(Illustration by dem10, iStock by Getty Images)

When the pandemic hit, the crisis forced the 850-store retailer Party City into a furlough process. Six months later, the company has rehired those employees, launched recruitment for the holiday season and has hit 98% of its hiring goal, according to Matt Battista, Party City’s director of talent acquisition.

“There wasn’t a playbook–we knew it would be challenging to hit our hiring numbers this year, given the state of everything going on,” said Battista, whose company is now at roughly 22,000 people. “We had to be strategic.”

Battista was joined by four other experts in recruitment for a recent From Day One webinar, moderated by Fast Company contributing editor Lydia Dishman, on how companies are adapting their recruiting techniques in the age of remote work and COVID-19. Each panelist also shared strategies for how their company plans to adapt into the new year.

Leah Daniels, SVP for Appcast, a developer of programmatic job-advertising technology, laid out data her company has tracked about how COVID-19 has affected recruitment and the workplace. To start, there’s some good news: “You have to be in awe of the entire recruiting industry in how much change it has absorbed and that it’s been done in a positive way,” she said, which includes such techniques as virtual interviews.

Despite talk about remote work becoming a more permanent fixture, “the data isn’t supporting that,” said Daniels. Just 2% to 3% of overall jobs were designated as fully remote prior to the pandemic. Today, it’s only slightly higher, Daniels said. “The takeaway for me is that companies are still hedging their bets that remote work isn’t here to stay. Even if you work remote today, you may not be working remote tomorrow.” Company recruitment, she added, has not fully embraced the “work from anywhere” attitude for the long term.

The expert panelists, top row: Lydia Dishman of Fast Company (center) and Genil Washington of Stanford Health Care. Center row: Caroline Dudley of Accenture, Zachary Larson of G4S, and Matt Battista of Party City. Bottom row: Leah Daniels of Appcast (Image by From Day One)

Data also revealed that the CARES Act, the $2 trillion economic-relief program, impacted recruiting, with companies struggling to bring on new employees at a time of generous unemployment benefits. Though the CARES Act benefits have largely ended, many parents are still preoccupied with child care and remote learning. “There are still a group of people who haven’t reentered the workforce,” Daniels pointed out, and those workers are predominantly female and people of color. That disproportionate effect has presented an obstacle to corporate efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion, she said.

Though remote work may eventually recede to a significant degree, the panelists offered many insights into how company recruitment has adapted for the present and what new tools may stick around. Party City set up a virtual hiring platform and started leveraging text messages to reach out to potential job applicants, which resulted in a 500% increase in responses.

As Daniels put it, more companies are adopting the “gig-economy approach” to hiring, “where you can frontload a good portion of the process through the application, the acceptance, the background check, and even sometimes doing touchless, no-interview hiring.”

Caroline Dudley, managing director of North American recruiting for the professional services firm Accenture, thinks about the full job-candidate experience–“How can we make sure they have a connection to the company, a seamless experience, and can be moved at a pace that is authentic to the company needs and views?” Accenture utilizes tech tools to seek candidates from a “broader starting point” and make the process as intentional as possible. That approached has produced opportunities for more diverse hiring–to meet goals of 50/50 gender parity and more racial diversity–through digital sourcing, referrals and partnerships with organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers.

Genil Washington, director of talent acquisition at Stanford Health Care, emphasized that a company’s priority on inclusion can be used as “a compelling value proposition” for diverse job candidates. On Stanford Health’s career page, “we’re really tracking where people spend their time so we’re serving content that’s meaningful,” she said. “That also aligns with how people relate to our mission, vision and values.” Daniels pointed out that only 1.5% of job ads talk about diversity programs, which she views as a lost opportunity.

All the panelists noted that internal promotions are an important part of recruitment. Zachary Larson, senior director of HR Shared Services–Recruitment Center for G4S, a security-services company, described the company’s internal software, Promote Me!, which alerts current employees to open positions. The company also supports lateral moves in which employees can add to their skill sets.

The speakers agreed on the unexpected benefits of virtual interviewing. Battista said Party City’s process of mass hiring for the holidays has gone well with an increased show rate. At Accenture, more company leaders across the globe can sit in on interviews. G4S utilizes pre-recorded interviews, in which candidates record their responses to prompts beforehand. Those videos can be shared with various hiring managers.

For candidates with limited access to the internet, both G4S and Party City developed strategies to promote inclusion. G4S offers a link to its virtual interview, as opposed to an app that needs to be downloaded. The company also offers brief troubleshooting for tech issues and switches to phone communication if they cannot be resolved. Party City doesn’t require a camera for interviews, but found candidates overwhelmingly had access to video. “We had a little over 500 interviews and every single one of them was virtual–none of them opted to do it by phone,” Battista said.

These shifts in recruitment have set a different tone for the future, especially in the health-care industry. “While I do understand the metrics that remote work isn’t here to stay, we are looking, at least in health care, to more opportunities to enable a more remote workforce,” said Stanford Health Care’s Washington. It’s particularly impactful given the company’s location, in Silicon Valley, where a diverse workforce can’t necessarily afford to live. “From a tech perspective, tech talent for Black and Latinx people may not reside in the Bay Area,” she pointed out.

As far as the traditional recruitment metrics, panelists said their companies relaxed or shifted them to respond to frequent changes brought by the pandemic. Daniels compared the past six months to a rollercoaster, with some companies far exceeding sales goals and others stopping business and needing to completely realign. “The goals stopped being goals, and became moving targets,” she said.

“One of our goals,” as Dudley put it, “became agility.”

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.