Tips for hiring the right remote worker

Hiring remote workers requires a different screening and interview process than for on-site employees. Here's how to get it right.

hiring remote employees
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Interviewing remote workers is much different than hiring for a traditional, on-site position. In addition to the usual questions about knowledge, hard skills and experience, interviewing candidates for a remote position must take into account commitment, ability to work independently, oral and written communication skills, conflict resolution, motivation and technology prowess.

"There are some differences to look for when you're hiring remote workers. You need to emphasize constant communication, availability and collaboration skills, as well as the ability to work independently, to solve problems and resolve conflicts and be able to gauge productivity," says Madhav Bhandari, head of growth at cloud productivity management and time tracking software company Hubstaff.

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Past, present and future

Often, candidates who've worked remotely before will have many of these qualities, so it's important to start by asking them what their previous remote work experience was like, says Tricia Sciortino, president at virtual assistant outsourcing firm eaHELP.

"We want to know where they're starting from. Are they an old pro who's been working remotely for years? Or would this be their first experience working remotely? That can help us tailor the rest of the interview. If they already have the necessary mindset, the right tools and are used to working without on-site supervision, it lets us move on to other areas of the interview," Sciortino says.

Sciortino and eaHELP conduct all interviews via video using a webcam. Doing so helps not only to assess a candidate's body language, but also to get a sense of their technical savvy, Sciortino says.

"All of our interviews are done via webcam, both to assess body language cues and to check someone's basic technical capability and ability. Do they have a webcam? Can they operate it? Can they figure out different video and collaboration platforms -- like GoToMeeting, Zoom, Skype?" she says. Many companies also require that candidates meet certain minimum technology requirements, including things like a reliable, high-speed internet connection with enough bandwidth to do video calls, Wi-Fi, a smartphone and a computer with minimum speeds and operating system versions, she says.

Sciortino and eaHELP go beyond the typical one phone screening, one on-site interview hiring norm, and conduct multiple interviews involving numerous stakeholders to make sure a candidate is truly the right fit, especially when hiring for a remote position. Sciortino says involving HR, line-of-business managers, colleagues and executives makes for a much more thorough and comprehensive interview process, as each stakeholder will be on the lookout for different qualities, strengths and weaknesses.

"We involve as many people as we possibly can; it's incredibly intensive. But we've found this is the only way to make sure it's a great fit -- and each stakeholder tends to be good at picking out certain qualities or characteristics, so something one interviewer missed can be caught and highlighted," she says.

It's especially important to conduct multiple interviews with a candidate who's never worked remotely before to identify any red flags before they become disasters. One of the common misconceptions about remote work is that those who work from home can more easily multi-task things like childcare, housework, and other personal events like doctor's appointments. While it's true there's a greater level of flexibility, the key to a successful remote work strategy is being able to focus on work -- because remote workers are actually at work, Sciortino says.

"Just because your office is at home doesn't mean you shouldn't have childcare, that you can take extended lunch breaks or that all scheduling goes out the window. We are a 100 percent distributed, remote company, but we still keep 'normal' business hours. Of course, your actual hours depend on your role, but in general we want to see candidates who stick to a schedule just as if they were going into an office," she says.

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Step into my office

It's also important to determine what a candidate's workspace is like; though not everyone will have a separate, dedicated home office, it's important that they have some kind of distinct workspace.

"We ask this question because having that type of space shows commitment and dedication to working -- even if it's just a small table in a corner of your living room, or a specific area set up in your bedroom that's devoted to work, we want remote workers to have a space where they can get into 'work mode'," she says.

Agree to disagree

Communication and collaboration are the linchpins of a successful remote work strategy, so it's vital to make sure a candidate can handle little problems smoothly and tactfully before they become big problems, says Hubstaff's Bhandari.

"Managing disagreements or conflicts with managers, coworkers and other colleagues is critical, especially for remote workers who are more independent. Are they comfortable tackling these politely, tactfully and quietly? Do they know when to ask for help, and who to ask? This can give you a peek into their personality and how well they will work with others," Bhandari says.

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Assign a project

Remote workers are still bound by the same time schedules and deadlines as those workers in a main office, so you need to make sure remote candidates are just as dedicated to meeting deadlines and keeping projects on-schedule, says Bhandari. Asking them to provide an example or complete an assignment can help gauge not only their communication and collaboration skills, but their problem-solving skills and their commitment to staying on track, he says. But don't expect them to work for free.

Hubstaff asks remote candidates to complete an assignment within a certain amount of time, Bhandari says, to gauge a candidate's skills, timeliness and accuracy. But, Bhandari adds, they should be paid just as you would pay a freelancer or a consultant.

"You want to make sure they're able to deliver on promises, but you also have to adhere to your end of the deal by paying them for their time and effort. If you're a remote worker and you have three or four tasks every day, it's not unreasonable to think you might run into bottlenecks. That doesn't mean you just give up, you have to prove that you can work around these obstacles creatively and independently," Bhandari says.

Remote workers have to have a certain independent, self-sufficient quality, says Bhandari. If there's a technology hiccup, or a project isn't going as planned, what steps can they take to address the problem on their own? And how can remote workers gauge when it's time to ask for help? "Remote workers have to be problem solvers. Can they handle certain troubleshooting on their own? Do they ask for too much help with things they should be able to figure out? Or do they not ask for enough help when there's a serious problem?" he says.

Keeping time

One issue with remote workers is that it's often hard to "turn off" and know when the work day is over. On the flip side, it can be easy to give in to distractions and waste an hour here and there. Time-tracking software can be a great way for both remote workers and their managers to keep tabs on hours worked and contribute to greater productivity, says Bhandari, as well as keeping track of project status, goals and daily and weekly tasks.

"We've found that many clients not only use time-tracking software to manage working hours and track productivity, but to keep track of communications, status updates and project documentation. When everything's in one place like that, it's easier for everyone, no matter their location, to see exactly what's going on," Bhandari says.

Finally, gauging a remote worker's passion for their potential role and their curiosity and willingness to learn can help you decide if they're a great fit culturally, too, says Bhandari. Ask what news outlets they follow, what Twitter users they follow and how active they are in forums, chat rooms and in industry groups.

"Since they're working remotely, it's harder to gauge their cultural fit since they won't be on-site. But this is a good way to assess how committed and passionate they are about the industry, their company and the role," he says.

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