Change at Work

Hiring and Onboarding on a 100% Remote Team

Hiring and onboarding on a remote team requires greater levels of trust—make sure your process is set up for success

As the CEO of a 100% distributed team, Jordan Husney has extensive experience hiring and onboarding people remotely. He shares some of his best practices with us, including:

  • Remote employees require more trust. Candidates go from relative strangers to having access to company passwords and credit cards. It’s crucial to build a two-way relationship and invest in trust over time.
  • Keep applications and the application process short and simple. If something is unclear, try to tackle it with the candidate via email before investing time speaking.
  • Look for evidence of remote skills. In particular, evaluate their verbal and written communication skills, empathy, boundary setting, and comfort with tech.

Read the Transcript

Jane Garza:

Okay. Hello everyone. I just started the broadcast, so we’re going to have participants streaming in as we continue talking. The number is rising, which is great. I’m really excited. This conversation is going to be about hiring and onboarding on a 100% remote team, which I’m sure a lot of you are curious about, especially if you are already remote or are one of those people that has gone remote overnight.

Hiring feels like such a personal thing. It is, but you want to get the opportunity to see and talk to the person that you’re probably going to be working with day in, day out. And so, I’m sure a lot of us have curiosity around what are some best practices and things that work, things that don’t work when it comes to trying to hire remote. I’d love to hear your input, Jordan. Jordan is the CEO and cofounder of Parabol. We’re really excited to have him here today and get some of his guidance. I will hand it over to you.

Jordan Husney:

Great. And I have a deck to share.

Jane Garza:

Amazing. I’m going to stop sharing.

Jordan Husney:

Great. Pass the baton as it were. All right, cool. Oh, let me go back to the first slide. Preview, preview, preview. All right, I’m Jordan Husney, CEO and a founder of Parabol and I want to talk about hiring on a 100% remote team. I think that this maybe interesting for some of you because, obviously, these are extraordinary times. For some of us, we may need to reshape our organizations and I want to help make some of those transitions easier.

First, a little bit about us. Parabol makes a remote retrospective and guided meeting web application. We’ve been remote ourselves 100% fully distributed for the last five years. We’re three teams and we currently operate across three continents. First, as we dig into this topic, I’d like to challenge the audience to spot the difference between these two individuals. I’ll cut to the chase.

One of these is not an employee and the other one has just become an employee. And I think that’s one of the very strange things about fully remote work, is that all of a sudden, if you’re the person being hired, go from not having an intimate relationship with an organization to, all of a sudden, becoming fully invested and perhaps trusted with the company credit card, with the company logins, with the brand, and so on and so forth.

And this puts companies at greater risk than they had been in the past where you can’t really control or keep your eye on people. Remote employees just frankly require more trust. That’s the headline of makes the context around hiring remote employees so much different than in the past. Just consider there’s no badges to get in, there’s no physical controls, there’s no cameras, so if somebody steals something, the evidence is not physical, and there’s also no direct supervision to know whether or not people are just Netflixing and chilling while they’re collecting a paycheck.

Now, trust is something that is built with time. That’s really the challenge that we’re designing for here when we’re bringing on remote employees. As Lucy Blair has said in the past or Lucy Chung has had in the past, there’s a ledger of trust that is built up between two people as they interact, and as we have more evidence that somebody is not going to hurt us, then we’re more likely to trust them more. We’re going to feel more safe.

And so, as we trust, more risk goes down. But of course, as we build that trust, we have to invest in that relationship more. So, when we talk about hiring remote, what we’re really talking about is how we invest in another person in order to cross a threshold where, all of a sudden, we decide, “Okay, you’re an employee now and we’re going to trust you to represent our company.”

Through that lens, there are a few key questions that we want to answer during a remote hiring process. The first is very simple, ground floor, are they eligible to work? The second is do they have the hard skills? Nothing surprising there. Third is do they fit culturally? And the fourth is do we work well together? Now, the nice thing is that there’s nothing different about those four questions than if we were going to hire somebody to work alongside of us.

But I want to talk about how we would apply that process in a remote context and how it is that we can really build a two-way relationship with somebody, particularly with a knowledge worker that may be incredibly in demand because now, if we’re hiring remote and perhaps we’re hiring globally, we’re also competing globally for that same talent. What we want to do is, at the beginning of the process, we want to make the mutual investment really short, so it’s easy for somebody to engage with us and us to engage with them.

And I’m going to include sample investments of time on the bottom. We’re going to go from application review to screening and we’ll see that we’ll go from about five to 15 minutes to 15 to 30 minutes of investment. We’re going to investigate their hard skills, we’re going to investigate their culture, and then I’m going to introduce the concept of introducing a short term contract as really a way to de-risk the final stages of a relationship before we convert somebody over to being an employee.

As I’m going to show you our process, one, know that it’s a work in process and I look forward to your questions and also your feedback on just what your intuition is around this stuff. The first is let’s talk about the application itself. Now, the job to do here is are they interested? In a remote application, again, you have the entire funnel of the world really that you could be addressing trying to bring in your developers, your marketers, your people, operations, folks, et cetera.

And when we are competing in that global market, we’re competing for attention and mind share. And I would offer the argument that your application should be as simple as possible and you should actually cast as wide of a funnel as you can. Often, if you’re going for folks that are really in demand like developers, you might actually have to do an outreach campaign and the call to action that you want should be super, super, super short, so at least you can start to build that relationship. It’s about building mutual trust in the shortest, simplest way possible upfront.

Also, when you make your applications really short, they become really easy for you to review either if you’re just doing a virtual sort of them as an individual, as a team or if you’re going to apply some rules to how it is that you want to sort and prioritize them. So, the fewer fields you have, the easier that process is to you.

The second process then is around application review. The question you’re trying to answer is are they worth the calendar time? And some tips that we’ve uncovered here is if something’s unclear, just ask in email before investing calendar time and speaking with them. And specific to remote work, and maybe this is the first specific remote work tip, is look for evidence of remote work skills in the materials that they contribute.

When we’re working remote, often we want to index on nonverbal skills just as we do want to index on verbal skills and emotive skills, et cetera, because when people are writing and recording things and they have good evidence of sharing openly online, they’re probably going to share well and openly on your team and create durable artifacts that are going to make remote work easier. And there’s a bunch of evidence that people are providing on the profiles that they fill out online that that’s something that they do.

And then, another tip that I would give generally is when you’re hiring remote, you can hire anywhere. Maybe you’re going to hire somebody that doesn’t live in a major metropolitan market, maybe they haven’t been open to the same degree of opportunity that other folks have. And so, what you might want to look for is what I call slope and not Y-intercept. You might look in their job history and see, wow, before the big bang of remote work has really started, were they super scrappy, did they excel in what they were doing? Did they Excel against the odds in their place of origin versus did they go to Stanford, did they work for one of the big brands, were they the VP of X at that location?

Next is some screening tips. The risks that you’re really trying to remove here is are they worth the team’s time to engage with? And here are some tips when you get onto a screening video conference, which I would recommend over a phone call. Here’s some tips here. The first is structure the interview for an early exit. And an early exit might sound like, “Hey, listen, I really only have two questions for you here today. After that, the time really is going to be yours.” And then, you go ahead and ask whatever the most important question is. And if it feels funny at first, then it can be, “Thank you. I’m going to take this input, bring it back to the team and give you some next steps.” So, why spend 30 minutes when 10 will do?

As far as the screening questions go, my favorite screening question is ask, “What do you want to do more of and less of in your next job, and why does our company feel like a good fit?” I find that that’s the best initial screening question that I have. And hopefully, they’re going to be talking about why they want to work remotely for you. And they’ve hopefully done a bunch of research in your direction as well that allows them to give you [inaudible 00:10:50] answer.

Next is have them follow up. And this is a great way of linking your process together. At the end of all of our remote interviews, we say, “Listen, what I’d love you to do is just give us three to five bullet points about what you’re really excited that I can share with the rest of the team, and please give us your list of questions that you hope will be answered over the course of this interview process. That allows us to tailor the interview process then to them and connects our process together.”

The next is the skills interview. Now, we’re going to get even more remote-y. Do they have the hard skills, is the thing that you’re trying to address here. Some tips for this, what you want to do in this day and age is you want to learn if they can learn. That’s the most valuable skill, I would argue, for any knowledge worker. In order to facilitate that, what we do is we give them data specific to their job that actually comes from our organization and we let them ask questions.

An example of that is we take advantage of the remote context, we share screen. If they’re a marketer, we’re going to show them marketing funnel data over time and we’re going to allow them to ask questions. What we’re telling them that the target of that activity is is to actually build their own onboarding plan. And now, it’s going to hopefully start to get very interesting for you all.

And so, what we do is, at the end of any hard skills interview, we say, “Listen, we want you to imagine that you are starting tomorrow. What are the three things that you’re going to get done or hope to have done in two months? Now, we want you to back that up and what are you going to have done in two weeks? And what we’re actually going to do is use that, whatever you write to us, later on in the process, if it’s green-lights for all of us all the way through.” Now, I do want to call attribution. That’s a Nobel exercise, two months, two weeks, two days. And we applied it to our own hiring process.

The cultural interview, the thing to do risk here is do they fit in culturally obviously. Now, some tips on this is prepare values based questions. Get together as a team and create a thing. And what you want to do is you want to score the answers to those questions according to evidence for values fit. And this is a little bit mysterious so I’m actually going to dig into this and give us a little bit of an example.

Parabol’s values are transparency, empathy and experimentation. And we have like a little rhyme that allows us to make these things memorable. It’s open book, open eyes, and safe to try. I’m going to dig into the empathy value here. An excerpt of the question that we asked during our cultural interview and we’d draw multiple team members together into that cultural interviews so we are investing more time, more team time, into that candidate if they’ve made it that far in the process.

I’ll ask them a question that sounds like, “Tell us a time about when you last lost your cool,” and they’ll relate an anecdote. Usually, the candidate thinks that we’re just trying to see how they handle conflict. Instead, we take this left hand turn and we’ll ask at the end, “Okay, great. Thank you for sharing that. That was really very generous of you to do so. Could you please tell us what it would sound like from the other person’s point of view?” If it sounds like they can step into somebody’s shoes, then we think that they may match our empathy value.

Now, there’s a bunch of air that can come into the process. It’s great when it’s confirmed in this way. Sometimes, we have to confirm it in another way. And one asterisk on this is I would argue that empathy is incredibly important, much more important in a remote context because nothing is worse than the transference that we apply when somebody sends us a Slack message and we put our own psychological filter on it. It’s like, to put a fine point on it, if you’ve ever found yourself getting angry at the chat bot on a travel site, that’s your transference being applied to that chat bot.

If a human drops you a message in Slack and you find yourself getting really angry about it, it’s helpful if you can stop and actually try and think from that other person’s point of view when communication is a little bit constrained, helps the whole culture. So, if people pass all of those phases, the cultural interview, we’re going to ask ourselves, are we willing to put $1,000, $2,000, $3,000 behind actually trying out that employee for a limited period of time.

And what we do is we take that onboarding plan and we ask them to pick a piece of it and work with us. So, we pay them a fair fixed bid rate for doing the work. And one of the things that we’ve learned in doing this is that we want the duration to be about the same. We want about 20 hours of work with someone to really understand if they’re going to be a good fit actually working with us. But we’re going to flex that, the way in which they apply those hours around their personal circumstance. So, if they’re at home now and they’re taking care of family, we might stretch that over three or four weeks. If they are unemployed and they’re single, we might try and get a week or two weeks to evaluate that relationship.

Partially onboard them to your org. There’s a bunch of advantages of actually giving them a company email. Maybe you decorate it in a special way, but you can control access to all of your other SAS tools that way. So, when the contract’s over and if you don’t hire them, you can just turn off the single sign on for that individual and they lose access to all of those other systems. That’s a nice way to make this less arduous, but they’re also in on payroll, so they have all the 1099 set up because, again, they’re a contractor, you’ve done the compliance, and I’ve mentioned the tech.

And then, there’s folks that, when I talk to other people, ops leaders about this, they’re like, “Oh, it’s really great when you’re small. It’s super hard to scale a practice like this.” I would argue that there are ways that you can scale it and it’s so valuable, I actually can’t imagine not doing this in the future. You can cohort people so that you start to scale up your onboarding. The other thing is is it forces you to develop a really great onboarding process to actually make it easy to get people into your organization.

I know that I’m running out of time but there’s onboarding in the title of this talk. I’m going to give two really fast thoughts on onboarding. One is it if you contract to hire, onboarding’s already begun. It’s the beginning of your process and what you can really focus on the rest of your onboarding checklist or whatever solution used for onboarding, you can really make the rest of it cultural versus having it be very tech or project oriented. And thinking about your company through a cultural lens and what that onboarding journey is like is super great.

The second is, I would always offer that the last onboarding checkbox, and whatever your last is, is revise this checklist. Whether or not your onboarding checklist is specific to that role or it’s just a one size fits all for your company depending on how your culture is. And then, it just always improves with time. That’s all I had prepared for today.

Jane Garza:

Amazing. Thank you so much, Jordan. Those are some incredible tips. I have a couple of questions I’m going to field here. One of them is just thinking about when we talk about culture fit and some of those values that you’re looking for, how have you tried in the past to address potential bias or keep an eye out for that type of thing?

Jordan Husney:

Yeah, let’s talk about bias for a second. I run into bias rather than run away from bias. And what I mean by that is hiring is a process of bias. You’re biasing to pass a certain threshold of what you consider trust to be. Now, you might bias for something like generative difference or diversity. Just be conscious of how it is that you’re instilling that bias within the organization.

I’ll give you a real struggle. I don’t know if this is right or wrong, for the future, for equality, for equity, for morality, but our empathy check is a bias against certain kinds of difference, particularly cognitive difference. And we don’t know how to struggle with that yet. We don’t know exactly what the future of our organization is to address that particular bias, but we are conscious of it now so that every time we have a candidate that applies tension on that particular point, that we can have a discussion about where we’re at with that.

So, what I would say is run into your bias, just be aware of what they are. And then, the second thing is is audit your hiring practices with a peer that you trust. And so, there are several folks that we discuss our hiring practices with. It helps to have an outside eye so they can also illuminate the biases that you are blind to yourself.

Jane Garza:

Amazing. Thank you. I’m going to take one other question and we’ll answer it quickly. People are really curious about how many of those contract employees, how many of those actually convert into full time employees?

Jordan Husney:

Great question. 50%.

Jane Garza:

Oh.

Jordan Husney:

And we want to raise it higher. We think that we’re probably spending a little bit too money. But 50%.

Jane Garza:

The thing that I really like about that too is looking at it from the new hires perspective, it lowers the bar for what they need to know in their first month. You don’t come in and have to know all of the culture, all the tools, all of the practices at once. Maybe it’s just if you’re contracted, it’s probably just know the clients and know the practices. And then, as you get more into the organization and are turning into full time, understand the culture, understand how we work together and why, and it gives that [inaudible 00:21:15] process versus [crosstalk 00:21:18].

Jordan Husney:

If I might, one big benefit of it is that they’re also, they feel like they’re pulling on the culture rather than us pushing stuff at them because they’ve defined their own onboarding plan. They’re like, “Two months later, what I think is important is doing X.” And so, we’re like, “Cool. In order to do X, you need Y and Z in terms of tech and access to things.” And so, it’s not overwhelming. They understand where they are. And then, all of a sudden, they join and they’re like, “Oh, I’m in. Cool.”

Jane Garza:

Yeah, amazing. Thank you so much, Jordan. Any parting thoughts before I start to transition us into our next set of sessions?

Jordan Husney:

Yeah, whatever you do, be kind. Those are parting thoughts. Thanks for having me. Have a good day, everybody.

Jane Garza:

Love that. Thank you so much, Jordan.

Jordan Husney:

Bye.

Published March 30, 2020

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