More and more companies are operating virtually -- that is, using technology to link workers in remote locations. But when you're hiring, how do you identify the candidates best suited to a virtual environment?

Will Pape, cofounder of VeriFone, has given that question a lot of thought because for many years he served as chief information officer at the self-described "virtual company," which makes electronic payment systems. (VeriFone, which is based in Santa Clara, Calif., has since been acquired by Hewlett-Packard.) Some of the characteristics Pape learned to look for when hiring virtual workers are listed below. He does advise, however, that "not every successful virtual worker has each characteristic, that most of the skills can be learned, at least to some degree, and that a company's practices can compensate for shortfalls."

  • Does the candidate have strong communication skills? "Virtual workers don't have the luxury of communicating face-to-face, which means they miss out on nonverbal as well as verbal cues. It also means they have to communicate both their point of view and personality through media such as videoconferencing, e-mail, or the telephone," Pape notes. "They need strong verbal and written skills -- skills that you can assess early in the hiring process by speaking to candidates on the phone or communicating via e-mail."
  • Does he or she take the initiative in communication? "Staff members who wait to be asked, who don't take the initiative to inform, are going to lower productivity," Pape observes. "You want people who won't hesitate to make that phone call or send that e-mail. Ask references, especially past supervisors, about candidates' willingness to open the channels of communication."
  • How good is the candidate at solving problems independently? "When workers are out of sight, managers may not know which people are thrashing around unproductively on a problem," Pape notes. "Employees have to be able to tackle problems head-on, generate and implement solutions independently, and ask for help when they get stuck."

    A good way to find out about candidates' problem-solving skills is to ask them to describe how they solved difficult problems. Have them focus on specific things they said or did. Then ask if they feel comfortable tackling problems on their own. You can help remote workers improve problem-solving skills, suggests Pape, by having them do short (10- to 15-minute) problem-solving exercises. And you can reinforce problem-solving capabilities by circulating success stories about individual employees or groups that have done a great job dealing with one problem or another.

  • How loyal will the candidate be? "Because virtual workers don't have everyday face-to-face interaction with fellow employees, their personal and company ties can be weaker than those of workers in the traditional organization," says Pape. That, he notes, can lead to higher turnover, which is a drain on a business's productivity. "Look for employees who have demonstrated their loyalty to a company (workers with longevity and ones with strong reasons for changing jobs) and who believe in the goals and values of your company," Pape suggests. "Testing for congruity with your company's goals and values can be as simple as asking candidates to describe their ideal company."
  • How strong is his or her work ethic? "Look for people who show a quick understanding of what needs to be done, who stay on task and deliver results, not excuses," says Pape. "Ask for examples from both the applicants and their references."
  • How secure is the candidate about his or her ability? "When someone's working alone, it's easy to start second-guessing. Did my boss really like that report? Why haven't I had more feedback?" Pape says. "In new hires look for people who feel secure about their job skills and personal lives. The best predictor of future success is often past success." Then, once you hire a remote worker, make sure to keep company news available online, and stay in frequent communication by phone or videoconference.
  • Does the person have a good sense of humor? "People with a good sense of humor -- who consequently are slow to anger -- tend to deal more effectively with the frustrations of the virtual workplace," Pape observes. "They tend to be more productive."
  • How well does the candidate cope with technology? "Hire people who have demonstrated that they're not afraid of technology," Pape suggests. "Do they own a PC? How often do they use it? How do they solve a computer problem?" Even the technologically sophisticated will inevitably run into problems, however. The next step? "Back up your folks with a corporate help desk to walk them through the problems they're certainly going to encounter," Pape advises.