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Recruiting During COVID-19: Expanding the Legal Team During the Pandemic

CEEIHM Issue 1.2.
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Barbara Chocholowska, Country Head of Legal Poland at HB Reavis, talks about the challenges presented by the COVID-19 outbreak in terms of hiring and inducting new colleagues into the in-house legal team.

CEEIHM: You have recently increased the size of your team. What drove those hires?

Barbara: Generally, 2020 has been a very busy year for our business, and that impacted the workload of the legal team as well. We were focused on two big projects in Warsaw: Varso Place – a complex of three high rise buildings – and Forest, a complex of campus-style buildings and a tower. In the meantime, we also sold one of our assets in Warsaw – Postepu 14 – in a deal that turned out to be one of the rare transactions in the market in COVID-19 times. On top of it all, the pandemic brought forth a lot of changes in legislation that our team had to look out for and implement. We had to expand our in-house capabilities to cope with all of this so we decided to recruit a few people during the year with a particular focus on bringing on specialized senior lawyers, mainly with experience in leasing transactions and general real estate and investment processes.

CEEIHM: What recruitment tool did you use? Would you say sourcing for candidates has changed in any way as a result of this year's events?

Barbara: We have an internal HR team that is responsible for all of the recruitment processes, including for the legal team. We use our own site to announce vacancies as well as external recruitment portals, including LinkedIn. We also encourage internal referrals. 

We did notice that a few things were slightly different this year. For instance, as the year progressed, we noticed that the general number of applicants decreased. It was our thinking – and it was sensed during some conversations we had with candidates – that, as the year progressed, many were wondering if this was indeed the right year to make any changes. Of course, that reluctancy was counter-balanced to some extent by those applicants who were on the job market because they had lost or were afraid about their job, but that may explain the other element that we noticed: The number of people applying for jobs despite not fully matching the announced requirements increased. I guess the economic climate made more people prone to be trigger-happy when it came to submitting their applications rather than self-censoring. 

CEEIHM: What was the selection process like? At what stage did the legal team get involved and how did you go about getting to know the candidates well enough to assess if they will be a good fit for your team in this year's context?

Barbara: As a rule, we have two-three interviews with a candidate and up to four for more senior positions. This year, we had to adjust to the new circumstances and adapt our process a bit. In most cases, most of the process was carried out online – something very different from previous years. The first interview was always via call or on-line communicators (such as MS Teams or Skype). We did, generally, try to have at least one face-to-face meeting, while naturally observing all the safety measures implemented by the company. We definitely prefer face-to-face contact, which is why we did our best to ensure at least one meeting happened in person. 

On average, the recruitment and selection processes took considerably longer this year – in many cases longer than we hoped. We even had instances where a meeting had to be postponed due to a COVID-19 case being identified, which caused delays. And we did notice that, as more and more time passed, the general availability of candidates would decrease. Some would reconsider their situation and decide to stay with their current teams while others simply found employment with other companies.

And yes, while we do look at a person's qualifications, experience, and knowledge, we also look at their personality and try to figure out to what extent they would be a good fit with our team. A Skype call is useful but it is nothing like face-to-face interaction. You cannot really get to know a candidate the same way when you are limited to online interactions, which is the main reason why we insisted on at least that one meeting in person, despite the delays it might cause. 

CEEIHM: And, in light of the COVID-19 context, what did the induction of your new colleagues look like? How did you go around introducing them to your business and other business functions?

Barbara: Most of the induction was done online. Some meetings were allowed in the office so there was a bit of a mix – but most were done remotely. That was a challenge for us, not just for myself as a team leader and the company, but also for the new person. I can imagine just how difficult it is to get to know a company when you work purely from home and you get to only interact with your team members online. We did try to factor that in, and, as much as possible, facilitate coming back to the office to give our new colleagues a chance to get to know the company and observe everything first-hand – from how the rules play out in practice to, simply, getting a chance to meet their colleagues.

CEEIHM: You talked about the limited ability to have newcomers interact with their colleagues. How do you expose a new colleague to an organization's culture in such a context?

Barbara: That really is a challenge. And I would point it's not just about newcomers. Even for us, who have been with the company for a while, it is difficult to work from home constantly and still keep in touch with the organization as a whole and feel the vibe. Thinking of the new team members' induction, it really requires a lot of dedicated effort to allocate time for one-on-one meetings. I found myself spending a lot of time in such online meetings just to help them wrap their head around all the ways of doing things. But I need to do that with all our team members – both old and new. I take the time for regular one-on-one status meetings as well as team calls with everyone to allow us all to sync up on ongoing matters on our agenda – but also to simply give everyone a chance to re-connect with the wider team.

CEEIHM: What advice would you give to any GC looking to make hires in the current setting?

Barbara: I'd keep in mind that recruitment in the current situation requires not just additional effort, as already described, but also a good degree of flexibility to be able to cope with unexpected elements popping up in the process. If you factor these things in, it is, ultimately, possible to bring in new colleagues successfully.

CEEIHM: If you had to redo either of the hires all over again, would you do anything differently?

Barbara: No, not that I can think of. We did face considerable challenges with unexpected things coming up, including, as I mentioned, planned interviews being canceled because of, for example, one of the participants being COVID-19-suspected or positive, but we learned to make peace with the fact that those are not really the kinds of things you can plan or prepare, for.

CEEIHM: Lastly, what, if any, do you think the long-lasting impacts of this pandemic will be on future recruitment processes?

Barbara: I would not be surprised if more of it took place online going forward – and I think GCs should accept that reality. It is not a perfect medium and we'll likely still always prefer real-life meetings but online conversations do allow for opportunities to get to know candidates that might be more efficient – even in basic instances where they may simply be located in another city. I do see these tools that we used a lot more these days, increasing their presence in the mix of options we will have in the future.

This article was published in issue 1.2 of CEE In-House Matters. The full edition is available here in pdf format, here in e-reader format, and here in electronic format.

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