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The Future of Work

How To Hire And Manage Remote Employees

A normal day at the office now consists of a laptop, a Wi-Fi connection, and a smartphone. Here's how to find ready and willing teleworkers.

[Photo: Flickr user John Kraus]

Picture your last job interview—whether you were on the employer or candidate side. What was it like? Was the handshake awkward? Could you sit comfortably in the chair? Was it too hot or too cold in the room? Did the other person seem nervous?

Now imagine an interview process where none of that matters. Instances like the ones described above don't happen in almost all remote job interviews. From the very beginning of the hiring process, it’s easy to see how different hiring and managing remote workforces are.

Some companies started to grow their remote workforces years ago, while others are testing the waters now. Wherever yours may be in the process, companies can benefit greatly by putting in place hiring and managerial practices that work well in remote environments. Your employees are likely already telecommuting to some degree—whether it's formally acknowledged or not. Remote working is only going to become more widespread by the end of the 2010s, as mobile and workplace technology improve and advance.

It’s best to get a better understanding and grasp on what your workers are doing with telecommuting, and to stay proactive about it rather than waiting until there’s a problem.

I founded my current company in 2007, and we’ve always been virtual. But with years of experience in traditional offices, I’ve often compared and contrasted the best techniques for onboarding and developing new employees and teams. There are differences. The one thing I’ve found is there are not many resources for companies who are recruiting remote workers.

As part of this realization, I recently launched Remote.co, a site dedicated to providing resources for the life cycle of companies with a significant remote component to their workforce—from recruiting, training, to managing. We are also working with business leaders in top remote companies to share their best practices and insights. According to the experts, here’s how to hire and manage a remote workforce.

1. Seek The Right Characteristics For At-Home Work

Not everyone is cut out to work from home, and not everyone wants to do it. Whether you’re moving some staff to remote work, or hiring an entirely remote department, there are certain characteristics that help identify successful remote workers.

Automattic, a web development company with 325 remote workers, looks for people that are self-starters, and have a high degree of independence, value continuous learning, and are receptive to feedback. "If during the trial process a candidate needs a lot of hand-holding and waits for specific instructions before moving forward on work, they probably won’t be a good fit," says Lori McLeese, Automattic's head of human resources.

Communication skills—particularly written communication—are also a must-have. "The importance of this cannot be overstated. When you’re remote, a majority of the way you interface with the world will be through written word, so it’s critical that you can articulate complex concepts and subtleties," says Coby Chapple, a product designer at GitHub, a 65% remote company that also looks for discipline, decisiveness, and people with interests outside of work. "Without something else to help them switch off and decompress, it’s much easier to end up burning out."

2. Design A Hiring Process To Support Your Remote Goals

While most remote positions are hired through phone interviews and sometimes video interviews—which are more similar to in-person interviews—some of the hiring process should be further refined to support your remote workforce's goals.

When people work remotely, the managerial focus shifts from how much time they spend in the office to what they’re getting done every day. During the hiring process, it’s smart to focus on skills and the candidate’s approach to the job by having candidates do small a test or a trial project, to see how well—or not—they follow instructions, ask questions, and generally perform in a remote environment.

At Inscub, an Australian-based company with an 80% remote workforce, the interview project is designed to be completed in the amount of time someone may prepare for and attend the traditional interview, says Ronnie Burt, product manager.

Seeking out people who’ve already worked remotely can help, too. Carrie McKeegan, cofounder of the tax return preparation company Greenback Expat Tax Services, says: "We have found that candidates with previous experience working remotely tend to be more successful and productive."

3. Manage By Goals And Outcomes—Not By Face Time

Even if you’re in a traditional office, managers can’t rely someone’s physical presence to know that they’re doing a great job. Physical presence can actually be a distraction because managers often assume people are productive because they can see them, and it looks like they’re working. So, they manage lazily by sight rather than by actual work produced. An April 2015 study found people were faking 80-hour workweeks at a high-pressure consulting firm in Boston.

It’s much harder to fake productivity when you work remotely, as long as managers are focusing on goals and outcomes for their employees and teams. At 10up, a 100% remote company in Portland, Oregon, managers adhere to many agile project management principals with granular tasks—weekly milestones at most, sometimes daily. "We know pretty quickly when staff is off the reservation," says Jake Goldman, president and founder.

McKeegan of Greenback also uses regular updates and quarterly goal setting to keep remote workers on task. The company’s managers rely on three ways to measure the productivity of remote workers:

  1. Weekly updates about team members' accomplishments during the current week, and their focus for the following week
  2. Quarterly goals to keep team members focused and productive
  3. Programs for team members to track time spent on projects

Liberating The Remote Workforce

Hiring and managing a remote workforce can be very liberating for a company, allowing an opportunity to optimize your workforce in ways that may not be possible in a traditional office environment. You can recruit the best candidates for the job, rather than the best candidates locally.

When someone is working, you can more easily focus on the quality and output of their work, rather than the chitchat at the watercooler about what they did last weekend. You can empower workers to work where and when they are most productive, rather than arbitrarily forcing them to work in a cube during set hours.

Here’s the real secret: Great remote management is more about best practice in any management—on-site or off-site. It’s not that difficult—it just might require challenging your managers to work harder and be better.

Sara Sutton Fell is the CEO of FlexJobs and founder of 1 Million For Work Flexibility.