Technology   //   February 15, 2021

Covid ‘forced us to be creative’: How AI is being used to recruit and onboard talent

As recruitment has shifted almost entirely online during the pandemic, more companies are incorporating artificial intelligence to assist with screening and hiring.

According to a recent study from The Sage Group, 24% of businesses have started using AI for acquiring talent, with 56% of managers planning to adopt automated technology over the next year. GlobalData forecasts that the market for AI platforms in general will reach $52 billion by 2024, up from $29 billion in 2019.

But that doesn’t mean we’ll be interviewing with robots anytime soon. 

Benjy Gillman, co-founder and CEO of the Tel Aviv-based virtual hiring platform myInterview, said the AI aspects of recruitment are simply a way to make the hiring process more efficient for the HR professional. The goal of AI is not to replace the HR professional, but streamline their process and allow them to dedicate their time to more creative and abstract tasks.

“Government, retail, banking and finance. What everyone’s got in common is, they’re doing inbound recruitment, there’s a lot of volume coming through, so instead of headhunting, software is coming into play,” said Gillman, who does business with companies ranging from Salesforce to McDonald’s. “This is an investment in the majority of your days.” 

Here’s how the myInterview service works: its software enables employers to ask candidates questions, then displays videos of those candidates alongside additional biographical information. It uses algorithms to match the right candidate with the right employer using principles like search, keywords, and best results. Videos can then be shared internally.

Another company using technology in HR processes is Tampa, Florida-based business process outsourcing firm Sykes Enterprises, which provides companies across sectors including media, finance and healthcare with teams, systems and technology.

Ian Barkin, chief marketing and strategy officer at Sykes and co-author of the book “Intelligent Automation: Welcome to the World of Hyperautomation,” said AI has transformed identifying and onboarding talent. “Our job is to find talent across the planet and evaluate that talent for skills that match what our clients need and train, nurture and maintain it,” he said. His company is using technology to perform HR functions like assessing the language capabilities of prospective employees and determining whether a prospect’s demeanor is the right fit for a client.

Technology merely streamlines what used to be analog functions of the hiring process, Barkin added. “Automation has always been a tool that’s enabled us to be more, whether it was the wheel and the steam engine or computing technology and algorithms,” he said. 

Eko, a New York and Tel Aviv-based firm that creates interactive experiences for brands like Walmart and Coca-Cola and agencies including Ogilvy and Havas, is one of the many companies that instituted virtual onboarding videos during the pandemic. Natalia Harris, VP of people operations, called them “an indispensable tool” for growing its team even with everyone working remotely.

The technology helped employees learn about Eko, its leadership and teams, mission and values in a way that felt comfortable and personalized, without meeting anyone in person. It also made the ramp-up period for new employees significantly quicker and more efficient, added Harris. Since implementing the videos, its 30-day post-hire survey results showed an 80% increase in understanding about the company and what it does. Managers have reported increased engagement and productivity and that onboarding time has halved.

The pandemic has merely amped up a process that HR departments had already begun to embrace. A study by Oracle and Future Workplace from 2019 revealed that half of 8,000 HR professionals interviewed said they used some aspect of AI in their work, an increase of 32% from the previous year.

“That’s the beauty of innovation — it’s often birthed and tested during unexpected times,” Harris said. “It’s important to us that our people feel included and prepared with the resources they need to succeed, but how do you do that over Zoom? Covid has forced us to be creative.” 

Barry Lowenthal, CEO of media planning and buying agency The Media Kitchen in New York, whose clients include Vanguard and Lane Bryant, said his firm has had to onboard several new “chefs” since instituting a work-from-home policy due to the pandemic, noting that such collaboration technologies as Zoom and Google Hangouts have been instrumental in that process. 

Naturally, there are some downsides to virtual hiring. “The biggest challenge is getting to know candidates when we aren’t meeting in person,” said Lowenthal. 

Some factors of the interview process have definitely been shaped by the technology — like whether you have a palm tree over your shoulder. 

Lowenthal has encouraged his associates not to judge job candidates by their virtual backgrounds, but suggests such things can be telling. “It’s important that candidates think about their virtual presentation,” he said, adding “how we view them is how clients will view them too, and what clients think matters, even while working from home.”

Confessions of a news editor on pandemic-coverage unintended consequences

How did your role change at the onset of Covid-19? 
We needed to invest more resources in news gathering so I was reassigned from my usual department — arts — to cover general news, an area I don’t have a lot of experience in. 

Was it stressful being reassigned to an unfamiliar area?
If I had been given more notice, and time to prepare for that change it may not have been. But I was told the night before that I was being reassigned the next morning and so I had no preparation. I was thrown into a senior position in a totally different area and I wasn’t ready for it. That’s affected me generally as a result, that’s a frustration. 

How has it affected you? 
The processes are very different in arts, culture news and general news, and the level of scrutiny is different. You have to be familiar with the subject. I was given no forewarning but told the day before what I’d be doing and that I’d be reporting to a different editor-in-chief. When I turned up I wasn’t shown what to do, so I kind of stumbled along, and the result was I made mistakes in front of everyone. We had a skeleton staff still going to the office for news meetings and the rest would attend via Zoom. The fact I wasn’t prepared or experienced in the area annoyed the editor and things kind of unravelled from there, and it’s therefore affected my job. 

Are you back in your usual department now? 
Yes, but because of how that experience went I’m no longer being considered in the development path I was previously on. So the opportunity that was previously set out for me, has now been blocked. No explanation has been given for why.  

Sounds like bad people management. 
I’d just call it plain terrible management. It happened because of the arrival of Covid because I was needed in other areas, but it’s more a reflection of how cut-throat newsroom culture is. My boss needed to protect himself, and whereas some bosses will go out on a limb for you, others won’t. It’s hugely frustrating.

Numbers don’t lie

  • 53% of c-suite execs said they have struggled with their own mental health in the wake of the pandemic — a higher number than their employees (HR leaders and managers), 45% of whom said they suffered mental health issues. Total poll size was 12,000 employees across 11 countries.
    [Source of data: Oracle and Workplace Intelligence.]
  • 98% of 200 agency employees polled want their workplace to adopt a permanent remote work policy, with 15% of agency owners, partners, and principals resistant to remote work.
    [Source of data: Float’s 2021 Global Agency Productivity Report.]
  • The global market value of flexible workspaces is estimated at an approximate $26 billion. With remote working and the demand for flexible working hours on the rise, the number of co-working memberships is predicted to rise 5.1 million by 2022
    [Source of data: Allwork.]

What else we’ve covered

  • A new working method — dubbed “asynchronous working” — is gaining traction among some businesses, as a way to both combat remote-working fatigue and capitalize on cultivating a more seamless cross-border collaboration among colleagues on client projects and pitches.
  • Ab InBeV’s in-house marketing team has thrived since the onset of the pandemic. The team has worked on a total 648 briefs during that time, up from 100 the previous year, and 26 new hires are on the books. But that’s not to say the ride has been totally smooth — managing teams remotely and across different continents has introduced new challenges for the teams. We spoke to the in-house marketing team’s managing director Dries Mertens on the details.
  • The hidden cost of the growth online advertising has seen during the Covid-19 pandemic can be found in how employees who have had to handle this influx of work are being treated. In this Confessions with an agency exec, the true working conditions (understaffed, underpaid and unappreciated) are revealed.

A good read

  • While there are no definite dates on full-scale returns to the office, publishers are sensitive to their staff’s fears over returning prematurely. Time, Harvard Business Review and MIT Technology Review talked through their plans on how to manage it.

This newsletter briefing is edited by Jessica Davies, managing editor of Digiday Future of Work.