Remote work is the future, how to help your distributed team thrive

Remote work, definitely a trend I’m sure we have all been hearing more of. Globally many companies are going remote-first, fully distributed or changing their current people strategy to allow remote work as a viable option and we are talking more than just a WFH policy.

There are several reasons people advocate for remote work such as removing the unnecessary commute, access to the global talent pool, cost reduction (though while operational overhead costs may be reduced, there are new costs associated with going remote you should budget for), higher employee engagement and improved lifestyle for your employees.

Personally, I’ve been working remotely and managing a distributed team for 6 months now. While I would say this is the first fully remote experience I’ve had, I have many years of experience working with and managing offshore teams across the SEA region. This definitely helped make me aware of ways to work with people who are not based in the same office as myself, some of these fundamentals I want to touch on today.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend a fantastic conference, based out of Bali, Indonesia called ‘Running Remote’. Attended by some big names from the remote work movement, 24 inspirational speakers who were well placed to speak to us about their experience with remote work. Some of the names involved were:

  • Nick Francis, Help Scout
  • Andreas Klinger, Angel List & Product Hunt
  • Marcie Murray, Shopify
  • Anthony Pompliano, Morgan Creek Capital
  • Marvin Liao, 500 Startups
  • Zack Onisko, Dribbble
  • Ken Weary, HotJar

Pulling what I learnt from this conference along with my own learnings from living it, these are five areas I would make sure you focus on ensuring success with your remote team.

1. The right level of process and systematisation

With a remote team, more than likely you are working across multiple timezones, you will communicate via chat or video calls and it’s unlikely you’ll have the same level of interpersonal communication you’d have in an office. Which means you won’t have someone nearby you can tap on the shoulder for advice or you won’t be able to keep an eye over the new guy to make sure they are on the right path.

To get around this, you want to have more documentation and guides on-hand your team can easily refer to. You want to train your team to document everything they do as second nature and ensure team members are rarely left stuck on how to approach something. If they are stuck, this needs to be brought to your attention quickly so it never happens again. The SCRUM framework could be useful here to provide clear steps to structure the team process, along with a daily stand-up where everyone mentions their current blockers. Don’t forget a wiki-style documentation tool to allow quick creation of documents, along with easy access and search functionality.

2. Trust and autonomy

You will need to trust your team if they are remote. You may be concerned they might use remote work as an opportunity to reduce the level of effort they put in, this is not a good way to think. If you want to embrace the remote work way, you must trust your employees, not worry about their minute by minute actions and measure their performance based on their output.

To minimise any concerns they are not being productive, make sure your companies mission and vision is clear, also ensure the team objectives are understood with clear deliverables. Build-in as much automation into their workflows as you can. Ensure they can make their own decisions, move quickly and not constantly rely on you or other team members to help keep momentum. This also relates to the previous point of well-documented processes. You may also want to look into OKRs or something similar to give a standardised framework for goal setting and company alignment.

3. Culture and team building

Keep it fun. You will not have the luxury of going for a drink after work with colleagues, or regularly doing other group activities, make sure everything is not too serious. Look at ways to keep it light-hearted, if a lot of your communication is over chat, it could be easy to fall into only communicating task lists, making it very robotic. Don’t forget there are still real people behind those words, some of them may miss the interaction they enjoyed from being in a physical office previously. 

If you are using Slack, there are some add-on apps you can investigate to help encourage this, kudos style apps to show appreciation and don’t forget giphy to add a little silliness to some messages.

While you cannot interact in person with each other every day, it’s still important to make sure you meet your team in person and spend some time together. You will learn a lot more about a person this way. Organise company retreats and meet-ups, the logistics of this will depend on your overall remote structure. I’ve heard it said many times, a happy company creates happy customers and you need customers or there is no company.

4. Communication

Communication underpins all of this. If the team is not communicating well with you and each other, then none of the above will matter, however, if you address the three above points the communication should be easier and more free-flowing.

Encourage non-work conversations, ask random questions on team calls to allow everyone to get to know each other better. Don’t be alarmed, ultimately all of this will benefit the work that is produced because everyone will feel more relaxed with each other and those difficult conversations that need to happen will flow more naturally. Encourage regular calls, team leaders and managers need to speak with their team regularly individually and together at a regular cadence. 

Make sure there are company-wide calls allow the leadership team to communicate the mission and the vision while opening up the floor for your employees to ask questions. All of this come’s down to a shared understanding, the more people are on the same page the more likely everyone will unite.

5. Cultivate more awareness

To ensure you can pull the remote business off, you will need to know what is going on. Previously you could easily walk around your office, talk to a few people, read people’s body language and get a good sense of the general mood of the company. You must tune into what’s going on, using your intuition to understand how your employees are doing without the ability to observe a room.

Make sure you regularly check in with your employees, provide a self-booking calendar employees can book in to speak to you one on one if they wish. Make it easy for feedback to be provided. Again, you could make use of Slack here with feedback bots or just mail out a simple form on a monthly basis. Then there are several ways you can structure but ultimately you want to keep on top of the heartbeat of your company before it starts beating erratically.

There is no one size fit’s all here for remote work, you’ll have to tweak this for you but ultimately this is becoming a widely accepted business model. I encourage you to experience this if you haven’t already and see how it could work for you.

Hope the insights were helpful and gave you some ideas on how to fine-tune remote work for your team or company. If you have any questions, feel free to add me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Experienced & Written by Geoff Wellman