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Remote Employees: How to Hire the Best Team

Kristen Craft | January 30, 2019

From Steve Jobs to Oprah Winfrey to David Ogilvy, the best founders know that hiring is their most important job. The people you bring on can make or break your company, so it’s critical to get right. As with hiring co-located employees, remote hiring presents challenges; it can be hard to determine whether someone will be a superstar or a laggard.

david ogilvy quote on hiring employeesAn amazing remote employee works so successfully that you’d never know they weren’t just down the hall. They get great work done, are always on time, and they communicate with their managers and coworkers with nary a hiccup. You can trust them at all times because you know they’re working just as hard as they would if you were right over their shoulder… maybe even better!

But it’s hard to know if a candidate is going to be the standout employee you hope they’ll be when you’ve got to take them at their word. And a poor fit is a recipe for low retention: more than half of companies around the world struggle with employee retention.

The interview itself is trickier at a distance, too. With remote hiring, all the classic standbys of business interviewing go out the window. You can’t read someone’s body language, you can’t tell as easily if someone has a cheat sheet, and it’s harder to gauge rapport with potential future colleagues. The same tricks and methods just don’t translate the same way to a virtual interview, and the questions you need to ask are different.

These questions can help you suss out the best possible candidates, no matter if they’re in Chicago or Calcutta.

1. How do you describe your communication style?

Communication is key to a successful remote team. You need to find out how your potential hire expresses needs and imparts important information since traditional office drop-ins and short-notice check-ins won’t work virtually. Try to suss out an applicant’s communication style to determine if it jives with the style of your team.

This isn’t to say that everyone needs to communicate in the exact same way. When different team members have different communication styles, it’s not necessarily a deal breaker. The key is that your employees all have an understanding of and respect for those differing communication styles. They can meet one another where they stand, and be flexible in different communication channels to keep your business’s workflow from stuttering.

Try to gauge whether your new hire will be able to operate within the culture you’ve created. For example, if you’re building a transparent company, make sure your new hire understands the implications. Consider asking questions about how they handle constructive criticism. Do they understand that negative feedback shouldn’t be taken personally? Make sure they have the mindset to thrive and grow, based on how you communicate.

Make sure that your new hire will be able to pick up on the team’s communication rhythms quickly since the costs of poor communication include wasted time and employee (and client) frustration. Globally, the cost of poor communication tops $37 billion annually; (here’s a great article from Inc. discussing a 2011 study of poor communication and wasted time).

What you’re looking for: Consider the ways your team already communicates. Do you think that this candidate will mesh well with the rest of the team? This is an important consideration for any type of team, whether they are co-located or remote. Still, given the communication challenges that come with different locations and time zones, it’s even more important.

The other thing you’re looking for is how proactive the candidate seems. Are they shy and withdrawn? Do they believe that “no news is good news?” Or are they the type to notice when things have been quiet for too long and reach out themselves? Whichever it is, make sure they’ll mesh with the larger team culture.

Other ways to ask:

  • How do you prepare for meetings? How will you prepare for virtual meetings?
  • How do you handle miscommunication? What about when you cannot see the other individuals in person?
  • Describe a time that you had to deliver bad news from a distance. What did you learn from that experience?

2. How do you manage your time?

You cannot be a successful remote worker without strong time management skills. While most of the working world functions on a 9-to-5 structure that revolves around synchronous communication, remote employees have a lot more flexibility and freedom. This can create amazing results (some people genuinely do their best work at 1 am!), but if an employee isn’t used to the freedom, the lure of Facebook can cause severe procrastination.

In the hiring process, it’s crucial that you quickly identify if a potential hire has these skills, or you risk compromising on efficiency. That lost time can stack up to thousands in lost revenue for your company. If a new employee consistently fails to meet deadlines, the entire team could find itself bottlenecked. Worse, inefficient employees send a signal to others on the team that there’s no urgency. Both can prove disastrous, so be sure to dig into the time management skills of your potential remote hires.

What you’re looking for: Evidence that they’ve put time and thought into this question. Anyone who works remotely, regardless of prior experience, should be heavily considering how they’ll marshal their own time. This isn’t an area where you want to learn as you go!

Are they more of a front-loader who loves to work ahead and then take a longer break? Or perhaps they operate in sprint structure, dedicating two weeks to a particular set of tasks, then taking a break before moving on to a new task set. Either way, it’s imperative that they know themselves well and can communicate how they marshall their time.

Other ways to ask:

  • Do you use any tools or methods for task management? Tell me about them.
  • Say you’re falling behind. What’s your plan to catch up? How would you keep your team and manager informed?
  • Do you find that you work more effectively with hard deadlines or by setting your own timeline? Explain why.

3. How do you learn?

It’s one thing to onboard and train an employee in person. You can see their reactions, go through examples in person, watch over their shoulder as they give something a try. If questions come up, they can be answered in real time and issues can be discussed.

Training someone you’re not with, physically, is much harder. You might have the best tools in the world and have documented common processes in a centralized knowledge base, but you need to know that your candidates will use them effectively. Since people can be confused without ever realizing they’re on the wrong track, it’s hard to catch errors before they happen. Understanding how a candidate learns and seeks information will help you determine if there’s a fit. Assuming their style fits with how you structure information, the learning curve during onboarding will be faster and easier for all.

Learning style goes beyond onboarding, however. Great employees will continue to add new skills to their toolkit. Knowing a person’s learning style allows you to support your employees’ growth and thus build employee loyalty. According to a recent study, nearly 90% of Millennials state that they are more likely to stick with companies that offer career training. If you’re not training employees in the way they need, you might lose them!

What you’re looking for: Answers should be serious and specific. You don’t want a general claim that just anything will work. While anything might work ok, most people have a specific method that works better for them. If you know that a candidate prefers learning by watching a video more than absorbing a list of instructions, you know ahead of time if you’ll need to tailor your existing training material for them.

Make sure the candidate’s preferred method works with your business methods. Since you won’t be able to check in on new employees in person, you need to be able to trust that they can self-teach. If you’re especially concerned about this for your open position, try giving them a small test or task to do as part of the interview process. Include instructions for them to follow, and solicit feedback about how the navigated the learning process.

Other ways to ask:

  • Tell me about the last new skill you acquired and how you learned to do it.
  • Who was your favorite teacher or professor and why?
  • If we needed to teach you a new skill, how would you want us to approach it?

4. What does their body language look like?

Plot twist: this isn’t a question you should ask your candidate. It is, however, a question you should ask yourself. During every conversation you have with a candidate, pay attention to how the candidate reacts. Major changes in voice, tone, or posture could indicate excitement or reluctance, and people who are interviewing remotely may not be watching their own expressions as closely as people interviewing in office!

As the interview progresses, ask yourself this question every so often. Jot it down between important questions if you need to. You want to make sure that your potential hire is going to communicate effectively, be it internally or externally, via video chats.

Watching your candidates’ body language gives you insight into their excitement level for the business and mission. It also tells you more about candidates’ communication styles, so that you can “read” them better if and when they join the team.

What you’re looking for: You want to see that someone is sitting up straight, being attentive and engaged. Also look for good “eye contact” in the form of a steady gaze at the computer, rather than bored, wandering eyes. Don’t worry too much if someone seems to be shifting things around on their screen. Odds are they’re just checking their notes, just as someone might do with a notepad in a physical interview.

Better questions mean better remote hiring

Hiring remotely can be a challenge. You’re far from your candidate, and the training process is harder, so small hiring mistakes can become big problems once the employee is working for you.

But when you ask the right questions, the right answers become clear. With these questions, you’ll get on the right track to start hiring the best remote team possible.

Looking for more advice on building a fantastic remote team? Check out these articles: