Startup founders living in cities routinely hire from their networks, poach top talent from neighbouring companies, and attend local events to meet new potential hires. While a metropolitan focus is expedient, it can often result in the same problems: significant competition over a shallow talent pool.
But there is a broader talent pool of potential employees ready and willing to work remotely: rural Canadians. While some rural Canadians face barriers that might make the recruiting process more difficult, Pablo Listingart, Executive Director of tech skills school ComIT, believes overcoming these barriers is essential for startups to grow. Speaking with BetaKit, Listingart explained what founders need to be aware of when hiring rural employees.
Don’t let prejudice cloud opportunity
Listingart said there is often a prejudice against rural workers shared by many in urban cores. It’s not because they think rural workers are inadequate per se, but there is a presupposition that ideal prospects will have already moved to a city if they have talent or ambition.
“If you are serious about growing in a market where talent is scarce, then I don’t see any other way than actually opening your mind and thinking about all the possible sources for talent.”
“The main issue is whenever we have a prejudice or a bias, we just tend to shut down,” Listingart added. “And so we don’t give the opportunity because ‘I will only interview people from this or there’ instead of just listening to people and see[ing] what they have to offer.”
Biases aside, practical concerns can arise like access to broadband internet or distance to the startup’s office for in-person visits and team building. Listingart agreed these are valid concerns but noted they all have equally valid solutions.
Challenges around internet access are solved through asynchronous work and additional flexibility. Here, Listingart said that a simple solution would be only recruiting for roles that can be done mostly asynchronously, reducing the need for someone to join a meeting at a moment’s notice. Further, Listingart added that if you have a role that requires onsite presence regularly for any reason, it’s probably not a good idea to fill that with a rural employee.
“If you find out that there are jobs that you have that are not time sensitive or critical, that someone needs to be 24/7 there, why not give that chance to a talented person who can actually work in an asynchronous way to make it happen?” Listingart asked.
He also noted that companies can look for their own additional workarounds, sharing the example of a student who couldn’t attend a ComIT class one night because a storm knocked out their satellite internet. As a solution, ComIT gave that person the opportunity to call into the lecture to still hear the class. They then sent a recording of the lecture for the student to watch the next day when internet connectivity was restored.
No networking events? No problem
Another misconception about hiring rural employees is that it takes significant time founders can’t afford, given other constraints of running a scaling business. While it’s true that a single networking event offering the potential to meet dozens of qualified rural candidates in one evening is less than likely, Listingart said there are multiple other avenues available for sourcing remote talent.
Professional associations: many small towns or regions have their own professional associations with memberships–you can partner with them to find talent.
Social media: like everyone else, rural prospects are using social media on a regular basis, making it a great place to connect, whether through direct outreach (on platforms like LinkedIn) or joining local and interest-based groups on Reddit, Facebook, and Slack.
Community leaders: in many communities, people look to a chamber of commerce, the mayor’s office, or other local community organizations for information. With that in mind, Listingart recommends connecting with community leaders to ensure your message reaches local prospects.
Integrating rurally-located employees
Once you’ve hired a new employee, you want them onboarded and delivering value as quickly as possible. While that onboarding process might include an initial trip to the office to meet everyone, it doesn’t have to. The real key, said Listingart, is to think about the in-office culture you’d like to build and then reproduce it digitally.
Listingart said creating a great digital workplace culture starts by respecting each individual’s cultural differences and recognizing rural employees come from a wide range of experiences and identities. From there, he recommended leveraging different types of communication depending on what you need to get across: Slack messages or email blasts are great for one-way communication with basic updates, while a collaborative meeting might be better suited to team problem-solving. Communication doesn’t always need to be serious, either. Listingart mentioned he regularly uses memes, cracks jokes, or has the same kind of banter digitally that you might expect in person.
“I try to be hyper-connected with the teams that I work with so that they feel that it’s the same as [if] we are in the same office,” said Listingart.
Listingart added that paying attention to your employees’ local context is critical. He shared the example of working in Ontario but having a rural remote employee in Nova Scotia. If there was a storm recently in Nova Scotia, you should check in with that employee to see how they are doing–not just to see if they need support, but in the same spirit you’d commiserate about nasty weather with a local colleague.
Continuing the concept of extending the office experience digitally, Listingart recommended smaller gestures as well. One example is sending someone a gift card for a local restaurant if in-office employees are having a catered team meeting and meal delivery apps aren’t available in their location. Another is sending ample company swag so employees have a physical item connecting them to the business and their colleagues.
“It sounds like a lot of work,” said Listingart. “It is. But when a team is motivated to work together and to feel that they are part of a team. The outcomes will be much better than everyone just working on their own and remotely in some way.”
Hard work or the alternative
Sourcing talent from rural areas can be hard work—if only because it means trying something new versus doing what’s known and comfortable. However, it’s essential to find the talent your startup needs to grow.
Listingart said that this choice can be a point of reckoning. If you’re not willing to put in the extra work to find the talent you need–wherever they might live–do you really want to grow? This is a sensitive question that only company leaders can answer, but one that must be answered.
“You should always be asking yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing,” said Listingart. “If you are serious about growing in a market where talent is scarce, then I don’t see any other way about actually opening your mind and thinking about all the possible sources for talent.”
Feature image courtesy Unsplash.