom. That means communicating in writing, not by video is imperative.

Forcing people to do video meetings also risks continuing to drown out team members who don’t thrive in a live group setting. The introverts. The deep quiet thinkers. The ones who prefer to reflect on an issue and not be forced into making a contribution because everyone else is on Zoom. Again, written communication solves for this.

It’s quite simple, if you want a fully functioning remote team written communication is the way to go. It has to be the way you define a business problem, debate the key issues, and fast track from idea to execution.

Case in point: Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos cottoned on to this years ago. Amazon requires every meeting to be guided by a six-page memo laying out all the key issues. Everyone, regardless of their title, has to read every word. Bezos turned written narrative into a competitive advantage, recognising that writing clearly requires clear thinking. Effective written communication is a foundational building block of a successful remote workforce. GitLab, another fully remote organization with over 1000 employees across the world highlights this fact in their Remote Work Playbook (page 19).

This ‘new productivity hack’, how you write, whether via text, Slack, Wiki or on Google docs also impacts your hiring processes. At what point do any of us test for written communication skills when hiring? If you want to hire people who can work autonomously, be productive and who can collaborate you need to test their text communication. This calls for a radically different approach to talent acquisition.

A solution!

Mullenweg worked that out early in Automattic’s remote working journey and all their job interviews are via text. The other obvious benefit of this approach is it means there is far less room for bias. In contrast, put someone in front of a camera for a video interview and the bias risk is amplified. Hiring going forward has to test for written communication. This is not something you can ignore anymore.

How to hire for a remote environment?

If you speak to C-suite about why it’s taken so long to permit remote work, the word trust will come up a lot. Bottom line, managers don’t trust that people will actually work when at home, creating instead an unproductive culture of ‘presenteeism’. To manage the risk of hiring ‘slackers’, the other thing you have to test for is motivation.

Other personality traits that relate to good remote workers include discipline. The advantage here is that we stop Big ‘P’ personality-based hiring. We have all made those hiring mistakes – inclined to the person who tells a good story. In a remote work environment, self motivated employees, big talkers and non-doers get discovered quickly!

What may not be known to many people, is that testing for written fluency, clarity of thought, motivation, discipline, can all be done via text analysis in the hiring process. Testing should not be just limited to the skill of writing. It should also test the motivation behind expressing something in writing. That requires more effort and thinking than speaking it out. If someone is not motivated to express themselves in writing when a job is on the line, you can assume what it might be like once they are on the job.

The power of NLP!

The power of Natural Language Processing (NLP) based machine learning models that can tell you all of this immediately is here today. From just 300 words, we can infer writing skills, personality traits and job hopping motives. This means there is no excuse for not hiring for the key skills required for remote work right now.

Noam Chomsky, a pioneer of language studies said it best –

“Language is a mirror of mind in a deep and significant sense. It is a product of human intelligence. By studying the properties of natural languages, their structure, organisation, and use, we may hope to learn something about human nature; something significant, …” (Noam Chomsky, Reflections on Language, 1975)


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