Online Work Tips & Best Practices

By Dinesh Ganesarajah, CEO of PreScouter

What does it take to build a great remote team? Within two years, our Illinois-based startup, PreScouter, has pulled together a team of 50 freelancers from around the world—all recruited and managed through the oDesk platform.

PreScouter’s mission is to expose the world to inventions that would otherwise be lost; we don’t just introduce technology to our clients, we use it to fuel our own business growth. How? Using the best practices we’ve learned to find the right professionals and keep them engaged.

Your team and you: Different locations, same priorities?

Our needs are often short-term or precisely defined, which means that hiring someone with a specific skillset on a full-time basis is expensive, unnecessary and unrealistic. This means that bringing someone onboard isn’t necessarily a “lifelong” commitment for us, nor a 40-hour-a-week obligation for them.

Flexibility is one of the factors driving the shift from traditional work, but we’ve learned that the absence of a traditional employer-employee relationship can create many shades of gray.

To create more clarity, we make sure our roles are specific and defined. A freelancer may have multiple projects on the go at a time, or other life commitments, so there’s value in identifying the responsibilities and expectations associated with their role.

We also stay in regular contact, generally using Skype or email in place of in-person communication.

Start with well-defined jobs, then test

There is no better predictor of how someone will perform on your team than having him or her complete related tasks as part of the recruitment process. PreScouter has embraced the philosophy of hiring tests. We’ve found such testing can also remove any personal biases, ensuring the best candidates rise to the top.

oDesk offers great advice as a starting point for hiring tests:

Think through all of the responsibilities you want your new hire to take on, and try to draw a complete picture in your [job] post. Is this a full-time position, or a part-time one? A strategic role, or driven by execution? How will you measure the success of this position? Will they be working closely with other team members? Does this role require technical ability, marketing acumen or outstanding number-crunching capability? Is familiarity with certain programs or languages needed?

If you are unsure which skills to ask for, you should check out other similar job listings to get a sense of what criteria are in demand for jobs like yours. Even if you decide to keep some details out of your published job listing, jot down a few notes about the ideal hire for this position – reviewing these before interviewing will help you separate the winners from the wannabes.

Based on the job definition, PreScouter will typically take one of the more complex or difficult parts of the job to use as the test. oDesk has published other test examples for marketing jobs, as well as a range of other positions.

A little training creates a lot of bliss

As with any new member of your team, a remote freelancer will need guidance and support as they get started. This may require more checking in up-front, but over time he or she will become more self-sufficient.

How much training and support will a freelancer need? That depends on your organization and the systems you use.

At PreScouter, we use cloud-based systems to manage our business; these range from the Google Spreadsheets we use to manage task assignments, to the CRM system we use to track contact with prospective customers.

We have documented all the processes, critical skills and techniques for each role. We’ve found that, once they’re up and running, team members can often improve on the systems we already have in place.

Keep distributed teams engaged

As our team has grown, so has our need to keep everyone engaged and motivated. We’ve found that sharing our long-term goals and offering incentives have helped our remote team understand how they fit into our larger operations and how important their work is.

For example, we offer small bonuses to freelancers who start projects on schedule. We’ve created online communities through Google Plus and Google Groups where our team communicates with each other; we can also use these networks to share company updates.

In many cases, these groups help build a sense of camaraderie and contributed to a feeling of engagement. We’ve recently started sharing our company’s growth plans with our most valued workers, and the role they could have in this expansion. This has itself created excitement and is proving to be a valuable tool.

How do YOU leverage oDesk?

For PreScouter, oDesk has enabled a brave new world for work—if one that we’re not used to. How we hire, and how we keep our remote team supported and engaged for the long term, all contribute to our team’s—as well as our company’s—success.

What are your top tips for hiring a remote team via oDesk? Share your advice in the comments section below.