(Illustration by Z Wei/iStock by Getty Images)

You might imagine the Federal Bureau of Investigation to be a workplace where tradition and decorum trumps innovation and flexibility. But that assumption would be out of date. When COVID-19 hit, it forced virtually every organization to adapt–including the FBI. “Everything we thought we would do at the beginning of the year got tossed out the window,” said Peter Sursi, the agency’s senior executive for recruitment and hiring. “It’s been good in that we’ve been able to tell hiring managers: No matter what job you hire someone for, technology will change, the company will change, and you want someone who will learn, adapt and grow.”

Sursi spoke in a panel discussion on new ways of measuring skills in job candidates, part of From Day One’s conference this month on acquiring skilled talent in the year ahead. As companies adapted to new ways of organizing work, employees have adopted–and in some cases embraced–different skills. So what does that mean for job applicants and incoming employees? How can those skills be identified in the hiring process? What are the long-term implications for recruitment and building out a diverse-talent pipeline?

Moderated by Myla Skinner, chief of staff for the educational advocacy group OneGoal, the expert panelists told about the changes they’re making in the hiring process in light of the pandemic, remote work, and the racial-justice movement. Iriet Schulman, director of talent acquisition for Condé Nast, noted that recruiting significantly slowed when COVID-19 hit and allowed hiring managers to figure out an “action plan.” As hiring picks back up, there’s focus on “cultivating an inclusive vision,” she added. Jennifer McClellan, senior director of talent pipelines and specialty recruiting for the global software company Citrix Systems, added that with roles opening up, “managers are definitely being thoughtful about finding the right fit, but some also want to move quickly.”

One obvious change in recruitment is that the process happens virtually. “Being virtual has caused some problems and some openings,” said McClellan. For one thing, it may reduce the tendency of managers to hire subjectively. “Being able to see yourself in a candidate happens more so in person. The virtual ability has opened the hiring manager’s perspective, because they don’t see the immediate body language.” McClellan’s company has been exploring new ways to use virtual hiring to objectively assess its growing applicant pool.

Objectivity was an important topic throughout the panel and emphasized by Rob Bennett, senior director of sales for SkillSurvey, a provider of reference-checking, sourcing and post-hire solutions. “How do we get hiring managers to objectively–that’s key today–interview the final pool of candidates so they’re making the best decision for the organization, their team and their style?,” he asked.

McClellan shared some strategies. He suggested that diversity-and-inclusion leaders guide the company in adopting more objective interviewing skills and that hiring managers are trained accordingly. It’s less about advertising jobs in specific communities, but “how to help managers hire people that don’t just look just like them,” he said. “Organizations that are doing that in the hiring process are going to see the value of their organization grow tremendously due to the fact that they’re bringing in more inclusive behaviors. It’s going to show on their bottom line.”

McClellan said consistency is key: “We want to help hiring managers thinking about the competencies and sticking to consistency across their interviews, so that they really get a full picture when they’re comparing candidates.” Schulman added that an employer should also reflect diversity in its interviewing panel, “so that people who are interviewing can see someone they have someone in common with on the other end.”

Speakers on talent acquisition in the year ahead, clockwise from upper left: Myla Skinner of OneGoal, Jennifer McClellan of Citrix Systems, Iriet Schulman of Condé Nast, Rob Bennett of SkillSurvey and Peter Sursi of the FBI (Image by From Day One)

Flexibility was emphasized both for job candidates and the companies themselves. At the FBI, Sursi put a focus on “learning agility” for candidates. He’s also working with the organization’s internal hiring managers to set expectations for the quickly-changing workforce. “We have a very long-term culture that we don’t woo people, people come to us,” he said. “That’s great, but white guys come to us and other people don’t. I need you to woo a little bit more,” he tells managers.

Since the dramatic changes in corporate work are likely to continue for some time, adaptability will need to be an abiding value. “When you’re evaluating talent, you have to be thinking long term,” as Bennett put it. “The hardest group within our organization are going to be the managers, who are wondering why they might have to go back into the office. When we evaluate talent, are we going to measure them on that adaptability?”

At Condé Nast, Schulman said there is still some flexibility on employee location and working remotely. “From a candidate pool perspective, I’m seeing a lot of candidates applying who are not local,” she said. “I really think it depends on the role at hand and what the hiring managers are comfortable with.”

At the FBI, Sursi added, how to integrate telework into a traditionally in-person office will pose new challenges. Citrix Systems is taking advantage of remote work when it comes to tighter talent pools like IT. “You have to be thoughtful about how you engage those folks because I think everyone starts to suffer from virtual exhaustion,” McClellan said. “Balancing that with going back into the office–you’ve got to advertise [remote work] as an opportunity while still keeping that engagement a high priority in order to move the work forward.”

At the end of the panel, Skinner summed up a recurring theme about inclusion and engagement: “It’s actually not as much about the candidates coming in, but more about the work environment, the people internally, and how they orient to the candidates whether they’re remote, Gen Z, or millennials.”

As Schulman put it: “This last year has brought a lot of light to companies about inclusion, diversity and an equitable workforce. That’s something that’s always top of mind for me, as head of recruitment, and I know it’s top of mind for a lot of companies. I hope that doesn’t fade away.”

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.