What Are Six Ways to Improve Virtual Group Interviews?
We can’t use our old interview tricks anymore in a remote world.
This year, leading a Software Engineering team has been dramatically different for many of us compared to one year ago. We’ve all needed to learn how to transition our teams from working in person to working fully remotely.
As leaders, we’ve also needed to learn how to interview talent remotely for our software engineering teams. Before working from home, some of us have never interviewed a virtual candidate.
We may have had an initial phone screening, but our interview process's “meat and potatoes” were almost always performed in-person. We would even go as far as flying in candidates from all over the globe and interview them in the office instead of interviewing them where they are, at home.
We can’t use our old interview tricks anymore!
The interview-game has changed, and we must change with it.
Now that we are remote, we can’t build a relationship with the candidate like we might have prior. We can’t woo our candidates with our office space and a tour of our amenities or our proximity to hot-spots around town. We can’t take the candidate out to lunch to get to know them. We can’t give them SWAG (SWeet Awesome Gear) to take home with them.
We also can’t run the interview like we used to. We can’t have the candidate go up to the board to problem-solve in-person. We can’t play off of each other as easily by using physical gestures or eye contact. We must adapt and practice new strategies and tactics for holding group interviews in a remote setting.
Why hold group interviews in the first place?
Great question. Some of you may have solved this riddle by excluding the group interview practice altogether. Instead, you might hold one-on-one conversations with candidates, and you might have a separate, individual conversation with different interviewers.
I’ve found that group-interviews are valuable because it does a few things.
First, it ensures the candidate isn’t getting the same question repeatedly, causing a stale and redundant candidate experience.
Second, it allows all of us to hear the same answer at the same time. This helps us make sure that we are talking about the same thing and not different versions of the same thing as a candidate might adjust their answer in a one on one interview process.
Third, it allows the candidate to see the team working together. We think this is a strength of ours as we joke together and play off one another. This helps create a more fun atmosphere, and the candidate is interviewing you as much as you are interviewing them. This will give them a better sense of what it might be like working with the team.
What are six ways to improve virtual group interviews?
So, how do we do it? Many leaders and teams are experiencing this change as we learn and grow in this remote world. This list is based on over six months of remote interviews and iteratively improving the process each time.
This list should help you and your team create a better group-interview experience for your candidates and help you run your interviews more effectively.
1. Pre-plan, have a run-of-show
Now that we are all remote, we need to have much more polish about how we run our interviews. When we were in person, we were able to play off each other’s body language. We were able to make eye contact and figure out how to change on the fly.
If we tried doing this the same way on Zoom, we would stumble all over ourselves. Constantly cutting in between each other creates a poor candidate experience.
Instead, have a plan. Have an actual run-of-show that the interview group knows ahead of time. Each person has a role in the interview, and it’s designated before the interview starts. This eliminates the fumbling and mumbling by creating a more fluid experience throughout.
A run-of-show might look something like this. (Note: These are made up to illustrate what a run-of-show could look like)
A. Introductions— Interview Captain (10 min)
B. Background questions — Engineer One (15 min)
C. Technology questions — Engineer Two (30 min)
D. Code exercise — Engineer One (45 min)
E. Team questions — Interview Captain (15 min)
F. Candidate questions — Candidate (At least 15 min)
G. Closing and next steps— Interview Captain (5 min)
When we ran our first virtual interview, we did not have this structure level, and we fell on our faces. Now, we all know how to create an experience for the candidate that is more smooth because we have a clear plan going in.
2. Have an interview captain
This person coordinates the flow. They are the primary person introducing the candidate and directing traffic. They act as a hub between each phase of the show by passing the focus to the right person at the right time. When we get stuck, this person takes over, and we follow their lead.
They start the show. They end the show. This person isn’t always the Team Leader, either. The interview captain can be someone on the team. It’s a role, not a title. The interview captain is critical to make sure our transitions are smooth, and the overall experience is good for the candidate.
3. Camera management
The first time we hosted a virtual group interview, we did not have a camera strategy. Some of us had our cameras on. Some of us had our cameras off. Some of us switched between the two randomly. We learned quickly that this is distracting to the candidate and to our team interviewing them.
Create a camera management strategy. Ours is simple. When we start the interview, all of our cameras are on. We want to show our smiling faces and make it feel like we are in-person. We keep our cameras on during the introduction phase of our interview. We then explain to the candidate what to expect when it comes to cameras.
We turn our cameras off except for the person speaking with the candidate during their run-of-show time-slot. We’ve learned that this creates a focus for the two people speaking, and it makes it less intimidating compared to looking at everyone the entire time. When that person is done with their part, the next person turns their camera on, and the person who just finished, turns theirs off.
Towards the end, when we answer the candidate's questions and share the next steps, we all turn our cameras on. We say thank you, smile, and then the interview is over. Camera management has been a helpful modification to our process that has made the experience for everyone more seamless, intimate, and less intimidating.
4. Send materials ahead of time
This one takes a little prep-work, but it pays off in the end. Before making any changes to our process, we used to show up to the virtual call, and we would have the candidate work out their camera, code, and other issues on the fly. I’m sure you could have guessed, this wasted time and caused some frustrating hiccups.
Now, we make sure the candidate knows what software we are using, Zoom, Teams, or something else. We ask them to have a code editor that can run our version of our stack installed. We even go as far as providing some files ahead of time to have them ready to go when they arrive.
This takes preparation, but it has helped tremendously. We save time. The candidate doesn’t feel like they are debugging screen-sharing issues in front of us, and the candidate can start to get their heads in the right space due to the files we share. We continue to iterate here, but it’s been a big win for us.
5. Have a channel on the side to coordinate and chat
We mostly use Slack, so when we host an interview, we set up a channel for our interview group to coordinate and communicate. This helps us with our run-of-show by communicating how much time is left, and we use it to queue up who’s next.
We also leverage this Slack channel to align if we need to pivot. “Don’t you just follow the run-of-show,” you ask? We do, but it’s mostly a guideline. All interviews require some adjustment based on the candidate’s answers, and the chat is extremely valuable for us to communicate, align, and pivot.
6. Host a retro
Usually, after the interview ends, groups come together to discuss their notes, and there is a decision if they want to move forward or not.
Don’t stop there.
Spend five minutes talking about the interview itself and highlight what went well and where the process can improve. This has proven to be useful for us to improve our interview experience continuously. Find an inch. Find an owner to improve it. Try it next time. Repeat.
Where do you start?
Part of this process is figuring out where to start. I recommend you start by forming an “interview group.” This group will be a dedicated team of people who will practice this system.
They will define, learn, and grow together. Part of building a seamless system is forming a stable framework to grow within. In this, that framework is the group of people who are practicing together. As the team learns, the process improves. This doesn’t need to be a large team, heck, it could be a pair, but it’s more than one.
After you build the interview group, create the run-of-show, and try it out. Host a retro, identify opportunities, grow, and then go! Repeat forever, or until you fill your hiring needs.
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