How to spot great remote jobs: The Joel test for remote work

The Joel test is a 12 question test to assess the quality of a software team. It was created by Joel Spolsky, co-creator of Stackoverflow. The Joel test works so well because the questions prompt easy yes/no answers and at the end you get a better understanding of your team. Let’s try to find a set of questions we can use to identify real remote first companies and great remote jobs in general.

Here are 10 questions to assess the quality of a remote job:

  1. Does it offer equal pay for equal work?
  2. Are your direct colleagues all working remotely as well?
  3. Are benefits and vacations independent of your location?
  4. Is the hiring process fully remote?
  5. Is the company communication designed to be asynchronous?
  6. Are there equal promotion opportunities for remote employees?
  7. Are you expected not to use your private devices for company tools?
  8. Do you have weekly syncs with your team and manager?
  9. Is all information available written or recorded?
  10. Does it encourage physical get togethers?

These questions build on three pillars which make a remote company a great place to work: Trust, communication and empathy. Each of those pillars has multiple questions aiming to understand any remote job in that context.

1. Offering equal pay for equal work

This is one is so crucial and yet many remote companies get it fundamentally wrong. Gitlab has their infamous compensation calculator as an example of this. You have two people doing the same job but if you live in Romania and your colleague lives in the US at Gitlab you could earn a lot less.

Great remote jobs offer equal pay for equal work

From an economic standpoint this makes sense because you’re paying the person well enough to outcompete their other job opportunities. It’s the “fair market rate” for that geographical region. But that’s treating you, a human being, like an asset. In a non-globalised world it might even make sense. But your world and the world of your colleague are not completely isolated islands.

Let’s say you can both afford to save 30% of your salary and you go on to invest it in, say, the S&P500. Then after your career you’ll go and retire in Spain. Guess who’ll afford a better lifestyle? That’s right, the US citizen. Location based pay simply exploits employees of weaker economic regions. It’s common in our world but that doesn’t make it right.

The other approach is to pay people for their contribution and to treat all humans with equal respect.

2. Fully remote team

It’s certainly possible to make a partly remote team work well. But it’s way easier for fully remote teams where everyone has the exact same access to people and tools. So if you want to increase your chances of finding the best remote jobs you should look for fully remote teams, if not companies.

Have you considered looking for a new job that enables you to work remotely? Are you dreaming of becoming a digital nomad or simply to move to an area with lower cost of living?

3. Benefits and vacations are independent of your location

How do you balance the difference in national labour right laws and public holidays? The easiest is to simply give all employees enough vacation to decide themselves which holidays they want to celebrate and for how long. Everything else is an HR policy nightmare and an interference of the company in your personal life.

4. Fully remote hiring process

Some conversations are much simpler when sitting in the same room. But a company that hasn’t figured out a decent remote hiring process and relies on sometimes inter-continental travel to find the best talent probably has a lot of other remote work related problems not figured out.

Try to avoid remote companies that haven’t adapted their processes to a remote world yet.

5. Asynchronous company communication

It’s way easier to communicate when you’re co-located in the same office. We humans had a long time to figure that out. Being spread across timezones and sometimes wonky internet connections dials up the difficulty.

To keep the communication channels functional it’s important for a remote company to establish asynchronous communication channels where people can listen and react when it works for them.

Most situations are not that urgent that they justify notifying your co-workers at 4am. In a remote company where your colleagues might be in completely different timezones that is far more likely to happen. The simplest asynchronous communication tools is of course email – but there are more alternatives like Twist. Having communication channels set up poorly can turn great remote jobs into a nightmare.

6. Equal promotion opportunities

Even though a remote job can improve your quality of life it could also be a big hit on your career prospects.

If all of management is located in one office it is more likely that the next promotion will go to someone sitting close to them and not you, the remote employee. So keep an eye on who gets promoted. The easiest way to do this is to look for who already got promoted in the past.

7. No use of private devices or tools necessary

Does your remote company expect you to have access to work emails or other communication tools on your private device?

This can totally ruin your work life balance. Besides it can be a security risk which might make you liable. Like you wouldn’t bring your own desk and chair to an office, don’t plug your work credentials into your private phone. And don’t work for someone who expects you to do just that.

8. Regular synchronous communication

We already spoke about the importance of asynchronous communication in point five. However, that does not mean that all communication should be asynchronous. There are valid reasons for synchronous communication. This could be a regular team sync or social call or maybe your 1on1 with your manager. We’re social animals after all and it’s important for building relationships to have direct conversations with each other.

9. All information written or recorded

Great remote companies understand the need for documentation. This is another pillar of asynchronous communication and information sharing. When companies don’t record or document their meeting outcomes and decision making you’re putting people who can’t participate at a disadvantage. People will start guessing and use incomplete information to put the pieces together.

10. Getting together physically

Having the time and space to get together without an agenda is important to build trust within the team and company. Doing a great job is much more natural when you feel like you belong into your team and your company. Great remote co,panies understand this need and encourage it.

Remote first companies offer working from wherever you want.

What’s a remote first company?

A remote first company is built around the idea of having a remote work force rather than one bound to a physical office. What’s necessary for a remote first company is that they trust their employees and that the work can be done from anywhere in the world like software engineering.

Remote companies on the spectrum

You can place remote companies on a spectrum. On the one extreme are the companies paying the most competitive rates for the best talent globally. They are maximising their talent pool and are fishing for the top 1% of all engineers. They value their team and their product highly enough to want to get the very best in their field. Such companies usually solve intricate technical problems and the software engineering is core to their business.

On the other end are companies looking for the cheapest way to get their job done. Such companies are trying to maximise their cost savings. For them their IT department is a cost factor to be optimised. Technology and software is not at the core of their business. They might be operating in old, highly competitive industries with low margins.

Other aspects of good remote companies

So when looking for a remote job it’s crucial that you can place the company and the job on the scale. You want to work for companies towards the high quality/high rewards pole and avoid the low quality jobs. The Joel test for remote jobs helps you identify such. Here are a few more signals you can observe.

A high-quality remote-first company takes pride in their engineering. They might run an engineering blog, host meet-ups, supply their engineers with nice benefits and put their technology in the spotlight. Some employees might be speaking at conferences or be highly present on engineering blogs and platform such as StackOverflow.

Should you work for hybrid remote companies?

Most companies have not started as remote first companies. They realised along the way if they don’t open up to the possibility to remote work they might lose their best talent and not attract any new. So they started moving with the flow. But are such hybrid remote companies a good place to work for?

The good part of a hybrid remote company is that you are protected from many annoyances like a daily commute, mandatory physical presence at certain events and the like. But this comes with a bunch of downsides to your career.

The invisible citizens

As a remote employee of a hybrid remote company you have less opportunity to be seen. Not being seen means not being able to advertise your achievements or building relationships within the company. This in turn reduces your chances to advance your career in this company as it’s hard to get a hold on those career benefiting high profile projects.

At the same time you’re missing a lot of insights into the company. The things you might casually pick up at the coffee machine never reach you. This in turn reduces your decision making power because you want to be working on what pays the company’s bills, not the failed projects about to be axed.

So a hybrid remote company is only a good pick if your whole department is remote or if you get a chance to work on projects with high visibility and business impact. Otherwise you run the risk of putting your career on ice.

Good companies with an okay remote culture will typically score 5-7 points on the Joel remote test.

How global competition amplifies the best and the worst of remote work

Since the pandemic remote work is flourishing but to be able to make the most of it you have to find the right company for you. When you apply for a great remote-first company you’re entering competition with the whole world. But if you make it and get the job the rewards are even sweeter.

The Joel remote test helps you spot great remote jobs

You can use the Remote Joel Test when you’re trying to identify the best remote jobs. The 10 questions help you assess a company’s level of trust in their employees, how much they care for them and how they communicate. Finding and getting great remote jobs is hard but when you get a job at a truly remote-first company it can be very fulfilling.