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How to Evaluate and Hire Remote Workers

By Anna Lewis

“Great talent is everywhere, and not everyone wants to move to San Francisco” write Basecamp co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson in Remote, published five years ago in 2013. That’s a veritable lifetime ago in Internet years.

Since then, recruiters who didn’t already know it have by now learned it: nationwide, as more teams and individual workers realize the extraordinary benefits of remote work for productivity and culture (among many things), the remote work population is steadily increasing, and so is the competition for strong remote workers.

If you don’t hire remote workers, you are losing out on hiring talented people who happen not to live near your office space.

Hiring remote workers requires different recruiting practices from those used to hire office-based workers. Well, wait. Does it really?

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Over the past few years, I have worked remotely full-time from my home in Durham, NC, first as Director of Recruiting for Trello and now as a Global Talent Program Manager focused on remote work at Atlassian.

From a personal perspective, I cannot overstate how much remote work has improved the quality of my work and life. One counter-intuitive discovery: performing work remotely simply renders more important what has already been important all along. Or, to clarify via another Fried and Hansson quote, “Great remote workers are simply great workers.”

That said, there are unique challenges to full-time remote work, and that raises the stakes in recruiting and hiring for remote workers. It becomes all the more important to get it right. So here’s some advice, by no means exhaustive, for recruiters on hiring great workers tout court, tweaked a bit (but just a bit) into advice on hiring great remote workers.

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Be clear on the “rules of engagement”

Right away, we encounter the sticky, little problem of definition. What is remote work, anyway? It depends. More and more, I’ve come to see it as a spectrum, with the work of location-independent “digital nomads” on one end, fully office-based work on the other end, and, in between, myriad forms of “distributed work,” “working from home,” and “flexible” working arrangements.

The important thing is to understand your company’s requirements and “rules of engagement” for collaborating remotely. Most likely, these involve both official policy regarding specific requirements for remote work, as well as best practices for creating and fostering strong, effective remote work on a daily basis. If any of these are unclear or unformed for your team, then seize the day and take the lead in developing them! (Here’s Trello's guide on doing just that.)

Once you have clarity on your team’s ground rules for remote work, communicate them early and often to applicants throughout the recruiting process.

The phone screen is an especially important moment for this. It’s your chance, on the one hand, to promote your team’s support for remote workers, especially if you can boast a robust culture for remote work and any perks like stipends for home office equipment, internet costs, subscriptions to a co-working space, and the like.

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At the same time, the phone screen is also your earliest chance to communicate what is expected of the remote worker in turn.

For example, the Trello team requires that all team members, including full-time remotes, work during a four-hour period of overlap with NYC — 12pm ET to 4pm ET. Trello also expects all full-time remote employees to work from a dedicated home office space with a door that closes. In other words, it’s a far cry from the “anything goes“ stereotype that is still, unfortunately, circulated about remote work.

“I make sure to communicate our expectations during the initial phone screen,” says Carrie Marvin, Senior Technical Recruiter for the Trello team at Atlassian, “and I confirm that the applicant understands and agrees to meet them.” Covering such requirements upfront avoids potential conflicts later down the line and sends the important message that your team takes remote work seriously.

Ensure applicants have a realistic outlook on remote work

“Most applicants talk extensively about loving full-time remote work. Tell us what you have really not enjoyed about remote work in the past? Or, what is your biggest concern about working remotely for the first time?”

As enthusiastic as I am about remote work, it is important to recognize that full-time remote work is not for everyone.

“There’s no way I could be full-time remote,” Katrina Walser, one of Trello’s Engineering Managers told me recently. Laughing, she said, “There’s so much we get right about remote work overall — but I personally get more done in the office!” She is not alone.

There can be downsides to remote work, both for individuals and for team cultures more broadly, which makes it critical that teams with remote workers develop remote work best practices. Many applicants for remote jobs are ready to rave about the benefits of remote work for the individual, like:

  • Increased individual productivity, with more, longer stretches of uninterrupted time
  • Greater work-life balance overall
  • Less commuting time, leaving more time for family and hobbies, as well as a smaller carbon footprint
  • Increased diversity of team members since you’re able to recruit beyond the usual urban/tech centers
  • For teams that, like Atlassian, make tools for remote teams, the advantage of dogfooding your own products

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But fewer applicants can demonstrate an awareness and readiness for the challenges of full-time remote work, like:

  • Experiencing loneliness, anxiety, and depression connected to isolation from colleagues
  • The irreplaceable value of in-person interactions, especially impromptu exchanges
  • Collaborating effectively via digital tools and across time zones
  • Getting distracted by at-home tasks, or trouble separating work from home
  • Feeling like a lesser contributor to the company

Ideally, your team has already put into place ground rules and fostered a remote-friendly culture in order to mitigate the challenges.

A related consideration is whether an applicant has prior experience working remotely—if so, they tend to be more aware of potential pitfalls. Confirm with your hiring manager what degree of past remote work experience is important for the role. Be sure to delve deeply into an applicant’s understanding of the pros and cons of full-time remote work.

Top applicants are able to speak openly about their difficulties with remote work while also articulating why they have been or could be successful at it.

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Test applicants for strong digital communication skills

Strong communication skills are a must-have for any competitive applicant, whether they’re planning to work remotely full-time or not. But, for remote work, where communication is almost exclusively digital, it becomes a special challenge—and, therefore, an even more important skill. Some of your best insight into an applicant’s communication skills comes from how they communicate during the recruiting process itself. Do they respond promptly to scheduling requests, or do they leave your coordinator hanging for a few days? Are their emails clear and well-written?

However, you can go even further by designing your interview process to test for strong communication skills in particular contexts. For example, the Trello team conducts all interviews—even final stage interviews—exclusively over video calls. Besides reducing costs, this practice gives the applicant a sense of what it’s like to work at Trello. “I’ve had applicants that say, ‘Oh, I’m just not comfortable with a video call,’” says Marvin, “Well, I let them know — video calls will be a primary tool for communication, so in order for them to be successful here as a remote employee, they need to be comfortable with this tool and practice.”

Another example: Trello’s test team has incorporated, within one of its technical exercises, a test for casual written communication. “We organize a whole exercise within a Trello board,” says Trello Engineering Manager, Lauren Langsner, “and then we have the interviewer and applicant communicate via comments within the cards, with access to a video link if needed. The interviewer’s job is to remain a bit vague in their communication. Part of what we’re testing for is how long it will take for an applicant to suggest rejoining their video call to talk things through face-to-face.”

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In both examples, the applicant gets a sense for what it’s like to communicate and collaborate digitally with the team while the interviewer, for their part, gets a sense for the applicant’s skills in that medium. Is the applicant at ease presenting complex information over a video call? Are they able to stay calm in the face of tech issues? Are their text chats clear, friendly, and effective? The key is designing an interview process that reflects the actual types of communication your team engages in daily to get things done.

Ensure genuine interest in the work itself—not just in working remotely

For many applicants, the increase in remote work options across the tech industry is a tremendously exciting development—so much so that they risk prioritizing remote work over their interest in the job itself. For recruiters, this presents a new spin on something that has always mattered—namely, ensuring that the applicant shows genuine interest in the job and work itself, separately from the remote option.

There’s no new way to screen for genuine interest in the job. The best ways are the same as ever—work-based evaluations, coupled with well-designed conversation-based interviews.

Ask all the same questions you’ve always asked, like, to risk stating the obvious: Why are you applying for this job, now? Develop work-based interview processes with interviewers and hiring managers, and confirm that they are each observing evidence of genuine passion in the applicant for the work in question.

Keep an eye, too, on how the applicant discusses the remote aspect—is it their primary focus? Or do they get just as absorbed in the discussion about the work and role?

Ultimately, as always, your job as a recruiter is to hire the best fit for the job itself, not the most enthusiastic remote work zealot.

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Conclusion

Remote work holds significant potential for both teams and individuals—if done well. As a recruiter, you play a key role.

You have both the opportunity and the responsibility to ensure that hiring managers and interviewers are evaluating for the skills that make remote work effective, valuable, and, ideally, an enriching component of a shared work experience so that, ultimately, your new remote workers thrive as long-term members of your team.

One last suggestion—experiment with working remotely yourself! You may make a few more discoveries as to what’s key in recruiting for remote workers, and if so, I’d love to hear them.

Looking for ways to keep remote employees engaged after hiring? Learn how Bonusly improves engagement for remote teams through recognition.

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Written by Anna Lewis

Anna Lewis

Anna Lewis is Global Talent Program Manager, Remote Work at Atlassian. She works remotely from her home in Durham, NC. Find her on Twitter at @annalewis7.

Originally published on October 31, 2018 → Last updated October 31, 2018