Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

How leading companies should be handling remote work

Siddharth Rao, a staff software engineer and a technical lead in the revenue product organization at Twitter, tells Beth Mauder how companies can be confident in their remote employee hires.

How employers should hire, train, and maintain remote workers

As the world and workforces continue to deal with the struggles that the COVID-19 pandemic has created, new ways for handling the remote landscape have emerged. Now, more than ever, companies are opening up positions to more remote employees, job interviews are being held online instead of in person, and managers are working to recreate how new employees mingle and build meaningful relationships with their coworkers. ZDNet caught up with Siddharth Rao, a staff software engineer and a technical lead in the revenue product organization at Twitter, to learn about how leading companies are navigating the new normal.

Watch my conversation with Rao above, or read a few of the highlights below.


Beth Mauder: What kind of challenges are engineering teams facing by hiring remotely?

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Siddharth Rao: I think as the world has gone remote, most companies are just trying to figure out how to capitalize and solve the challenges of the remote environment. And the way I like to think about that is dividing the problem within the life cycle of a software engineer's tenure at a company. So you can think of it as a problem that's divided for interviewing, onboarding, mentoring, and even off-boarding. 

So if you ask about how this has changed, especially interviewing, one of the biggest challenges is companies are seeing five times, six times more resumes for every position that they're putting out for. Because everyone's realizing as soon as you turn that filter off, you have to be located in city X, the amount of people applying for jobs is tremendously high. Then moving on, if you think about just interviewing, every company is trying to figure out what is the best process to interview someone and only look at the metrics that really do measure someone's performance at a company. And winning companies will be able to filter out the noise in a remote-first interview. Understanding what are the limitations that an interviewee has, and filtering all of that noise out just to get the signals of someone's future performance at a company. 

Beth Mauder: What is the winning solution is to find the best employees now that we have this massive amount of talent searching for jobs, regardless of location?

Siddharth Rao: So if you look back at pre-remote work, generally what companies would try to do is they would have a technical screening round, a hiring managers screen, and then they will try to bring the employee to the company, to their premise. Now, given everything is remote, the part that has changed is you never get to meet the person. So understanding deeply about what are some signals that you were previously collecting that you're not able to collect? And what are those signals that are actually just noise?

So for example, if you're interviewing someone and there are technical difficulties and perhaps there's a culture barrier, maybe there's a noise barrier. So understanding all of these and being inclusive of everyone's differences, the situations they're currently in, and understanding what are the key things in someone's interview process that are just a result of where they are and what technologies they have access to and filtering all of those things out and only focusing on here's the problem that we asked them. And here's how they answered, are the winning strategies by far.

Beth Mauder: What does training look like in this remote world? How how do you implement that digitally?

Siddharth Rao: One of the major problems in a remote-first world is making the employee feel connected to the environment. And spending time and having them acclimated into the company culture. And one of the most common reasons for that to not happen is employees often feel discouraged or disconnected to the team and they end up essentially leaving. So some things that I believe leaders in these companies could do is really invest the time. So for example, if a new employee is joining on day one, the team and the managers should just clear their whole calendars. And essentially what we have seen work is, you sit in a virtual room where the new employee just asks questions. Because day one is the day where you have questions as a new employee, every five minutes, 10 minutes, "Oh, I don't have access to this tool. I am unable to access my email." And having that support network of there's this whole team sitting in this virtual room where I could just go and quickly ask this question, really helps that experience.

Second, is generally a company is a place where people come to form a lot of professional relationships. And as managers and leaders in the company, it's more of a pronounced role at this point to ensure that your new employees are able to be exposed to that environment where they're able to create these relationships. So acting as a catalyst, into enabling someone, to meet other folks at the company, introducing them to folks who are working in similar problem spaces, ensuring that there's enough face-to-face video time of the new employee with the team.

Beth Mauder: How do companies correctly and accurately monitor productivity and performance remotely?

Siddharth Rao:  So I think it's two aspects. One of them is pure, like from a mentorship perspective. I think almost every leading company in Silicon Valley has some kind of mentorship program. I think what everyone is trying to figure out is how do you run this effectively and at scale in a remote-first world? The challenge is to be able to tailor your mentorship program and help your employees exceed in their areas of expertise by tailoring your mentorship program. What I mean by that is understanding what your employee exactly needs and how often. Some folks, like more video time, some folks just like getting feedback over email, some folks like feedback often.

So understanding these very human aspects of someone and tailoring your mentorship and your feedback experience based on exactly on that. So you would see a huge set of employees, they need feedback consistently week over week over week. Some are a lot more on the shy perspective where they're more likely to respond well to feedback given once a month or 30 days. So I've seen companies who are able to tailor their mentorship experience based on this new world are a lot more successful in being able to course-correct the trajectory of an employee to ensure it's always positive. Second thing is having some structure and being able to measure the performance of an employee. So having 15-day check-ins, 30-day, 60-, 90-day check-ins.

And enabling the employee to set goals for themselves. So setting expectations often and setting expectations early is one of the key things that you could do in a remote-first world. Any feedback that is a surprise to an employee is a failure on the manager. Employees should never be surprised by any feedback. And in a remote-first world, it's often easy to forget or not give feedback often, because when you're in a social setting, it's often you see someone and you're like, "Oh, let me remind them of that email they weren't able to send last week." However, in a remote-first world, you have to be extremely explicit about having that conversation.