At Workfront, we work as a distributed team — meaning most of our team members work remotely in locations ranging from London, Poland, Dallas, Los Angeles, Armenia, Indianapolis, and more. As we’ve grown, we’ve picked up some things along the way that have helped us improve our processes, create a great company culture and consistently do good work.
By encouraging remote work, we can choose from a much larger pool of talent. Team members can work wherever they’d like, and we operate much more efficiently (along with having a happier workforce). We use video calls via Zoom, allow people to work from home or a coffee shop — more exotic locations such as a beach house or another country. It frees people up to truly enjoy their work.
That being said, remote working can pose some challenges, and it’s always great to hear from others who are successfully operating as a distributed team on ways they ensure their team is being productive and enjoying their work as well.
We decided to interview some CEOs who are managing a distributed team and doing so quite successfully.
1. Hire people you trust and trust the people you hire.
2. Set expectations for what will be accomplished. Manage that and not based on hours worked.
3. Go all in. Half remote/half in office doesn’t seem to be a good way to work.
— Wade Foster, CEO and co-founder of Zapier
We look for people who get excited about the idea of working from anywhere and can see how work is going to evolve in the future. Not everyone is cut out for working remotely though, so you have to be careful here. Ideally they’d have some experience working on a remote team. This gives them a better perspective and appreciation for the problem we are solving.
We actually don’t have many tools or processes. Our own tool solves the hardest problem, which is seeing team members’ faces, building culture, and generally feeling less lonely. Time zones can still be a hurdle, but we do the best we can to have overlap. We also have several email aliases for things like marketing, product, and IT, which we use to keep the appropriate people in the loop on various topics. These have proven to be extremely helpful.
We do have a standup on Mondays to review the previous week and discuss the week ahead. We also have a standup on Fridays but we actually just use this to hang out and goof around, it’s a great team builder. Things like this are really important when you’re not all together in an office.
Finally, we meet up in person from time to time. It’s always great to have real, in-person face time, though some of our team members worked together for quite a while before actually meeting each other in person.
The general theme for us has been culture. We all see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices every day. We haven’t felt the need for many tools or processes because we keep in such close touch all throughout the day.
— Eric Bellier, co-founder of Sqwiggle (now working as a world traveler)
We absolutely love the remote structure thing but one thing we underestimated was how fun it was to be together in person. The team still loves the remote culture but wanted to see each other more often. Because of that, we try to meet in person as a team for a week in a cool part of the world. Sometimes we rent a beach house or a cabin somewhere, and it’s exciting for all of us to look forward to that. We’ve found it’s the best balance.
We use getflow.com for management and screenhero for chatting and support. We try not to communicate via emails for anything internal. We save it for team chats on Tuesday mornings. Using flow to communicate forces us to form actionable items for each other based on ideas that are well thought out and not just emails that are half-baked.
— Paul DeJoe, CEO & Co-Founder at Ecquire
The biggest thing is over-communication. You have to communicate much more proactively, better and more than you’d think is enough to make up for the physical and psychological distance between everyone. That can mean anything from being more up front about bringing up problems, taking time for informal chat, and even making sure that you’re relating emotional context and what you’re thinking about so that information exchange and transparency isn’t just about robotic reports and plain facts and figures.
We use iDoneThis to stay in sync every day without having to schedule and stop to have more meetings, Hipchat and video hangouts for real-time discussions, and tools like Hackpad, Asana, and Trello, that are open to the whole team, for collaboration. We look for people who can communicate well, meaning they write clearly (since so many of the tools are asynchronous and text-based), can indicate when a message is received so that others aren’t left hanging, and puts in effort to communicate even when they’re having trouble with something (since it’s natural for many of us to go quiet when we’re struggling).
— Janet Choi, Chief Creative Officer at iDoneThis
When looking for remote staff, we look for expert talent who are capable of self directing and people who are great communicators. Micromanagement is impossible in a distributed work environment so we need people who capable of thinking about the big picture and self-managing to some extent. Communication is also really important. If you don’t communicate well at a distributed company, you don’t exist. And as a client services business, we try to find people who are not only good written communicators, but also have good on the phone and in person.
As for tools, we’ve tried just about all of them. In the end, good old telephone conference lines have been the winner. Humans are wired for real-time communication. It’s what we’ve been doing since the first grunts of cavemen. And the telephone is still the lowest common denominator solution for long-distance communication. We use Google Hangouts and other tools a fair amount, but when we’ve got a very large group (like our weekly 40+ person team calls) or where we’ve got client communications and we want to reduce the chance of technical failure, we always come back to the phone.
I think the different types of communication and what information they convey plays a lot into building a distributed culture. Obviously, written communication is a huge part of our work. We exchange a lot of email and messages through email and project tracking apps. But we also use Slack for more real-time written communication and Yammer as the company’s water-cooler — a social network for the company. Baby pictures, cat videos, and venting about client work are all an important part of human connectedness and it’s important to make a place for that.
We also round out the types of communication with verbal in the form of a lot of audio (telephone) and video conference calls, and in-person communication at company and department retreats and client on-sites. In-person non-verbal communication precedes even the grunts of cavemen. It gives us a deeper understanding of people such as sense of humor, sense of style, body language, social structures, and (in the case of our clients) things like office politics. Better understanding builds better trust. And better trust builds a better culture.
— Jeff Robins, CEO and Founder of Lullabot
Conclusion: Embrace Remote Work
As you can see, most founders, CEOs, and managers stress the importance of communication and team building. Working remotely has a lot of benefits, but it takes a certain kind of culture to pull off successfully. At Workfront we’ve found that meeting up every so often is a great team building exercise that allows us to flow much more naturally while working in our environments of choice, even as we’re spread out across the globe, and being able to communicate with each other through Zoom, Slack, and so forth makes everything run much more smoothly.
There are plenty of tools to choose from that can help with remote working, but the most important thing is to hire people who fit your culture and ensure they have the necessary discipline, communication habits, and willingness to work remotely to ensure things are continuing to get done right, especially as the company expands.
How does your team work remotely? What kind of people do you hire, tools that you use and interesting activities that your team partakes in?
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