In a former life, I co-founded a design firm in a small-ish city in Switzerland. We eventually hired our first designer, then a second, and moved into the 3rd floor of an old building smack-dab in the center of town.
A small, beautiful office. A small, highly skilled team. A small, lucrative customer base, all within an hour’s drive of the office. The farthest we ever outsourced anything was Zürich, which was 90 minutes away.
Fast forward 7 years. I send a message @channel on slack, and get this in return:
OK, admittedly, I was traveling, and Slack got at least one other IP wrong. But you get the point.
So why did I go from being all in one room to pretty much being all over the world?
The initial reason was…money. Twenty dollars an hour just sounded too good to pass up for an experienced full-stack developer. But over time, even though money is still a factor, we’ve come to appreciate our remote team for a multitude of reasons. The cultural diversity is awesome: between us we cover pretty much 24 hours of the day, and each one of us can work at the most comfortable place she or he can find. Having said that, working with a remote team is not everyone’s thing, and I’ve certainly made a fair share of mistakes when building this one. So, let me attempt to write up some “DOs” and “DON'Ts" for any remote team.
Prepare yourself (literature and example companies)
There are plenty of resources that should indicate whether a remote team suits your needs. If I had to pick one, I’d recommend The Ultimate Guide To Remote Work by Zapier (an awesome company, by the way).
Involve the team in hiring decisions
Just because you’re the boss doesn’t make you right. Get your team involved in the hiring process – early on. Chances are someone will spot something of importance you’ve missed.
Place a premium on communication (English) skills
I have the deepest respect for anyone attempting to learn another language – and depending on your mother tongue, English may not be an easy one to learn. But flawless writing and speaking skills in English are a must for any remote team (if that’s your main language, of course). Anything below fluency leads to misunderstandings and ultimately frustration. Been there.
Get the right tools in place
Stay connected at all cost. Luckily, nowadays there are plenty of tools to help you with that. Our top 3 are:
- Slack: Our digital lifeline. Some 98% of all communications go through here.
So much talking…
- Geekbot: Daily standups are important. They hold us accountable and provide a quick overview. We’ve tried many bots for Slack, and Geekbot is the only one we all liked.
Yes – some people take it less seriously than others…sometimes.
- Zoom: Finally, video conferencing that works. Same here, we’ve gone through most of the popular options, but they all fell short in some aspect. Zoom does it all – and does it well. The free version limits us to 40 mins per call, which suits us just fine – since we think anything more than 30 mins is too much meeting anyway.
All the beautiful faces behind GoNitely…almost all of them, anyways.
Speak with individual members often
This is one where I personally failed, and still often fail. People are not made for isolation. They need to feel included, which especially in the early stages largely depends on the founder, CEO or whomever is in charge. Talk to your people and do it often – feel their pulse. They are your company.
Set overlapping presence hours
Spanning 24 hours across your team is great – but make sure you have some overlapping hours. With us, the hours are usually 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. PST. Being at least virtually in the same room at the same time helps us stay in touch and feel more like a team.
Have weekly all-hands meetings
Another one I failed at. Do these, no exceptions. We’ve started with irregular meetings, then monthly ones – but that won’t cut it. Now we meet at 10 a.m. every Monday – all of us. Sometimes there’s a lot to discuss, sometimes it’s short. But it’s a great way to get the week going.
Support your team with anything you can
It’s your job to remove hurdles. In a remote team, these might look different than in a normal office. Ask your team members what they need to be more efficient, what they struggle with, and where they fall short in terms of resources. Then go and fix it.
Hire too quickly
It’s 2018, and nobody has time, personally or professionally. But rushing a hire, especially a remote one, will end up costing you much more of that precious time than doing it right in the first place. Dig deep, have multiple meetings, use screening tools, have her or him do tests. Minimize the chances of a failure with any measure you can – exactly because time is limited.
Hire in too many different places
Zapier (see above) would disagree with that one – but we’ve experienced that hiring people in too many places creates isolation. We don’t need to be in the same office physically, but our productivity and team spirit have significantly improved since we started ramping up our Buenos Aires engineering team versus simply hiring talent all over the place. Multiple locations are awesome – complete decentralization is tough (at least for us).
“Just let things run”
Let’s be honest – remote work opens up a world of possibilities for slacking. Nobody is watching you all the time. You get a lot of flexibility, which is great – but there’s a risk of just letting things run their course. Stay on top of things. Keep to-do and task lists. Review yourself regularly and intensely, and ask others to do so, too. Build up that discipline – you’ll need it.
Assume you’ll feel the same groove as you would in an office
Because you won’t. I’ve worked in large, cubicle-style offices; I’ve worked from hammocks, pretending to be in large, cubicle-style offices; and everything in between. I love working with a good time on site – but I also love the flexibility and freedom remote work provides. For me, for the time being, this is great. But that’s a personal decision everyone has to make. For some, it’s the only way to go. For others, it’s not even a remote possibility. I’d encourage you to try both – and find what makes you happy.
All in all, I wish I had known some of these things earlier. I’m grateful for the patience of my team members, and humbled to be working with such an amazing bunch of talented geeks. And I can’t wait to see what our all-hands Zoom screen will look like five years from now!
What are your thoughts on or experiences with remote teams?