How to Figure Out if an Employee Will Thrive in a Remote Job

While it’s tempting to flesh out an ‘ideal remote candidate’ profile, you will have better results if you focus on capabilities instead.

Photo by BBH Singapore on Unsplash

In the summer of 2005, a teacher manager role opened up at Kaplan K-12. I’d been working for Kaplan as an after school teacher for a year at that point, trying to figure out if I wanted to teach once I graduated from my MFA program at Sara Lawrence College. I enjoyed the company, I liked my boss, and I didn’t seriously consider applying for the role.

There are certain moments–certain decisions–that change the course of your career. This was one of mine. I had to turn in some paperwork to my boss, and I decided to take it into the office instead of mailing it because it was a little bit late. I stopped to chat with some of the managers in the office, and one of them asked me if I was going to apply for the teacher manager role.

“Oh, it looks interesting, but I don’t have any management experience,” I explained.

The woman–we’ll call her Dana– looked at me over her glasses and asked “Didn’t you say you worked as a nanny before you came to us?” She then spent the next few minutes explaining to me how similar watching children was to managing adults. The experiences might have been different, Dana argued, but the necessary capabilities were exactly the same.

Why Capabilities Should Trump Experience in Remote Work

In a recent HBR.org article, Nilofer Merchant discussed ways managers can avoid screening out perfectly good candidates based on the wrong criteria. She shared an amusing anecdote about a hiring manager looking for a social media expert with 10 years of experience when the entire field was only a few years old. Too often hiring managers pass on capable people because they focus on whether someone has passed a very specific–and arbitrary– hurdle.

Hiring managers can fall into the same trap when looking for a great remote candidate. Not only must managers screen for people who can fulfill the basic job function, they must also find people who can produce good work as a member of a distributed team.

It’s easy to understand why we might focus on previous remote experience. We’re pressed for time. We need people to get up to speed as quickly as possible. Often there are too many candidates vying for the same position and we need to find way to shrink the pool of interviewees.

The problem with using previous experience as a proxy for ‘this person is a good remote hire’ is that remote work only went mainstream relatively recently. According to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, the number of remote jobs has increased 140% since 2005.

The number of people who work remotely is growing, but the total pool of candidates with demonstrated remote experience is relatively small. A manager who insists on hiring someone with ’10 years experience’ in a specific role, with a specific set of skills, in a remote context, is in danger of either settling for a sub standard candidate or finding no candidate at all.

Once you’ve checked to see if a candidate has the basic skill set to perform a certain role, focus on whether someone has the capacity to thrive as a remote worker, rather than insisting on an arbitrary amount of remote work experience.

How to Figure Out if a Candidate Will Thrive as a Remote Worker

Discipline

Remote employees must take charge of the rhythm of their work days. This means having the discipline to both work during the workday and to turn off the work at the end of the day.

You can find evidence of discipline in a lot of different places. The candidate’s resume may show someone who has to balance competing projects or priorities with low supervision. If you can’t find specific examples of this in a work setting, you can look for people who have successfully balanced different aspects of their personal lives.

For example, someone who worked full time while going to school shows discipline. Or perhaps the candidate trains for races, or volunteers at a local charity while caring for older parents or young children. Those personal experiences are sometimes more telling, because there is no manager standing over them, making sure they get that personal work done.

Flexibility

Technological advances and an ever-changing business environment mean that companies need employees who can adjust to an increasing rate of change. This is true anywhere, but is even more true in a distributed company, where the work is not chained to a specific locale or production line. A distributed company’s ability to pivot will (mostly) be dictated by the speed at which it’s workers–both employees and management– can shift gears.

This can be a hard capability to figure out. Everyone thinks they roll with the punches. Look for someone who has a variety of work experiences. Back in the old days, when jobs were jobs for life, it made sense to find someone who picked one career and worked at gaining increasing levels of responsibility.

Today, candidates who have worked across a variety of roles and functions bring more value. They have more skills to draw on when your company needs to change. This person is more likely to think ‘I’ve done this before,’ and feel more confident as he or she works through the latest shift in your business.

You can also find flexibility by looking for people who have a variety of life experiences. This includes (but is not limited to) people who live in foreign countries, persons with neurological processing differences, and those who live with disabilities. Besides bringing in a diverse viewpoint, these folks have experience navigating in a world not necessarily set up for them, and likely possess a robust problem-solving skill set.

Proactive Communication skills

Of all the capabilities that a remote worker should possess, this one is probably the easiest to spot. How often did the candidate communicate with you as you set up the interview? What was the quality of that communication? While it makes sense to ask all interviewees to discuss moments when they had to work with people via email and instant message, your interview will provide real-time information that you can assess.

Motivation

Why does the person want to work remotely? The answer to this question almost doesn’t matter so long as it’s meaningful to the candidate–unless, of course, the answer is ‘because I think it’s easier to pretend I’m working when I’m at home.’ If the interviewee doesn’t treat the interview seriously, move on.

There are a lot of good answers to ‘why do you want to work remotely?’ Perhaps the candidate is a military spouse and needs a job that isn’t tied to a specific location. Or maybe the candidate loves fostering dogs in her home. Every job has its tough moments. Candidates who know why a home office works for them will weather the tough times and work hard to keep their remote jobs.

How Not to Figure Out If a Person Will Thrive as a Remote Worker

It can be tempting to take these qualities and create an image of what your ‘ideal candidate’ looks like. Or worse yet, match them against certain personality types. I would caution you against doing so.

Qualities like discipline, flexibility, and proactive communication skills can present differently in different people. If you spend too much time deciding what that candidate “must” look like, you run the risk of passing over great candidates in favor of hiring clones of yourself.

I was lucky all those years ago, chatting with that manager in the Kaplan office. She was able to see past my previous job titles to the skills that truly mattered. With her encouragement I applied for the teacher manager role, accepted the position, and have been in management of one kind or another ever since. Looking at the capabilities that really matter will have a similarly beneficial effect on your company’s performance, and on your employees, for years to come.

What Makes a Successful Remote Worker? Interview with Roberta Sawatzky

There may not be a magic formula for succeeding as a remote worker, but there are certain competencies that can increase your chances of success.


Roberta Sawatzky is a business consultant who guides her clients and readers through career development, change, and transition, with an added focus on remote work. In addition to her role as a consultant, Roberta is a Business Professor in the Okanagan School of Business in Kelowna, BC, Canada

I first met Roberta in a Slack channel devoted to discussions around distributed teams. When I found out that she had just completed some research around remote worker competencies, I knew I had to interview her for the blog. You can get a copy of her full report HERE.

Why did you decide to research remote worker competencies?

I care deeply about helping people realize their greatest potential, specifically in their working environment. Having worked in the areas of management and human resources in a variety of sectors (for profit, not-for-profit, academia, public sector), I saw the importance of supporting, developing, and providing valuable feedback to my team members.

I was also involved with an organization who provided notification services to employees being terminated. It never ceased to amaze me how many employees were surprised at receiving their notice, and reported having had very limited, if any, professional development offered, or feedback on their performance. When I considered how common this was in collocated organizations, when employees and employers were face to face on a daily basis, it caused me to wonder how much more epidemic the lack of support would be in a context where personal interaction and physical presence was rare.

Thus began the research to first seek out what was necessary for success as a remote worker, what feedback looked like, and what support was desired…all from the perspective of the remote worker.

Are there remote-worker specific competencies?

I would suggest that there are some common competencies between remote and collocated workers, however, the level of proficiency necessary in each competency is higher for remote that collocated.

Were you looking at things that would help remote workers do a good job, things that would help them to be happy in their job, or a little bit of both?

The simple answer is yes. Competencies by definition are the knowledge, skills and abilities a person should possess in order to successfully perform their job. If we can identify what those competencies are, and build a recruitment and selection process around them…right down to the interview questions, the likelihood of both job success and job satisfaction is greatly increased.

Was there anything that surprised you about what you discovered?

I’m not sure that I was as much surprised as overwhelmed by the honesty and passion with which the research respondents shared their opinions, joys, and challenges. These are a group of hard working, dedicated people who are totally committed to doing their best.

Probably what saddened me the most were the number of people who reported total lack of support from their managers or supervisors (to be sure, over the course of the research I met, and hear about some amazing managers that others could learn a great deal from). While some are simply negligent, I would suggest the majority simply don’t know how to manage in the remote world. What works in a face to face setting doesn’t necessarily translate into a virtual setting.

Is there any quality that guarantees success as a remote worker?

Guarantees? I would not go that far. However, possessing the competencies revealed in the research certainly will raise the likelihood of success. The one competency that was reported by 100% of respondents was communication. That includes all forms of communication as in verbal, written, and non-verbal, as well as the ability to discern the most appropriate channel for the needed communication, and taking the responsibility to make sure the message you have ‘sent’ has been received as intended. If it wasn’t, then make it right.

Do you think people can learn these competencies if they don’t have them now?

Absolutely. Some people may naturally possess higher levels of certain competencies, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t continue to develop them. Those who are not so strong can grow as well. That being said. I am a strong believer in knowing and operating from your strengths. We all have them, and we need each other to bring out the best of those strengths.

Remote work is not for everyone. Many factors come in to play, not the least of which is the simple desire that some people have to surround themselves with co-workers…and there is nothing wrong with that. Individuals considering remote work should do a serious self-evaluation. Ask themselves, ask those who know them well (and will be honest with them), ask supervisors…anyone that they trust, to provide feedback on how they would rate their ability in each of the top competencies revealed in the research. Ask for examples, for specifics. Use that input to determine a fit for remote work. It’s also important to keep in mind that some people have no choice but to work remote…I do believe that with the right support, they will survive, and even thrive.

The competencies that were identified in the research are as follows…listed in order of importance as reported by 250 remote workers.

  1. Communication
  2. Self-directed/motivated
  3. Trustworthy
  4. Disciplined
  5. Taking initiative/curious
  6. Adaptable/flexible
  7. High self-efficacy

A big thank you to Roberta for sharing her research and findings. Don’t forget to download the full report. If you would like to see what else Roberta is working on, you can follow her blog at www.ProbeandPonder.com. You can also find her on LinkedIn and Twitter, and on her website.