According to Workable’s New World of Work survey, nearly two-thirds of businesses went fully remote during the COVID-19 crisis and nearly a third went partially remote. 71% say remote and distributed teams will be a standard going forward. So, if you’re one of those businesses now hiring, you’re likely looking for candidates who would not only thrive in their new role, but would especially thrive in a remote work role.
We asked employers about that and got pretty good responses. For instance, Agneiszka Kasperek has a lot to offer on the topic as the CMO of Estonia-based Taskeo.co, a software supporting companies moving to cloud management. She recommends deliberately hiring people who would be a good fit for remote work.
“That is,” she explains, “people who aren’t intimidated by software or learning how to use it, self-starters, motivated and independent. In remotely working companies, certain character traits are more important than the skills that the new person comes with. The skills can be learned. Character traits – not so much.”
In other words, different people thrive in different environments. When you’re screening applicants for remote jobs, you may need to update your hiring criteria. So what ‘character traits’ can you look for when evaluating candidates?
Let’s start with four common worker archetypes. They are Jennifer, Pam, Lukas, and Esther.
Jennifer is an extrovert who thrives off interaction with others. For her, ideas happen between people, not inside one person’s head. Not only does she inspire others through her contributions to the team; she also is inspired by working closely with others towards common goals.
As such, she excels in a driven office environment where she can walk into a room and take over that room’s energy, and comes up with her best work through meetings and presentations. She can rapid-fire her way through a brainstorming session and thrives in spontaneity. She’s the talkative one at lunch who breaks the ice immediately.
If you had a project that needed multiple team members dynamically working together for it to succeed, Jennifer would be the first person you’d recruit to ensure a successful project.
Pam, on the other hand, is much quieter. She’s an immensely creative and productive employee, but in a different way than Jennifer. In a busy and noisy office environment, she struggles with all the distractions when she’s trying to get work done. As such, she’ll come early in the morning when few people are in the office to hunker down and do some deep work for a couple of hours. She’ll also find a spot away from others – whether it’s a vacant meeting room, a cafe, or in a quiet corner of the workplace – and work diligently with headphones on.
Those who know Pam know not to bother her when she’s got that game face on. They know they’ll get what they need from her at lunch hour, on a coffee break, or during a pre-scheduled meeting. With all that, you know that if you give Pam a project to complete by a certain date, she absolutely will deliver on time.
Then there’s Lukas. Like Pam, he likes to have control over his schedule, because he works better in a predictable and structured work environment. He doesn’t like surprises – he likes to know what he’s in for. He likes to know that the weekly team meeting happens at 10 on Mondays, and that his project is expected on his manager’s desk by EOD on Wednesday – provided it’s been discussed ahead of time.
He doesn’t like to have extra work thrown at him with a “Lukas – I’m really needing to get this done by mid-afternoon today, can you clear your calendar and give this a quick look?”. Likewise, he doesn’t like seeing a meeting on his calendar bumped on 30 minutes’ notice. But if there’s a clear structure and a well-thought-out plan already in place, and if he knows exactly what needs to be done, Lukas will absolutely crush his part of the project.
And finally, there’s Esther. Like Lukas, she prefers structure and predictability in her work world. And, like Jennifer, she thrives off interacting with people. But she also understands that things pop up and priorities get moved around on a regular basis. She gets frustrated at first, but she’ll take it as it comes and adapt accordingly, knowing it’s better to adapt.
And there’s also a lot of Pam in her – she will absolutely revel in a setup where she can block off a few hours a day to do some deep work and churn out a day’s worth of productivity in those hours. But she knows that she needs to make herself available at any given time in the day, and that she’ll need to adapt accordingly.
And also – if you had a half-baked but novel idea and needed someone to take a deeper look and even bring it to fruition without needing a lot of guidance, Esther’s your go-to person. Likewise, if you had a last-minute project that needed immediate attention and you needed someone to say “Don’t worry, I got this!”, Esther would excel there too.
Evaluating candidates for soft skills
Now, imagine you’re a hiring manager evaluating candidates for a remote position. These four are your finalists. They all tick the same boxes – work experience, education, qualifications, skills. But you’re looking for someone to specifically excel remotely. First, let’s look at the soft skills needed for that.
In the aforementioned survey, adaptability and resilience (67.4%) and self-motivated/self-starter (54.2%) led the way as sought-after traits in the new remote world of work.
Also, a recent survey of Workable’s own employees found that time management, effective communication, and adaptability were the three most common new skills developed when they went fully remote at a moment’s notice in March. While the first two can be good soft skills in any work environment, the third one – adaptability – can be more important when evaluating candidates for a fully remote company.
Does it work in practice?
The signs point to ‘yes’. SmartBug Media CEO Ryan Malone – who has run a fully remote company since launching in the late 2000s – looks at two specific properties when evaluating candidates for their ability to work in a distributed team:
Social energy: Ryan will ask a simple question: “When’s the best time for you to work?” The answer may help him see whether a candidate gains a “freedom” in setting their own hours and removing all the distractions typical of an office environment, as opposed to losing the social aspect of office life (i.e. a lunch with colleagues).
In other words, he’s looking for where they get their social energy from – and that helps him determine if they can thrive in remote work.
Resiliency: Ryan is also looking for people who can adapt and pivot quickly in a less structured work environment, where there are very few windows for employees to walk to a colleague and vent after a hiccup in the workflow.
“So,” Ryan says, “we have to find people that have handled some adversity, and our resilient people can understand [that] maybe a client emergency comes up that you need to move stuff around.”
Alison Bernstein, the president of New York-based real estate firm Suburban Jungle Realty, is also pragmatic about remote work. The ability to be self-organized is high up on her list of highly valued skills when evaluating candidates.
“Having an organized schedule with space, time and childcare (if need be) to take calls, attend video chats, and simply execute daily activities is a great start,” she says. “One must begin to set their own goals and timelines and make sure those goals and deadlines are met.”
Sheena Ponnappan, the Chief People Officer of Singapore-based business outsourcing/offshoring agency Everise, also likes to look for those special signs that a person can thrive in a home environment.
“We have built a high-touch model through the recruitment process where we strategically interview for work-at-home propensity and demonstration of abilities to be successful without face-to-face contact.”
Sheena will go as far as to look for specific regions and population groups with high retention rates when evaluating candidates. Additionally, like Alison, she’s looking for “the ability to self-support home technologies and [candidates] who are committed to remote work as a life choice.”
The same goes for Inna Shevchenko, the CMO at iGMS, a short-term rental management SaaS company headquartered in North Vancouver, Canada. For Inna, determining a candidate’s potential to succeed within the existing remote structure at iGMS is a core focus of her candidate evaluation process.
“I believe that if you hire the right person, getting buy-in, user adoption, and the desired level of learning become less challenging,” says Inna. “This way, we ensure that the new hire will adapt easily and fit into the culture.”
So, who is that ‘right person’?
Let’s go back to evaluating our candidates in the final-four list – Jennifer, Pam, Lukas, and Esther, paying attention to their ability to thrive in a remote work environment.
Jennifer’s productivity might falter without being able to organically interact with her deskmates and colleagues on a regular basis. Unless her calendar was booked with meetings back-to-back or if her manager was connecting with her every day, the hours on end in an isolated home office might negatively impact her energy and motivation.
Next to a desert island, a remote job would be Pam’s dream job. She would love to stay at home and work 24/7 in her home office, where she’s able to maintain greater control over her own schedule and not “have” to talk or engage with others on a regular basis. She can muster up the needed energy for meetings, but the times in between are those golden solitary times where she can really crank out her best stuff.
Like Pam, Lukas may see this remote job as a perfect setup for him. But a remote work environment is not necessarily absent of those unpredictable “pop-up” meetings – loved by Jennifer, Lukas not so much. He functions better when he knows precisely what everyone else is doing and what is expected of him each week. In a remote environment, there’s more of a need to fly by night. If he isn’t 100% informed of his expectations and deliverables early on, his productivity might falter.
Finally, Esther understands and appreciates the ambiguity of a remote work world and has the resilience that allows her to overcome the little trip-ups and changes throughout. Even if it’s not ideal, she can pivot as needed, whether it’s for a meeting being moved or a lack of clarity as to what’s needed for the client presentation on Friday. She also has the self-confidence to go forward without needing a greenlight or validation from her manager. She can take on a task or project with minimal supervision, and can be trusted to turn out a great product in the end.
Don’t put all soft skills in one basket
So, with all of that, who would you hire for a remote position? At first glance, it might come down to Pam or Esther, with the latter getting the job due to her ability to perform even in a volatile or ambiguous working environment. And in remote – you really do need that because it’s such a hands-off climate.
But take care when evaluating candidates for soft skills. Just because a Jennifer comes off as more outgoing does not necessarily mean that she cannot thrive in a remote work world. Maybe she’s an incredibly quick learner and can adapt to a new balance in her work and life.
Likewise, an Esther isn’t necessarily set for success remotely – maybe she rolls with the punches, but when direction is needed, she doesn’t handle that well or doesn’t know how to follow instructions step by step. You may even come across a Pam or Lukas who turns out to be the very best candidate for the position based on their amazing output and performance in spite of everything else – and that’s OK, too.
Not only that, soft skills are not always easy to gauge in those first few interactions in the candidate evaluation process. Jennifer’s demeanor may seem outright extroverted, but there may be some deeper aspects to her you might not initially perceive in an interview. Likewise, Pam and Lukas might be more adaptable to unpredictability than you – or even they – realize.
In the end, the ‘environment’ matters
Also, while you’re evaluating for skills and best cultural fit, it bears noting that if the rest of your system isn’t conducive to success and productivity, it doesn’t matter who you have in your team. You still need a quality recruitment process, a standardized onboarding, and a strategy to build connections with others.
But do you know what the trickier part really is? In the long haul, it’s still up to you to set them for long-term success regardless of the environment they’re in and their individual traits. That’s ultimately your job as an employer and manager – to bring the best out of your team whether remotely or in the physical workplace.