Growing your remote team

Stone steps leading up and away from the viewer, surrounded by greenery, in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris

In the last post, we started to dig into why hiring and onboarding team members remotely is such a challenge. In this post, I want to talk through a couple of ways to get ready to meet that challenge once your new team member is on board.

Get real about your remote training options.

Think of the onboarding process as starting before you even write the job posting. When forming a sense of what you need from a new hire, whether remote or in-person, I like to start from the end goal: six months into this person’s role, what can they do on their own? What do you expect them to be able to produce without a lot of intervention from you or other members of the team?

Now, think about what resources you already have to get them to that point. What written documentation, videos, or webinars do you have available about how to do the day-to-day tasks of the job? What relationships need to be built in order for the job to work successfully? What are you prepared to teach someone on the job? What do you need them to already know on their first day?

Remember, as you’re interviewing, that you’re hiring that day-one person. You’re responsible for getting them to that month-six person. What are you capable of doing in those months to get them there? What do you need from them in those six months? Once you’ve got an answer to that question – at least in broad strokes, if not in every detail – you’re ready to start interviewing candidates.

Make asking questions a key expectation.

So you’ve made your plan, you’ve done your interviews; now we fast forward to your new hire’s first week.

One of the shortcuts that gets lost when we onboard someone remotely is the ability to identify when they need help, without them having to ask. When you’re working in the same physical space and can see your direct report while they work, you can identify the cues they send up when they don’t know what to do. Maybe they’re looking around a lot, maybe they’re fidgeting more than usual – you see a change in their behavior that cues you to go up to them and ask how things are going. You also know when to leave them alone: you can see that they’re deep in concentration or on the phone with a customer.

Remotely, you have no way of seeing their uncertainty or fear. You have no way of knowing whether they’re in the groove or flailing hard. Except one: by talking about it with them.

As a new employee, asking questions is often a vulnerable thing to do. You want to prove that you can get the job done, that your new boss didn’t make a mistake when they hired you. You don’t want to ask a question that will prove that you don’t know as much as you think you should. On a distributed team, that feeling of vulnerability is increased by the fact that in order to ask your question, you have to actively reach out to someone: send an email or a chat message, pick up the phone, speak up in a meeting. You don’t want to feel like a bother to your new employer, or risk annoying a senior colleague during their first impression of you.

As a manager, though, you need them to ask questions. That means that not only do you have to create a space where it feels safe for them to ask questions – you have to create the expectation that they will ask questions. Make it clear that for their first X weeks (depending on the role), whether they’re meeting their job expectations or not will be at least partly contingent on what questions they’re asking. You have to establish the understanding that it’s riskier for them to not ask – and then back that up by taking their questions seriously, checking in about what questions they have during/after your scheduled meetings, and giving them a peer mentor who can field the questions they might be scared to ask their new boss.

If you don’t yet have the infrastructure in place to enable easy question-asking remotely, one word of caution as you start to build that out: the path for enabling people to ask questions shouldn’t be “let’s stay on a video chat together all day.” There’s a time and place for optional extended video chats that serve as spaces to “work remotely together” for those who like to have more company than our current environment affords us. For new employees, though, it won’t feel optional even if you say it is (because they’re trying to prove themselves!), and is likely to create counterproductive anxiety. And let’s be real: we’ve all got enough of that already.

No more shortcuts: Hiring remotely

Looking up through red autumn leaves against a bright sky

In the early months of the pandemic, when I was unemployed and looking around for my next move, I talked with a few recruiters who had similar stories: a fraction of their clients were theoretically hiring, but really what they were doing was trying hard to figure out how to make interviewing and hiring work remotely.

Having interviewed, hired, and onboarded dozens of (in my opinion) outstanding employees onto highly collaborative distributed teams, part of me wanted to say “hire me and I’ll help you figure it out.” Another part of me wondered why folks were finding it so hard, and in the next couple of posts I’m going to be digging into that question.

Maybe your team isn’t in a place right now to think about hiring and onboarding, but there are a few skills that go into doing it successfully that will serve you well in other parts of your work. These take time to build if you haven’t been focusing on them, and they take attention to maintain, so regardless of where you are in the hiring cycle – whether you’re a manager of a team that’s done comparatively well or whether you’re looking to get hired yourself – it’s worth thinking about them now.

Label your shortcuts.

One of the things people find difficult about hiring remotely is learning to translate the physical cues we’re accustomed to picking up when we meet someone in person. One reason that’s sometimes difficult is that we haven’t articulated what, specifically, we’re learning from those physical cues. It’s a shortcut – and shortcuts tend to be full of unconscious bias, so it’s worth unpacking these things even if you’ll go back to a co-located life as soon as it’s safe to do so.

If this is something you’re up against, consider what physical cues you feel you’re missing and what they signal to you. For example, eye contact is notoriously hard to replicate in a video meeting. What does eye contact convey to you? What does it stand in for that’s still important in a context where you might never share a physical space with your new colleague? Confidence? Attentiveness? Aggression?

Once you’ve labeled the shortcut for yourself, you’re in a position to figure out how to get there “the long way around” – by talking with them. Then, once we’re able to take the shortcuts again, ask yourself whether you and the person you’re talking to are really taking the same shortcut. Are you perceiving inattention from a lack of eye contact when they’re trying to convey respect? How can you use your words to figure out where that shortcut is leading?

After the interviews are over, there’s a whole new set of shortcuts that we take on in-person teams: cues that help us know how our new team member is doing, cues that help us as manager understand when to step in and when to lay back, and cues that help the new team member understand the cultural norms of the organization. In next week’s post, we’ll talk about some ways to get at those end goals with a distributed team.