3 Critical Remote Working Skills and How to Interview for Them

A blond woman interviews a man virtually and reviews his resume

How the world works is evolving. Employees don’t need to commute to a single location to do their jobs. And as organizations shift to remote work and startups launch as fully distributed entities, hiring strategies need to change, too. 

Your blueprint for hiring on-site employees won’t necessarily translate to hiring remote workers. Sure, most of the skills required for the actual work are the same, but it requires different personality traits and a specific skill set to be an effective remote team member. 

Getting your expectations in order

For in-person hiring, it wasn’t always necessary for companies to nail down a well-defined, organization-wide approach to hiring. Managers understood a role’s required competencies and had an idea of what made someone a good fit, but in-person interviews and the knowledge that new hires would share the same office space allowed them to take a more intuitive approach to the process.

When it comes to remote hiring, employees have fewer opportunities to pick up the company culture through osmosis. And it’s a lot more difficult for managers to discover what keeps someone motivated and provide timely incentives and guidance to keep them on task. So creating a tactical screening and onboarding process upfront simplifies everything else. 

Start by answering these questions:  

  • What is our distributed company culture, and what does it look like for someone to be a fit? 
  • What soft and hard skills can we train, and what core competencies do we expect from someone coming in? 
  • What skills and traits do we see as non-negotiable to be a highly engaged team member?  

Once you clarify these expectations, it becomes so much easier to create a reproducible interview process that makes sense and helps you put the right people in the right roles. 

But when it comes to hiring for distributed teams, there are three critical areas that you should zero in on during the interview process. 

1. The quality of written communication 

When your company shares a workspace, a lot of communication happens face-to-face. If an email is a little unclear, you can pop into someone’s office to get it sorted out. This doesn’t work on remote teams, especially if they’re operating asynchronously. On some remote teams, clarifying unclear communication can cost everyone at least 24 hours. 

This is why remote team members must be able to communicate clearly. Not only do they need to be able to write long-form content like a proposal or project plan, but they also need to be able to communicate well in emails and text-chat apps like Slack. So much of a distributed company’s potency depends on everyone’s ability to write effectively, and weak links in that chain inhibit the entire organization’s performance. 

One way to ensure that a candidate writes well is to set an appointment for a first interview and then email them a handful of questions with an appropriate amount of time to answer them. You don’t want them to have enough time to run their responses through an editor, but you want to give them enough time that they don’t feel rushed. 

Another option is to send them a Loom video that vaguely explains a problem and ask them to succinctly describe the issue and suggest a couple of possible solutions based on the information provided. This will help you see how well they can process complex data on their own (a prerequisite for any remote worker) and then clearly break down that information in text for others. 

Some questions that can help understand their comfort level with written communication might include: 

  • What kind of feedback do you get for your written communication? 
  • What do you appreciate in someone’s ability to communicate by text? What annoys you in written communication? 
  • Do you think written documentation is more or less critical for remote teams than in-person teams? 

2. The ability to work independently

Most companies would agree on the value of employees who can work independently. But in many traditional workspaces, it isn’t a necessity. Many employees are used to working from consensus or running every decision through a gauntlet of management. This just doesn’t work on distributed teams. 

You need people who can work through problems and make decisions on their own. They need to understand what their role is and how to meet their objectives successfully. When they run into a hurdle, the problem shouldn’t be elevated until they’ve exhausted their own solutions. 

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to give someone the confidence they need to work this way—especially when they’re isolated. If they don’t trust themselves to problem solve and make decisions, remote work will often exacerbate the issue. So you want to ask questions that will identify how comfortable they are figuring things out for themselves and when they’d reach out for help. 

Interview questions that can help discern this skill could include: 

  • What is an example of a time when you had to do something outside of your comfort zone, and your boss/co-workers weren’t available to assist you?
  • When it comes to solving work-oriented problems, are you more comfortable asking for permission or forgiveness?  
  • What kinds of challenges do you expect to encounter working remotely, and how will you handle them?

3. The personal responsibility to be proactive

Working remotely is difficult if you can’t keep yourself motivated. But you’re not just looking for someone who can keep themselves on task. Remote work requires an organization to put a lot of confidence and trust in individual team members, so every individual needs to take ownership of: 

  1. Creating a space where they can be productive
  2. Developing personal routines that keep them efficient and effective
  3. Using digital tools to socialize with colleagues and team members to build a friendly, collaborative work environment
  4. Managing their time and prioritizing activities without much monitoring and external motivation

In many traditional work environments, these things are done for the employee. Companies provide workspaces where people can be productive, they set the schedule when work will be conducted, and they provide spaces and opportunities for relationships to be built both intentionally and organically. But for a distributive workforce relying on asynchronous communication, people must come in with a resolve to do these things for themselves. 

One way to check for this proactive nature in potential candidates is to monitor their behaviour leading up to the interview. Are they communicative and involved during the process of scheduling the interview? Do they respond to emails and touchpoints? Do they anticipate problems? 

Most people know that they should have a few questions prepared for the interviewer. Pay attention to the nature of the questions. Do they demonstrate that the candidate took it upon themselves to do some research? Do they ask questions that would have been answered by simply visiting the website? Do the candidate’s questions demonstrate that they know what they need to be productive? 

You can also ask questions like:

  • What routines help you stay motivated and prioritize your activities?
  • Where do you prefer to work?
  • What is essential in a personal workspace to keep you focused?
  • What tools do you use to maintain and monitor your time management?

Remote work requires unique skills 

While office staff and distributed teams might have the same job, the challenges are very different. Remote workers have less face time with management and have to negotiate different kinds of distractions and hurdles. So hiring managers need to be able to discern a candidate’s specific work styles and skill sets. They need to know how they work independently, how they problem-solve, and even the kinds of tools they’re used to using for asynchronous communication. 

Creating organizational clarity around what’s expected in a potential hire is the key. Once you determine that, you can craft the ideal interview and onboarding process to put together the most effective distributed team. 

Now that you know what skills to look for, read about how to level up your employees’ skillsets in What is Upskilling and Why Does it Matter for Distributed Teams?

Published by Christine Otsuka

Christine Otsuka is Oyster's Director of Content. She believes the future is distributed. And the way we get there is by breaking down the geographical barriers that exist between top talent and growing companies.