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In 2020, Job Interviews Went Virtual. Here's How CRE Recruiters Are Making It Work

Recruiters agree one of the most dramatic adjustments they have had to make is how much less personal virtual interviews feel.

Social distancing, lockdowns and quarantines have changed the way we work, the way we meet, and when it comes to job searches, it is also changing the way we interview.

According to Kati Baker, the director of recruitment for Downtown Apartment Co., a brokerage in Chicago, the demands of the coronavirus pandemic forced a complete overhaul of its recruiting and hiring process in a matter of weeks.

“Prior to the pandemic, our interviews were all conducted in person, so this is the first time I've done virtual interviews,” she said. “It was a totally new experience for me.”

While DAC has made several new hires via the new, online process, every new technology has its pros, cons and learning curves. Bisnow checked in with Baker along with recruiters at Walker & Dunlop and Draper and Kramer about how they, and their candidates, are making the shift.

Virtual First Impressions

Recruiters agree one of the most dramatic adjustments they have had to make is how much less personal virtual interviews feel.

Olivia Karamol, a human resources associate with Draper and Kramer, said that while her company’s process for identifying candidates hasn’t changed much, the interview process has gone fully virtual, via Microsoft Teams, and that only positions with site-specific demands, such as certain property management positions, involve an in-person property tour and final in-person interview with the on-site team at the final stage.

She told Bisnow her department’s biggest challenge has been “that we’ve really lost that face-face interaction with candidates during in-person interviews.”

“At this point, most people have participated in video calls or Zooms, either for work or for personal reasons, and we all know how much harder it is to build a connection with someone — especially someone you’ve never met,” she said. 

Baker agreed virtual interviews are less personal (no handshakes, no welcoming people in and showing people around the office). It’s also harder to read people: “I worry that it can be harder to tell how genuine a person is when you are not in the same room with them,” she said.

That said, since Baker is usually seeing a candidate in their space, she has a different opportunity to learn more about them — their pets, home, decor and other visual hints at their personality and interests. And she can glean things about them even from the simple ability of being willing and able to log on: “I also get an idea for how well a candidate can pivot,” she said. “A candidate who is open to a Zoom interview and familiar with the platform seems more adaptable than one who is leery or hasn't used Zoom yet.”

Karamol agrees: “It’s that much harder to pick up on some of those cues we normally rely on in conversation that help us gauge the response of the person we’re talking with,” she said.

“That’s a challenge for us on the recruiting side, as well as for the candidates. With virtual interviews you also miss out on some of that casual chit chat that usually happens after the ‘formal’ portion of the interview is over. A conversation can start from anything, whether it’s a comment about the weather or the views from the office, and that’s always a time when you can get a glimpse of the candidate’s personality, and when the candidate can ask some follow-up questions in a more casual setting.”


She added that her team’s solution has been to be in touch more via email. 

“In a virtual interview process, I think it’s a real benefit to increase the communication, beyond the actual interview, for everyone involved,” she said. “It just helps everyone get a better picture of the candidate and whether they’re a fit.”

Making Candidates Comfortable

It’s not all about what a company thinks of a candidate — the learning curves of a virtual interview experience can work against hiring managers if candidates feel the process is disorganized, impersonal or just awkward.

Walker & Dunlop Vice President of Human Resources Nancy Maksomski said that when the company shifted to remote work in March, the recruiting team had to quickly shift to a new way of doing things — and that included making candidates feel welcome and providing a warm, positive experience even without the benefits of in-person interaction.

“Despite the current situation, it is still a candidate market and providing a welcoming experience has been key to the success of our new process,” she told Bisnow. “We provide candidates with details on what to expect during the interview process, ensure we are conveying the culture of Walker & Dunlop and are prepared to answer the question on how the firm has managed things through the duration of the coronavirus crisis and beyond.”

She added the firm has focused on continuing to build relationships with our diversity partners and college campuses, even without the ability to visit in person, and that hiring managers make the time for one-on-one Zoom meetings with all candidates, even if a group Zoom call feels as though it could get the job done.

Baker added that she must be intentional about conveying the right attitude on screen, too: “It’s important to dress to impress,” she said. “I always dress and prepare the same way that I would for an in-person interview. The candidate may not be able to see my entire outfit, but I can and it gets me in the proper mindset.”

And of course, there is Zoom fatigue to consider: “I typically make my Zoom interviews a little shorter than in-person interviews, as people tend to have a shortened attention span on Zoom and various distractions at home,” Baker said.

Scheduling In A Flash

One benefit of the shift to virtual, most recruiters agree, is efficiency. Baker said she was thrilled to learn — while navigating not only the shift in HR processes but having her fourth child during the pandemic — that with virtual recruiting, scheduling interviews is much quicker, and the interviews themselves are quicker too.

“I can work more efficiently this way,” Baker said. “As with others who have transitioned to work from home, my commute consists of walking across the house to my office.” 

In fact, it’s so much more efficient, there may even be a downside: “I think candidates are more likely to waste my time during this type of interview because it is easier for them to log in to a Zoom interview than it is to make a trip to the office,” she said. “And they may assume the same is true for me.”

Karamol also said virtual interviews save valuable time on both sides of the table.

“One thing I’ve discussed with our managers is the possibility of keeping our initial interviews virtual and then bringing candidates in for a final round of in-person interviews. Before the pandemic, we never did virtual interviews, but from a scheduling standpoint they’ve really worked out well for us,” she said.

“The other thing we like about the current system is the communication that’s happening between the hiring team and the candidate throughout the process, rather than having most of the communication going through HR. It’s a great way to loop everyone in and create that ongoing conversation that will help everyone decide if it’s the right fit.”