Attracting Top Talent for Your Remote Team
Essay published on January 5, 2016
Note: this was originally posted on the Help Scout blog.
Attracting top talent is your greatest strength as a company—especially as a remote culture. But talent doesn’t always knock on your door; you still have to work hard to build a world-class team.
When we started Help Scout, I don’t remember any of us making a conscious decision to go full-on remote. It was more of a survival strategy. One of my co-founders needed to work from Nashville for the first year or so. Then some of the most important early hires we made, such as Greg in Delaware or Brett in Missouri, wouldn’t have joined our team unless they could work remotely. From the beginning, we needed the capacity to work well without being in the same place.
Since then, we’ve become very intentional about building a remote team. We spend a lot of time and money investing in the culture, making sure people across cities are empowered to do great work. But it wasn’t just the culture that had to change: it was the hiring process. Attracting top talent in the remote world requires a different strategy.
Learning the Hard Way
In the first three years of the business, I had to let go of about 40% of the people we hired. It was extremely painful, and it wasn’t their fault—it was mine.
I had never hired anyone before starting Help Scout, let alone built a remote team. It took a while to understand what kind of people thrive in a remote environment and learn to identify them quickly in the hiring process. While our mistakes were plentiful, we learned quickly and have only made a couple of hiring mistakes in the last couple years.
The Remote Persona
People who want to work in San Francisco for the next hot startup have radically different motivations than the typical remote A-player, so it makes sense that the recruiting and hiring process would be radically different as well. This is where it’s helpful to create hiring personas.
It’s not very different from creating marketing personas, which we spend a lot of time on at Help Scout. Anyone who doesn’t fit the profile isn’t worth interviewing.
As we’ve developed hiring personas that both align with our values and embody the most talented people I know in the remote world, here are some of the things we’ve identified:
Delight in the work
It’s not about the perks, the office Ping-Pong table, or the stock options. These people are most fulfilled when they feel empowered to do their best work. The best remote people have a particular passion for their craft, and one of the biggest reasons they love to work remotely is so they can focus on the work itself. Clearly, this characteristic has implications on your culture.
Excellent work/life balance
Remote people should have great discipline and naturally establish outstanding work habits. They know when to work and they know when to quit working, be it for family, travel, or a host of other hobbies. At Help Scout, we’re vocal about only wanting “your best 40 hours” every week, and we mean it. Without a high level of discipline in this area, it’s likely that the person you are considering won’t be a good long-term remote fit.
These opinions can only be refined through years of experience in a particular field. This isn’t their first rodeo, and they can lead others by doing. On a daily basis, they’ll have to lean on experience in order to make critical decisions on behalf of your business. With remotes teams in particular, there’s less oversight involved in these decisions, so you have to trust that everyone you hire is making good ones.
Once you’ve interviewed enough people, it only takes a 10-minute video call (always use video) to suss out these character traits. The key is to ignore all the great things you see on paper and only move forward when applicants fit the remote persona you’ve created.
Now that we understand a few high-level details about the persona, it’s important to craft a process and a work culture that plays to their strengths.
Hire for Excellence, Not Potential
Everyone talks about hiring great people, but in an office culture you have the luxury of hiring potentially great people that haven’t quite proven themselves yet. You can hire someone straight out of school who’s really smart and give that person hands-on mentorship and guidance so that he or she becomes great over time.
Everyone has to be an A-player. Remote team members are used to four to six hours of focused, uninterrupted work every day. You have to be able to get through problems on your own and be productive without asking for help. There’s no substitute for skill and experience in those cases.
We don’t have interns at Help Scout because it wouldn’t match everyone else’s work style. We’ve made this mistake several times with interns or high-potential employees, but unfortunately it hasn’t ever worked out. In our case at least, it’s best to hire for excellence.
The benefits of an all A-player team are pretty clear. They challenge each other, attract other A-players, and enable you to keep the headcount as low as possible.
I should also point out the obvious here, which is that it’s more expensive to hire this way. Great people deserve to be paid a wage befitting their talent. All the money you save on office space and related expenses should go right into the people you hire.
Require a Project
Our hiring process became much more effective when we introduced projects. Every position we hire for includes a four- to six-hour project as one of the steps. In addition to being able to see and critique the work, projects have a couple of significant benefits.
First, anyone on the team can judge the quality of a project without needing the person’s name, gender, ethnic background, or any other information that could trigger an implicit bias. Second, it’s a great way to see how people respond to feedback and criticism. In most cases, we’ll provide critical feedback and see how candidates react, to better understand what it would be like working together.
Projects aren’t really acceptable in a local hiring environment. In my city of Boston, for instance, hiring is extremely competitive. Companies are forced to move quickly to make an offer because all the best people are off the market within days and you don’t want to miss out. In a local market, you have the advantage of leaning on your network and references a bit more, but you don’t typically have a chance to evaluate the quality of their work in-depth.
For whatever reason, remote hiring processes take more time and it tends to work out better for both sides. Use this time to build a relationship with candidates and make sure they are a perfect fit before pulling the trigger. A typical process for someone we hire can take two to four weeks.
Projects vary greatly on what you are looking for, but they typically aren’t related to the business. Unless it is a customer support hire, we don’t want to make people learn business logic in order to show what they can do. Engineering projects are always fictional scenarios that enable people to be creative and go about the implementation in any number of ways; marketing projects may relate to the business, but the problem they solve is usually fictional.
Get Serious about Work/Life Balance
The better your company becomes at encouraging work/life balance to both current and potential employees, the better talent you’ll be able to attract and retain. We do it by asking leaders to set an example. As I write this post, I’m working from Tokyo for the week. If you are putting in too many hours or not taking your vacation time, you’ll hear from someone on our People Ops team because we know balance is a critical piece of sustainable remote work.
An office culture simply can’t promise the kind of balance and autonomy your company can. This is an advantage we use as much as possible to attract and retain great people.
Now that our company has nearly 40 people and we’ve overcome some of the initial challenges in building a solid remote team, trusting the process is a lot easier. It still takes work to hire talented people, but the process gets better each time and we’re less likely to make mistakes.
If you’re just getting started, write out the characteristics of your ideal teammates and update them over time. Then design a hiring and onboarding process that’s tailored specifically for them. Most importantly, build a company that the ideal employee would be attracted to. Once you get into the rhythm of hiring people that fit your criteria, you’ll be able to make decisions quickly and with confidence.