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
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.
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.
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.
2 thoughts on “How to Figure Out if an Employee Will Thrive in a Remote Job”
This is terrific advice. We now have a series of standard interview questions where we try to identify very similar basic characteristics + alignment on values. E.g. Our value of “own it” matches up fairly well with discipline. It’s really changed our hiring. We get a more diverse group through to each round AND they are more likely to succeed in our environment.
Also, people who have a lot of side interests are often better at switching off and avoiding overwork. I can’t remember where I read that, but it changed the way I looked at CV’s that are packed with variety and “non job relevant” details.
Agreed, side interests definitely help at switching on and off work. And I’m glad to hear you’re getting more diverse candidates. I truly believe that one of the best ways to increase diversity is to focus on capabilities or characteristics. It’s extra work but that effort forces us to slow down and really think about each person.
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