Hiring Junior Remote Employees

13 minutes, 2 links


Updated March 23, 2023

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controversyA common attitude when hiring remote roles is that it’s not possible to have these positions filled by less experienced junior candidates. The tenet that remote work only works for highly experienced, senior hires does have some truth, but isn’t the full picture.

Professional Skills vs. Seniority

When companies say things like “it’s basically impossible to have a junior remote worker,” what they often mean is “a remote worker who lacks strong communication skills and professional skills like goal setting and independent action will fail.” And to some extent, that’s true. Junior hires often lack necessary professional skills because they tend to be younger. However, this is correlation, not causation. The simple act of being more junior doesn’t by itself imply lower professional and communication skills. In some cases, it can be the opposite: career changers, for example, often bring highly developed professional skills, even though their specific experience is low.

For now, let’s restrict the discussion to junior staff who also have strong professional and communication skills, presuming this is what you’ll screen for. In this context, it helps to clarify what “junior” means. A helpful concept is task-relevant maturity.

Task-relevant maturity (or TRM) is an employee’s experience level for a given task, reflecting a combination of how achievement-oriented they are, their readiness to take responsibility, along with their education, training, and experience. Andy Grove popularized the term TRM in his book High Output Management.

Grove noted that the amount you train and monitor someone depends on their TRM, and should change as they learn and their TRM increases:

How often you monitor should not be based on what you believe your subordinate can do in general, but on [their] experience with a specific task and [their] prior performance with it—[their] task-relevant maturity… As [their] work improves over time, you should respond with a corresponding reduction in the intensity of the monitoring.*

Someone who is “junior” has low task-relevant maturity in most of the key competencies for their role, meaning that most of their activities need to be monitored as they are being actively trained. Someone who is “senior” in this sense has relatively few areas of low TRM, and thus rarely needs monitoring or training.

importantWhen people say it’s impossible to hire junior people to remote roles, the underlying truth may be that the company hasn’t set up the necessary tools and documentation to help people thrive in a remote environment. Whether a junior person can be remote or not is really a question about whether the organization has the capability to provide monitoring and training to someone during the majority of their work tasks. If the company can’t do that, there are likely to be other problems down the road for their remote staff, no matter their experience.

The Burden of Training Is Higher

Monitoring and training a junior employee will be harder in a remote context. When you can’t look over at what they’re doing and offer help, there must be a system in place for them to know what they should be working on, but also to ask questions—or their manager will need to regularly check in on them. This consistent communication is a bit more challenging when it needs to be done via chat message and video call: managers can’t just say, “How’s it going today?” as they walk past the new employee to get a cup of coffee, and they can’t glance over and see whether they look frustrated or confused.

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These challenges can be overcome by making sure the junior hire is comfortable asking lots of questions, and knows where to ask them (in email, in a call, in a Slack channel?); that they have access to company manuals and handbooks; and by pairing them with a kind and genuinely interested mentor or peer. If your company doesn’t have these kinds of communication paths and documentation set up, it won’t just be the new junior person who suffers.

Figure: Employee TRM and Company Structure

Source: Holloway

Here, consider your environment overall. Is it low or highly structured? Remote workplaces will tend to skew toward being low-structure workplaces, but they don’t have to be. It’s completely possible to be a structured, remote workplace.

If you’re remote, you’re by default less structured. You can change this default if you want to. If you care about hiring and developing junior (low-TRM) staff, you may need to impose structures for them to do well. If you remain low structured and you hire low-TRM employees, you increase the chances that they will fail. This is not because you’re remote per se, but rather is because you didn’t provide the structure that a low-TRM person needs to learn and succeed.

If you’re unwilling to make your environment more structured, then hiring senior (high-TRM) staff and letting them figure it out probably works better. Conversely, if you keep your senior (high-TRM) employees too constrained by structures optimized for junior folks, beware of bored people leaving for a role with less structure and more freedom.

importantThe point here is that the level of structure a workplace provides should best be tailored to the remote worker’s role; if your organization is willing to adapt its structures, you will be able to hire successfully at any level of seniority.

Doist overcame some of these challenges by sending new employees to the same location as their onboarding mentor, to spend two weeks working with them in person. This can be a worthwhile investment to get new employees onboarded quickly and to ensure they have all the context and cultural understanding to be productive when they return home. It’s also worth noting that an exhaustive handbook with timezone-agnostic detail for onboarding new people is critical when spanning large temporal gaps.

Can You Support a Junior Remote Worker?

When evaluating whether you can support a junior remote worker, consider how will you provide the monitoring and regular support that someone with low TRM in most of their job functions will need.

There are certainly ways to do this remotely. Being willing to invest the time of a dedicated mentor and a skilled manager will go a long way here, though some roles may be more difficult to train than others. Here are a few things to consider as you evaluate supporting junior team members:

  • Can you get a meaningful sense of their work output remotely? For a job like writing code, the answer is likely yes. It’s feasible to read the code and run it yourself locally to test it. For a role like going out and pitching a client for a contract, the answer is more likely no. To observe how your junior sales hire is doing out in the field, you probably would need to go with them to client meetings for quite some time (unless these are done virtually, and you’re able to join the call in addition to the client).

  • Are you able to provide coaching and training on their work output remotely? Even if you can get a good sense of the output, you likely still will need to evaluate whether the organization can provide remote coaching to help the junior hire progress. Can you provide input through shared online documents? Through video calls that walk through problems? By using instant messaging to answer questions? For many types of roles and departments of a company, these tools are well developed, making it relatively easy to provide this support. However, if the role has specific elements that are hard to coach over a video call (for example, the whole-body language of giving a live presentation to a large audience), then you’re unlikely to be able to support that junior hire as well.

  • What is your organizational commitment to junior and remote hires? If you’re highly committed to having remote workers, and you’re building a large enough team that you need many junior hires along with senior hires; or if you’re committed to training junior staff on principle, then hiring junior remote workers who have strong professional skills and potential is feasible. If your commitment to remote work is more a case of convenience—you need to fill specialized roles, or you can’t hire enough in any one geographic center—then hiring at the intermediate level and up may make more sense for your remote team.

  • Is your organization truly optimized for remote workers? Junior staff members will find their performance more strongly affected by organizational challenges than senior members, who will have developed the ability to get the job done despite challenging environments. If your organizational environment is generally difficult for remote workers, a junior person is unlikely to succeed. Junior staff can navigate role-based challenges, given a supportive mentor, a good manager, and a functional, remote-friendly organization. On the other hand, senior staff can navigate organizational messiness (for example, unskilled management, communication challenges, or a lack of mentorship), given role experience and task-relevant maturity. It is not realistic to expect any hire to navigate both role-based and organization-level challenges at the same time.

cautionWhen you add in timezone differences, communicating consistently with a new employee can go from friction to crisis if not handled properly. If time zone overlap between the junior hire and their mentor is low, they will experience long stretches of time where nobody is able either to check in on their progress or to answer their questions. This also constrains task pairing and “showing how it’s done” to a limited time window. Obstacles that might have been overcome with a quick question can derail an entire day. In these cases, a junior team member could take months or even years to become independent at their core job competency. The resulting long learning curve likely has too high a cost to the organization to be worth the training, compared to hiring someone more senior.

There are certain circumstances where hiring is not fair to an inexperienced person with low TRM. These include:

  • Your managers are not yet terribly skilled. (For example, if you’re a fast-scaling startup, and many managers were promoted from within and learned through a ‘trial by fire’ experience.)

  • Your communication patterns are somewhat ad hoc and chaotic (some things are offline only, lots of different channels, many implicit norms and assumptions).

  • Your team isn’t currently able to provide training (everyone is learning as they go and wearing many hats).

A senior remote worker might be a brilliant hire in the exact same situation: no hands-on managers! Lots of opportunities in the chaos! Everyone is trying new things so they can really flex that broad skill set!

importantThis isn’t a case of a “bad” culture. Toxic cultures are harmful to all employees, regardless of experience. This is simply a highly unstructured environment, which is unsuited to low-TRM employees. Remember, higher-TRM folks do better with lower structure. Lower-TRM folks do better with higher structure. Remote workplaces can often be lower-structure workplaces. But it is the degree of structure in your organization that drives your ability to hire junior staff, and not seniority of the staff in question.

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