If you’re job hunting right now, chances are you’re also interviewing remotely.
There are some serious upsides to this. You can avoid tardiness (no traffic snarls), reference notes without being too obvious, and if you’re located in a rural area, you now have access to the same opportunities as city dwellers, saving you $$$.
There are also downsides. Combined with technical problems — like forgetting you’re unmuted or having a cat filter stuck on your face — virtual interviews can go horribly wrong. You’re unable to visit physical offices, meet potential teammates, and get a clear sense of a company’s culture. Last but not least, now that more people have access to more (remote) jobs, your competitors, like your opportunities, have likely increased.
Through our latest research on remote hiring, we wanted to know, given these pros and cons, how can job candidates really stand out during the virtual interview process?
We watched 513 video recordings of remote interviews from around the world — 55% from North and South America and 45% from Europe and Australia — conducted during March and November of 2020. We analyzed both recruiter and participant responses, as well as data from the actual interview processes (how long was the interview?), aesthetics (what background did the candidate and the interviewer use?), and participant engagement (did the candidate develop a rapport with the employer?).
Of the 72% of job candidates we observed who did not bag offers, the majority (around 80%) appeared to be distracted, failed to engage their recruiter in a meaningful way, or seemed as though they were reading from a script. Simply put, they failed to make an impression because of poor interviewing skills. On the other hand, candidates who had a strong virtual presence, displayed confidence, and were able to communicate clearly and establish a natural rapport with their interviewers, proved to be much more successful. In fact, of the 28% of participants who did receive job offers, the majority (around 90%) stood out because they mastered the tips highlighted below.
Based on our research, here are four practices you can use to turn your next virtual interview into a job offer.
1) Set up your space.
Yes, you can do your interview wearing formal clothes on top and PJs on bottom. But you still need to control how the illusion of you is coming across on a 9×16 screen. Virtually, there will be fewer opportunities to infuse the conversation with your uniqueness and emotions. You will need to use your space, and your environment, to create a strong and lasting impression.
Have a clean, uncluttered background: Our advice here is not for you to start rearranging your entire room. Just find a spot that is simple and free of distractions (like a blank wall or one that has a few pictures hanging on it). If your background is too cluttered, it will pull the recruiters attention away from you. You can even choose a simple virtual background instead of propping yourself in front of a messy bookshelf. Contrary to previous research, we found that unconscious biases were less likely to creep into the decision making process when candidates had a clean backdrop. Ninety-seven percent of the recruiters we spoke to preferred virtual backgrounds of office settings over beaches, mountains, or outer space.
Check your lighting: You want recruiters to view you in the best light possible; both figuratively and literally. During your call, light yourself from the front. If your light source is behind you, you’ll turn into a mysterious silhouette, and the recruiter will spend their time trying to see you as opposed to focusing on what you have to say. If you have a desk light, position it towards your face so you’re clearly visible. Try to use cool rather than warm light. Cool light emits a modern, clean, and brighter look, which was favored by 95% of the recruiters we spoke to.
Do a speed test: Poor internet = poor communication. To ensure your internet is working at optimum speed, ask family members or roommates to log out while you’re in your interview. If you don’t trust your WiFi, connect by plugging in your local area network (LAN) cable. You can also test your connection through a simple Google search for “Internet speed test.” We can’t stress how important this is — 88% of recruiters told us that their number one pet peeve during an interview is an internet lag, as it breaks the flow of the conversation.
Pro Tip: Remember, it’s the upload speed (you’re “uploading” your video) that you need to test, not the download speed.
2) Prepare for the unexpected.
Unlike traditional face-to-face interviews, virtual interviews can be conducted from the comfort of your home. Despite the familiar setting, you may still encounter some unexpected situations.
Master the platform: Become an expert on whatever platform is chosen for your interview (WebEx, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc). If you have not used it before, download the interface and practice the features by doing some mock calls with a family member or a friend. In 41% of interviews we studied, technology caused breakdowns. In one interview, the candidate appeared upside down the entire time, as they couldn’t figure out the camera. In 22% of successful interviews, the candidates offered their interviewer tips for video call shortcuts.
Keep notes handy, but don’t refer to them too often: During job interviews, it’s standard for recruiters to ask candidates for examples of their most impactful work. Don’t let this unnerve you in the moment. Create a printout or Word document of notes with crisp bullet points highlighting a few projects you want to share. Sort your projects under two or three headers: accomplishments, research, and voluntary work.
We suggest no more than one page of notes. Forty-two percent of unsuccessful job candidates appeared overwhelmed by their notes, and were obvious when reading from them. They scrolled through documents on their laptops or continuously looked down at their desks. The goal is to refer to your notes minimally. Use them only to remind you of points you have already practiced.
Keep calm: If you feel stressed or overwhelmed at any point during the call, it’s okay to ask your recruiter for a moment to gather yourself. You could say, “Could I take few seconds to think and answer?” Recruiters will appreciate your ability to stay calm under pressure instead of fumbling. This was a major deciding factor in 72% of the interviews observed.
Pro Tip: Write your notes on three or four flashcards, using bold headers to label each point you want to make. They will be less visually distracting and you can avoid scrolling through a 300-word document.
It’s easier to pick up important cues from facial expressions, gestures, body language, or tone when you meet someone face-to-face. However, these are often lost or more difficult to pick up remotely.
Monitor your pace: Speak neither so slowly that your recruiter falls asleep, nor so fast that they find it difficult to keep up. Our research suggests speaking at 115 words per minute (wpm) is ideal (the average for audiobooks and TED Talks are 150 and 173 respectively).
Your speaking rate is the total number of words you speak divided by the number of minutes you take to speak them. To practice speaking at an optimal rate, record yourself speaking for a few minutes. Then, use a speech-to-text converter — like IBM’s speech-to-text service — to transcribe your audio clip. To calculate your word count, paste that transcription into Microsoft Word and use the word count tool, or use a word counting tool online. Divide your word count by the length (in minutes) of your original recording. For example, if your word count is 500 words and it took you three minute to speak those words aloud, you would divide 500 by three, and end with a wpm of 166. Once you know what rate you speak at, it will be easier to practice speaking faster or slower, depending on what number you got.
We found specifically that when candidates were nervous, they spoke faster (upwards of 140 wpm) meaning recruiters became irritable, and 38% of the time, interrupted candidates by asking them to slow down. By maintaining a steady amount of words per minute and taking time to pause before important points, you’ll not only better connect with your interviewer, but you will also ooze confidence, even if you’re nervous on the inside.
Use hand gestures: In our study, 89% of successful candidates used wide hand gestures for big and exciting points, while moving their hands closer to their heart when sharing personal reflections. Your body language can impact what you’re saying and how you come across. Our research also found that you can connect to your interviewer just by keeping an open posture and remembering not to cross your arms. When people connect with you, they’re more likely to trust the information you are sharing.
Look into your webcam, not at your reflection: Our study is consistent with previous research that found making eye contact is the first step to building trust with your recruiter, because “eyes play a key role in human social encounters.” We found that 79% of unsuccessful candidates didn’t do this well. We recommend framing yourself in a way where you’re not too far from the camera (we suggest no more than two feet). Make sure your head and top of your shoulders dominate the screen, and as you’ve heard before, look into the camera when you speak.
Pro tip: Turn off video mirroring so you’re not tempted to look at yourself while you speak.
4) Don’t perform a monologue; spark conversations.
Zoom calls are more monotonous than their in-person alternatives. Your main challenge during the interview itself will be keeping the conversation lively.
Be interested: Eighty-nine percent of the successful candidates in our study conversed with their recruiters in a natural, candid way. How? They showed genuine interest in their interviewer by asking questions. Our research found some of the most engaging questions were: “How does the team communicate right now? What tools do you use to collaborate? How do you monitor remote work? Does the office have a virtual Friday happy hour where I could meet new colleagues?” Some of the least engaging questions were questions that one can easily find answers to online, such as, “Where is the company based?” or “What awards have you recently won?”
Find common interests: Do some pre-work to see if you and your interviewer share any interests. Most companies will tell you who you are meeting with ahead of time. This means you can, and probably should, Google them. Explore what kind of articles they post or share on LinkedIn, what groups they’re a part of, what conferences they spoke at, or what kind of voluntary work they do. When the conversation starts to dry up, ask them about these things. Eighty-one percent of the unsuccessful candidates we observed had trouble filling dead air, missed social cues, and gave monologue-style answers to questions without engaging the other person at all, which ultimately bored their interviewers.
Ask questions. There’s always an opportunity to ask questions about the office and the culture in an interview, but when you interview remotely, you’re going to be left with more questions than usual (what the office and facilities are like, how big and diverse the team is, how the company culture feels, etc.). Whatever you want to know, ask. Don’t worry about looking silly. The recruiter will appreciate your curiosity.
That said, don’t just ask about the office and your benefits. We suggest asking questions about the kind of technology you’ll have access to when working remotely, if you’d be working in a hybrid team, or how success is measured at the organization. Eighty-five percent of successful candidates asked these kinds of questions to demonstrate their values and priorities, while revealing vital bits of information about their personality. For example, you could ask, “Do you have a flexible work policy?” Then bookend your question with, “I’ve been volunteering as an English teacher for marginalized communities twice a week and it would be great to be able to continue doing that.”
Pro Tip: If your interviewer is looking bored — maybe they’re flicking through their notes or starting to fidget — they probably are. Wrap up your answer before you lose their attention. And always remember to bookend your answers with personality!
For better or worse, remote hiring is here to stay. While there are many unrivaled benefits to this, you need to do your bit to ace this relatively new process. Remember, trousers are optional, outstanding delivery is not.