Dainius Runkevičius is Marketer at TrackDuck, a visual feedback tool for developers and designers that simplifies remote collaboration on web projects.
People who doubted that remote, geographically dispersed teams would ever substitute co-located ones, can finally be proven wrong. With a rapidly increasing number of tech companies employing remote employees from around the world (as you’ll see below), this shift in work practices could change how companies function in the 21st century.
Many of us, including myself, have been quite sceptic about remote teams for a long time. We have never thought that online communication can ever replace the traditional face-to-face approach to managing people. Especially once a company scales.
I assume the biggest reason for this narrow-minded point of view was our false perception of business as a solely hierarchical system and the lack of experience working in companies that rely on a truly flat management structure – probably the management model of the 21st century.
My point of view changed when I joined TrackDuck, an early stage-startup that, like a majority of them, has been a purely flat and partly remote organization. Being part of this type of organization I have realised that when company’s processes aren’t paralyzed in a rigid corporate hierarchy and employees don’t get caught up in micromanaging, remote working doesn’t seem to be impossible. In fact, eventually I didn’t feel the difference at all whether a person I work with is in house or not.
I was deeply curious to discover what are the fundamentals of successful remote teams. Is it the technology you arm your team with? Or is it more about the team itself and the culture within it. Does just being flat guarantee a successful shift from a traditional office team to a dispersed around the globe one?
To answer these questions I looked at the biggest remote teams in the tech world and listed the key, shareable aspects that can be easily transferred to any team.
Strong relationships and culture
Trust and respect are keys to forming a team no matter what the environment is. When a team is dispersed around the globe, however, those become the critical facets of a successful collaboration.
In working with or managing people thousands of miles away you are not able to micromanage your employees or take a closer look at what they are doing by physically watching them. That is, you just can’t keep track of everything.
As a result, developing strong relationships with employees and establishing a culture based on trust, respect and transparency plays a large role in building a successful remote team.
In their book Remote: Office Not Required, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier, co-founders of Basecamp, underline the importance of a culture and strong relationships in a remote team. One of their suggested ways to tie up a remote team is to arrange periodic meetups. They can be as infrequent as once or twice per year. Regardless of their frequency, their essence, however, helps a lot in forming a remote team.
In addition to period meetups, every month the co-founders of Basecamp and five random employees talk about life. “No work talk allowed”, they say. In this way, Basecamp manages to bridge the emotional gap between the in-house and remote teams and connect them in a more personal way.
According to Jason Fried and David Heinemeier, what is not recommended in building a remote culture, however, is to hire one or few remote employees into a company which work practices are built around a co-located team. Don’t get him wrong, it’s ok to have a mix of employees working at the office and remotely, however you should find the right balance.
People fitting in
The culture is just a framework, a set of rules and norms people obligate to follow in order to maintain balance within a team. The core here, however, is people. The people who fit that remote culture you are building and are motivated enough to get things done.
As said before, in working with remote teams you are not physically able to micromanage people and keep track of everything they do. As a result, their personality and attitude to work is a key to getting the most out of them while working remotely.
Wade Foster, co-founder and CEO of Zapier, suggests to hire doers who you can really trust. That is to say, hire people who are motivated, autonomous, organized and, above all, who can get things done without being micromanaged.
Another important aspect of forming a great remote team is to hire people who don’t care about social facets of a workplace. It is not about whether a person is an introvert or extrovert. It’s their attitude to remote working. As Wade Foster suggests, people must thrive in that environment.
“It’ll be important to try to create some social aspects with a remote team. But the truth of the matter is that remote workplaces are usually less social than co-located ones. People on remote teams need to be ok with that. And the best remote workers will thrive in this type of environment.”
People can feel detached and lonely pretty fast. Be sure you hire people who are aware of what is like to work in such settings.
Technology that allows real-time communication
Whether you work in office settings or remotely, communication is of paramount importance to effective processes. Of course, at first glance, face-to-face chats and meetings seem to be irreplaceable with any app or tool. With today’s technologies, however, it really is. And the successful working practices of remote teams of 50 or more people is sufficient proof of that.
Today’s web provides us with a variety of different apps and tools that are designed to simplify every aspect of remote working, replicate standard office settings, and on the whole, make work more efficient no matter how far you are from each other. That is to say, technology that allows real-time and persistent online communication is what you need in order to enhance processes within your remote team.
Zapier, for example, has found Sqwiggle a useful tool to replicate the traditional office settings. Contrary to the traditional video chat tools such as Skype, Sqwiggle is a video chat room that takes a picture of every person connected every 8 seconds. If you want to chat with anyone onboard, you don’t need to schedule a call. You just click a button and start a conversation.
Like in real office settings, you see everyone and can approach to chat whenever you want. In fact, Foursquare have had something similar to that, a constant video stream between offices and called it “The Portal”.
Virtual chats are probably the main medium of remote communication. Talking of them, most remote teams, including Buffer and Zapier, rely on the two main tools to handle those: Slack and HipChat. Both of them allows private chats, has different channels and integrates with most other project management and collaboration apps.
These apps usually eliminate a need for emails for internal communication and, on the whole, make remote communication way more convenient. On top, as a result of integrations, you can connect these tools with many different apps and use it not only as a communication channel but also as a dashboard to keep track of your team workflow. Once you get a notification from Trello that a task has been created, for example, you can immediately take action and discuss it with your team.
As for virtual meetings, which also plays a major role in communication within a remote team, the biggest majority of startups including ourselves rely on Google Hangout. Hangout is a feature-rich, and free tool to arrange different kinds of virtual meetings.
In short, there are dozens of tools designed to replicate every aspect of face-to-face communication. The tools mentioned in this article are just the most popular and designed mostly for the very basic needs of remote communication. If you need anything more specific take some time and Google it.
Specifically for feedback on live websites or website prototypes, for example, we use TrackDuck, which allows us to discuss websites and design files in real time, and perfectly integrates with Slack.
Transparent and clear processes
For people who work remotely it’s a lot harder to feel the pace of a company. As a result, companies who employ remote employees should make their processes as transparent and clear as possible. That helps everyone within a remote team not to get off track and understand their role in the process better.
The first leg in making your processes more transparent is to hold periodic virtual meetings – no matter the format is – during which everyone in a team updates what they are up to.
Zapier, for example, arranges weekly group hangouts, where everyone goes over what they are working on and what are the key problems they are facing with. “Every Friday at 12pm PDT we get together for a weekly Google Hangout to summarize that week’s events. Each team member goes over what they are working on and what roadblocks they are running up against…”, Wade Foster explains.
In addition to weekly hangouts, all Zapier team members make daily updates with Idonethis and have one-on-one chats on a monthly basis – something similar to what Basecamp does.
Contrary to the Zapier approach, Joel Spolsky, CEO of Stack Exchange, and his team make weekly updates via email. According to the guys from the Osper Technology blog who interviewed Joel Spolsky, every Monday everyone at Stack Exchange emails their direct manager a status update of what has been done the previous week, what were the main struggles and other important details.
Another important aspect of making processes more transparent is to use simple and more visual project management tools.
For this, Kanban-based project management apps work pretty well. If you are currently looking around for any of those, you should give Trello a try. It is one of the simplest and most popular apps of this kind.
Ryan Carso, co-founder and CEO of Treehouse, explains in his blog why his team has switched to Trello and how they use it: “We’re now using Trello for all our company projects. We switched from Asana because Trello is more visual and it’s a little easier to see how things are progressing. They’re both great tools – we just found the left-to-right kanban-style layout of Trello very easy to parse quickly. Each card is an atomic todo and you can see it moving through various stages to completion.
As you may have noticed, different companies employ different practises to keep everyone updated and make processes as clear and transparent as possible. However, like everywhere else, there is no single rule for that. As a result, experiment yourself, try different approaches to manage processes within your company and find the one that fits your team best.
Wrapping things up
Remote working can make the office a thing of the past over the next few decades. But in order to form a successful remote team you need to put a lot of work and effort into it. And still, most companies agree that managing people remotely is harder than in traditional office settings.
As discussed before, to move things forward focus on building a remote culture, hiring the right people, utilizing the technology that allow real-time communication, and making your processes transparent and clear.
Those are the fundamentals of a successful remote team according to people managing them.
This post is part of our contributor series. The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily shared by TNW.