The last few months have been tough for workers and jobseekers. The number of employees in the UK on payroll fell by almost 650,000 in June compared to March, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics as the coronavirus pandemic pushed the economy into record decline.

Not all sectors have been equally hit though. Alice Kirkland marketing manager at life sciences recruitment firm Carrot Pharma Recruitment says new roles in the medical industry have remained relatively steady, although some companies did pause recruitment at the start of lockdown.

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Medical sales jobs have probably been hit the worst in the pharma sector, she points out. “The sales reps were taken off the roads because they were unable to schedule appointments in hospital settings,” she says, but reveals these roles have started to pick up again.

Kirkland says other vacancies, such as medical communications and market research, have been pretty buoyant throughout the crisis. It’s likely these jobs have fared better because they already lent themselves to remote working.

Attract the right talent

But that doesn’t mean hiring for new roles remotely has been a breeze. Working from home has been an adjustment for everybody who was used to spending their working day in an office. And it’s been even more challenging for companies looking to recruit staff and onboard new candidates.

Kirkland says getting to grips with the most appropriate video-conferencing software has been a particular stress. But now that the initial tech teething problems have settled down, pharma companies are realising there is a lot they can still achieve remotely when recruiting.

To help the pharma sector with the additional challenges presented in lockdown, Carrot put together several online guides to reassure the industry that it could still recruit successfully in a challenging time. Paradoxically, the crisis may have led firms to promising candidates they never would have met in normal times.

“This is an ideal time to attract candidates who might not necessarily have been looking for a new role before lockdown,” explains Kirkland.

The coronavirus pandemic has made many people pause and think seriously about changes they’d like to make in their lives. It’s also been a good time to update CVs and participate in online courses. And of course, working from home has made it easier to do a sneaky job interview on your lunch break.

“A lot of candidates might also have realised within the first couple of weeks of lockdown that their current company hadn’t supported them as well as they thought they should have,” points out Kirkland.

Onboarding remotely

Once you’ve found the right candidate and they’ve passed their reference checks, the next challenge is how to welcome them to the company when you’re not able to meet in person. It’s critical to ensure your onboarding processes are up to scratch if they have to be done remotely.

“It’s quite a new one for pretty much everybody,” acknowledges Kirkland. “Normally even if you were working in a remote role beforehand, you might have been brought into the office the first week to get to know your team and the company culture.”

Carrot has found that on average new starters decide within the first three months of beginning a new job whether they’re going to stay with that company for the long haul. So, employers have to make sure they make a good first impression. That means ensuring that the new starter has the right technology. Ergonomics are vital too – does your new recruit have a comfortable chair and desk to do their work on?

One-to-ones are perhaps even more important when everyone’s working remotely. It’s difficult to gauge how well your direct report is getting on if you’re not regularly checking in with them.

“But don’t neglect the human side,” says Kirkland, who suggests sending new starters a little welcome package. “There’s usually a sense of celebration around starting a new job, and if you don’t get that whilst working remotely, you might not create a connection with the company.”

Even small gestures can make a difference, such as inviting the team to spend the last half hour of the week having virtual drinks so a new starter can feel welcome and start to bond with their new colleagues.

Lessons for the future

Many companies will be returning to their offices as lockdown eases, but it remains to be seen whether some hiring and onboarding processes adopted over the crisis may be here to stay. Kirkland believes video interviews early on in the recruitment process could become more common and even ensure that pharma companies attract the right talent.

“If it’s easier for candidates to attend that first interview, then the company is probably likely to open up that candidate pool to a much wider and greater selection of people,” she explains.

While it’s an unnerving time for job seekers in pharma and beyond, Kirkland believes there’s plenty you can do to improve your chances of securing a new role.

“The main thing is to stay optimistic,” she says. “Now might be a great time to apply for a role. You’ve got more time to be flexible about attending interviews. And you’ve potentially got more time to update your CV or gain extra skills to help you stand out.”