There are so many posts about what an employer should look for in a remote worker, but it goes both ways. A remote employee is selecting a remote employer just as much as a company selects their team.
Here are a few things I look for in a remote employer. I use this list to ensure I only work with amazing clients.
Absolute musts in a remote employer
In order for good things to happen, your clients need to be on top of things as well. These are a must for me when selecting my clients.
1) They offer growth, learning, and development
When I first published this article, I filed this under nice, but not necessary with the following explanation.
Whether to put this on the list of “needs” vs. “wants” was a difficult decision, but it ended up in the nice-but-not-necessary section because it isn’t necessary for your company to send you back to school in order to do good work.
In order to be successful at what you do, you must always continue learning and developing your skills. This can be done by reading articles online, taking advantage of webinars, attending local conferences, and reaching out to industry leaders (or just follow them on Twitter for nuggets of wisdom).
I always appreciate it when a client has an education budget set aside for their team, but it isn’t something I expect. Learning is something I do on my own, for my own benefit, and it’s my own responsibility.
Today, this is now a requirement for me. So much so that I’ve moved it to the first position under must-haves. Personal growth and development have been critical career-drivers as I worked my way through online content coordinator, to content marketer, to content strategist, to marketing director.
That progression required learning new skills (sometimes in a trial-by-fire format), deepening my knowledge in the industry, improving existing skills, and getting more experience in marketing overall. I could never have done this without the guidance and support of many of my clients.
Even if a company doesn’t have a set education budget, working with them should still teach you valuable lessons. That can be improving your specialty (ex. a growth marketer running more experiments) or branching out to test your hand with adjacent skills (ex. a content marketer testing paid search ads).
Today, my focus in every role is not just whether I can serve that client well and “be a blessing” to the company, but also whether I can learn and improve myself by working there.
For every new client I take on, I ask two questions:
- Can I help this company grow/improve sustainably?
- What could I learn by working with this company?
2) They respond quickly to your emails/messages/PM comments
I’ve had multiple clients who don’t respond to any of my emails, causing projects to drag along months longer than needed. Once I wrap up everything I can, I’ll let them know that I won’t be renewing my contract, and then get a panicked email saying “wait we still want you to do [insert long list of anything they could think of].”
These clients aren’t bad people, and no one sits at their desk scheming about how to leave remote workers hanging in the balance. But that is not the best way to work and get things done, and the people who do this are not ideal clients for a remote worker.
At this point, I will usually say something along the lines of “I’m happy to work with you to complete [action points] for the next 3 months. After that I will turn over documentation so that the next person knows exactly what has been done and how to take over.”
If you’re already stuck with a client who doesn’t respond to you in a timely manner, try to complete the tasks on your plate and set them up until the next person can fill in. This could be completing a website build, or making sure they have blog posts scheduled to go out for the next few months.
After that, create or update your process documents, and then make a graceful exit.
3) They compensate based on skills and position, not location
“Oh, you’re in Thailand right now? Can we negotiate your rate?”
The price I charge for my time and experience doesn’t change based on where I live. I move around enough that it’d be impossible to calculate it reliably anyway.
Many remote workers are also digital nomads; they travel to a new destination every month, and hop between timezones like no one’s business.
You can politely explain that your rate is based on your time and compensation expectations, not where you’re living at the moment.
If they still insist on negotiating price based on location, run the other way. Not only is it rude, it shows that they care more about your geographical location and saving a buck than hiring you for what you have to offer.
4) They prioritize your wellbeing over work
Ideally, every employer should care about their employees’ wellbeing, including mental and physical health. Work-related stress causes 120,000 deaths annually in the U.S. alone, according to the Center for Workplace Mental Health.
However, the stress and burnout from overworking takes on a new and dangerous edge when you’re remote and seen as “always available.”
One of the biggest reasons I distanced from a brand that was previously a favorite client was because of a managerial switch. I joined the 35% of employees who say their stress is caused by a manager, and 80% whose stress resulted in a leadership change.
A colleague took a sick day, and our new manager sent her some work on Slack. I watched in horror as she logged on to meet a deadline while fighting COVID-19. No amount of money or clout is worth dealing with a manager who creates a work culture where people feel compelled to power through a pandemic.
When I think about my work from other clients, I find the challenges exciting. Yet, whenever I thought about working with this manager or prepping for a meeting with him, I started getting backaches. (Can stress cause backaches? It was a weird time.) I slapped on some Tiger Balm and stopped working with that client shortly after.
It doesn’t matter whether your employer cares about your hobbies, interests, or travels, but they better care about you.
5) They are transparent and considerate during the interview process
A company should value your time during an interview as much as you value theirs. That means not sending you through 10 rounds of interviews and answering your questions honestly and transparently.
Kevan Lee shared some questions I liked in his email newsletter, which I’ve modified slightly below. Ask these during your interview process to get a little more insight into a company.
- How is your acquisition, retention, and revenue performing? Look at whether they are willing to tell you, or not.
- What are the goals for those metrics, and what happens when a team hits or misses them? This is useful for understanding expectations and priorities.
- Why do people stay? Why do people leave? Use this to get a feel for the culture and benefits.
6) Your work habits are compatible with your would-be direct manager
“People don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses.” – Brigette Hyacinth
Your direct manager is the biggest contributor to your success or failure at a role. Even if you love the vision and mission of the company, get along great with the CEO, and can do the job in your sleep, a poor manager will take a toll on your work, mental health, and potentially even your reputation.
Fortunately, I’ve only run into one manager with working style that didn’t mesh well with mine. Here are a few of the frustrations that came from that:
- Extended review periods where I was waiting weeks for feedback on article drafts, blocking my editorial calendar progress (which reflected on my performance metrics) and creating a bottleneck that kept building up.
- Missing information and direction for a virtual event, where I didn’t get any confirmation around the timeslots, topics, or titles, which resulted in me meeting speakers (external parties) without having any answers to their questions. My educated guesses weren’t appreciated by this manager in this instance.
- Unresponsiveness on Slack, Asana, and email, which resulted in me having to do daily calls with him to get answers. I would send daily updates and questions, to be met with silence most of the time. I only heard from him when he was asking me to do something…which was usually already logged in Asana and waiting on his feedback.
- Lack of transparency, where I was discouraged from posting or asking for help in shared channels until he came to a decision, making him my only avenue for confirmation and review and cutting me off from the other decision makers of the company.
That’s not to say this manager was bad at his job, but our working behaviors, particularly remotely, did not harmonize. How do you avoid this moving forward? Ask the questions below.
What does success in this role look like to you?
This will show you how they gauge success, whether they are more focused on results, organization and process, how easy you are to manage, or something else.
What is your management style?
Some managers prefer to delegate while providing KPIs, whereas others like to collaborate and work together towards certain goals.
Have you managed anyone remotely before?
Everyone was a first-time manager once, and most of the time it isn’t a problem when you work with someone who has never managed someone else before, or has never managed someone else remotely. One of my favorite clients was a new co-founder and I was his first hire and remote worker.
However, similar to how companies ask about prior experience, you deserve to work with someone who understands the basics of asynchronous communication as well (unless you’re willing to take on the additional background work of managing up and training them in it).
What’s the best way to communicate with you?
Does this manager know how to operate in project management tools like Asana, or do they prefer communicating via email or WhatsApp? The latter two are warning signs, as communications are easily lost and overwritten the older they get.
How quickly do you usually turn around reviews?
Surprisingly, this question gets more important the further you go away from co-founders. I’ve had a harder time getting feedback from middle managers than co-founders and CEOs. You want to work with a manager whose priority is to never be a blocker to their team.
These are nice, but not necessary
The following things are benefits and perks when it comes to analyzing your remote employer. They won’t make or break your success at the company, but they sure are nice.
1) They have other remote workers, or a remote-first culture
When a client has worked with other remote employees, they have an idea of what to expect and what’s needed from their end for success. Just like a remote worker should have previous remote work experience, a remote employer should have previous experience hiring remotely.
If you’re your clients’ only remote worker, the road ahead isn’t impossible, but it becomes much more difficult. I’ve had a few clients with this setup, and it felt like I became a “fake employee.” Whereas many of my colleagues knew each other by face, they’d easily forget a name on a screen (me). That means I wouldn’t get CC’d on important emails, and things fell through the cracks more often than normal.
Ask your clients if they have other remote workers, or a remote-first culture before you decide to work with them. If the nature of their business is remote (ie. SaaS or eCommerce), you’re fairly safe as they’re used to operating virtually. Otherwise, make sure they have some experience with virtual employees.
Note: Previously, this was filed under absolute must-haves in your employer. Since then, I worked with Deliverr as their first marketer and remote employee, and learned there is a good way to establish a healthy rapport and remote culture in a mostly co-located company. I was fortunate to be part of building that culture, and when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, wrote a few tips about how I had been working remotely for the rest of the team.
2) They bring everyone together on annual trips
A few awesome remote companies take all the members of their team on an annual trip so everyone gets to meet each other in person. This gets expensive, so don’t expect it from bootstrapped startups or small companies that are still maintaining a budget.
A few companies that do this include Zapier, Buffer, and Modern Tribe.
3) They show their appreciation
One of my favorite clients gave me a bag of coffee beans for Christmas, which shows how well they know me. Another one sent me a free copy of his awesome ebook. Multiple clients have given me wine to show their appreciation…do I have amazing clients or what?!
Even a simple thank you email or note on Slack to let you know you’re doing a good job is appreciated. When you work remotely, it’s hard to pick up on the tone of your clients, and sometimes it can feel like you’re operating in the dark.
“Thank yous” aren’t essential to doing a good job, but it does show you what caliber of work is appreciated. It’s also great for retention!
Wrapping up – Remote employer qualities to look for
Remote work is here to stay, and only going to get more widespread as technology improves. To find a great remote employer, look for a company that can teach you new skills, has good communication, and don’t treat remote work as an opportunity to underpay for skills.
Published: February 6, 2017
Updated: June 28, 2021
[…] is the most important step I’ve incorporated as a manager and as a freelancer to vet my clients. It’s crucial to do a test task before signing on to a bigger commitment so that you can […]