COVID-19 - How and what has changed?
16 February 2021
Written by Ben Brown
I recently spoke with Coralie Holman, Head of Commercial Property Services at Wealden District Council around how COVID-19 has affected the workplace and recruitment process.
At the start of the year, it was considered somewhat of a rarity for employees to be able to work from home. Those forward-thinking, technologically sound businesses were few and far between especially when it came to public sector organisations such as Local Authorities. Many authorities considered Zoom and Microsoft Teams to be unsuitable communication channels for a business to function correctly. Fast forward to March 2020 and this all changed overnight. Lockdown restrictions forced office workers to set up camp in spare bedrooms, dining room tables and any corner of their home that they could find to quietly carry on with their job.
Undoubtedly, some Local Authorities not already set-up for working from home will have struggled to find their feet and scrabbled to implement adequate technology to ensure direct communication with customers and their team could continue. However, now almost 12 months down the line, most authorities have now fully adapted to this new way of working and many of the virtues have been praised.
So how have Local Authorities and their recruitment process coped with the new world we now live in? See below some key areas that myself and Coralie discussed;
How has COVID 19 affected Council property teams?
It was clear from Coralie that actually for her teams, COVID has not massively affected their working practices and how they function. Fortunately, they were an authority that already worked a flexible working approach and were well set up for homeworking so the transition to homeworking has been very smooth and it is very much ‘business as usual’. The one perhaps exception to this would be when surveyors have to ‘get out on site’, this is now done only when absolutely necessary and is fully risk assessed before happening.
What obstacles have you faced as a hiring manager?
When discussing this with Coralie, it again was clear that due to the authorities ease of working remotely and flexibility, she had not incurred huge obstacles. However, one key area that was discussed was around a loss of informal support. With the team now working remotely Coralie is unable to check in on a casual basis with members of the team, for example quickly swinging by their desk or grabbing a tea to talk things over. Working remotely has now meant a more formal approach to this, through scheduling Zoom and Teams calls, which has led to a lack of social support you would get in an office.
Coralie also spoke around onboarding staff as one area she has perhaps found difficult. I think it is fair to say a lot of the onboarding can be done remotely especially when looking at more experienced members of the team, Coralie explained. However, she explained that not meeting people face to face and striking off those relationships at the start of the employment, was difficult. For example there are people in her team that she has in fact never met face to face!
The main obstacles / challenges for Coralie came with striking those personal relationships with team members and having that social interaction which can be key sometimes to build and nurture talent within teams.
With homeworking here to stay, are you now considering candidates from further afield?
It was quite clear that Coralie’s attitude hasn’t changed a huge amount on this. She has never been very strict on the geographical location of people, especially when looking at interim roles. However, even with remote working she would not consider people in the north west for example because it simply does not work for site visits etc. She explained that it is natural to always favour people that live closer to Hailsham.
Realistically you still need to be happy to travel to the council once or twice a week as and when the work requires it, especially when looking at more transactional surveying roles with site visits.
How to interview in the new world of Zoom and video calls?
Coralie and I spoke at depth around how interviewing has drastically changed with it all being via video calls. She was very clear on how the individual needs to have their tech in correct working order!
What happens if the call is of bad quality or you don’t turn your camera on?
Coralie explained that if she carries out an interview, she likes to have the ability to have that personal face to face discussion, hence wouldn’t feel comfortable interviewing without a working camera and for the sound to be clear. It was evident that from conversations with Coralie, her preference is, if it’s not working, then rearrange! It would be much better to cancel to original interview and then revisit it once everything is running smoothly.
Should we just have a phone call?
Again, the best thing to do in this situation is rearrange for when you can do a video chat. She explained that she does not phone interview and it is imperative you have a visual aspect when proceeding through the interview.
What do I wear?
Not your PJs or sportswear! Coralie explained that they don’t expect a full suit or dress but treat the occasion with respect and be sensible in your appearance! Wearing a smart shirt / blouse is perfectly acceptable. It is always best to overdress than underdress!
Top Tip for interviewing and applying for roles?
Be yourself! Coralie explained that one of the main attributes she looks for in applicants (both Interim and Permanent positions) is for their ability to gel with her team and to get a sense of how their personality will fit with the team.
Often is the case once you have got to interview stage, Coralie already knows you are able to do the job but you will now be more judged on how you can mould to the team and place of work.
With the employment market being extremely competitive at the moment with an influx of people looking work all at a similar skill and experience level, it is so important to get your personality and to strike a relationship with the interviewer when interviewing.
Will there be any positives to take out of COVID-19?
It is very obvious the glaring negatives and difficulties that we have all had to deal with through the last 12 months but Coralie eluded to one very positive coming from all of this.
As discussed, Wealden and more specifically Coralie’s teams operated a good remote working set up even before COVID-19, but she has said moving forward that agile and flexible working will be the approach that she adopts for all of her teams. Working 5 days in the office is most likely to replaced with a flexible and agile working week where individuals can pick and choose where they work. Coralie believes this leads to a happier and more efficient work force. This is something that perhaps would have never been considered before the pandemic, not to this extent.
To conclude my conversation with Coralie was both interesting but also reassuring. It was great to hear about how her team and recruitment strategies have adapted through COVID-19 but it was also similarly great to hear that in actual fact with a lot of practices and areas, ‘it is business as usual’.