The Remote Worker Dilemma

By Dana D. Borowka, MA

Why You Should Desire, Hire, and Inspire Remote Workers

[dropcaps type=”circle” color=”” background=””]M[/dropcaps]elissa Meyer will long remember the firestorm she created over remote workers. Soon after starting her position as the new CEO of Yahoo, Mayer instituted a policy to eliminate remote working and bring employees back to the offices. This caused quite a bit of anger among employees, who leaked the memo to the press. A major debate on the issue ensued in the media with the merits of telecommuting being discussed from the front page of the New York Times to parenting blogs.

img001Despite the new policy at Yahoo — which Mayer defended as “right for Yahoo right now” as opposed to an industry standard (because perhaps the remote worker policy at her company was broken and needed fixing) — there is a growing body of research that indicates there are some major benefits to allowing employees to work remotely. A study from Stanford University indicated that call center employees who worked from home increased their productivity by about 13 percent and had more job satisfaction and lower turnover. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found similar results in a study released last year. These studies also suggest this may lead to longer hours worked and less sick days taken. Additionally, it can save a business real estate costs and broaden the pool of available talent (since location is no longer a major factor).

The book, “Remote: No Office Required” (fall of 2013) by the company 37Signals says, “As an employer, restricting your hiring to a small geographic region means you’re not getting the best people you can. As an employee, restricting your job search to companies within a reasonable commute means you’re not working for the best company you can.”

Could there be an opportunity for remote workers in your company? If you are interested in incorporating remote workers into your organization, it is vital that you find the people best suited to it and then manage them properly. Here are some suggestions on how you can benefit from some of that increased productivity and job satisfaction.

How to Test Potential Remote Workers

Obviously, working remotely is not for everyone. Working away from the watchful eyes of the office requires autonomy and a limited need for social interaction that, to be frank, some just do not possess. Some workers are pretty good at it and others are pretty ugly. The trick is to find the great people who are self-motivating and can concentrate better without the distractions of a traditional office. The payoffs can be huge. But how can you find the ideal people who will thrive in a remote environment?As a trial experiment, you could start with current employees who may do well working from home. Many people may volunteer to do this, but that doesn’t mean they are the best candidates for it. As part of your initial set up of remote workers, try using an in-depth work style and personality assessment to gain objective information about your employees.

Our research for our book, Cracking the Personality Code, reveals that this is not guesswork or an untested science. Work style assessments are a standard recruiting practice for bizwoman under magnifyglassmany branches of the government and military, as well as many Fortune 500 companies when assessing potential hires for key or critical positions. We will discuss hiring in the next section, but you can start with evaluating current employees.

What are you looking for in an ideal remote worker? First of all, be sure to use an established assessment company that utilizes multiple rating scales and evaluators with comprehensive training. The assessment company you choose should help you create tailored interview questions based on the candidate’s specific personality. The purpose is to probe facets of the work style and personality you need more details on. The assessment organization should also have a copy of the job description and resume as part of the debrief discussion.

Here are some areas you may want to focus on for a work style assessment:

Determine patterns for coping with stress.

Stress is a force that tends to distort the body, a factor that induces bodily or mental tension, or an automatic physical reaction to a danger or demand in the environment. As one physician stated, “Stress is any demand, either internal, external or both, that causes us to mentally and physically readjust in order to maintain a sense of balance within our life.” Without a doubt, stress is a fact of life in today’s work world. So determining a candidate’s or employee’s ability to cope with stress is critical for a manager.

Assess their problem-solving resources.

Is this person a problem solver? If so, what kind of problem solver? Each of us has unique problem-solving resources on which we rely. Determine what the candidate’s strengths are when it comes to problem solving. What are the usual approaches this person will use to resolve these problems?

Examine their interpersonal interaction styles.

Breakdowns in communication are never good for an organization. So take a good look at the individual’s style for relating and communicating with others. How do they usually react in dealing with others? What is their comfort level in interacting and connecting with others? Personality assessments can tell you the person’s major sources of gratification and satisfaction when building relationships. Since remote workers are isolated, they need to be very effective at communicating when they do interact with managers and other employees. This is an area to really focus on in the evaluation.

Explore thought flow.

Of course, not everyone thinks and processes information the same way. A good personality test will give you insight into an individual’s thought flow. This not only helps with hiring, but understanding how someone’s thoughts naturally flow is also a very powerful management tool. Sharing this information amongst the team helps employees communicate more effectively with other members of the team.

Investigate career matching.

Certain personality tests help you gain information which may either support the person’s present career choices or assist them to explore, consider and plan for another career direction. Ask your assessment company if they have specific remote working questions that can help indicate this aspect of career suitability. A personality test can give you an indication of which jobs match the candidate’s personality type and which careers they may have an aptitude for. You do need to remember that the test results are only an indicator and should not be relied on as an absolute assessment of which career is best for the person.

Evaluate Strengths and Weaknesses.

Personality testing is a proven and effective way to create highly functional teams. This starts with a summary of each person’s strengths and weaknesses. Once you know which personality types work best together, you can mix and match your people so that you get the worker handoffmost out of each of them. For every strength a person possesses there is a corresponding weakness. Being assertive is a strength. However, a person can be too assertive and off putting for some people or in some situations. This may be useful in matching your remote workers with managers and colleagues in the office.

Since remote workers can be a bit isolated, it is essential that they be proactive, problem solvers. Additionally, they need to be happy without the social aspects of the workplace. Above all, they need to be excellent at written communication, since so much will need to done through e-mail.

How to Recruit Remote Workers

If you don’t have any suitable candidates in your office now, or you’d like to expand your remote working talent pool, you may need to recruit.

“The recruitment and sourcing is easier since you’re not asking candidates to consider relocation,” says Barry Deutsch, executive recruiter and author of You’re Not the Person I Hired. “This is particularly important to candidates with ten plus years of experience who most likely have put down roots in their local community through schools, non-profit involvement, friends and neighbors, religious organizations, and sporting organizations, such as little league or AYSO soccer.”

You can start your search in the same ways you would for in-house workers: networking, employee referrals, job board advertising, and broadcasting through social media. But since remote workers can be so specialized, you need to avoid common pitfalls of the hiring process.

Deutsch commissioned a study to identify the most common mistakes executives make in their hiring process. The top ten are:

  1. Inadequate Job Descriptions
  2. Superficial Interviewing
  3. Inappropriate Prerequisites
  4. Snap Judgments
  5. Historical Bias
  6. Performance Bias
  7. Fishing in Shallow Waters
  8. Lack of Probing Questions
  9. Ignoring Candidate Needs
  10. Desperate Hiring

Many of these mistakes apply to hiring remote workers as well. Here is some advice from Deutsch to improve your odds of hiring the right remote workers.

Inadequate job descriptions.

The job description you write for these positions will be extremely important. Not only does the description need to be clear about the situation, it should be crafted to entice the right kinds of people to apply.

Inappropriate prerequisites.

First, compare their resume against your job description. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Surprising how easy it is to blow right past this step in the hiring process. Past experience alone is not what you are looking for when you review the resume. You are looking at how well they performed, what their successes were, and how adaptable they might be to the job that needs to be done for your organization. Experience is nice, but results are what really count.

According to Deutsch, “It’s very important to understand the environment and culture remote workers come from. For example, if someone has never worked remotely before, it’s likely the transition to remote working might end up being a failure since they are learning on your watch.”

Superficial interviewing/Lack of probing questions.

To be sure they have the experience or attitudes you are looking for, ask the right questions. Ask them about working independently from home or an executive suite. Are they able to manage themselves? How do they maintain productivity remotely? Deutsch also recommends discussing how they were managed in prior remote positions to avoid clashes in corporate culture or style. “Probe for examples of how they are managed: rigor of reporting, calling into bosses for discussions – daily-weekly, formal and informal updates, tracking of activities worker cooperationand productivity. What are the process/tools in your company compared to their prior environments and cultures? “As a means of avoiding these mistakes, many employers are now doing “behavioral interviews.” Rather than focusing on resume and accomplishments alone, use the personality test as a jumping off point to ask open-ended questions that will cause the job candidate to describe real circumstances and their responses to them. Ask them to describe in detail a particular event, project, or experience and how they dealt with the situation, and what the outcome was. This type of interviewing is the most accurate predictor of future performance.

How to Manage Remote Workers

If you would like to use remote workers, be prepared to change your own management style. Since you can’t just walk by their desk to check in, it is crucial that tools and processes be put into place that will allow you and your employees to remain connected.

First of all, be sure that your remote worker has a dedicated workspace, whether that is a room in their home or a rented space. If they are trying to concentrate while their kids run around them playing, it simply will not work in the long run. Many companies stress that remote working should not be considered an alternative to childcare. Be sure your employee understands that they are expected to focus on their work.

Have managers and remote workers take personality tests. The results of the tests can be used as tools for productive conversations on workplace styles and expectations. Helping a remote worker understand how best to communicate with managers and supervisors can be invaluable.

Also, be sure they have all the tools they will need to complete their work. It may be a wise investment to provide the employee with a computer and printer, or whatever other technology is necessary to their job. Additionally, you should be sure they have access to online technologies that will enable you to communicate with and keep track of them. Google has some helpful free tools, but there are many other solutions that could also be helpful for your business.

Remember that communication is key. Although your remote staff will need to be able to manage their own day-to-day workflow, you and the team (whether also remote or in the office) need to be appraised of the status of their projects. Establish consistent check-ins with your remote staff (via phone or an online tool like Skype) and be sure to include them in departmental meetings, so they are in the loop.

Although they may be fine without the daily water cooler conversations of an office, you want to ensure that your remote staff can maintain social connections with the other employees of the company. Encourage them to have discussions with other staff members so that they can continue to collaborate. Also, it would be wise to bring your remote workers together at the office a couple times a year so that they can have some face time with you and their colleagues.

Since you won’t interact with them daily, it is important that you are clearly setting goals and measuring results to evaluate remote worker progress. It is important that you give feedback to remote workers, either as part of your regular check-ins, or in established performance review sessions. This will obviously require more effort on your part but will help your remote workers understand how they are doing and how they can improve.

Lastly, don’t let your remote workers be “out of sight, out of mind.” One of the biggest challenges to job satisfaction for remote workers is the perceived lack of advancement in the company. Be sure you are evaluating their results and considering them for work that would help them with career development. Do not forget to include them on projects or committees where their expertise would be useful.

To get a copy of an action item list, 10 Things to Do for Managing a Remote Workforce, please click here and sign up for our Keeping on Track Newsletter.

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Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC provides a variety of services, including in-depth work style assessments for new hires & staff development, team building, interpersonal & communication training, career guidance & transition, conflict management, 360s, workshops, and executive & employee coaching. Other areas of expertise: Executive on boarding for success, leadership training for the 21st century, exploring global options for expanding your business, sales and customer service training and operational productivity improvement.  To order the books, “Cracking the Personality Code” & “Cracking the Business Code” please go to