4 Ways to Hire People Who Will Thrive in a Remote Environment

As the economic impact of COVID-19 settles in, many companies have been forced to close their doors. The surviving companies are operating remotely, many for the first time. (Read 6 Things You Need to Know to Spin Up a Remote Workforce Quickly if you need guidance on going remote.) Not all of these reluctantly remote companies have frozen hiring. Some companies are facing unprecedented demand for their goods and services, and need to get people on board as quickly as possible. Other B2B companies are holding steady and must hire to keep pace with their growing (albeit slowly) customer base.

An unprecedented 16 million people have lost their jobs, which means companies that are hiring have a deeper pool of talented folks who want to get back to work and support their families. And they need to make sure the people they hire will be just as effective working remotely as they were working in an office. Even as shelter-in-place mandates start to lift, I expect the work-from-home genie is out of the bottle. Companies once wary of worker productivity (nonsensically), will experience firsthand how remote work, when done right, leads to productivity gains.

As the president of one of the first and largest fully remote companies in the U.S., I’ve learned a lot about how to identify candidates who will thrive in a remote environment, and more importantly, those likely to flail in one. Here’s my advice on how to hire people who will thrive.

Look for exceptional communicators

The center cannot hold in a remote environment if people aren’t communicating effectively. And to communicate effectively in a remote environment, you need solid communication skills that you wield very intentionally. Communication in a remote environment can’t be an afterthought. It’s the glue that makes work possible.

And in remote environments, you must prioritize “glue work” that’s critical to team health and productivity. While this work often gets overlooked, in a remote environment it’s essential. So you’ll need to hire people who contribute to creating the communication glue that keeps everyone connected and engaged.

While nearly every job posting you’ll read lists “must have good oral and written communication skills,” many hiring managers don’t vet candidates for their communication abilities unless they’re applying for a marketing or communications position. This is a big mistake when it comes to hiring remote workers. You need to assess candidates on how well they express themselves in a range of communication modes by asking yourself:

  • Is their cover letter clear and logically organized?
  • Are you left feeling confused or certain about what they’re trying to say?
  • How do they answer the questions you pose in emails?
  • Do they answer the question you actually asked?
  • Are their responses coherent?
  • When you speak to them on the phone or via video conference, do they struggle to express their thoughts — or are they crystal clear?
  • Are they adept with written logistics planning, which is a signal for how they’ll collaborate with colleagues?

Hiring managers absolutely must consider whether a candidate communicates effectively across every mode.

Communication must be clear in a remote environment, as well as proactive. I don’t mean people need to be extroverted. They need to be intentional. While intentional communication can be trained, you’ll save yourself headaches if you look for people who understand the value of keeping others informed.

Ask candidates how important communication was to their last role. Ask them to tell you about a time they experienced a breakdown in communication, and what they did about it. And ask yourself,Has this person been proactive in communicating with the hiring team throughout this process?” In other words, are they demonstrating the behavior you’re looking for?

You also need to know how a candidate communicates when there’s a conflict. Some people avoid conflict. Others don’t love it (does anyone really?), but they know it’s sometimes necessary. The people you want to bring into your organization aren’t extremely conflict-avoidant, and they have the skills to navigate conflict with compassion. They view conflict as a means to understand another point of view, not an opportunity to score a point.

Ask candidates to tell you about a time they experienced a significant conflict with a coworker or manager. As they share that experience, look for signs of high emotional intelligence. Do they own responsibility for their part in the conflict, display empathy for the other person’s position and feelings in the conflict, and reflect on the experience with a new perspective than the one that contributed to the conflict in the first place? If these signs are lacking, run the other way.

Finally, you need people who can adapt quickly to any communication tools and methods your team uses. Does the candidate have experience adopting and adapting quickly to new technologies? Do they display a desire to learn? Are they open to communicating using all the methods your company employs? Be explicit with candidates about what apps and norms you have around communication so that you can both assess whether it’s a good fit. For example, some people may not feel comfortable meeting on video, but if your company uses video conferencing as a primary communication medium, they may struggle in your environment.

Ask the right interview questions

People who thrive in a remote environment are self-motivated with a disciplined work ethic, take responsibility and pride in producing work (rather than just being at work), and are equally effective working independently and as part of a team.

You need to assess whether candidates have these qualities, and you won’t get there by asking them typical interview questions like, “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” What you need are specific, grounded examples of when and how the person has displayed those qualities in past roles.

So, to assess whether someone is self-motivated and disciplined, you might ask:

  • What do you do when you’re light on work?
  • Tell me about a time you fell behind on a project.
  • What does success look like to you?

As candidates answer your questions, assess whether they were proactive in taking on new projects or responsibilities. Do they see it as their responsibility to find ways to add value to the organization, or do they think it’s their manager’s job to hand work to them? Is their perception of their own success tied to how much they get done?

To gauge whether the candidate is a doer/producer, you might ask:

  • Tell me about a project you are most proud of and why you are proud of it.
  • What does a good day at work look like to you?
  • When are you most satisfied and fulfilled at work?

If they struggle to name their contribution to the project or their tangible work product, they might be someone more adept at pushing paper than producing real work. When they’re describing what fulfills and satisfies them, pay attention to what they value. A doer is someone who loves to move things forward themselves and finds satisfaction in knowing what they’ve produced has an impact.

And to learn whether someone can work both independently and as part of a team, you might ask:

  • Tell me about a time you worked independently on a project and what you liked about it.
  • Give me an example that demonstrates your approach to working with others.
  • When do you like to work with a team vs. working independently?

People who work well both independently and with a team like putting their heads down to crank out work or do deep thinking on their own. But they also love the input and perspective they get when tackling problems with a team. And by asking the questions outlined above, you can encourage candidates to give you solid examples that demonstrate how they embody those qualities rather than just giving them lip service.

Watch for signals that can spell trouble in a remote environment

The application process itself can offer you insight into a candidate’s way of moving through the world. You’ll want to look for signals by asking yourself:

  • Are they proactive in following up with you?
  • Are they timely in their responses?
  • Are they apprehensive about working remotely?
  • Do they underscore the results they’ve delivered at past jobs?
  • Do they give vague responses when asked pointed questions?
  • How do they talk about people they’ve worked with, including bosses, in the past?
  • Are they complimentary or undermining when talking about bosses and coworkers?
  • Do they display self-awareness?
  • Do you understand what they are saying?

All of these can be signals of someone’s ability to produce results, proactively communicate, work effectively with teammates, and resolve conflicts with compassion.

See them in action

Last but not least, the best way to determine whether someone will be a good remote hire is to give them a project. This is a way for the candidate to show off their skills, and for you to experience firsthand how the potential hire communicates and interacts with your team.

Projects shouldn’t require more than a few hours of work and should be given only to candidates on your shortlist. For example, you might have a writer candidate for your marketing team draft an ad after reading your product messaging, or ask a sales candidate to develop a pitch for a customer prospect with a certain profile.

I cannot tell you how many times we’ve had a project surface a clear front-runner between two candidates who had seemed completely equal in skill, experience, and ability to work remotely. Had we skipped the project in those cases, we very well could have hired someone who would have really struggled in their role.

As for what technology you use to conduct interviews, that’s up to your company. At mine, we’ve conducted interviews by phone, video conference, and Slack. Phone interviews can help you assess verbal communication while reducing unconscious bias. Zoom interviews most closely mirror in-person interviews and add a dimension of nonverbal communication. And Slack interviews give you a chance to assess written communication skills asynchronously.

While each company will find its own way of navigating this new remote world, one thing is true for all companies. A bad hire extracts a high cost, and a good one is pure gold. And in trying times like these, even a single karat of gold will feel like 14.

If you want more advice on remote work, watch the free recording of my webinar on How to Transition Your Team to Remote Work.

I’ve got many more helpful articles coming so follow me on Medium to learn how to create a high-performing remote workplace and to build a human-centric organization that’s a force for good in the world.