Vetting People for Remote Work

You love your remote job, and the team is rolling, but slammed. The team is finally busy enough to justify looking for more recruits. Hopefully you can find someone to fulfill all the new business that your current team has (hooray!) brought in the door.

But, how can you bring a new person into the mix without disrupting the current culture and flow of work? Interviewing a remote candidate is different than the traditional three-step dance of resume, phone screen, in-person team interview. Given that nearly half of people that begin a stint of working from home give it up, figuring out if someone will work out in a remote work setup requires particular techniques and focus.

Skills Required for Remote Work

Working from home is a nasty combination of working alone, being unable to feel your team progress, and being (perhaps too) close to your home life. To achieve success with remote work you need to have personal discipline as well as a proactive stance towards your communication with the team and efficacy of the processes that affect you.

You need the following special skills:

  1. Discipline: the ability to work when success is uncertain and nobody is watching.
  2. Proactivity: the courage to speak up and seek clarification, ask the “dumb questions,” and express your true, thoughtful opinion.
  3. Clarity of thought: the skill to express your questions, views, and status via written and verbally methods.

These three skills combine, along with raw competence of course, to give you a good sense of whether or not you can trust a remote work candidate to mean it when they commit to completing a task, communicate clearly around any issues they are having with it, and help others understand and improve it when it is complete.

The good news is that by not relying on body language you can test for these more easily.

Working side-by-side is going to be a lot more difficult if you can’t communicate effectively to your remote teammates.

First Steps

Make sure your job offer has a simple set of actions to take. Don’t have your initial intake be a resume drop to an email address. Ask them a few quick questions and have them submit their answers to an online form along with their work details. It is sad to say, but this will weed out more people than you would expect.

One of these questions should focus on remote work itself:

Have you ever worked from home full-time before? If so, what are three things that you learned while doing so? If not, list three things that you are excited to experience when working from home.

Focused Questionnaire

After an initial filtering process where you eliminate people that don’t pass your competency or clarity filters during these first phases, I’d suggest a simple competency check. Many remote companies do this in the form of a small paid project that the candidate completes in as near a normal work manner as possible (BuySellAds does this too). If you are a smaller company this might add too much overhead to your process, and you can instead give them a competency check in the form of a take home test:

  • Set of questions related to their craft (writing, editing, programming, testing, etc.)
  • Set of general questions to test writing skills

Why writing skills for a field that doesn’t require you to hire Hemingway? For remote communication and collaboration, expressing your thoughts in writing is more important than with a co-located team. Asynchronous communication, chat, and online work tracking systems rely on clear short messages. If you hire a brilliant resource that can’t coordinate with anyone in writing you will find that you optimize your entire business around their work schedule and the cost of your overall business flow.

The writing test should include a few questions on general topics, such as why they are applying to this specific company and all answers should be “boxed” by a word count. Writing within limits is harder than writing without them, and allowing a candidate to write 3,000 words on why your company is the best place for them to work will only lead you to read a series of rambling essays of low quality. Focus in on 500-word answers.

Next, add in some general questions that (secretly) focus in on remote work aspects:

Tell me about a problem you used to have — a weakness, and how you detected it and overcame it.
Tell me about a goal that you set and achieved alone, and what obstacles you met and overcame along the way.

Our purpose is to search for discipline.The candidate doesn’t have to tell you that they have completed an Ironman Triathlon or drank a gallon of water every day for two years without fail, but those things certainly point to a personal “while nobody is looking but I’m still doing the right thing” energy that you are trying to detect. This question also tests self-awareness which is a nice soft skill to have in your pocket when working alone.

This question also serves another purpose: getting them talking about something interesting. People express themselves best when they are passionate about their topic, and being able to detect what someone sounds like when they are excited about something gives you a way to tell if they are truly excited about their work or not. Asking them about a hobby or personal anecdote is tricky, but this question gives them the ability to choose what they would like to share — it could be re-finishing their basement, a particular project that they are proud of at their last job, or the time they shoveled their driveway in an innovative way.

Explain a complex topic within 750 words. By “complex” we mean something that can’t easily be explained at a cocktail party — something that would require the to speaker and listener to be seated. Examples include:
- The Electoral College
- How the Tour de France has more than one winner
- Why Michael Jordan is Better than Lebron James.
The topic does not need to be related to your field.

The trick here is not to make this a test of their ability to research something, but to explain something that they pretty much already know with some mild research and a little organization. This question will test the clarity of thought, and a candidate will tend to pick something that they are passionate about (I could write a book about MJ over Lebron…), so it leads to some interesting discussion later in the team session.

Test Team Interaction

A traditional team interview comes in two forms: a battle royale to test skill in which the candidate defends their competence in a peer interview, or a series of 1 on 1 interviews with different stakeholders within the company: HR, Team Lead, Director, Peer A, Peer B.

The true power of a team interview is when there is a healthy back and forth between the candidate and the team that mimics the sorts of interactions that will happen if they come on-board. The mini-project (if you go this route), questionnaire, and writing sample are all valuable inputs into this process. Have the team read them over before the meeting and be prepared to each ask three questions or more. After the discussion wraps up, pay careful attention to the quality and thought put into the questions they ask of you and your company.

Also, note and ask for opinions on how pleasant this person will be to work along side. By default, we as human beings have an answer to this question — almost too quickly. One of the true advantages to a remote working arrangement is that we can separate a person’s work from their physical appearance or how they “fit in” with the unimportant social dynamics of a physical office. By forcing them to complete a series of tests before you even see their face (or perhaps hear their voice), you can turn the interactions into a strength and not a weakness.

Make A Decision

With a simple filter, a take-home questionnaire, and perhaps a mini-project you now have a great deal of information on the candidate.

To refocus the results, remember the key skills are:

  • Raw Competence: can this person do the work?
  • Discipline: will they do it when nobody is watching?
  • Proactivity: are they going to speak up when things are going wrong?
  • Communication: can they tell us exactly what is going on, or what we are missing?

Hiring without meeting someone in person can feel like an exercise in trust, but by following through on these steps, you can focus in on the key traits of a solid contributor to your team.