Since we launched publicly in 2013, we’ve been a (mostly) remote team. We have a head office in San Francisco, but we have employees all around the world—Australia, United Kingdom, Argentina, and more.
It’s a great way to grow and scale a company. We can recruit the best team members for our company, no matter where they live.
But there are challenges that come with managing a remote team. Some of them are the same that you’d face with an on-site team. Others are new and need different approaches.
We’ve created a remote team with members across the world at Continu. And we’ve learned a lot of lessons in the process.
Here are some of the most important.
Remote Management Has Some Unique Difficulties
Management is difficult, no matter what field you work in. You need to bring a diverse group of people together and get them aligned around a common mission and values.
And that takes a lot of work.
Different personalities, work styles, motivations, and backgrounds mean people work differently. And as a manager, it’s your job to get them to work together.
Remote work adds a few complications:
Effective communication is already something you should be hiring for. It’s not as common as you might hope. Throwing different locations and different time zones into the mix only makes it more complicated.
This is especially true if you’re working on tight deadlines. It can be incredibly frustrating if someone on the other side of the world isn’t awake to approve your work or contribute their part of a project.
Those time zones also cause other problems. It can be hard to get into a good flow when the people you’re working with are just waking up or winding down their day. Scheduling meetings with more than a couple people is nearly impossible. And creating a feeling of cohesion requires more conscious effort.
Workplace politics and conflicts happen. Especially when you throw a lot of motivated, dedicated people into a high-stress project. It happens. And that’s fine.
But trying to resolve those conflicts when you’re spread around the globe can be difficult. You can’t be in the same room as other people, the time zone issue comes up again, and people from different cultural backgrounds can have different expectations on how to handle and resolve conflict.
Just like handling conflict and communication issues are important, so is celebrating your wins. Creating a positive atmosphere and recognizing great performance is crucial for morale.
People need to know that their work is contributing to the bigger picture and moving the company toward its goals. It’s harder to see this when you’re working with a distributed team. You can’t take your team out for a beer after work, so you need to get creative with your recognition.
There are plenty of other issues that you’ll run into, but these are the big ones that we’ve come across in our growth journey. Let’s take a look at how we’ve solved them at Continu.
Solution #1: Hire the Right People
This is a big one. In fact, if you get this right, you’ll have a much easier time dealing with any of the issues above.
We hire for passion. That helps us find people who are self-motivated, good at managing their time, and adaptable. We prioritize people who will fit well into our company culture, don’t have big egos, and can show that they’re driven and can do the work.
(We’ll talk more about company culture in a moment.)
And, of course, we look for people who are good communicators. That’s especially important. If they’ve worked in remote positions before, that’s a bonus.
All of which have helped us build a great team.
We also place an emphasis on hiring generalists. As a growing startup, we all play many different roles. And bringing on people who excel in this environment is key.
Where do we find these great people? Often through the usual channels, like AngelList and Authentic Jobs. But we also get hundreds (sometimes thousands) of monthly applications from our career page. Which opens up a huge talent pool.
And we rely on our team members to make recommendations and keep an eye on their networks. It’s a great way to attract the kinds of people who will be a good fit here at Continu.
In short, as we say on our Careers page, we hire people who get sh*t done. That’s what it comes down to.
By having the right people on board, I trust my team to bring up the issues that they come across and help find the right solutions. It’s not all on management to keep an eye out for potential issues. We’re all in it together.
Solution #2: Define Your Culture Early
No matter how big your company is, you have a company culture. What culture do you want for your company? Have you given it any thought? If not, it’s time to start. In fact, you should know what you want your culture to be before you start the remote hiring process.
Once you have an idea of the culture you want for your company, you can make your personnel decisions based on it. We hire (and, if needed, fire) employees based on their alignment with our culture.
If they’re going to make a positive impact on the company in a way that fits with our culture, we make it a priority to get people on the team.
Solution #3: Empower Your Employees
People need to make a huge number of decisions every day to run a company. With an on-site team, you can have a small number of decision-makers.
Need to get approval for a blog post? Swing by the marketing manager’s office. Want to clear a customer service issue? Bump it up the chain of command with a quick phone call.
Remote teams often don’t have that luxury. Communication is slower for distributed teams, so your employees need to be empowered to make decisions.
We make it clear to our employees what they have the power to decide on. So when those decisions come up, our people can make a decision fast. It keeps us from getting bogged down with small issues. We can continue to move quickly, which is a priority for us.
Take some time to think about the decisions that need to be made in your company. Can you delegate any of them, or eliminate any steps required to make them? If you can, do it.
Solution #4: Set Clear Expectations
You want to see certain outcomes from your team. And if you’ve hired the right people, they want to deliver.
But you can’t expect them to meet your expectations if they don’t know what they are.
So tell them. Make your expectations clear. Tell your team what you want them to do, how you want them to work, and what you want them to accomplish (unless you’re comfortable with a more hands-off approach; that’s fine too).
I make a point to clarify Continu’s expectations on company culture, effective communication, and collaboration—even beyond specific performance goals. It helps set the tone from the beginning.
Be sure your employees know what you expect them not to do, too. If there are certain behaviors you don’t want to see, tell the team. Again, if you’ve hired the right people, they’ll respect those expectations and do everything they can to meet them. It’s that simple.
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
Solution #5: Set SMART Goals
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
Every team needs goals. But when you’re working remotely, effectively communicating and tracking those goals is even more important. You can’t pop into someone’s office and ask how a project is coming, so it’s beneficial to have good tracking in place to keep everyone on the same page.
We set sales and marketing goals based on number of leads generated or sales opportunities, and track their progress monthly and quarterly. We also have goals on the product side—does it meet the client’s needs and expectations? What is the required timeline? These are translated into SMART goals that we can track and measure effectively.
Using the right tools makes this a lot easier.
Solution #6: Choose the Right Tools
With the number of communication, productivity, project management, and learning management tools out there, it’s easy to go overboard. You can end up with dozens of apps that few people actually use.
That’s why we stuck with a minimalist approach to our tools. Less is more. We stick with tested and proven tools for communication, collaboration, and project management, and we don’t try all the latest trends.
We’re big fans of Continu (duh), Trello, Google Apps, Zoom, Salesforce, Jira, and Slack, and they’ve worked well for us. So we use them a lot.
Your remote team might prefer different tools. That’s fine. But we recommend finding what works and sticking with it. And if you can use tools for more than one purpose or get them to integrate well, even better.
It also helps that we can use our own product for onboarding and ongoing training and development!
Solution #7: Over-Communicate
Communication is at the root of many problems faced by remote teams. Which is why I maintain a policy of over-communication.
I make a point to be as clear as I can about every message to my team. I might mention it on Slack and reiterate over email. You might post something to your Trello board and bring it up in a weekly call.
The point is that you can’t guarantee alignment if you haven’t communicated your vision or mission correctly. It’s a reasonable expectation that people will check their email. But if they haven’t, you’re facing a gap in communication, and that can cause problems.
So make sure that you over-communicate in a remote setting. It might seem like overkill. But you’ll find that it heads off many problems before they begin.
Solution #8: Go Above and Beyond for Your Team
This is advice for every manager—but it might be even more important when you’re working with a remote team. Paying a decent wage is great (especially if you provide health benefits, too). But you can do so much more to show your appreciation for your team.
For example, we promote a balanced lifestyle at Continu. I don’t expect anyone to work 14-hour days. I’d much rather that they have a productive 8 hours and then pursue their other passions and obligations.
I also expect that everyone takes some time off at least quarterly.
And we know that little things matter. So we buy our new employees laptops. We share Kindles and books. Our employees get coffee, t-shirts, and stickers. We even share company Spotify playlists. We even ensure that each team member gets their birthday off.
We do everything we can to make sure our employees feel like part of a team and that they’re appreciated. You’d be amazed at how much of a difference it makes.
Plan for Remote Management Success
Maybe more than anything else, it’s important to keep a remote mindset when you’re building, scaling, and running your company. Don’t expect it to be like an on-site organization.
Because we were built as a distributed-first team, we integrated remote work into our culture and expectations. That’s helped us maintain a course of success throughout the life of Continu. And it’s something we’ll keep doing in the future.
Of course, we’re still learning new ways to better manage and empower our team. As we grow, so do our ideas about remote management. Which is how we like it.
Do you work remotely or manage a remote team? What challenges do you face? And how do you deal with them? We’d love to hear how your team manages these challenges.