by Christina Wood

Ensuring culture fit when hiring remotely

Apr 29, 202110 mins
HiringRemote Work

The pandemic's push to remote work has opened up new talent pools beyond commuting distance. But hiring remotely presents challenges, causing IT leaders to rethink culture and how to assess team fit.

video conferencing / remote work
Credit: Filadendron / Getty Images

When his team went all remote last year, Precisely COO Eric Yau assumed hiring would stop. But as the pandemic raged on and the company grew, it needed new talent. That’s when it became clear that remote hiring was a game changer.

“When we relaxed the idea that candidates had to be within range of our offices, we got a lot of good candidates,” Yau says. “We went from uncertainty to realizing this is a huge opportunity.”

Opening the talent pool beyond commuting range makes it possible to hire great people, but hiring remotely can be a bit like dating via an app: strange and awkward, even if it’s a terrific opportunity. Identifying technical ability in a remote interview may be easy, but uncovering the elusive alchemy of a person who will bring cultural enhancement to your team is challenging.

“You could interview someone amazing,” says James Durago, hiring manager for Google, “but they won’t do well in the wrong environment. Like if you hire LeBron James and put him in a baseball game. He won’t be at his best.”

To ensure candidates hired remotely are set up for success, you have to know what your culture is and find ways to assess fit remotely. For many organizations, this has meant going headlong into self-discovery — a journey that has produced just what their hiring process needs.

Getting past gut reaction

Anyone who does hiring is familiar with the demon of unconscious bias. Going with your gut, meeting someone you “like,” getting an “uncomfortable” feeling about a person, or overlooking things in one candidate you can’t in another are signs you are encountering it.

“There is a fine line between looking for a good fit for the company and furthering unconscious bias,” says Sarah Dewey, technical recruiter at Jobscan.

Hiring remotely provides an opportunity to design systems that evaluate culture fit based on real measures because most of the gut responses that trigger this bias are removed in a remote interview anyway.

In the in-person past, “we cared about the polish on your shoe,” says Jamie Coakley, vice president of people at Electric. “If you wore a suit to the interview, printed your resume, and shined your shoes, we assumed you’d have a different approach to professionalism than someone who didn’t.” But in a Zoom meeting, those cues are gone.

“It was bias anyway,” says Coakley. “Unless you are in a job that requires you to wear a sharp suit, what does that have to do with how you will do your job?”

Instead, IT leaders need to focus on more fundamental aspects of the culture they have and want to create. An easy place to start when nailing down who will thrive or need help assimilating is work style. Do you have a top-down management style? Is it collaborative, democratic, independent?

“That’s something that needs to be identified and communicated,” says Janine Yancey, founder and CEO of Emtrain. “At Emtrain, we’re not hierarchical and we’ve had folks come onboard from large Silicon Valley companies who, when I talk to somebody two layers down, get uncomfortable.”

That’s not to say people can’t transition from one style to another, but they might need some help.

“Some people thrive in an environment where they are told what to do,” says Google’s Durago. “You see a lot of this in the military, where people are told what to do and they go execute. But if you put that person in an environment where you are never told what to do but you have figure it out, they struggle.”

Find your values

Next up? “You have to figure out your norms and practices,” says Yancey, whose company has identified six workplace social indicators that impact culture: In and Out group dynamics, power dynamics, norms and practices, unconscious bias, social intelligence, and pre-existing mindsets.

Answering this behavioral question can bring clarity to interviews. “Every organization is different,” she says. “Some give radical, candid feedback, for example.” And when you are hiring someone to fit into a company that does this, it helps to offer candidates a sense of what that would be like. “What does that feel like?” asks Yancey. “What are the motions for doing that? What is it like to be somebody experiencing that and participating in that?”

Every organization, according to Yancey, has at least four distinctive characteristics and it’s helpful to recognize and articulate them during the hiring process and to come up with questions that identify how your applicant feels about them, matches with them, and will thrive or struggle amidst them.

For Alberto Ruocco, CIO of West Monroe, discovering the characteristics that define the company became a process of self-discovery that now fuels every interview.

“Self-awareness is important,” he says, “to complement and expand your culture. If we just kept hiring the same kind of people with the same kind of background, we don’t create the kind of diversity we’re interested in. We are looking for a fit. But ‘fit’ doesn’t mean someone who looks like me, acts like me, talks like me, and has my background. We are looking for people who fit with the things that we value.”

For West Monroe, finding a fit meant first identifying what those were.

“We have thirteen values that we publish and talk about,” says Ruocco. “We divide our interview process into components and one of them is a structured conversation about values. So, we’re actively looking for that when we hire.”

For Yau, the pandemic became a catalyst for Precisely’s deep dive into introspection. “We started to recognize the need to emphasize cultural characteristics that are critical for a world moving toward work-from-home. And even when everyone has had the vaccines, the work environment for companies like ours has changed for good. We have to adapt to that.”

The team took some time to identify characteristics that were important to the culture they wanted to grow.

“We need people who can operate in a global business and remote environments,” explains Yau. “So, we got specific and identified four areas: collaboration and communication, determination, individuality — because we need people with enough confidence to get things done — and the fourth — and I would argue the most important — openness because it’s hard to build trust remotely and openness helps build trust.”

Once they identified what they were looking for, hiring people who were a fit became much easier. “We assess on these four areas, as part of the interview process,” says Yau. “The senior executives divvy both the hard skills and the cultural fit so that everybody carries one element of measurement and feedback.”

This deep dive into self-analysis has paid off. “It has helped us recruit some really terrific talent, and to keep the values of our company together through these past twelve months,” he says.

Leaning into empathy

Most executives I spoke with agree that it’s important, now, to build a company culture with remote work in mind.

“We’ve built AppNeta around the idea of the individual first,” explains CEO Matt Stevens. “We are fans of ideas like ‘family first’ and ‘manage your own time’ as well as the cultural elements we emphasize during our interview process — transparency, performance, and trust.”

So, when the pandemic hit, it became an opportunity to put those bedrock elements of the company’s culture to the test. “When we went full-time remote,” he says, “we decided it wasn’t going to be just a pandemic thing.” There were already nonessential roles that worked remotely but this was an opportunity to make remote available, permanently, for anyone who wanted it.  

What Stevens and his team learned was that empathy is an essential quality that needed to be added to those bedrock characteristics.

“When you are remote, you decide what personality you want to come through on the phone or video call. If you have empathy, you can tell when somebody is putting on a face but is struggling,” Stevens says. “And one thing that’s a big part of our culture is being able to take a mindful assessment of what’s going on with the people you work with. We think it’s probably the single biggest ingredient to having a successful distributed team.”

So, AppNeta added empathy to the list of qualities they look for in candidates.

“We have a lot of conversations with candidates about how they feel about empathy, how they measure empathy, what are examples where they’ve benefited from it, or have been able to demonstrate it,” Stevens says.

The qualities not yet found

The transition to remote is still in early days for many organizations. And most leaders I spoke with admit that there is much to learn about hiring, keeping culture alive, and staying productive when people rarely meet in person. Empathy turned out to be important, in this new paradigm, to AppNeta. But other qualities will emerge. Everyone agrees it’s important to keep culture consistently in mind. What is it? What does it need? Are you articulating it well to people who join it? And how is it changing?

“Something I’ve noticed is that there are certain personalities that can balance short term and long term. Working remotely, this becomes essential,” says Brien Colwell, CTO and co-founder at HeadSpin. “I think it will become an interesting hiring point. Who on your team is thinking about direction, longer term, and how the group will get to your goals? We will need to identify and hire these self-directed people because it will become a critical role as we keep going like this.”

Colwell has not yet solved the interview question or strategy that identifies this personality trait, though.

“It’s like being a detective,” he admits. “I can’t claim to have cracked it.” But one element of the interview process he feels gets at this trait is asking candidates to produce an artifact.

“There’s a lot of information you get about people when you ask them to spend three hours doing something,” he says. Do they focus on details, working with others, trying to achieve one thing? “Or do they think more broadly?”