Mass mobile adoption, the growth of online productivity tools, and the emergence of a work-from-home culture are breaking down traditional geographic boundaries when building a company. The new virtual office delivers agility and scaling advantages, while cutting down on overhead costs – but the thought of taking the leap and building a remote team can be daunting.
While technology has helped companies be lean, distributed and efficient from anywhere in the world, it also can be alienating when it comes to team communication, being productive, and growing your culture. In this post, we’ll describe four main components to successfully building a remote team: Staff, Communication, Culture, and Processes.
The single most important aspect of building a remote team is ensuring that the people you hire are “remote work compatible.” It’s critical to select staff that are self-motivated, autonomous, and comfortable working alone. As the saying goes, “Don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole.”
As a CEO or manager, you must really trust your people. However, trust is earned. One tactic that works well is bringing on a remote employee as a 90-day contractor-to-hire with clearly set goals that, once achieved, will graduate them on to full-time employment. These 90 days allow for trust to be built, but also safeguards companies from taking on the commitment of a full-time employee before they’re sure the person is a good fit.
Being (and hiring) based on purpose also helps immensely. If you are confident in the underlying motivation behind your team members, you know that they’re going to do their best towards this goal each and every day. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check in on them, but it allows you to not try to micromanage, which is a nightmare to do remotely.
Having the right team in place is one thing, but facilitating consistent, effective communication is perhaps the biggest challenge facing managers who are building a virtual team. Each team member may be a self-starter and independently productive, but – if they all have their heads down all day and fail to communicate – businesses miss out on the efficiency gains collaboration can offer.
At the center of good remote communication is choosing the right software. You’ll likely need to experiment with the different tools available — Skype, Google Hangouts, Sococo, etc. — to try and facilitate the feeling of a real virtual office. At karmaCRM, we use software called Sococo. Their user interface is actually an office (top down floorplan layout) so reaching out for a voice chat with a co-worker is as simple as clicking on their name.
Once you have a tool selected, you’ll want to establish processes for regular team check-ins. Consider having a 15-minute daily stand-up call (no longer than that) with your team. This stand-up call should recap what was accomplished that day, as well as any challenges and obstacles they might be facing.
You can use Google Docs to keep track of daily and weekly meetings so anyone from your team can review them as needed, and managers can keep track of progress. Without regular meetings where you hear (or ideally, see) your team members, it can end up feeling like you’re all alone, which can decrease team morale and negatively affect motivation and culture.
Unfortunately, even with regular communication in place, culture doesn’t just come automatically. Thanks to companies like Apple, Google, and Zappos, company culture is quickly becoming acknowledged as one of the core pillars of a successful company. Simply put, it cannot be ignored.
It’s very easy for a remote team to be void of culture by default. Much of the communication happens through email, chat, and web based tools instead of at the water cooler or over lunch. This makes it that much more important to encourage fellowship and team building whenever possible.
There is no one-size-fits-all for establishing and building a remote culture, but here are some suggestions for good ways to start.
Not to be confused with regular business communications. This is about getting to know your colleagues. Taking video meetings a step further, you can encourage virtual lunches, where each team member gets lunch and then video chats as they eat. The only rule is that non-business be discussed during these lunches so team members get to know each other’s hobbies, interests, etc.
Establish a Company Book Club
Having a book club does a few things for your company: 1) establishes a focus on constant learning and improvement within your team; 2) allows you to see and share other people’s perspectives on the material you read; and 3) keeps everyone on the team sharp and growing together. Sharing insights and seeing its benefits applied is both inspiring and motivating. Keep in mind, this only works if you have team members that willing to read, and managers that are willing to listen.
Not all companies can afford this, but if yours can, the best form of remote team building is eliminating the remote altogether. Getting together in real life a few times a year can do wonders for keeping morale and communication high. Even as a non-remote team, these getaways are critical for team building. It doesn’t need to be a role-playing seminar; it can be a vacation, a day in the mountains, or anything that encourages some type of positive fellowship and camaraderie.
Who cares about culture and communication if you’re not actually able to be productive when it comes down to it? Just because you hire the right, capable people, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to suffer performance bottlenecks when trying to get stuff done.
Of course, it depends on your business, but having web-based, collaborative tools at the center of your business operations is a great way to ensure this happens. We lean heavily on Google Docs, CRM (Customer Relationship Management), help desk software, and a few custom-built tools to help keep projects rolling and everyone on the same page. Without data and project centralization, it’s easy for team members to get out of sync and not have a clear understanding of priority.
Here’s what each of these web-based, collaborative tools offers, and why they’re so important:
Google Docs is a fantastic tool for document sharing and collaborating. By leveraging folders, sharing permissions, and allowing in-doc comments, everything and everyone is updated in realtime. We lean heavily on Google Docs for organizing and referencing company processes, following meeting agendas, outlining projects, and reporting on monthly company metrics.
The value and necessity of CRM are increased exponentially when applied to a remote team – but don’t settle for just any CRM; you’ll need a web-based CRM so everything is accessible online from anywhere, anytime. A good CRM should keep you focused on the next task at hand, help you prioritize your follow-ups, and keep everyone in sync about customer status. The right CRM tool should actually automate a lot of this for you, effectively freeing up your time for prospecting and customer service.
Remote teams need a support system that is transparent and reliable. There are many other support systems out there (Desk, HelpScout, etc), but Zendesk is our favorite. Customers prefer “self-service” options, which frees up the team to focus on proactive customer support. Zendesk allows you to deeply customize the customer-facing knowledge base so you can brand it, optimize the user experience, and ensure your customer is always only a few clicks away from the information they need. This greatly increases customer satisfaction while decreasing support tickets that your team has to answer.
Despite it’s challenges, there isn’t a passing day where I don’t appreciate the benefits of having a remote team. It’s empowering, flattening, and allows us to remain nimble as we grow. Four years in at karmaCRM, and we’re still bootstrapped. Without the cost and agility benefits of a remote team, we wouldn’t be able to do it. Our team is spread all over the world, leveraging the best talent for the best price.
If you take the leap, consider it an ongoing experiment, always subject to change and improvement. Feel free to reach out and tell me about it. I’d love to hear your story! This is my no means an exhaustive guide, but hopefully it will help you avoid a few of the pitfalls we experienced along the way. Now go forth and build the next Google. Outwit your slower minded competitors and make your business stronger by embracing change, by embracing remote.
John-Paul Narowski is the founder of karmaCRM, a simple web-based CRM software focused on small businesses. He draws on several years of bootstrapped startup experience, having built a virtual team in Ann Arbor, Michigan, before moving karmaCRM’s headquarters to Denver, CO – all without skipping a single beat.