How To Hire “Remote Team Players” – An Idea Stimulator

Dr. John Sullivan and Michael Cox

Business is undergoing a revolution. Soon, over 50% of all corporate professional work will permanently be done remotely. I call this dramatic phenomena “Forever Remote Work.” Every major corporation will need to learn how to hire a large number of “remote team players” that can successfully work remotely and within a team environment. Unfortunately, most existing corporate hiring processes are simply not designed to accurately assess which candidates are most likely to be successful remote team players. So, if you’re striving to learn how to hire remote workers (or if you strive to become one), here are some ideas that should stimulate your thinking about how it could be done.

In This New World Of Work, The Hiring Process Must Change

We are all currently experiencing what I call “The grand WFH experiment.” Currently, 60% of corporate professionals have been forced by the pandemic to Work From Home (WFH). And from all accounts, this forced experiment has been wildly successful. To the point, from our perspective, you can now expect every one of the major high-tech firms (e.g., Twitter, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and yes even Apple) to permanently shift to an above 50% WFH model. However, this will be a difficult goal to reach unless the current hiring process is significantly redesigned. 

Examples Of Why The Hiring Process Must Be Redesigned To Fit Remote Hiring

Perhaps a few examples will help to illustrate why the standard hiring process must be modified to better fit Working From Home (WFH) hiring.

  • Remote work and “in the office work” experiences are not comparable. Currently, the primary candidate assessment method is the behavioral interview. Unfortunately, they are 100% historical (tell me about a time…) and only reveal how a candidate behaved in their past jobs while working in an office. Today’s hiring managers need to know how each candidate will act and communicate in a work environment where a majority of teammates are located literally around the world. Since, most candidates have never worked remotely for any period of time, that information cannot be obtained using standard behavioral interview questions.
  • Some past remote work concerns have evaporated. Most previous remote hiring was based on problems that occurred because they were only a small percentage of remote workers. For example, past remote hiring processes purposely excluded candidates with personalities that might feel lonely or isolated when they operated as a remote worker. However, now that the majority of employees will be remote, the isolation issue has mostly evaporated. It’s also true that new team communications software and technology are much easier for any candidate to overcome. As the number of difficult issues has diminished, so the number of candidates that can work remotely without issues has inversely increased.
  • Being a team player has now become essential. In the past many remote workers were assigned work that allowed them to operate relatively independently. In today’s volatile world, teams must be able to pivot quickly. Now, it is essential that both remote and in-office workers proactively collaborate, communicate, and operate as part of an integrated team. Unfortunately, most current hiring systems don’t have the capability of assessing whether, in a remote environment, a candidate can also be an effective team player.
  • A globally located team creates new issues. New-hires no longer need to live close to your facility. The best firms will need to hire talent that is currently working in numerous countries around the world. Unfortunately, most hiring processes are USA centric and won’t work when a majority of candidates that come from different cultures and have completely different attraction factors and work expectations. This recruiting process shortcoming will mean the damaging loss of global perspectives and diversity thinking. 

Even if your firm doesn’t plan to exceed the 50% WFH mark. Once they see your competitors acting, you can bet that your executives will soon begin clamoring for HR and their recruiting function to develop a data-driven process that can effectively hire remote team players living around the world.

There are three foundation steps that we recommend that you include in any new remote worker hiring process.

Step #1 – Start With The Assumption That Most Candidates Can Work Remotely

We find that it’s fair to say that both ardent supporters and critics of remote work have been surprised to learn about the almost universal success of the current work-at-home forced experiment. Every company that has publicly reported its results have revealed universally positive experiences across a large number of employees. And with these success rates, it appears that with the right support, almost every employee and manager will be able to quickly adapt to remote work. We find that this success rate has been bolstered by the recent introduction of numerous refined collaborative team and project management software (e.g, Asana, MS Teams, Salesforce) as well as dramatically improved video conferencing (e.g., Zoom, Facebook Messenger, Google Meet). Rather than continuing to be highly selective about who is qualified to do remote work, both hiring managers and recruiters should at least, initially, begin recruiting by assuming that nearly every qualified candidate can successfully work remotely. 

Step #2 – Look For Qualified Candidates That Also Have These 6 Critical WFH Capabilities 

Even though it appears that most candidates have a reasonable chance to succeed at remote work. It still makes sense to look for differentiator factors that indicate that you have a superior candidate. So, in addition to the posted qualifications for any job, our research has revealed that candidates with two or more of the following capabilities have at least a 20% higher probability of excelling at remote work. The highest impact of remote work success factors are listed first.

  1. Identify those that are purpose-driven. This #1 motivator almost guarantees that the employee will have a laser focus on producing results that make a difference. Being purpose-driven adds value because those that are laser-focused on having a personal impact are not likely to be easily distracted. Start by identifying those candidates that specifically targeted your firm because of your mission and product offerings. Also, during the interview, ask candidates to provide evidence that they are driven to make a difference and to see their impact. 
  2. Prioritize the self-motivated. A great deal of remote work has little forced structure. It makes sense to seek out self-motivated candidates that automatically seek out additional work when they have idle time. When interviewing top candidates, ask them to rank and list their primary motivators. Then focus on candidates that place finishing their work and making a difference at the top of their list. Unless you pay well based on performance, discount those candidates that emphasize the importance of money. Hiring self-motivated people has the added advantage of reducing the amount of time that a manager needs to devote to exciting and directing them.
  3. Look for a track record of remote work and innovation. It is, obviously, a plus if a candidate has a track record of successful remote work and innovation. Identify them not only because of their success, but also because such a record indicates that they have learned to “find a way” to overcome obstacles and to consistently meet their KPIs. They are quite rare; you should prioritize candidates that have demonstrated that they can get their innovative ideas implemented by their team while working remotely.
  4. Look for a large established professional network. Research from Google shows that employees with large professional networks are more productive and more likely to be promoted. In a fast-changing world, a vibrant large network is key to rapid learning, which enhances collaboration. In addition, an active network has a side benefit of fostering informal competition, which pushes them to remain competitive and innovative. You can start by assessing their LinkedIn network. Look at their number of followers and connections, as well as who endorses and recommends them. You should also prioritize candidates that remotely influence large audiences on platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, or Twitch.
  5. Prioritize disciplined mature adults. Most of what remote employees do is unstructured and cannot be directly observed by managers. It’s important that new hires continually act like “mature adults.” This means that they provide evidence that they are disciplined and that they follow the rules, policies, and processes precisely, even though they’re not being directly observed.
  6. Assess their physical workspace. Although an ideal workspace at home doesn’t guarantee success. Having a workplace that minimizes distractions, while making the employee comfortable for long periods of time should be considered a plus. You can assess their workspace on a standard Zoom or FaceTime call during work hours.

Step #3 – Realize That Behavioral Interview Questions Can’t Work Unless Candidates Have Significant Remote Work Experience 

Before you start assessing and ranking candidates for remote work jobs, it’s important to realize that standard interview approaches and behavioral questions frequently turn out to be weak WFH predictors. First off, historically, most candidates have never fully operated in a “remote work” environment. So, they can’t provide accurate answers to “tell me about a time when you…” behavioral interview questions. Unfortunately, those “in the office” skills like collaboration (in the office environment) are simply not comparable or equivalent to the needed “working from home” (remote collaboration) skills. “Working from home” problems and solutions are simply not comparable to the seemingly similar “in the office” issues.

Consider These Alternative Assessment Approaches

So now, faced with this “no equivalent work experience” dilemma, it makes sense to begin considering alternative candidate assessment approaches that better fit the evolving world of remote work. Here are some to consider.

  • Obviously, when there is some, assess their previous remote work experience. For the few candidates that have a significant amount of experience with remote work or education. It’s okay to use behavioral questions. Realize that candidates are describing how they acted in a world of remote work that no longer exists today. The problems of isolation, poor communications, and weak video technology no longer exist. Independent and local solutions that worked back then would simply not be acceptable in a business environment that requires continuous collaboration, teamwork, and global solutions. 
  • Assess how they act during the remote hiring process. If you are using a primarily remote hiring process, start by making a list of how an ideal remote teammate candidate would act (both positive and negative actions) during their hiring process. Then assess each candidate on those expectations. Include timely responses, continuous communications, meeting deadlines, keeping promises, and the use of remote team communications tools and technologies. A few firms that require a great attitude have made identifying “attitude fraud” standard practice. But, these processes will change as the virtual interview removes casual interactions.
  • Ask them to list the required key remote team player capabilities. The best candidates applying for remote work jobs should already know which capabilities and skills are necessary for a remote team player to be successful. Provide the interviewer with a list of the desired remote worker capabilities in advance. Ask the candidate some time during the current process to list at least five of the most important capabilities/skills. Alternatively, ask them to develop an outline of the process that they would use to assess whether a candidate for their team had remote team player capabilities.
  • Have them force rank their capabilities to see where they rank their remote capabilities. Simply asking a candidate about their capabilities during an interview makes it easy for them to tell you what they think you want to hear. As an alternative, provide candidates that apply for remote work jobs with a list of 10 work capabilities. Next, ask the candidate to force rank his or her top 5 capabilities/skills from that list. Do this exercise to see if your two highest priority remote work capabilities also appear within their list of their top five capabilities. To get another comparison, provide each of their references with your master list of 10 work capabilities. See if their ranking of your candidate’s top 5 capabilities includes any of your job’s critical remote work capabilities.
  • Educate them about the required remote skills and let them self-screen themselves out. In many cases it is difficult to predict whether a candidate without remote work experience has the required capabilities. So, in addition to traditional skills assessments, it makes sense to use self-selection as a screening mechanism. In this case you simply educate and honestly alert each candidate about both the required skills and the likely problems that they will encounter. Proactively encourage them to drop out whenever they determine that their skills and their preferred work environment are not a good match for this particular remote job. 
  • Give them remote work problem scenarios. As part of the standard interview process, give each remote work candidate an actual remote work problem that they will face in their job. Then ask them to “walk you through the steps” covering how they will go about solving it. Lower their score for each critical remote team player step that the candidate leaves out (i.e., periodically communicating progress, consulting with teammates, consulting with customers, or including success metrics). Consider the highest priority step to be a knockout factor. 
  • Give them a short-term remote project. This predictor of success is to put them in the job. However, a reasonable alternative is to give the top one or two finalists a small work-related project that they can complete over a weekend. Ask your team to be available to them. After it is completed, assess not just their work but also how well they communicated, collaborated, and interacted with the team.
  • Ask for “non-stranger referrals.” The highest quality hires almost universally come from employee referrals. And the quality of employee referrals for remote jobs will improve dramatically if you prohibit your employees from referring “strangers” that they barely know. Instead, require employees to make referrals only of individuals that they have worked with or seen their actual current work. As part of the referral process require the employee to attest that their referral’s skills are superior to the team’s average. Finally, require that the employee specify that they fit the team’s culture and the team’s standard for a remote team player. Requiring this information might seem simplistic but this information alone can eliminate 75% of marginal referrals. 
  • Develop a talent community/pipeline. Accuracy of all candidate assessment improves dramatically as you stretch out the time available for assessment. The best way to stretch out candidate assessment time over several months is to encourage candidates to join your firm’s online talent community. This approach allows you to continually assess a candidate’s work while continuously selling them on why they should want to work for your company. As more information is gathered, the best candidates can then have relevant openings pushed to them.

Use Data To Select Your Final Remote Worker Screening Skills 

If you utilize the wrong skills for attracting and identifying the best candidates, you will end up with a high new-hire failure rate. Unfortunately, that often happens if you are cavalier about your screening criteria. Numerous authors have recommended their set of skills that they feel that the ideal remote worker should possess. None of those recommendations are based on validated data for a particular job. In addition, most of the skills on these lists were generated before so many companies decided to radically expand their percentage of remote workers. The expansion means that, now, massive resources are being focused on eliminating most of the problems and issues that have plagued remote work for a decade. These required skills lists were also generated before the latest generation of collaborative and communications platforms were introduced. Taken together, this means that the profile of the successful remote worker has now radically changed. Many of the formerly “essential skills” are now rarely necessary. A large percentage of employees are now working remotely, the number of essential team and collaborative skills has proportionally grown larger. 

Every company has a different support system for its remote workers. There are no standard sets of skills that are essential for remote worker success across every company. It’s okay to use any of the remote work versions of the skills provided in the master list below. However, for the long term, a data-driven approach must be used to statistically determine which skills and experience closely correlate with higher on-the-job performance in your remote jobs.

Goal oriented
They seek feedback
Team players
Self-starters
Task oriented
Work independently
Cross-cultural knowledge
Problem solver
They initiate action
Data-driven decisions
Big picture perspective
Organized
Collaborative
Written communications skills
Ability to balance work/life
Transparent
Proactive communicators
Proactive sharing
Highly responsive
Time management
Computer savvy
Remote learning ability
Influence capability
Highly adaptive

Final Thoughts

Now is not a great time for the recruiting function. Many recruiting leaders are experiencing severe budget cuts, as well as hiring freezes. While at the same time they are facing a major challenge that more than half of their new hires will soon have to possess remote teamwork capabilities. In most cases, a completely separate process for remote worker recruiting will have to be developed. That process will have to excel at truly global sourcing and attraction as well as, accurately assessing remote work candidates that may have zero previous remote work experience. In our view, this is a worthy challenge that carries with it literally millions of dollars of potential business impacts.

Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, please take a moment to follow and/or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn and subscribe to his weekly article on Aggressive Recruiting.

Image from Pixabay.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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