How to hire team players in a totally remote world

March 24, 2021

The pandemic has thrown a lot of confusion into the world of HR – especially over the question of how to hire team players. How do you identify people who work well as part of a team, when you might never physically meet them?

The isolation of modern recruitment

In April 2020, the ONS (Office for National Statistics) revealed that 49.2% of UK employees were working from home, as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic. What’s interesting, is if you look at the recruitment figures from around the same time, you’ll notice that despite a national lockdown, many employers continued to hire.

Of course, there was a huge drop – in April 2020, new vacancies were still only at 21% of what they were in 2019. But the fact remains that organisations continued to hire – and as we grew accustomed to the pandemic, that number increased.

What I find so interesting about all this, is that since April 2020, a huge number of people will have been hired by people they’ll probably never meet, and onboarded into teams packed with people they’re unlikely to meet for a while, if at all. And they will have been working this way, having never met their colleagues or co-workers, for up to a year now.

I think we’re going to see some very interesting case studies off the back of this. But what I’m more interested in exploring today, is what employers can do to minimise the negative side effects of this. And I think that the answer might be to hire natural team players who will probably take better to working with a bunch of people they may have never met.

How new teams work together in the physical world

Let’s pretend for a moment that the isolation aspect of this equation doesn’t exist – and that instead, we’re just dealing with a standard case of trying to bring new people together to form an effective team. To do this, I think it’s helpful to look through a lens that HR influencer Amy Edmondson calls “teaming”.

Amy is professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, and was voted HR’s most influential thinker in 2019. In that same year, she delivered an incredible Ted Talk on the topic of “teaming”, during which she described the concept as “teamwork on the fly”. Or in other words, teamwork without the pre-established relationships that you find within well-established teams.

To highlight what Amy means when she says “teaming”, a great example from her keynote, is that of hospital staff. She says that the average patient in a hospital will be attended by 60 different members of staff during their stay – many of whom won’t even know each other’s name, let alone their temperament or style. Yet they still must find a way to work together in order to cure that patient. And sometimes, life is literally at stake.

The three key ingredients for effective teaming

So before you can build strong new teams across a remote landscape, I think it’s first important to understand the characteristics which form good ad-hoc teams in the physical world.

Amy Edmondson says there are three specific traits found in most successful “teamers”:

  • Humility
  • Curiosity
  • An appetite for learning by risk-taking

In her talk, Amy explains that in situations where teaming really works, you can be absolutely sure that leaders at all levels are humble – they admit they do not have the answers. She calls this “situational humility”.

Regarding curiosity, she says that it’s vital team members drop the “you or me” mindset – instead of seeing colleagues as opponents, you want people to be actively curious about what each other can bring to the table.

And it’s important for members of ad-hoc teams to have the psychological safety of being able to take risks without ridicule. In fact, this very notion was written into the People HR employee handbook when we first launched the product back in 2013 – and it has served us well.

But of course, this leads me onto what I believe is one of the most baffling HR challenges of this whole pandemic: How do you build effective teams, with qualities such as these, when you are hiring remotely, working remotely, and when you are potentially asking a team of colleagues to join together with people they may never meet?

Finding good teamers across a virtual landscape

Finding good team players is difficult at the best of times. But when it comes to assessing a person’s skills in a totally remote landscape, it’s even harder to fully understand their  personality, their intentions, their sense of humour, and their work ethic. And this is going to be the same for any colleagues they eventually work with, who will know them as nothing more than a little square on their computer screen.

I contacted Amy Edmondson directly to ask if she had any advice on this. And while she admitted that it was an interesting challenge with no definitive answer, she did have some sound advice for anybody trying to identify team players remotely.

“You could start by asking them about their previous team experiences” Amy told me. “Look for evidence of humility and credit-giving – that’s a good place to start.”

And I know this is going to sound cheesy, but the moment Amy said that to me, it was like a lightbulb had been flicked on inside my head. You might not be able to visually assess a person’s team-working abilities in a remote situation, but you can certainly look for cues in the way they tell their stories. Is a person talking about the contributions and achievements of others they worked with? Or are they constantly making themselves the heroes of the story?

Working together better remotely

Of course, there’s more to this challenge than simply hiring good team players. And if you’re working with remote teams who you’ve hired during the lockdown, then you might find yourself struggling with a range of other challenges, including communication and company culture.

You might be interested in reading my post from a few months ago, about managing remote disputes. Alternatively, if you’re interested in the idea of building a strong culture, then you might like to read Dan Joyce’s experience-driven thoughts on how to build an award-winning company culture while working remotely.

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