Remote hiring: 3 tips to recruit and retain top engineers

The pandemic has upended traditional recruiting, hiring, and onboarding processes. Here's how to build a successful engineering team
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COVID-19 has caused a shift in how companies are recruiting engineers. No longer bound by geography, hiring managers can source the best talent for their teams and more successfully achieve diversity goals.

However, without in-person interactions, it can be more difficult to assess talent and determine whether candidates are the right fit. And after agreements are signed, how can managers make sure they are effectively onboarding, training, and managing new employees in a remote environment?

How to recruit and retain in the remote era

Here are three tips to help you successfully recruit and engage with talented, passionate team members in a remote-first culture.

[ What skills are hottest right now? Read also: IT careers: 10 critical skills to master in 2021. ]

1. Use non-traditional digital channels

Although in-person networking is on hiatus for the foreseeable future, the push to digital has highlighted other channels that can be helpful for finding engineering talent. One obvious way to do this is to tap into one’s existing network and ask for referrals, but there are other digital backchannels that can be really helpful in identifying qualified candidates.

[ Considering hiring a DevOps engineer? Here are key questions to ask during the interview process. ]

For instance, it is possible to find talent via an online forum or engineering Slack channel(s) that you both belong to. This informal engagement may reveal potential candidates who have the breadth of experience and knowledge to fill a gap on your engineering team. Send a personalized, pressure-free message to see if the individual has interest. Many tech conferences are also supporting digital networking channels, such as a dedicated Slack workspace, which can be a great way to identify and connect with engineering talent.

2. Assess passion in addition to technical skills

As in any technical profession, it can be difficult to assess an individual’s skills based on a simple resume or LinkedIn profile, which may or may not be current.

Instead, when assessing talent, consider doing two screen tests: one to determine technical abilities and another to identify the technologies that the engineer is passionate about. It is important to see if a candidate has developed the necessary skills for the role and these assessments will vary based on the role, but areas of passion are equally important. When engineers are excited about their work, they are often more engaged, efficient, and willing to cross-train with the knowledge they have.

When assessing talent, consider doing two screen tests: one to determine technical abilities and another to identify the technologies that the engineer is passionate about.

Ideally, hiring managers should look for candidates whose passion aligns with the technology they will be building. Encourage them to share what they are excited about, what brought them into engineering, and what keeps them in the field. Inquire about side projects and industry work, organizations they support, or opportunities in which they would like to be involved.

This discussion doesn’t necessarily need to be related only to technical work. Many companies have employee teams leading diversity and inclusion initiatives or employment benefits that support participation in volunteer efforts or continued education.

Even if the alignment isn’t perfect, it is beneficial to hire engineers who display energy and passion. If candidates are not passionate about something, they likely won’t add to your company culture.

3. Build trust and foster engagement from the start

Once you’ve found the perfect candidate who is really excited about their work, use this momentum to build trust and foster engagement from the start. A lack of communication during the “pre-onboarding” period can derail the excitement, especially in a time of uncertainty or unfamiliar remote work environments. Put time into building a pre-onboarding program that safeguards your personnel investment and ensures that a new engineering employee feels welcome and integrated into the company culture.

[ Want more first-hand advice? Read Virtual onboarding: How to welcome new hires while fully remote ]

Onboarding and training are critical times for new engineers, and communication and transparency are key. Consider having an internal documentation writer create a walk-through guide. This could also set 30-, 60-, and 90-day expectations, which you can adjust over time to ensure that they are in line with the employee’s skills and the company’s goals.

It is also advantageous to pair new employees with experienced engineers on the team. Mentorship programs foster a collaborative culture, encourage better engagement, and create an immediate sense of inclusion for new team members.

In a remote environment, host weekly team calls and biweekly meetings for the entire engineering team. The whiteboard may be gone, but frequent communication ensures that teams stay on track and priorities remain aligned with goals. These calls should involve two-way communication and sharing. It’s important for teams to not only feel heard but also see action in response to their feedback.

Managers should actively encourage both new and veteran team members to flag concerns or other constructive observations, and then follow through on this feedback by providing the team with updates – even if a request cannot be met at that time. Start by simply acknowledging the feedback and letting the team know that you have action items to bring back to the team as soon as possible.

Also, remember that empathy goes a long way — especially in a remote work environment. If you see that a new team member is struggling with their workload or with one of the many stresses of daily life, ensure there are mechanisms for communication and support. Spend more time with them in one-on-one meetings, act quickly on requests, and be sure they know that they are being heard.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced companies worldwide to reevaluate and reform their hiring expectations, processes, and employee training implementation. With empathy, forethought, and solid communication, these challenges can be met, and your engineering teams can grow with the right candidates. Optimizing communication is vital to the hiring process and to ensure a successful journey for every new hire.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Tom Spiegelman is the current VP of Product Engineering at NS1. Tom is a technology enthusiast of all things from homelab to internet infrastructure, distributed systems, and everything in between.