Hiring During Lockdown: How We’ve Grown Our Startup in These Uncertain Times  

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According to a report by CNBC, the number of payrolled jobs lost since the start of the global coronavirus pandemic is more than double the number lost during the Great Recession. The same report features testimony from a number of recent graduates who have had job offers withdrawn due to the economic shutdown, creating a semi-hidden tier of additional employment loss. We are potentially looking at an entire generation of lost workers.

As awful as the situation is for those facing job losses and offer withdrawals, it’s not difficult to see why it’s happening. These are unprecedented times, and we’re not yet sure of the scale of the damage.

I consider myself lucky. The challenges my business faces are altogether different. We are hiring and need to continue hiring. Being in this position while most people are frightened to leave their homes has given me and my colleagues reason to stop and think about what’s going on.

My company, Offers365, was founded in 2019. To meet our growth targets for 2020 and deliver for our clients, we have found ourselves simply needing more people. A few short weeks before the lockdown, we received investment to help us achieve this. So, we’re in the unusual position of having the funding, the requirements, and the appetite to hire, but we face an interesting set of challenges.

Selling the Dream in a Changing Landscape

One advantage we have is that we have always been location independent. I am based in the UK, and our cofounder is based in Amsterdam. We’ve been open to recruiting and working remotely from the start — but this year’s events may quickly neutralize that advantage for us.

Until March, remote work was a relatively novel and highly desired perk. The pandemic has changed that. Jack Dorsey recently announced that both of his companies, Twitter and Square, would allow employees to work remotely permanently. Similarly, Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke announced  his company would become “digital by default,” boldly proclaiming that “office centricity is over.”

This is both good and bad news. Remote work allows candidates to look beyond their own local borders for opportunities, but it also raises the level of competition. You’re no longer competing against the best people in your city — you’re competing against the best people in the world. Similarly, for employers like us, we’re no longer only competing against a narrow subset of employers that have embraced remote work — we’re competing against everyone. Remote work is now a standard arrangement, not a differentiating perk.

So we need to differentiate in another way. Many of the high-caliber candidates we seek are considering multiple job offers, many from mature organizations. As a startup, we can be viewed by some candidates as a potential risk. To overcome that perception, we need to “sell the dream.” We need to communicate clearly where we see our business heading and the part the candidate will play in that journey.

For some people, there’s something exhilarating about getting in on the ground floor of a young business and becoming an influential member of a small team. The opportunity outweighs the natural caution associated with joining a less established business. We’re keen to tap into that mentality and filter out the candidates who wouldn’t thrive in such an environment, so we’ve spent time developing candidate profiles and personas we can target with our recruitment messaging.

We’re also keen to differentiate ourselves from other startups. We’re young and ambitious as a business, but we’re not naive. This isn’t our first rodeo, so to speak, and we want to communicate to candidates that our team has a wealth of commercial experience. While young businesses can be exciting places to be, there’s often an absence of perceived prestige. To that end, we want candidates to understand the caliber of the clients we work with.

Mature and established businesses may have an easier time selling the traditional career dream. They’ve also — until recently — had the advantage of brick-and-mortar premises to bring the dream to life. Instagrammable offices, with their exposed brick walls, hammocks, and other quirky accoutrements, are designed to help candidates visualize themselves living their career dreams. We’ve never relied on that, and in this present moment, we no longer have to compete with it. Zoom is the great leveler.

A New Chance to Let Talent Shine

Lockdown has changed what hiring looks like. The logistics of interviews are much less demanding. Even fully remote businesses used to conduct face-to-face interviews, which required plenty of planning, travel, and schedule coordination. This is no longer a concern. The idea of working with people you’ve never met in person suddenly doesn’t seem so strange.

We’re also looking into how we structure our screening processes to ensure we get the best out of every candidate. In an interesting article for The Athletic,  Stuart James talks about how the return of English Premier League football (or “soccer,” for the American readers) could be a chance for “training world champions.” Those players who are world-beaters on the training pitch but who underperform in front of crowds may finally be able to shine when teams began to play matches without live audiences. Those personalities exist in all walks of life. We need to find ways to accommodate them. Perhaps a few shorter interviews by video call, without the stress and hassle of going to an unfamiliar office, was a better approach all along.

Further challenges lie ahead. We’re working on getting remote onboarding as right as we can in the circumstances. We’re mindful of the asymmetry at play: people joining our company post-lockdown haven’t had the benefit of informal chats and socializing with colleagues. They’re coming into an environment where people have already established face-to-face relationships. Will that create divisions? Will post-COVID hires form cliques? Will it be a disadvantage to have never observed a colleague’s body language? These are just some of the things we’re considering as we look to grow our team.

Seun Olabisi is founder and director at Offers365.

By Seun Olabisi