One of the most important skillsets in today’s digital world is knowing how to work with remote teams — because today’s office has no walls. The walls began dissolving when technological advances shifted us from manufacturing to more knowledge-based work. More walls fell away when we moved our business operations to the cloud: Thanks to the cloud, we no longer need to sit in a central location to get work done. This changes not only how we work, but who we can work with — and it means that companies in Silicon Valley don’t have to only hire workers from Silicon Valley.
Is it worth going remote?
Using remote teams isn’t new. Open source communities have always been fully distributed, or remote. Now the trend is becoming more mainstream. In one survey of hiring managers, 6 out of 10 (63 percent) reported their departments had at least one team member that does a significant portion of their job remotely.
My company, Upwork, has benefited from remote teams for years, hiring both remote full-time employees and contractors. Our two-person design group built hybrid creative teams using freelancers and agencies on Upwork. In one year, this flexibility enabled our designers to deliver three times more projects across twice the number of media.
Going remote lets us tap the latest skills we don’t have in-house. And our teams can scale up or down as needed.
The truth is, the world’s a big place. And sometimes when you want to hire the best, you need to look outside your locale. Companies can find great talent in less competitive markets like Columbus, Madison, and Bozeman. According to data from the Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics, Columbus, Indiana is top ranked for job growth and housing affordability.
That’s why companies like Microsoft are investing in communities outside major metropolitan hubs, including in the Midwest. Just last month, Microsoft launched TechSpark, a new civic program designed to foster economic opportunities and job creation in rural communities. Fargo, North Dakota and Northeast Wisconsin are two of the six areas where the program will focus.
Stephanie Kempka, an Upwork freelance graphic artist in the Madison area, knows first hand the benefits of remote work. When the local art studio she worked for in a small town in rural Wisconsin cut back her hours, she was left with few local options. A single mother to two kids, she turned to freelancing to help support her family. Kempka now works with companies to help design their websites, brochures, and advertisements, and she has even upskilled to becoming an Infusionsoft expert. Working remotely with companies across the U.S. gives her the flexibility she needs to support her daughter and disabled son, while allowing her to make enough money to pay for her kids to go to college.
There’s no doubt that when you work with remote teams, the relationship with your workforce changes. But creating successful distributed teams isn’t as difficult as you may think. Here are a few highlights of what we learned over the years.
Invest in the right tech tools
The individuals involved in a project may be located across several time zones. Usually, there are overlapping times when nearly everyone can connect. We take advantage of those times to communicate in real time using Google Hangouts and Upwork Messages.
Since you can’t walk over to a remote worker and ask how they’re doing, project coordination software like Asana, Confluence, or JIRA let you see for yourself at any time. Not only can you observe what each person is working on, each person also knows what they should work on next and whether they’re on schedule.
Other collaboration tools to consider:
- Video conferencing equipment or a system like Chromebox, a Google appliance that makes it easy to use Google Hangouts on a TV
- Screen-capture or image-sharing tools like Jing, Snagit, or RealtimeBoard
- Communication and file-sharing infrastructure like Dropbox or Upwork Messages
Establish appropriate procedures
Think about the entire work relationship, from vetting to communicating to paying. Remote workers require different processes than in-house employees. And the processes may change depending on whether the person is an independent contractor or an employee.
Our design team shares a brand guide with every new freelancer and employee to ensure brand consistency. They manage requests by having every business partner fill out a creative brief. Then the team funnels the brief through an intake process to track who’s doing the work and make sure it’s completed on time.
The internal resources you need may include legal help with worker classification. If you use an online platform, you may assign an internal champion to train other business partners on the technology and encourage company-wide adoption. Companies who do so often see the greatest success.
Set clear expectations
Communication is one of the biggest challenges with remote teams. Remote workers can’t stop by your desk to ask a question, and they can’t engage in casual project talk in the hallway or break room.
Before the work begins, make sure everyone involved understands the project’s overall goal and each person’s responsibilities for achieving it. Our engineering leads stay on the same page and promote cross-team collaboration by meeting regularly. During these meetings, they share recent projects, talk about design and architectural decisions, and collaboratively review all significant architectural changes.
We also prefer video meetings over phone calls or emails whenever possible. Seeing people, even on screen, helps people connect more deeply and communicate more clearly.
Discuss your vision frequently
We all want to know our work matters. Whether an individual is working in-house or remotely, they want to feel excited about what they’re working on. If a project will eventually provide clean drinking water to 10,000 remote villagers, for example, let everyone involved in the project know. We emphasize our company’s vision so that everyone understands how they’re helping other companies, and other individuals like them, succeed.
Foster a sense of community
Strong teams are built on trust. This begins with choosing the right people to work on a project, and it continues by helping individuals feel a part of a community. Remote workers can feel isolated and ignored because they’re not part of the daily office interaction. But you can boost their morale and dedication to a project by helping them feel safe enough to voice their opinions, and by recognizing their contributions.
Giving recognition doesn’t have to be elaborate. Our designers may send a team-wide email giving kudos to the writer of an article that got a lot of shares. For an extra thank you, we send talent company-branded items like mugs, or gift certificates to a local café.
It’s time companies learn how to build relationships with a remote workforce. This isn’t a skill that’ll be nice to have for the future. It’s a skill that’s necessary to navigate how companies work today.
Stephane Kasriel is the chief executive of Upwork, a global freelancing website, where he built and led a distributed team of more than 300 engineers located around the world as SVP of engineering before becoming CEO. He holds an MBA from INSEAD, an MSc in computer science from Stanford, and a BS from École Polytechnique in France.