6 Steps Toward Hiring Productive Virtual Employees

Mar 25, 2013

Many companies use remote-worker programs to recruit and retain prized talent, but telecommuting’s appeal fades quickly when companies struggle to hire and keep productive virtual employees. The challenges of identifying candidates who will perform at a high level in office jobs are multiplied exponentially when hiring for home-based jobs.

Although organizations generally screen for job and culture fit, a successful telecommuting program requires evaluating candidates’ fit with the environment. Nearly a decade of research points to five qualities employees must possess to be successful in virtual offices.

Regardless of the job or corporate culture, remote workers must be independent, self-motivated, conscientious, comfortable working in social isolation, and capable of solving problems (e.g., technology-related issues).

When thinking about how to hire and retain these types of candidates,  start by looking at some common hiring and retention pitfalls that can undermine telecommuting programs.

First, companies tend to focus heavily on a candidate’s job-relevant knowledge, skills, and abilities, while neglecting the individual’s suitability for remote work. Second, some companies reward high-performing employees by allowing them to move from an office to their homes. Unfortunately, these merit-based programs usually suffer setbacks because companies assume that someone who is successful in one environment will deliver results equally well in any environment — and research indicates that it’s just not true. Finally, the most common candidate screening tool is the employment interview. Extraverted people generally perform better than do introverts in job interviews, but extraverts are less likely to be successful working in socially-isolated settings.

Many business leaders assume that work-from-home job candidates tend to be more skilled than traditional job applicants. Our research suggests that candidates applying to office- and home-based jobs have nearly identical knowledge, skills, abilities, and personality characteristics. However, this same research shows that it’s common for 300% more applicants to apply for home-based jobs, giving hiring managers the ability to be more selective during the screening process. The net result is that home-based workers — having been vetted from a larger pool of candidates — are more capable and better skilled on average than traditional employees.

To successfully hone in on the right candidates for a home-based job, we recommend these steps:

Step 1: Take time to understand the job, culture, and the environment in which the job will be performed. No job exists in a vacuum, so understand the working conditions as well as the drivers and inhibitors of success.

Step 2: Conduct a review of all jobs, their goals, and how they contribute to the company’s success.  The information will tell the story of what it takes to be successful as a telecommuting employee.

Step 3: Identify psychometric assessments to measure the qualities it takes to be successful. These assessments should have a history of empirical validation and should measure competencies required by the job, culture, and environment.

Step 4: Conduct an empirical study using data to connect the dots between personality, skills, and abilities as well as the key success factors of the jobs and work environment. An empirical study will ensure the results are specific to the company and its environment(s), rather than relying on a generic one-size-fits all model.

Step 5: Draw conclusions about the characteristics that distinguish success from failure. This company-specific information will differentiate the business and its environment(s) from its competition.

Step 6: Create a review schedule to evaluate the performance of the pre-hire process against key goals and business drivers every three to six months. Ensure that assessments and business strategy remain inextricably linked.

Hiring productive virtual employees is not easy, but it can be done. A successful hiring process takes time, data-based methods, and dedication to ongoing analysis to ensure it delivers lasting value. It also requires a strong management team to provide the support, professional development, and leadership home-based workers need to feel connected to the company and its mission.