How to Hire Remote Workers—and Keep Them Productive and Happy

Screening for character traits, motivation is essential

By Natalie Kroc Jun 16, 2016
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Executives often have fears about allowing people to work offsite, and part of HR’s role is to help management get over that apprehension.

Telecommuters work from home some of the time, remote workers work from home exclusively, and a distributed work situation is one in which the employer has no brick-and-mortar facility so all its employees work from home. On average, employees who work from home have been found to be more productive and more engaged, take fewer sick days and have lower rates of attrition.

Employees are increasingly being hired directly for remote work positions and may never step into their company’s office. 

Unique Challenges When Hiring Remotely

Some call center applicants make the mistake of thinking that because a job allows them to work from home, then it will be more laid-back. “The job is really identical to if you’re actually sitting in a call center,” said Cynthia Barlow Doi, operations director at American Express. When hiring, the company watches for this attitude in applicants and instead seeks people who have a demonstrated interest in customer care.

It’s also important to ensure that applicants have basic technology troubleshooting skills. The company’s tech experts can walk an employee through any computer problem, but, in order for this to work virtually, the remote worker must understand basic computer terms, Barlow Doi explained.

TeleTech Holdings, which provides consulting and customer service solutions to Fortune 100 companies, takes an analytics-driven approach. Last year, TeleTech received 125,000 applications for virtual positions and hired 12,000 people (95 percent of the available positions are part time). The company relies heavily on a scientific selection and assessment process that focuses primarily on four characteristics and skills: resilience, self-motivation, time management and independent decision-making.

Because of the massive amount of remote-worker hiring it conducts every year, the company employs a team of four biopsychologists to continually refine the applicant assessment, evaluating each question for its correlation with employee productivity or length of tenure. “We’re continually making adjustments or tweaks,” said Sarah Chouinard, director of talent acquisition for TeleTech, who is based in New Brunswick, Canada, and makes regular trips to the company’s headquarters in Englewood, Colo.

Mari Kent, senior director of academic operations at Kaplan Test Prep, said she was both fascinated by and envious of this assessment process at TeleTech, though she questioned “if there’s an assessment that can accurately judge” whether someone will be a successful remote worker. At Kaplan, Kent said, the hiring process for remote workers focuses on the competencies for the job and isn’t that different from the hiring process that once existed for onsite workers.

In 2009, the company started looking at changing its business model; maintaining brick-and-mortar facilities was limiting, and the desire for test preparation services extended far beyond the Kaplan center locations. In 2010, the company decided to go virtual, and closed down almost all of its testing centers. It is now 86 percent virtual.

The one trait Kaplan does especially look for in its remote workers? A willingness to ask for both feedback and help when it is needed. “Someone can’t walk by and see that you’re struggling with something” when working from home, Kent said. For this reason, the company seeks employees who willingly “raise their hand and say, ‘I don’t know how to teach this,’ or ‘I’m struggling with this student.’ ”

At TeleTech, prospective employees are required to provide their own equipment, and a multistep technology test is part of the hiring assessment. This test determines if every aspect of the applicant’s setup—from headset to memory capacity—is up to the company’s standards. If it isn’t, the applicant receives a failing grade on that part, though the process for that applicant isn’t over.

“I can reach out, we can get it fixed or assign the person to a client with different tech needs,” Chouinard said. This continues even after an applicant has been brought onboard; employees can expect recurring tests every couple of weeks, and the tech team assists anyone who doesn’t receive a passing grade, “so [our employees] can continue to be successful from a technology standpoint,” she said.

Measuring Success from a Distance

American Express evaluates offsite workers in the same ways as onsite workers, using efficiency metrics and taking into account absenteeism and other reliability indicators. 

TeleTech’s analytical approach extends to its measurements of success. Data reports will show that “These states are producing 75 percent of hires” or “These 10 sources are converting the most applicants to hires—or the most applicants to top performers,” Chouinard said. Then the company targets those locations or sources when it is conducting its next round of hiring. 

Keeping Remote Workers Connected

Without the face-to-face interaction that a traditional workplace provides, remote workers run the risk of feeling isolated, even if Skype meetings and webcams are a part of their workday.

The panelists’ organizations have found ways to help their remote workers enjoy a more-interactive work experience. At Kaplan, there are games of virtual Trivial Pursuit and a virtual happy hour, which happens “probably a little too often,” Kent laughed.

TeleTech’s remote employees benefit from an active company intranet, which is a part of the company’s culture. There is a photography club, a volunteering club and a book club, among others, and the company often holds contests with prizes ranging from company swag to $100 gift cards.

Natalie Kroc is a staff writer for SHRM.

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