There are two types of distributed teams in today’s workforce: Teams that were built to be completely distributed, and established companies that are becoming more flexible.
For both types of organizations, building your team and growing your company can seem like a herculean task, with a million different problems and opportunities pulling managers in different directions. Fortunately, the solutions to building a great team and getting everyone on the same page are rooted in the same business principles that have been around for decades.
Here’s what 17 experts have to say about structuring your remote team wisely.
Hire the Right People
Experimenting with a distributed team will fail quickly if you surround yourself with the wrong people. There’s a certain type of employee that flourishes in remote work; you just have to know what to look for.
Wade Foster, Co-founder of Zapier, has literally written the e-book on managing remote teams. He continues to learn as his team grows from six remote workers to more than 20. One of the most important keys to success is hiring people who you trust to do the job well.
“Hire doers,” he says. “You don’t have to give doers tasks to know that something will get done. You’ll still have to provide direction and guidance…but in the absence of that, a doer will make something happen.”
On top of doers, look for people who are comfortable on their own. Mark Feldman, CTO of Findmyshift, explains in a Tech.co article that people seek out remote work because of the independence, and a manger who checks in 20 times a day eliminates the trust formed between both parties.
“Give your remote teams the twin gifts of breathing space and faith in their abilities,” he says. “Trust them to deliver the goods the way they are meant to be and put away the urge to micromanage every small activity.” After all, if you’re hiring doers, you shouldn’t have to worry about work getting done.
Remember, not everyone is fit for remote work. Anita Bruzzese, author and workplace specialist, explains that companies often put employees in situations where they’ll struggle when they think they’re offering an incentive.
“If you stick a young and social employee in a remote location, you are likely to soon have an unhappy and uninspired worker,” Bruzzese says. “…Someone who gets ‘easily distracted by shiny objects’ also is probably not the best candidate to work from home.”
While you’re creating a fun company culture by opening up your remote work policies, it’s important to monitor performance for the first few months to make sure your good people aren’t falling behind.
Create an Attractive Culture
The current work environment is dominated by perks, and if you can’t lure top talent then you will struggle to hire and retain young talent.
Monica Zent, CEO of Foxwordy, explains that companies have two options: Create lavish campuses like Google, or open up the business plan to encompass distributed teams.
“While both models may make sense…going the distributed route will allow you to keep costs down, give employees flexibility and choose from among the best workers in the country, regardless of geography.” Distributed models are ideal for growing companies that can’t afford office space, much less free lunches.
Introduce your culture to your employees the second they’re hired because the first few weeks for any employee are crucial for setting expectations for the work and the culture. Dan Radigan, Senior Agile Evangelist for Atlassian, explains that each new hire for the company must write an intro blog post for their internal collaboration tool.
“The blog introduces the new hire professionally as well as personally (hobbies, interests, family, etc.), which really helps bridge the gap between offices,” Radigan says. “The more we know each other as people, the stronger we are working together as teams.”
This early introduction will create good habits in the long run. Black Pixel CEO Daniel Pasco finds that a healthy culture goes a long way in successfully managing remote teams.
“A large part of our management’s responsibility is embodying and communicating this sense of shared organizational culture within each team,” Pasco says. “Even though people are in other parts of the world, they are still tethered by this common thread.” This inspires people to keep coming back, even if they’re receiving better offers from someone else.
Establish a Solid Company Structure
Along with your culture, you need to establish how your company is run and define processes for various issues.
For example, how do you rate measure success? Josh Steimle, Author of Chief Marketing Officers at Work, only focuses on results for his company and employee performance. While he tracks hours for client billing, his employees only need to dedicate as much time as they need to get the job done right. “We don’t care what our team members are doing as long as they’re producing the results we do care about,” Steimle says. “…This means stripping out arbitrary rules like a 40-hour work week or 2 weeks of vacation.”
Andrea Loubier, CEO at Mailbird, is a major champion of remote work, and has seen companies thrive by creating healthy environments for their employees. “Distributed work, when managed right, is much more engaging and team members are dedicated to what they do,” Loubier says. “They even end up logging more hours, but not because they have to, because they want to and are simply driven by the company’s vision.”
This is the dream for CEOs everywhere, and the hard part is building such an environment. Further, even the best cultures will flounder if the employees don’t feel as though they’re benefiting from working at the company.
One way to continually engage employees is to grow their skillset and give them opportunities to grow. Kyra Cavanaugh at Life Meets Work recommends implementing a rotating leadership plan, where individuals have a chance to stretch their wings.
“Most members of high performance teams are fully capable of leading themselves and the group, but unfortunately they don’t often get a chance,” Cavanaugh says. “Rotational leadership allows each team member to lead the team.” This can be as simple as letting them lead a weekly call or internal project.
Encourage Managers to Build Connections
Just because a team is distributed doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have a strong organizational structure and leadership plan. Jessica Howington at Flexjobs has found that management can actually make or break a distributed company.
“Managers will be the first line of defense, or offense, when it comes to culture clashes, time zone restrictions, trust issues, and mindfulness of the distance and disconnect that can occur,” she says. This requires them to constantly be aware of their team members engagement levels and solve problems when they’re struggling.
The team at Mind Tools created a guide for remote workers and identified ways to tell whether remote employees are unhappy. This includes reduced output, few ideas, and abruptness in calls and emails. “With remote workers, you don’t have the advantage of watching body language for signs of trouble between team members. The same is true for managing the morale of individuals.”
Managers, therefore, have to develop a deep understanding of their teams so they can identify when something is wrong early on. As a manager, it’s your job to understand your team on a professional and personal level.
Many experts highlight the importance of creating a “water cooler” feel within the company. Justin Reynolds at TINYpulse recommends starting the week with an easy icebreaker to start team discussions. “Instead of covering only work-related issues, ask a personal question each week (but nothing too personal), offer your response to it, and encourage your employees to share their stories too.” This question can range from stories about the holiday weekend to inquiries about favorite pets or bad date stories. The point is to get people sharing and bonding.
Communicating is Key
The team at 18F found that it’s better to over-communicate than under-communicate for remote work to be a success.
This over-communication ranges from regular client updates to written email recaps after the call. As Kate Garklavs, a content designer, says, “Because I’m remote, I’ve taken to sending short, proactive progress updates to my teams…even when daily standups aren’t required.” These proactive communications build trust with her managers and employees, who are confident that any news or struggles will immediately get shared.
One way to improve communication is to learn how your team listens. Elise Keith, Lucid Meetings co-founder, recommends trying different meeting formats until you find the sweet spot. This will keep people engaged until you find the right format that works for your team.
In one example, teams submit written updates that the team quietly reads together beforehand. “While it may seem odd to get a bunch of people together to read in silence, this is actually a very efficient way to make sure everyone sees the updates,” Keith says. “Most people read much faster than they talk, and many never bother to read written updates unless they have to.”
Find the Right Tools for the Job
Luke Ryan works for Mokriya, a software company that has more than 40 distributed employees from Arizona to India. He believes the rise of SaaS platforms for communication and project management have significantly helped remote work go mainstream.
“For less than the cost of renting an office space you can now sign up to a range of digital tools that allow you to manage an entire business online,” Ryan says. “We focus on transparency both internally and externally so we rely on our tools to ensure everyone can keep track of what’s going on.”
What works for some companies won’t work for others, but there are a few best practices that most companies swear by. The team at Lighthouse strongly recommends using video to pick up on nonverbal cues that teams miss out on via email, chat, and even phone calls. “Whether you’re gauging their reaction to a change in plans, or just trying to judge their overall mood that day, video tells you way more than an audio-only call or chat will ever reveal,” the Lighthouse team says.
Alex Turnbull, CEO and Founder of Groove, admits that tools are important for remote teams, but they’re not the reason teams succeed. It’s the culture, values, and team members that bond together to achieve a common goal that matters.
“We set both quarterly and yearly goals for every team at Groove,” he writes “…This ensures that our work each day has purpose, and keeps us aligned; we’re a lot more likely to make smart decisions about what to do each day if we know that the team’s specifically defined success relies on it.”
The key to successful distributed team management is flexibility. Managers and employees should be comfortable trying new things, as long as they trust that management is keeping their best interest in mind. Together, both parties can work toward what’s best for the company, and continue learning together.