How to Hire a Remote Team

By Wade Foster

You are reading: Chapter 3 of 14

Over the course of Zapier's 41-month existence, we've grown from three founders cramped in a small apartment to a team of 21 around the world. While we're certainly not experts at hiring, we have picked up a few tricks (and things to avoid) to make building a remote team easier.

This chapter covers:

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.
  • Able 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 know to ignore others will do well.
  • Proficient written communicator: 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-to-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 have startup or freelance work in their background.

Writing 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. Often times, 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 so, turning the unique application process into a filter.

Finding 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 following a trick of Buffer's and placing a subtle "is hiring!" link under our logo so it's impossible for site visitors to miss. 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.
Buffer is hiring
  • Your blog: We don't publish positions on our blog but still see our increased content effort pay off in the hiring process. To our surprise, almost every candidate mentions the blog as a reason they want to work at Zapier.
  • Blog posts about your company: Similar to No. 4, much of our blog writing is about how we work (like this book). 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. Often times, 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, not your job. But you can occasionally strike gold.
  • 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 18 employees found the Zapier job opening they filled:

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

Hiring 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.

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 set up a Trello board with columns for "No", "Applied", "Reached out" and "Interviewed (needs decision)".

Trello Hiring Board

Candidates email their application to an email address (jobs@zapier.com) and then a Zapier integration automatically creates a Trello card for candidates in the "Applied" column. The card contains a link to the applicant's initial email, which I later use to quickly reply to those individuals (when the email initially arrives in my inbox, it's auto-archived).

Next, we nominate someone to run point for hiring for that position. They are in charge of all the initial screening and 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 someone assume 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.

To do this make the Trello job board available to everyone internally. Use Zapier automation like the following to notify teammates when new applicants come in. Invite them to leave comments on the card—this is to replace those in-person chats.

Next, the point person selects a handful of people for an interview call and lets the other candidates know that they are no longer in the running for the position.

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

You'll want to schedule a follow up call with the top candidates. 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, who recently joined us, is a U.S. expat based in Bangkok, which means his work hours are completely opposite of ours. 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 interaction with folks on the team. 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 everyones time. If it is more than a few hours we always pay the candidate for their time.

5. Arrange Finalists to Meet the Whole Team

Arrange Finalists to Meet the Whole Team

If that goes well, we have the candidate meet the team. This happens via a GoToMeeting (previously Google Hangouts, but it has a 15-person limit). We ask the candidate to prepare a short lightning talk on a topic of their choice. It can be anything.

The hangout starts with a brief round of intros and then the applicant gives the presentation followed by Q&A.

This part of the process has been key. It allows everyone on the team to interact with the person at least once. It also allows the applicant to meet everyone and get an inside look at how we operate. This goes a long way for helping us evaluate the applicant and the applicant evaluate us. The best applicants will likely have their pick of places to work, so we want to put our best foot forward, too.

After the GoToMeeting, I send a quick email to everyone on the team asking them what they thought. We rarely use email for all team collaboration and instead opt for Slack, Trello or our internal blog which are all accessible internally. In this case, email is best since it's private and allows us to be more candid about our feelings toward the applicant.

If all goes well up to this point we usually make a job offer.

More Remote Hiring Resources

Zapier remote team map

One thing you'll note is that we never meet the individual in-person. For our first five hires, we 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 Google Hangouts, email and GoToMeeting. This works swimmingly.

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

Now that you know how to build a remote team, we'll look at how to evaluate your remote employees in the next chapter.

Go to Chapter 4!


Written by Wade Foster.

Previous Chapter

How to Build Culture in a Remote Team

Next Chapter

How Successful Remote Teams Evaluate Employees: A look inside Automattic, GitHub and Help Scout

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