Recruiting remote teams

/ by Karen Amundson

Everything has changed. The way our kids get their education. The way we eat at restaurants. The way we travel. The way we work. Here’s the thing though—it’s not all bad. At the risk of coming off a bit too glass-half-full, companies are turning to remote work, which opens up new opportunities for all—opportunities that Apiary Digital® has been honing for the past 5 years. 

During this time, we’ve uncovered major gaps in how companies utilize talent and technology. Not to mention, underlying assumptions shaping the culture of work that do a disservice to many teams. It’s not about how to do what you did before, but remote. Nor is it a stack of tools and tips to help you work remotely. It’s a completely new opportunity to rethink how you do business, and how you can better-align talent with business and human needs. 

Throughout this series, we’ll be sharing the ingredients for our secret sauce—for aligning fully remote teams chock-full of top talent to drive extraordinary business performance.

To build a successful remote organization, and particularly if you want to promote freedom and flexibility by hiring people who can operate within a Structurally Flexible Team—that is, where people with different working styles and needs come together to produce results aligned to business needs—you need to start with hiring the right people. Here, we share our wealth of experience and knowledge about how to hire successful remote team members.

What’s different about hiring remotely? 

As a remote organization, you automatically have a vastly broader talent pool available. You can, and should strive to seek out even more exceptional talent than you would if you were recruiting for a traditional office environment. But, you also have more competition from other companies around the world. So, it’s more important than ever to approach finding top talent as customers, not workers. Set the stage for success by aiming to provide talent with employment as a service. This paves the way for building Structurally Flexible Teams that enable career-driven people to do the things that are important to them outside of work while also delivering exceptional business results.

A quick brag, which is intended to establish our credibility on the topic of remote recruiting: At Apiary, we have had from Day 1, a collective of consultants with the kind of backgrounds big companies with much larger budgets fight over and struggle to recruit. People come to Apiary with 8-15+ years of specialized expertise gained from places like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Macy’s, Williams-Sonoma, iProspect, 360i, and a plethora of the largest digital agencies and other Fortune 500 brands. We don’t have a single junior resource or cheap outsourced labor hiding in the wings. 

Where can I find top remote talent? 

It is, of course, easiest to hire and build trust remotely with people you already know, and from the connections and referrals of your company’s network. But, hiring only within your close circles has some drawbacks. A big thing on our minds is the value of diversity to business and teams. Especially as marketers, our job is to help clients build, connect with, and convert their audiences. The more diverse our pool of consultants, the better we can accomplish this. Because we prefer to hire people we know and trust, we’re working on building relationships with a more diverse network of people in the first place. We encourage others to examine their hiring and networking practices to be intentional and proactive.

The other thing about hiring from your own network is that you can’t wait until you have an immediate need to start building relationships with people who might be a good fit. At Apiary, we invest in relationships with people long-term, even though the work itself is generally project-based. The nature of nearly all work relationships is temporary because you’re not going to have the same coworkers or suppliers forever. Throughout your career, you might cross paths with the same person in different roles and contexts. And one day, you might be their boss; in another situation, they might be your client.

Tools and technology are certainly important for managing on-demand talent and resourcing the right skills at the right time to align to business needs. However, it wouldn’t actually work all that well without the network of trust and relationship continuity, which is a big part of the value Apiary provides across projects, people, and time. 

What should I look for when hiring remotely?

We firmly believe accountability is the single-most critical quality to look for in a remote hire. That is, people who genuinely care about their reputation and work quality. People with a high degree of accountability to do whatever it takes to deliver no matter what company they work with, or role they’re in. Build your company culture and operations around making these people successful and you’ll keep your top-performers happy. 

Colleagues who aren’t so accountable won’t last long in a Structurally Flexible Team. Personal accountability means you don’t need to spend time or resources monitoring the people who work for you, or worry about them abusing flexible policies. You can focus on treating them like the customer they are. We’ve found the following serve as pretty good indicators of someone who’s accountable: 

  • Do they plan their personal offline time so that it doesn’t fall around known deadlines?
  • Do they have backup plans for how to get WiFi for an important deadline if they’re traveling?
  • Do they line up coverage so they can enjoy their offline time with peace of mind that the team can keep making progress? 
  • Do they turn their lack of planning into someone else’s emergency?

Pro tip: If someone can’t get it together to have reliable video-friendly WiFi during their interview, they probably won’t figure it out later, either! 

Look for past experience working remotely. Being effective at remote work is an acquired skill. From what we’ve witnessed, it takes 6-18 months for someone who has never worked remotely to get the hang of it. You have to figure out how to use remote working tools, and build productive, high-trust relationships without being in the same room. Even little things like setting up a physical office space or figuring out how to get reliable WiFi while traveling take time to figure out. It also takes people time to build life around work, replacing corporate socialization with other communities. Experience collaborating with people in different offices is helpful, but it’s not exactly the same. 

Hire communicators. To make any of this work, you need highly effective communicators—both written and verbal. You can’t afford to hire the solo genius who may be technically brilliant, but creates a huge communication tax on the rest of the team. Err on the side of seeking over communicators, but not to excess!

Hire self-managers. You need people who are highly considerate of each other, and who can think ahead. If you work Sunday nights, but your team does not, you better have all the pieces you need to get your work done without having to bug your team. People who appear to be always-on are not necessarily dedicated to their work, so much as they’re not great at planning ahead. Reward those who are organized enough to not have to be online all the time.

Screen for empathy. The touchy-feely, I-care-about-your-feelings kind of empathy is nice to have, but more important is finding people who can put themselves in someone else’s shoes and adjust accordingly. You need people who can quickly contextualize another person’s understanding. Example: “Oh, I see, I believe you’re bringing up data related to the Germany project, but we’re actually discussing the UK campaign.” Empathy is a communication shortcut. In a remote work setting, you can’t afford to let any misunderstandings slide, or you risk wasting days of productivity when someone runs off and works on the wrong thing.

Emotional intelligence (EQ). In a remote work environment, you have very few cues to identify when someone on your team is struggling, or when someone is quietly not agreeing with a decision, and failing to speak up with an important point. You need people who will notice and invite the person to talk who unmuted 5 times in a video call, but never got a word in edgewise. Those who have a demonstrated ability to maintain long-term, long-distance relationships will have a leg-up with this. Team members willing to do emotional labor for the good of the team should be rewarded and valued in a remote team.

Pitfall: The 24-7 team

If you’re hiring top-performing, self-driven, communicative people, and then giving them the flexibility to work when they want, a big pitfall to avoid is people working 24-7. By nature, self-driven people want to support their peers who are working different hours, and it’s easy to become an always-on train to burnout town. This undermines the entire operation and notion of talent as the customer. It’s a potential pitfall you have to proactively and systematically protect against. 

People rolling out of bed, working, and blurring the lines between home and work is a bug not a feature. It has to be written into the DNA of your company. In this endeavor, technology and tools are not your friend. They’re built to be “sticky.” Brainy engineers and product geniuses get paid the big bucks to make people want to use tools more, not less. Without the confines of physical offices and business hours, you’re on your own, designing a company to protect against the 24-7 team. Hiring people who are great communicators and self-managers is a good start as they generally do not have to work around-the-clock to stay on top of things. But more must be done.

Set clear parameters. What time zones will you hire from? What overlap is needed for productivity. What level of flexibility will you offer? Do you expect butts in seats from 9-5? If so, why? Do you expect people to work a certain number of hours in a given week? Can people take off during the day to pick up their kids from school? Your expectations are important to the culture you create, and people need clarity on what they are signing up for, before you hire them. 

Leadership boundaries. Leadership needs to set the example. Take the time to explore your own workstyle. Discover how you work best; what makes for the most productive day. Does it involve starting at 5 a.m., taking a nap in the afternoon, then shutting down at 3 p.m.? Great, do that—and then have the courage to set the example. Don’t keep checking email and Slack when you’re outside your own work hours. 

Create an environment where it’s okay to pick up the phone and call or text people if there’s a true emergency outside of working hours so people don’t feel they have to constantly monitor communications to know when they need to jump in on something. When taking a vacation, take an actual vacation—don’t just work from a different location. If you do that, everyone in the company will come to believe they’re free to, and expected to do the same.

When people are respectful and considerate of each other’s time and needs, and are organized enough to plan ahead to avoid creating unnecessary emergencies for each other—when there is a true emergency, people will drop everything to roll up their sleeves and help the team. After all, working on a Structurally Flexible Team with a strong talent-first culture is a good gig. People want to keep doing it, and they’ll work hard to make the thing succeed. 

All of these characteristics may seem like a tall order. But, if you’re really providing what the customer wants (employment that delivers professional and financial well-being in a package that enables people to do what’s important outside of work), you attract top talent. And, since you’re delivering a ton of value to them (the customer), you can expect a lot from them, too. 

In the next post, we’ll explore how to make all of this work operationally to get to most value from all this remote top talent you’ve retained.

A huge thank you to Apiary Talent Director Morgan Mischler who provided subject matter expertise for this article.