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01.11.2020

Recruitment and Onboarding in a WFH World

So many things have been different this year and our working habits have been one of the biggest changes. There have certainly been positives as well as negatives: the whole-company virtual escape room complete with cream tea posted out to each staff member in advance was a lovely treat!

Inevitably some of the challenges we’ve had to work around are in our recruitment and onboarding processes. How do we assess whether somebody is a good fit for APR when we’ve never met them? It’s perhaps even harder for candidates to get a good sense of whether they want to join us when they’ve never been to our offices. And that’s before the new member of staff has even started with us, which brings a whole separate set of difficulties.

Recruitment

Our recruitment process has four main stages:

Fortunately for anyone applying to APR, the first three of these stages were already carried out remotely. This means that the only changes to be made were to the final assessment centre, though in practice some of those earlier stages have been made more complicated for both us and candidates with the need to find a quiet, undisturbed place at home to take a call, or even to find somewhere with reliable WiFi for the online test.

The assessment centre is a different story. From early on in lockdown we were asking ourselves how to translate each element of the day to a remote environment, as each aspect tests a different set of skills in candidates that are all important to us. Ultimately we opted to stick as closely as we could to the original format.

Undoubtedly this isn’t ideal in every way. For example, delivering a presentation over Teams can be more daunting for candidates, as it’s much harder to engage with your audience or to see how easily they are keeping up with the subject matter. I like to think we have a very friendly interview team at APR, but it is always harder to build that immediate rapport with someone over a video call! One thing I’ve personally found strange has been seeing candidates sitting in their homes dressed in their best interview-wear, while I spend an increasing amount of time working from home in old hoodies and slippers (as do most of my APR and client colleagues, judging from our video calls). However the formality of it helps set a good mindset for an interview.

One real positive from this change in format has been that when we start an assessment centre, after some initial nervousness, candidates have generally seemed more relaxed and confident in their own homes than they typically are in our offices. That’s great both for candidates and for us, as it means we get a much better chance to see what skills they have to offer APR.

Fortunately, we’ve found that we’ve been able to get to know our future colleagues well over a Teams call and now have several members of staff that have joined following such an interview. One of our new CAA staff, Will Wright, gave his thoughts on the process.

Will: The remote assessment centre was odd but it definitely helped calm the nerves. There was no waiting around in a hallway / foyer with too much time on my hands to overthink, which was great to be honest. The actual preparation that an assessment centre requires was much easier remotely as well as I didn’t have to travel to an unfamiliar place, stay in an unfamiliar bed (as I live quite far away) or plan what I was going to eat which made everything so much smoother. The ability to use my own computer, in my own room and desk really put me at ease and allowed me to perform at my best. 

As we now enter our next recruitment cycle for 2021 graduates, we are seeing even more differences. The careers fairs we’d usually attend in person are now all virtual, and we’re still gauging how that affects the quantity and quality of conversations we have with students at those events. One definite advantage is that the savings we make on travel and staff time mean we can attend far more careers fairs than we have done in the past and reach a much larger pool of potential applicants.

Hopefully at some point in the future we’ll be able to return to offices and to meeting candidates in person. However it’s great to know that we now have the capability to run remote assessment centres, which we hope will be a real benefit for candidates who might otherwise have found it difficult to take lots of time away from their other commitments to come and meet us. It will also be useful as we continue to expand our new Dublin team, as it means our UK-based staff can easily conduct interviews without the need to travel.

Onboarding new staff

As if virtual interviews weren’t tough enough, our September intake of graduate and school leaver recruits have had to go through our notoriously full-on training and induction programme entirely from home. Normally this period, whilst very busy for our new staff, is a great opportunity to develop a wealth of new skills. Very importantly, it’s also a chance to get to meet APR colleagues, who take it in turns to come in for a day or two at a time and teach our new staff on their areas of expertise. Many of our experienced staff really look forward to the change of scenery for the day and especially the chance to meet some new faces and, if they’re lucky, treat them to lunch. So it was quite daunting for us to be faced with the prospect of delivering this induction entirely remotely.

Luckily we’ve had an excellent bunch of new starters who have been great at getting stuck in and engaged with the training despite the difficult circumstances. However, it’s not a perfect setup. For example, our training staff have found it more difficult to adapt to the needs of different students, as they’re not getting so much real-time feedback to indicate how well the material is being understood by everyone. We’ve also found that our students seem to be less likely to ask for help when needed; it’s a lot more intimidating as a new joiner to send an email or interrupt a Teams call to ask a question than it would be to pop over to someone’s desk and have a chat about an issue! However those that have been proactive about asking for help when needed have done really well. And our experienced staff always love being challenged and quizzed about their technical knowledge!

Perhaps the toughest obstacle to overcome has been how to build working relationships that can no longer develop so organically over day-to-day small talk. Whereas in person we might go out for a coffee with new staff or get to know each other in breaks between training, it can feel much more forced to do so virtually. On the plus side, it’s been easier than ever for more of our staff to get involved with leading the sessions, as they can all do so from home, so our new staff have probably met a record number of their APR colleagues in their first month!

We asked a few of the new starters about how they had found the experience of their induction process, and some have offered their top tips for anyone starting a new role in similar circumstances:

James: Despite the difficult circumstances, the training programme managed to cover the full range of topics that would normally be taught, and there were very few technical issues along the way. It was surprisingly interactive, with opportunities to take part in group discussions and ask questions, although unavoidably it would be difficult for this to be quite as good as meeting face-to-face.

Curtis: Use the virtual environment to your advantage. When I was deciding on my graduate employer, I reached out to a number of APR staff on LinkedIn. Hearing their enthusiasm first-hand and learning of the variety they had in their roles made my decision easy. Everyone at APR is very friendly and happy to help. This has been especially true of the induction, where a range of colleagues have led the training sessions. We have learnt a lot in a short period of time, and we owe that to the effective delivery of the training leads. Make sure your WiFi and WFH set-up are organised as far in advance as possible; ensure your internet connection is sufficient to hold video calls and that your working area is comfortable (9-5 is a long time to stay in one place!). I moved house the weekend before starting and spent the first few weeks siphoning our neighbours’ internet. Having everything up-and-running in advance would definitely have made for a smoother start to the induction.

Will: Remote training has been odd, as a CAA training with FIAs is difficult and that is compounded when if you want to ask a question you must interrupt everybody else to do so and make it obvious you are struggling. However the lack of a commute is fantastic (all of a roll out of bed) and being able to stay with my family for the first few months has really allowed me to adapt to the job / content in a gradual and comfortable way. For an autistic person such as myself, the gradual change from normal routine to working from home has been amazing and it couldn’t have gone better in that regard. Obviously it can be difficult to get help when you need it but everybody responds promptly via Teams or email and are happy to hop into a call with you if needed. On the downside friendships have perhaps been harder to form, or at least took more time to do so, but I feel after an odd couple of weeks we’ve bonded well and I do feel like I’m part of a team.

Adam: The training has actually been okay to follow along with, probably not much more difficult that if it was in person training. This is mostly thanks to the trainers being great at answering questions and going through exercises. Tip: be proactive with talking to other colleagues, graduates especially. Remember, when it comes to online work, we are all basically as awkward as each other.

Amar: I was admittedly apprehensive at first about the challenges of onboarding, but have thoroughly been impressed with both the ease with which it has been implemented, and how much I have enjoyed it. An important piece of advice I would give is to ensure that you take the time to get to know your colleagues and fellow trainees. This is especially true when working from home when it takes more effort to have informal conversations that could otherwise be had in a pub on a Friday evening – but be sure to make this extra effort. Above all be proud of having secured a new role and enjoy and make the most of the opportunities which will consequently come your way.

Thanks to everyone who has been involved in our recruitment and training this year, on both sides of the table! Challenging though it has been, it’s a real testament to the resilience and flexibility of all our staff that we’ve been able to carry on almost as normal as we’ve welcomed our largest ever staff intake. We are now open for September 2021 applications in both our graduate and school leaver schemes. If you’re thinking of applying to join us and have any questions about how the virtual assessment format will affect you, please feel free to get in touch.

Sammy Ford

November 2020