How to hire telecommuters: 7 must-ask questions

Hiring remote workers can be tricky business. Here are some questions you should ask would-be telecommuting employees -- and some red flags to look for in the answers.

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How comfortable are you with troubleshooting connectivity?

The work environment discussion should also include questions about the job applicant's ability to act as her own IT person -- especially if you're hiring for a non-tech position, but plenty of software professionals are lost when it comes to networking, too. If the individual is clueless about hardware, it creates implications about needing to send a tech to the house or having to send a laptop to-and-from the home office overnight.

As a follow-up, ask, "If your Internet quit working, what would you do?" There's a world of difference between the answers, "I'd wait for my wife to get home; she's the geek here" and "I'd hack the router to try to figure things out before I call the cable company about the outage." It doesn't hurt if the applicant mentions that the local library has free Wi-Fi access. That demonstrates a desire to keep working during Internet outages and self-sufficiency that goes beyond network or laptop fixit skills.

Tell me about your daily work rituals.

Or, How do you structure your day? Successful teleworkers often establish a regular routine for getting work done. It may represent their own skill sets (e.g., "I do e-mail before breakfast, make phone calls after lunch; my best concentrated work happens late in the day"), time-of-day preferences (morning person vs. night person), or scheduling needs ("I take the kids to school at 8 a.m., do four or five solid hours of coding before I pick them up at 2 p.m., and try to arrange meetings later in the afternoon"). At a minimum, it's reassuring to know the telecommuter has this kind of self-awareness and a strong sense of "work time."

There isn't a predefined "right answer" here. However, you may learn things that make this candidate a better (or worse) team fit. You already know about your company's schedule and needs (9-to-5? Lots of meetings in the early morning? We don't care when you work, as long as the work is done?); at issue is whether this person dovetails into that process. A west-coast early riser will get along better with office-based colleagues in Boston than will someone who prefers to crawl out of bed at the crack of noon. This isn't to say that people can't change their behavior; some of it may have been required by their last gig. Certainly it's fine to clarify, "We have a team meeting at 9:30 every morning; would that be a problem?"

This is also an opportunity for the applicant to obliquely offer information that might be difficult (legally at least) for a manager to ask directly. In the "I take the kids to school at 8 a.m." answer above, for example, you now know that there are children and that the applicant won't be distracted by them during key work hours.

How do you prefer to communicate with colleagues?

Since most telecommuting teams see each other in person infrequently, it's very important that everyone easily communicate with -- not just to -- one another. For example, a development team has to work out how to do code reviews remotely.

SkypeImage credit: Stephen Sauer/Shutterstock

We all have a most-comfortable way to talk with other people. Given a choice, would this person rather communicate with colleagues face-to-face, using e-mail, instant messaging, in a video conference, a telephone call, or... what?

If you're the hiring manager, consider the preferred communication style among the existing staff, as well as with the new hire. I know an office worker who is terrible, absolutely awful at e-mail; he never "hears" what you tell him in an e-mail message, though in person he's just fine. That creates strife with the mostly remote staff. Another colleague receives my e-mail message and immediately picks up the phone to talk about its contents, even if I prefer to stick with e-mail for searchable history ("When did he say that would be done?"). Again, there's no one "right answer," but it helps for people to be on the same page.

This is also the time to discuss expectations about visiting the office, whether that's once a week or quarterly or whatever. As the employer, you need to make clear who pays for trips to the office, if it involves a flight, and what might happen if there is a budget crisis. But at this point you should learn from the employee whether and how often they are willing to spend some face time, and how they expect to use that time to build relationships.

To succeed as a teleworker, you really need to have good "social" skills in email or IM or whatever the team uses that substitutes for office chit-chat. Not just for the work-a-day stuff ("the build is done, everything should work now") but for people-bonding ("ooh, what a pretty quilt!").

It's especially important to have "comfortable" communication when things aren't going smoothly. In person someone can overhear a coworker cussing at the computer. At home, nobody knows that this project has driven him to tears -- unless he tells someone about the frustration. So you one question you might ask in the interview is, "How soon do you ask for help when you are stuck? Who do you ask?"

One way to get at this issue is to ask the job candidate about a past experience: "Tell me about your experience reviewing someone else's work remotely. And someone else reviewing your work remotely? What tools did you use? How did this differ from reviews in person? What would you do differently now than you did then?"

Tell me about your remote project tracking experience.

For most hiring managers, the burning issue is how the new hire will work effectively with the rest of the team, including management. It's hard to ask someone you're interviewing about the manner in which they'll communicate their accomplishments -- realistically it's your company that sets those standards -- but you should still ask for insight in this area.

Experienced manager Robin Jeffries suggested several related questions, which touch on metrics as well as communication skills:

  • How do you keep folks aware of what you have accomplished, what you are working on, what places you might need help (or might work more effectively with someone else), where you might be able to help others?
  • How do you keep up on office gossip (rumors about project cancellation, hiring freezes, people who might be leaving, management changes -- all the things you need to know to keep from wasting time)?
  • How do you build relationships with people you don't see regularly? How will you get people to trust you, to see you as having expertise in the areas for which you should be the go-to person?
  • How do you communicate to others when you are available or interruptable and when you are not (because you are focused on a problem or picking up your kid from school). How can people best get on your queue?

What are your concerns about working for this team as a telecommuter?

Be sure to ask the telecommuter about her needs from the manager and the rest of the team. While the job applicant may be shy about bringing up the issue, the manager should ask explicitly -- and take a "no special needs" answer as a negative signal.

If your company has telecommuting policies, this is a time to bring those up. For example, some companies require work-at-home parents to have child care for children under a certain age.

It's important for the new hire to know what to expect in regard to physical resources (who pays for Internet service, for the computer, for travel). But it's also important to learn about the sensitivities of the new team member. Is it video conferencing etiquette? A concern about being the first or only telecommuter on the team? How the team's current practices would impact their ability to be successful?

Those are the questions we'd ask. What would you add?

This story, "How to hire telecommuters: 7 must-ask questions" was originally published by ITworld.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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