Although more and more people are ditching their 9-to-5 cubicle jobs for an officeless one, from an employer’s point of view, a remote setting may not be that easy to manage. What’s more, with IBM’s failed attempt at introducing the remote policy, entrepreneurs got even more skeptical about it. On the other hand, there are also success stories that prove how much you can gain from running your business with remote teams.
I’ve worked with people remotely almost all my professional career and the last nine years I’ve spent running a profitable business with a fully distributed team. Thus I can say, from personal experience that working with a remote team can be done. Here are a few tips that I gathered over the years that helped me successfully manage my remote team:
Look for curious people with a doer’s attitude
Just like not every business will manage to work officeless, not everyone can work remotely. Some people are just not cut for this — or at least not yet. However, you need people who can now. What to search for in the people you interview?
Emphasize on personality traits as you’d do on their skills set because being able to work remotely, is, in the end, a mix of traits. I have found that a good remote worker is communicative and with a past experience that proves they are proactive and take matters into their own hands. They are curious and active learners to keep up with how their industry evolves — change happens fast no matter the industry.
Given the flexible nature of a remote position, it’s important for people to be organized, to know how to juggle their personal and professional life despite having different working hours and being in different locations. Furthermore, they should have agile minds and strong analytical skills to make decisions with a little prodding from you.
Lastly, look for independent and optimistic people. Working remotely can sometimes feel lonely and your employees should be able to know how to avoid this trap and keep their heads in the game.
Communicate beyond time zone boundaries
Communication is one of the main issues of why remote teams fail to work. When you work in the same office and have the same working hours, it’s easy to turn to your colleague and ask for their feedback or have a face-to-face status meeting.
With a remote policy, different locations aren’t that problematic, as technology gives you so many options to push these boundaries. Your biggest challenge is working in different time zones if your team has different working hours. Technology helps here as well, for sure, but I can’t say it’s easy to find the sweet spot in ensuring your team is as involved as it would be if they were to work in an office and respecting each member’s schedule.
The key is to shuffle master shuffling between synchronous and asynchronous methods of communication. You’ll want to rely more on asynchronous means such as email or Slack. For example, I’m a fan of doing the daily standup in writing instead of scheduling a time and place. My team and I “meet” weekly on a (video) call for a more in-depth status and every two weeks for new planning.
Or, you can start the brainstorming session in Slack and leave the thread open for a set amount of time for everybody involved to give their input depending on their working hours. Once the idea takes shape, move to synchronous means like Skype calls or Google Meet conferences to go in depth. Whenever you need real-time communication, make sure, though, that you involve only the people who are relevant to minimize distraction for others.
This juggling keeps communication efficient and reduces time spent in long meetings.
Build trust to foster autonomy and flexibility
As an entrepreneur managing a remote team myself, I can tell you that one of our main wishes is for our employees to be independent and able to do complete their tasks in time even when working in different time zones. However, it may be difficult to ditch your typical office-based management style if you’re not used to this new setting.
With cubicle jobs, seeing people working alongside you gives you a sense of ease and control, which you won’t get when managing a remote team. Instead, you may be tempted to get more involved in your employees’ activity.
Micromanaging is a serious issue when it comes to remote work. For one, it clashes with the main reasons people choose to work remotely, flexibility and autonomy, and two, it comes from a lack of trust.
You can’t buy trust, you need to build it and the way to do that is by making it a core company value, along with transparency and accountability. It also helps to foster a relaxed, informal atmosphere and staying clear of bureaucracy and politicking. We went as far as ditching hierarchies for a flat management model with light processes in place, just enough to streamline our work and avoid process overhead. Everything still runs smoothly.
With trust, you encourage autonomy. For instance, for my team, it worked inviting each member to pick their tasks and own them between milestones. This gives them the freedom to work whenever, however, as long as they get the job done well and on time for the team to move forward. And I have no complaints thus far. However, between milestones, make sure that everyone has the support they need from their peers or seniors — don’t mistake trust for delegating.
Encourage outside-work bonding
I’ve found that one thing that helps teams work better together is the bonding they do outside of work. Coffee breaks, lunch breaks, commuting together, going to a colleague’s birthday party, are all events that foster social connections between employees and help build a close-knit team that, in the end, performs better.
But believe me, it’s highly unlikely for remote workers to have a Skype coffee break or to cross the country to go to a festival together overnight, isn’t it? Not to mention, that some people feel acutely the absence of an office life atmosphere. That doesn’t mean that a remote policy is doomed. There are ways around it, besides organizing an annual company gathering or getting together at industry conferences.
For example, use Slack, or whatever collaboration tool you employ internally, to encourage discussion that would otherwise take place around the water cooler. Have a dedicated channel where people can share random jokes, personal events, non-work related facts, or local news. This creates a subculture of jokes and helps employees get to know each other better.
Although it may sound scary to manage a team that’s spread over several time zones and cultures, I’m here — as one of the many — who can tell you that it can be done with a little preparation. Start by putting together the perfect team. Find ways to organize and communicate that allow them the level of flexibility you agreed upon, and look for ideas to bring them together while keeping them physically apart. If both of you meet halfway, you can make the remote policy work for you and profitably at that.