Yes, You Can Still Learn About Company Culture When Interviewing Remotely—Here’s How
Hot Jobs on The Muse
There are a number of things you consider when evaluating whether or not a job is a good match for you. You need a salary that meets your expectations, responsibilities that get you excited, and a manager you think you’d mesh well with. But there’s another important factor that carries a lot of weight: company culture. The work environment will have a big impact on your experience and satisfaction in that role.
“It’s important to understand a company’s culture because you don’t just want to join an organization where you can do work, you want to join one where you can do your best work,” says Hannah Fleishman, Director of Employer Brand and Internal Communications at HubSpot, a company that lets employees decide where they want to get their work done.
Company culture is somewhat intangible and difficult to wrap your head around during the hiring process—and that’s even more true when that hiring process is happening remotely.
What if all of your interviews take place via video chat and you never meet anyone in person or see the office? Or what if it’s not just the hiring process—what if the entire company is permanently remote? Do they even have a company culture if they never work side-by-side?
Your concerns and head-scratching are completely valid. Understanding company culture from afar—whether the remote aspect is just for the hiring process or for the role itself and whether the position is fully remote or a hybrid, temporarily or permanently—adds a layer of complexity to an already difficult concept.
“First, forget the idea that culture is synonymous with ping pong, happy hours, and dogs in the office,” Fleishman says. “These things are the byproduct of operationalizing culture in an office, but they’re not culture.” Sure, those physical markers of perks play into a company’s environment and overall vibe, but they don’t make up the entirety of it. That’s good news, because it means you can assess culture in a meaningful way, even remotely.
But if you’re not looking for a stocked snack counter and lunch-break yoga classes, what should you be keeping an eye out for? Here are six tips to help you understand and evaluate a company’s culture before you accept an offer—even if you never step foot in the office.
1. Know What You’re Looking For
You probably have a list of must-haves you’re searching for in your next position. That should include not only the nuts and bolts like pay and benefits, but also the values you want your company to prioritize and the cultural aspects that resonate with you.
This prep work is particularly important when you’re going through the process remotely. Trying to understand every aspect of a company’s culture through video chats and internet research alone might feel overwhelming. So zoning in on the pieces that are most important to you means you can keep your antennae up for encouraging signs—and deal breakers.
Perhaps adequate work-life balance is important, and you want to find an organization that isn’t “always on,” especially if you’ll be working from home and are concerned about maintaining boundaries. Or maybe you’re looking for a highly collaborative environment, as opposed to one where people are constantly heads down in their own work.
“Pare down to three non-negotiable traits,” says Annie Nogg, a Muse career coach and an independent career and life coach who has guided several clients through remote hiring processes. Then you can focus your efforts on deciphering cultural clues related to your top three traits.
2. Do Some Independent Research
Once you know what specific cultural elements you want an employer to possess, it’s time to put your detective hat on.
While a remote hiring process can make you feel like you’re at a disadvantage, that doesn’t need to be the case—you have plenty of resources at your fingertips to understand the inner workings of a company’s team and atmosphere. Plus, many of the research techniques you’d use during a “typical” hiring process are still applicable. You can dig into online resources, including the company’s:
- Website: “Spend some time on the company’s website to understand how the company describes its culture to the outside world. That should provide a solid directional starting point,” says Muse career coach Marquis Parker, an executive who has ample experience with remote hiring processes—both as an interviewer and a candidate. Look for the company’s “about” and “careers” pages, as that’s typically where you’ll find information about values, perks, and culture.
- Blog: “Look at the company blog, if they have one,” says Nicole Miller, People Operations Manager at Buffer, a company with a fully remote team across the globe. They may have published relevant content, such as a behind-the-scenes look at how they transitioned to remote work during the coronavirus pandemic or the different social good initiatives their team members are part of.
- Social media: Miller also says it’s helpful to “listen to how the company interacts on social with customers or stakeholders.” Are they responding to customer service inquiries promptly and respectfully? Are they sharing any content from their employees? Does their overall voice and tone align with what you’re looking for?
- Muse profile: If the company you’re interviewing with has a profile on The Muse, that’s worth a look as well (sure, we might be a little biased, but there’s info here you won’t find elsewhere). The profile includes interviews with existing employees, which reveal a lot about not only their personal experiences but also the company’s overarching cultural values. Some of the videos are even remote testimonials, captured right from these folks’ work-from-home setups, which can give you insight into their remote experiences.
- Employee reviews: Platforms where past, current, or prospective employees leave reviews can also highlight some elements of that company’s culture you otherwise wouldn’t have known. “While some of the testimonials may offer extreme perspectives based on the writer’s personal experiences, you should be able to get a good feel for what it is like to work for a company after reading a number of those reviews,” Parker says. So use them as part of your research process—but remember to take them with a grain of salt.
There’s no shortage of resources for you to look through. To avoid falling down a rabbit hole, remember to keep in mind the non-negotiable elements you identified earlier and look for materials and reviews that address those specific criteria.
You can even use keywords to make this process even more straightforward. “Search a company’s reviews for keywords like ‘remote’ or ‘values’ to get at the heart of the employee experience remotely,” Fleishman says. It’s as simple as hitting Control-F on your computer to find where those keywords appear. You can use this same trick on any page where you’re searching for specific info about the company.
As you review these resources, pay close attention to the company’s presentation of what “culture” is to them, especially if you’ll be working remotely. “Are all of the photos of office amenities and happy people in conference rooms? If so, you might want to ask your interviewer about remote culture programming, events, and opportunities to make sure the remote employee experience isn’t an afterthought,” Fleishman says.
3. Connect With Current (or Former) Employees
Nobody has better insight into a company’s culture than the employees who work, or have worked, there. Getting in touch with current and/or former team members can give you some behind-the-scenes knowledge.
You could ask the person who’s spearheading your hiring process if they can introduce you to a few employees who might be willing to answer your questions about culture. That demonstrates your interest in the company, and also shows that you’re someone who takes initiative.
If you’d rather not go through the hiring manager directly, you can use LinkedIn to search for current and former employees in the department you’d be joining. Send them a personalized connection request and ask (politely, of course) if they’d answer a few of your questions over a quick phone call or via email.
Even if you don’t want to connect with employees directly, you can still learn a lot by searching for employee posts on social media. For example, use the search function on Twitter to look for key phrases like “remote culture at [Company],” “working at [Company],” or “working remotely for [Company].” You might turn up some posts from employees sharing their experiences. It’s also worth looking at how employees interact with one another’s posts. When somebody announces a big project they launched, do their coworkers chime in with supportive, congratulatory comments? When somebody posts about leaving the company, what types of comments do you see? Those online interactions can reveal more about the relationships colleagues form.
Think of these social media searches as your sneaky way to get an understanding of employees’ insights and experiences, without having to explicitly ask for them.
4. Ask Specific Questions
At the end of a job interview, you should have the opportunity to ask questions. This is your chance to directly ask about the aspects that are most important to you, and you don’t want to waste it.
“Don’t ask generic questions like, ‘Tell me about your company culture,’” says Muse career coach Yolanda M. Owens, founder of CareerSensei Consulting and a former corporate recruiter who’s conducted many remote interviews and guided her clients through them too. “Questions like that will only get you scripted, brochure responses. Instead, ask questions that will give you a true sense for the environment and people you’ll possibly be interacting with on a regular basis.”
Return to the culture qualities you identified as important to you and craft questions that address those specific traits. For instance, “For me, humor is a big factor in staying productive, connected, and focused at work,” Owens says. “So I’ll ask, ‘How much of a role does humor play in your daily interactions?’ Because if I can’t laugh, I can’t work.”
Owens says you could also build your questions around other culture elements such as access to resources, team rapport, technology and tools, professional development, inclusion, wellness programs, and more. But if you know that remote work will be a big part of your working relationship with this employer, it’s worth asking specifically about that too. Here are some remote-specific questions about company culture you can add to your list:
- How does your team maintain strong bonds, even when working remotely?
- How has your company culture changed with some or all of your team working remotely?
- What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome when team members started working remotely?
- What tools do you use to keep communication streamlined between your in-office and remote teams?
- What team traditions do your remote and in-office employees love?
- What Slack channels are your favorite?
- What conversations happen daily on Slack or via email?
Remember, asking questions at the end of the interview isn’t just a chance for you to look good and demonstrate your engagement in the hiring process, it’s also an outlet to get your hands on valuable information you need to make an educated decision about whether or not you want to work there.
5. Observe What You Can
When you’re trying to suss out a company’s culture, the importance of attention to detail can’t be overstated. Particularly when you’re interviewing remotely, you need to detect and take in whatever clues and information you can.
As you speak to a recruiter, hiring manager, and any other team members you interview with over the phone or on video, ask yourself: How content do people seem in their roles? Do people seem excited about bringing somebody new onto the team? Or exhausted at the prospect of needing to train and onboard? Are they providing thoughtful answers to your questions? Or rushing through them?
“If you’re being interviewed by a team of people—even via video chat—observe their interactions. How respectful are they to each other?” Nogg says. Are they giving everybody equal opportunity to chime in and ask questions? Or are they talking over each other?
It’s also worth paying attention to who is on the hiring team. If you’re one of the majority of job seekers who want to work for a company that hires people from diverse backgrounds, the hiring panel might be a clue. If the interviewers and decision-makers are a completely homogenous group, that could be a sign the company doesn’t value diversity and inclusion—despite what their publicly broadcasted values would have you believe.
6. Use the Hiring Process as Your Cue
Finally, the hiring process itself should give you at least a glimpse into how that company treats not only its applicants, but also its employees. How they approach the process will be a great window into how they approach everything else.
Ideally, the candidate experience should be organized and streamlined. While a remote hiring process undoubtedly presents challenges for candidates and employers, it’s something they should approach just as intentionally as in-person hiring or any other process. Even if this particular company only turned to remote hiring in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, enough time has passed since that transition that they should’ve had ample opportunity to sort it out and should no longer be scrambling to figure out the basics.
A few things that are worth paying attention to during the remote hiring process include:
- Organization: If the hiring process is disorganized and filled with misunderstandings and frustrations, working at the company could be the same way. In contrast, if they have streamlined systems in place that show an obvious respect for your time, that’s a sign that they value the people who interact with and work for their company.
- Communication: The interview process is also an “opportunity to evaluate their communication as a company. What tools did they use? How did their communication come across to you?” says Hailley Griffis, Head of Public Relations at Buffer. There’s a noticeable difference between communication that’s timely and thorough, versus an email that’s curt and only answers half of your questions.
- Work-life balance: Are you getting emails from a hiring manager in the middle of the night? Or over the weekend? That could be an indicator that their culture doesn’t prioritize disconnecting and downtime. But bear in mind that one of the potential benefits of remote work is control over your schedule, which means employees might actually prefer to work at that time and appreciate that flexibility. Plus, remote work also means the hiring manager could be in an entirely different time zone. If you’re not sure how to interpret what you’re seeing, you could ask about flexible schedules and balance in your interview.
Remember, a company’s hiring process typically isn’t a standalone activity; it’s a direct reflection of their values and approach to work. And it’s a mirror that you should use to your advantage.
There isn’t a “try before you buy” option when you’re looking for a new job, and understanding a company’s culture before you actually work there is challenging—particularly when there’s a remote aspect to the hiring process or the job itself. But it’s well worth the effort and energy you’ll invest to try to uncover some details about the aspects of a work environment that matter to you most.
“Especially as companies commit to remote or hybrid work for the future, it’s more important than ever for candidates to know that a company’s values, work style, and goals align with their own,” Fleishman says. “Because that’s what shapes the employee experience—whether you’re in an office or remote.”