Culture & Engagement

How to hire team players in a totally remote world

Team Players

The pandemic has thrown a lot of confusion into the world of HR – especially over the issue 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 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) revealed that 46% of Australian employees were working from home as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic. New Zealand had similar figures, reporting 42% of the NZ workforce were housebound. What’s interesting, is if you look at the recruitment figures from around the same time, you’ll notice that despite national lockdowns, many employers continued to hire.


Of course, there was a huge drop – in April 2020, job vacancies in Australia were at record lows, matching 2015 levels. But the fact remains that organisations continued to hire – and as we grew accustomed to the pandemic, that number increased. Amazingly, the data shows that job vacancies in November were 12% higher in 2020 than they were in 2019.


What this means is that in the last 12 months, 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 more than a year now.


What can employers do to minimise the negative side effects of this unusual situation? One clear solution is to hire natural team players who will probably take better to working with a bunch of people they may have never met.



The new rules of teamwork 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, 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, it’s important to first understand the characteristics which form good 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.


And this leads onto 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?



Squad goals: how to build a team virtually


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 best as a little square on their computer screen.


So what can be done?


While Amy Edmondson 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.


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


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 better together, 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.



This post was written for The Access Group, a leading provider of HR, digital learning, payroll and financial management software to small to mid-sized organisations. It helps more than 47,000 customers globally across commercial and not-for-profit sectors become more productive and efficient.