Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

4 Must-Dos for Hiring Virtual Employees

Paging through some old articles the other day, I found one from 1987 that discussed "futurists" who predicted, among other things, that telecommuting would someday have a major impact on the workforce.

After a string of strikeouts—including flying cars, underwater cities, and meals in a pill—it was heartening to see that the futurists got this one right. In the years since that prediction, employers and employees have taken telecommuting further than the futurists might have imagined.

In fact, many businesses today have completely abandoned the idea of office headquarters and aren't planning to return. There's an increasing number of officeless companies, and for many, they are the ideal place to work.

In this new work environment, trust, empowerment, and results-based performance are the new keywords. So if your company is planning to use the same hiring techniques that you have in the past for conventional employees, think again. Hiring remotely means looking for a new set of aptitudes for a new way of working.

To learn more about this shift, we talked with a number of executives about what companies are looking for in virtual employees—and how you can use those insider strategies to make sure you hire the best remote workers.

1. Determine the Essentials

Over the past few years, Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Human Resources Studies has performed research with nine Fortune 500 companies, including IBM, Citigroup, General Mills, and Cisco Systems, where, on average, more than 50% of employees work remotely.

The traits identified as most critical to telecommuters’ performance are consistent across the board: Employees should be self-motivated and self-disciplined, effective communicators, results-oriented, resourceful, and technologically savvy.

These characteristics may seem basic, but if employees working from home don’t have them, the potential impact on collaboration, culture, and performance is huge. (Just think: When Katie’s Skype shows busy, is she truly meeting with a key developer or cuddling in front of the fire with her golden lab?)

As you review a candidate’s cover letter, there are a few ways to immediately identify these essential traits. Does the applicant write articulately? Does he or she focus on the mission of the company, what the position requires, and your pain points? Candidates who are able to look beyond what they “need” in a job and show that they understand what the employer needs are likely to take greater responsibility for their work.

2. Discover Candidates’ Intentions

James Perly, a partner at Perly Fullerton, a consulting firm that works with technology and digital media companies in Canada, is an old hand when it comes to working with virtual employees.

"I started finding really qualified professionals who were tired of the rat race and were very happy working from home," Perly shares. And that’s a common quality he’s found in the best remote employees: They’re looking for a better work-life balance, and they’re willing to make an extra effort in the job if it means they can work from home.

Determining whether candidates have that drive means getting to the root of why they want to work remotely—so, as soon as possible in the interview process, be sure to ask, “Why do you want to work from home?”

"The best people usually have family and want to spend time with their kids and achieve that kind of balance," he explains. The desired balance can also be something like wanting to eliminate a grinding commute, Perly adds. The important thing is that there has to be a motivating factor behind the candidates’ desire to work from home that makes it valuable to them—because that establishes their commitment and desire to succeed.

3. Learn From Past Behaviors

American expats Kieran Canisius and Sabine Hutchison are managing partners at Seuss Consulting, a European-based firm that helps U.S. and other biotech and pharmaceutical companies get established in the E.U., and they've hired virtual employees on both sides of the Atlantic.

"When we interview remote workers, we initially focus on informal ‘getting to know you’ questions to make sure that the basis of trust and honesty feels right," Canisius says. "Then we'll ask questions on past performance, like, 'How did you structure your first day on your last project?' to listen for behavior that suggests they have the competencies we're looking for. We’re looking for evidence of collaboration with other team members—making the effort to introduce yourself and establish relationships when you work remotely is key,” she adds.

4. Go Ahead and Test Them

Perly Fullerton has developed a lengthy interview routine for virtual employees. "It probably took us at least two years of constantly refining the process," Perly explains. Specifically, applicants are asked to perform a few tasks, and hiring managers study how people act during the process. How they handle those tasks can be indicative of various traits, Perly says.

At minimum, implementing a preliminary video interview that tests for each of your target attributes is a great way to screen candidates and find out if they have the potential for remote working.

For example, if you’re looking for resourcefulness, time management, and communication skills, assign candidates a research exercise prior to the interview, and ask them to report their findings on screen. (As a bonus, this can also check for technical savvy if you ask candidates to test their video feed and submit clear, well-lit videos. You’d be surprised how many candidates submit videos with a blank screen or without audio!)

As a final note, take care to observe your candidates throughout the application process. Understand that it's not just the answers they give in the interview, but how they interact and respond during the entire process, online and off, that demonstrates how they’ll behave on the job. Be rigorous with them, and see if their traits match those necessary to be a dynamite long-distance employee.

Photo of virtual employees courtesy of Shutterstock.