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How to Hire a Remote Team

Wade Foster
Wade Foster / October 23, 2017

Since our beginning in October 2011, Zapier has grown from three founders cramped in a small apartment to a team of over 110 around the world. Along the way, we've picked up a few tricks (and things to avoid) to make building a remote team easier.

Here you'll learn:

Defining Characteristics of a Top-Notch Remote Worker

Defining Characteristics of a Top-Notch Remote Worker

Not everyone is cut out for remote work, so before you begin hiring people for a remote position you'll need to consider the skills it takes to be successful in this type of environment.

Great remote workers have a few traits that make them successful:

  • Propensity towards action: This is the type of person that devoid of a task list given to them, they'll find something meaningful to do.
  • Ability to prioritize: Often times, important tasks can be unclear when working remotely (especially at a startup). An individual who can focus on the right tasks and knows to ignore less impactful ones will do well.
  • Proficient writing: Most communication in a remote team happens via text—email, team chat, or one-on-one private messages. If someone struggles to write clearly and concisely, they'll struggle in a remote team. Equally as important is being able to show tact in written communication too. It's all too easy to come off as curt via text. Liberal use of emoticons can go a long way.
  • Trustworthy: If you can't trust the person, then not being able to see them every day is going to cause you to lose sleep. Make sure you trust who you hire.
  • Local support system: If the only support system someone has is their work one, then being in a remote environment will likely make them go crazy. You need people who have outside support systems so they have people they can interact with on a daily/weekly basis.

Joel Gascoigne and the team at Buffer have found that people with these traits often come from freelance, contracting, or startup backgrounds. We've certainly found that to be true, too. Ten of our first 13 hires at Zapier had startup or freelance work in their background—and several staff members started out freelancing for Zapier before joining us full-time.

How to Write an Attractive Remote Job Post

Writing an Attractive Remote Job Post

Before you start sourcing candidates, you want to make sure to do a good job at defining the position. Oftentimes, companies throw up a generic job opening for a marketer or developer, which doesn't really help the candidate decide if they want to work for your company or not. Since remote companies don't have a local reputation, it's up to you to sell your company just as much as the role.

When it comes to defining the position, the best way to do this is to first fill the position yourself, even if it's only for a week. The work you do will help you understand what's involved in this role at a much deeper level.

This is a trick that Basecamp (formerly 37signals) uses when hiring for a new role. Jason Fried, the company's co-founder, recently explained this practice in a Reddit AMA.

When it comes to an all-new position at the company, we like to try to do it first with the people we have so we really understand the work. If you don't understand the work, it's really hard to evaluate someone's abilities. Before we hired our first customer service person, I did just about all the customer service for two years. Before we hired an office manager, David and I mostly split the duties. That really helped us know who would be good when we started talking to people about the job.

By doing the role you are hiring for, you'll also be able to write a more compelling job description and be better able to define how the role relates to the company and its success.

As a result, your job posting will be a detailed listing that explains the ins-and-outs of what you do as a company. This might turn some people away, but those people wouldn't have been a good fit anyway. Instead, you'll get applicants that are much more invested in being a part of your company.

Also, in the job posting, ask them to apply in a unique way—don't just ask for resumes. Instead, try to make the application process prove their abilities for the job.

For instance, when hiring for our business development position we had candidates complete a series of short exercises that tested the basics of the role's partner duties. And rather than asking for a cover letter upfront, we asked them to write a sample pitch email to a partner.

People excited about your company are willing to complete these extra tasks, often with enjoyment. Those who aren't a good fit just skip your post or forget to do it, turning the unique application process into a filter.

For all our job postings, we also want to convey our company culture. So we also post our commitment to applicants, which includes our promise to respond to every candidate, our culture and values, how we have been working on hiring for diversity and inclusivity, and the Zapier code of conduct, which boils down to everyone treating each other professionally and with respect. Putting these out in the open has helped candidates feel more comfortable taking that leap of faith when applying for a job.

How to Find Remote Candidates

Finding Remote Candidates

It's impossible to hire if you don't have candidates for the role, of course, so the first thing to consider is how people will find out about your open position. Here's where we've had the best luck.

  • Our Networks: People you've worked with in the past are great candidates to join up with you. This is especially true if you enjoyed working with them and want to work with them again. Also, ask customers, partners, investors, family, friends, and anyone you think might be helpful if they know of any good candidates. Often times, people aren't actively looking for jobs, but they will confide in a friend that they are unhappy in their current role.
  • Local meetup groups: It's a bit odd to recommend local recruiting for a remote team, but this has worked out well for us. We're well connected with Missouri dev meetup groups since the founding team has strong ties to the region. Many of the people in the area are excited about Zapier and stay in touch with what we do.
  • Your own userbase: If you're fortunate enough to have a large userbase that matches the credentials you need, then it can be a great place to recruit from. We do this by adding a "hey, we're hiring!" link in emails that go out to customers and blog readers. This drives dozens of daily applications when we have open positions. Additionally, your users are likely a strong culture fit since they are already more familiar with your company and how you operate.
  • Your blog: We don't publish positions on our blog but still see our increased content efforts pay off in the hiring process. To our surprise, almost every candidate mentions the blog as a reason they want to work at Zapier. Many of our posts are about efficiency, productivity, and working better with the help of apps and automation—and people who are excited about those topics tend to make great remote workers
  • Blog posts about your company: Similar to the above, we sometimes write about how we work (like what you're reading right now). The people who connect with how we work get excited enough to search for how they can work alongside us.
  • Ask teammates to help with sourcing: Some companies take a really aggressive stance and mine every employees' social networks for potential job candidates. I haven't found this to be necessary. Instead, simply ask teammates to help spread the word and with the goal of getting an awesome new teammate. Oftentimes, people are excited about working with and helping pick out their new teammate, so including them in the process is a net benefit to all.
  • Job boards: As a last resort, job boards can be a source of candidates. Often these have bottom of the barrel candidates who are constantly job hunting and mostly looking for any job—particularly if it lets them work from home, not your job in particular. But you can occasionally strike gold here.
  • Share, share, share: Use Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, AngelList, and any channel you have access to to let people know that you're hiring. The more spread you can get, the more likely your job post will stumble across the right person's desk.

Sourcing candidates is often a harder task for remote teams than you'd think. Since you don't have global connections, you're a small brand, and local ties can be hard to come by, too, it can be hard to get the word out about your company and your positions. Take advantage of every channel you can find to get the word out and keep track of where the good candidates come from. Then make sure to utilize those in the future.

Here are the ways our first 18 employees found the Zapier job opening they filled:

P.S. These are all really cool people. You should say hello to them. :-)

How to Hire a Remote Employee

If you've done everything up to this point, then you should start to see applicants roll in. This is where the real challenge starts—it's time to make the hire. First, you'll need to sort through dozens, hundreds, and maybe thousands of applicants to find the person you want. (Fun fact: Zapier got over 10,000 applicants from January to September 2017, for 33 open roles. We've been lucky to have a great talent pool to choose from.)

Hiring is time-consuming, but it might be the most important thing you do to make sure your team succeeds.

1. Sort Through Applicants in a Project Management Tool

We've borrowed heavily from how DoSomething runs hiring with Trello. I suggest managing the hiring pipeline in a project management tool—Launchpad LA, for example, uses Asana—so that all in your company can see the candidates, comment on their application and feel involved in the process. As a remote team, you don't get those in-person, team conversations about candidates, so finding one spot to have those chats puts everyone on the same page.

We use Workable to manage the hiring process, but previously we used Trello boards for each open role with a Zapier integration that automatically creates a Trello card for candidates in the "Applied" column.

Next, we nominate someone to run point for hiring for that position. They are in charge of all the initial screening and, together with our People Ops team, making sure the ball never gets dropped in the hiring process. This role is important. Without someone filling this role, it's highly likely that candidates will get slow response times and the ball will be dropped. I know we had this happen before having people dedicated to this role.

That said, just because someone is running point for the position doesn't mean you don't want other teammates involved in the hiring process. In fact, the exact opposite—you want to get other teammates involved to independently evaluate candidates to help reduce bias. We also use a Chrome extension we built for Workable that masks applicants' names and other identifying characteristics such as social media profiles to further reduce bias.

2. Reject Unqualified Applicants Quickly and Kindly

It's always best to let them know as soon as possible so they can continue with their search. It's also a polite thing to do. Here's a rough template we use, though you'll want to customize this towards the candidate a bit more:

Hi John,

Thanks for your email! Loved hearing about [insert something interesting they mentioned from the app]. That said, we're moving forward with other candidates at this point.

Best of luck and hopefully you'll stay in touch. We post new positions periodically and would love to see your name again.

Wade

The email is short, personal, lets the individual know they are no longer in the running for the position, but also invites them to stay in touch for the future. After all, these are candidates that are excited about your company and may be a better fit for a different role down the road. Best to part ways as friendly as possible.

3. Invite Top Candidates to a Video Call Interview

The hiring manager and other teammates reviewing applications select candidates for the next step, the job fit interview. We use a rubric to do that. For example, when hiring for a Customer Champion, we evaluate candidates using a 1-3 scale for: persistence, knowledge, empathy, attention to detail, and Zapier usage.

In the job fit interview, we get to know the candidate a bit better and ask questions to see if they would succeed in a remote environment. These are best done synchronously so make the most of your time and schedule these back-to-back. Doing so helps you more easily compare candidates, as well.

Pay special attention to how well the applicant communicates during this part of the process.

  • Do they suggest dates and times with time zones?
  • Do they send over calendar invites? Do those have time zones attached?
  • Do they offer multiple ways to connect, such as phone, Skype and Google Hangout?

Effective communication is so key in a remote position that these little things are a sign of a person who might be a great fit.

More potential warning signs are individuals who are poor at following up via email, forget when the interview was scheduled, or aren't flexible with an interview time.

Matthew Guay, for example, is a U.S. expat based in Bangkok, which means his work hours are completely opposite of ours in the States. But during the interview process, he was more than happy to stay up late in order to meet our whole team on a conference call. His quickness to schedule and flexibility played a role in his hiring.

4. Put Top Candidates to the Test with a Project

After these video call interviews, a few candidates have likely emerged as the strongest applicants. At this point we like to put them to the test. Depending on the role, we'll devise a task that is of moderate difficulty and indicative of the types of activities they'll do on a day-to-day basis.

For engineers, that might be using the Zapier Developer Platform to add a new service. For marketing, that may be writing a blog post in collaboration with someone on the team.

If it's obvious that this isn't necessary, we might skip this step, though it's often a good way to get a feel for working together even for great candidates.

More often than not, the task requires the candidate to interact with folks on the team—maybe even more than a couple of times. That way you'll get a sense of how they communicate and collaborate.

The test should only take a few hours. We want to be cognizant of everyone's time.

5. Check References and Make an Offer

Before making an offer, we send out an anonymous survey for a reference check using SkillSurvey. That helps get honest feedback on candidates from their references.

Throughout this process, which usually takes several months to find the right person, we update applicants on the status of their application before making the final hiring call and closing out the job opening.

6. Bonus: Arrange Finalists to Meet the Whole Team

Arrange Finalists to Meet the Whole Team

Previously, we had candidates meet the team with a short lightning talk on a topic of their choice. Unfortunately, with our now-rapid hiring pace and such a large team, this weekly intro isn't feasible. New teammates, however, do introduce themselves in their first weekly hangout with the team, sharing where they're from, a bit about their background, and anything fun they want to mention.

More Remote Hiring Resources

One thing you'll note is that we never meet the individual in person during the hiring process. For our first five hires, we did met candidates in person. We found this was helpful but ultimately wasn't critical. What it did add was cost, coordination headache, and time. If you wanted to interview three people face-to-face that could take up to two weeks to manage. The first person in the interview process would then be waiting two or three weeks before knowing if they got the job or not. So now we do everything via Zoom and email. This works swimmingly.

If you're interested in how others hire in remote teams, here are how companies I admire do this:


Keep reading: Check out even more remote work articles.

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