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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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)
It used to be all about Mobile First, now it’s about AI-first. Google now calls itself an ‘AI first’ company.
“How do you decipher the truth from puffery? Are there any shortcuts to really understand where AI is best applied in your business?”
I’m not a data scientist, but I spend my days talking to users and buyers of AI technology who are befuddled and increasingly cynical about the hype. Here is my 3-step guide to cutting through the noise.
Most products are using standard statistical techniques like regression. Without any machine learning baked into the technology, they are just matching tools. There are efficiency gains, but no ‘smarts’ and no learning in technology.
For example, in recruitment a stock-standard AI product would merely find you people with the same profile as those you have already hired, matching applicant profiles to hired profiles. CV parsers do this kind of thing. Now, that can be helpful to you if all you want to do is a short-cut to the same profile fast, and it can definitely save your recruitment team time.
But unless you know that these characteristics also match performance, you will not make a difference to your organisational outcomes.
If your Sales Director tells you that every new hire over the last year is hitting or exceeding budget, then absolutely keep using that tool. If she tells you that a third or more are underperforming or leaving the business, your AI tool is merely amplifying that bias and doing quantifiable damage to your company’s bottom line.
If you want both efficiency and business bottom-line impact – your AI needs to have machine learning baked in.
Takeaway: If the organisation selling you an AI tool has no Data Scientists, there is no machine learning in the product.
If I imagine a Maslow’s hierarchy of AI it would look like the below:
First up you need to have the data.
About 50% of companies don’t pass this threshold, but assuming you have it the next step is understanding the data context: What is the business problem you are trying to solve?
Next is the housekeeping. This means consolidating, cleaning, categorising and cataloguing the data. And then finally the optimisation is at the top – this is where the magic happens. Optimisation is the last mile and is what gets you to the big savings, but you need everything underneath it in order first.
In recruitment a genuinely smart AI tool with machine learning baked-in works best in these conditions:
Takeaway: It’s critical to have a solid understanding of what you’re trying to fix, and the means to measure the changes you’re making. Ask yourself why you are considering AI if you can’t quantify the problem, to begin with.
AI is about optimisation. For credit card companies it’s detecting fraud quickly. For online retailers better product recommendations. In recruitment, it’s finding the best new hires in a massive group of rookie players.
In each case, you are optimising for efficiency and accuracy, as the cost of getting it wrong is huge.
It means trusting the technology to find the patterns. You have to suspend theory, and your assumptions, a lot. You feed in a large amount of relevant and unbiased data and the machine learns on its own, finding the patterns. It is looking for the ‘signal in the noise’. Humans are unpredictable and more often than not unreliable.
The current hiring processing by humans is extremely resource-consuming and the result is not always satisfying. Using AI will free up your time if you allow it to, improving efficiency or outcomes, often both. But AI built just off CV data only adds bias and we’ve all see how badly that ends.
Takeaway: Predicting human decision making is not easy and not quick. The only way to get to the ‘answer’ is to start now and expect this to be a journey.
If you liked this article, suggested reading:
A CV tells you nothing
To AI or not to AI
Transcript (Barb Hyman):
We really do not want to lose the human touch.
I think that is what I hear the most when I talk about AI to people: that recruiters, hiring managers, and organizations are terrified that bringing AI in will somehow make them less human as an organization, and that they will lose people as a result.
I actually think that we’ve all been thinking about it in the wrong way. So think about it like this.
Do you really want to be spending all of that really expensive and valuable time and capacity with people that you may not hire? Do you want your leaders or recruiters investing that time?
Of the 30 people that you bring into an assessment center, or the 10 people that you bring through to the phone screen stage – are those really the ones where you want to be investing the human touch?
I don’t think so.
I think where you want to invest and show a crazy amount of love and attention is to those who you want to hire, which is at the point of hire.
That feeling when you get extended an offer and the hiring manager calls you and says, “Wow, we are just so excited that you’re going to join our organization.”
When they say, “What do I need to do to get you across the line?”
That’s when it really matters.
And I think that actually is where companies are doing at the least.
So instead of being worried about the human touch, think about where it matters the most – that it really isn’t something to invest in up until the point of you’ve made your decision.
I’m not saying that you would rely entirely on AI up until that point, but frankly, candidates aren’t looking for it.
They want to get a job and they want efficiency as well.
And the best place, the right place for you to invest in all that human love and attention is on those to whom you’ve actually made the decision to extend them an offer.
Last week I had two conversations, one with my partner, the other with Barb Hyman, Sapia’s new CEO.
Both wanted me share my story. To tell you and anyone else who might be interested, or care, about a journey that took me from being a recruiter to working in a business at the cutting edge of a technology, science and people triumvirate.
They wanted me to share my journey of discovery that every single recruiter is going to experience sooner, rather than later.
To begin, we first need to acknowledge that we humans are odd folk. How often do we see examples of people ignoring evidence in favour of something that instead reinforces their pre-set opinions?
AI in HR and Recruitment, it’ll never catch on
I’ve been doing this job for 10 years, I don’t need a machine to tell me how to recruit
I just don’t believe it, to be honest
These are just a few of the comments / opinions I’ve received from Talent professionals when discussing Recruitment AI. (I should also acknowledge that there are many folk who are genuinely curious or are already embracing the technology).
A while ago a recruitment manager posted on LinkedIn, asking their network for advice on Sapia solutions. A contact of mine figured I could help and tagged me.
Someone else in the Rec Manager’s network provided this advice:
“use a common-sense approach to recruitment… software misses the point… Imagine if your Dr used this sort of software to see if you are ‘likely to….’”
I refrained from posting something akin to this BBC article discussing AI accurately identifying skin cancers. As for “common sense recruiting”… well, i’ll come to that in a subsequent post.
Many people have already formed an opinion on AI. They’ve decided it won’t make a difference, it’s not for them nor will it help their company.
Let me tell you why I think they’re ever so wrong.