An Executive’s Guide to Managing Remote Teams

By Charlie Patel July 04, 2017 0 Comments
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We are a remote team. Our team members span across several states in the USA, Guam, India, Philippines, and Armenia. We also have some folks in South America and Europe that help us occasionally. Throughout my other ventures, remote teams are also the norm. Therefore, we have first-hand experience in the good, bad, and ugly side to managing remote teams. While there are certainly downsides to a remote team, we’re advocates of being able to work remotely.

As business grows, you may consider hiring remote team members but not exactly sure what it entails or what to expect. You’ve likely heard horror stories about freelancers not keeping up their end of the deal and wonder if there’s a better method for hiring and managing remote teams that actually works.

You’re definitely not alone. In fact, companies such as Buffer, Zapier, and Autommatic are all proponents of remote hiring. The future of how we will run our businesses is gradually shifting towards remote teams. Therefore, it’s time to tap into the vast talent network that exists both here and abroad to create stronger and more diverse teams that can deliver. The concept of maintaining a physical office is quickly becoming diluted and unnecessary for tech-focused businesses. Tomorrow’s workers will be a mix of work-from-home employees, international freelancers, and digital nomads. 

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Remote work has become mainstream in the past few years. Within the corporate landscape, the idea of remote teams might have been impractical in the past, but it’s slowly becoming adopted to acquire or maintain high-quality talent. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 23% of employees are reported to perform their work remotely. Apart from being popular in the United States, remote work is also booming worldwide. According to a study, nearly half of employees who telecommute wish to increase their remote working hours, while 79% of those surveyed whose field of work involves handling information said they work from home.

The Cons of Managing a Remote Team

While remote teams are praised for their forward thinking, managing such a team is not without its challenges. To set expectations, let’s explore some of the downsides associated with remote teams.

1) Good Office Employees Might Be Bad Remote Workers

The pool of prospective employees is huge, they may be fresh grads or specialists with highly technical skills who can handle just about anything you throw at them. While these prospects maybe highly skilled in technical areas, other characteristics such as

  • attitude problems
  • a lack of motivation
  • poor personal discipline

may end up becoming a source of frustration for you. Working from home might be attractive, but it’s not easy. Employees have to contend with numerous distractions when working from home. There are also employees who may be good at their work but have trouble being as effective in less collaborative environments. Being productive in a remote environment is a challenge, and in some cases, employees have trouble developing the skills and mindset necessary for success in this “self-starter” environment.

2) The Challenge of Different Timezones

It can be more difficult to maintain productivity when your team is working around the globe. For example, a geographically dispersed team working together on a website project may consist of:

  • Web developers from India and Singapore
  • a designer from Nigeria
  • a Filipino content writer
  • a British SEO consultant
  • and a project manager from the United States

Since everyone is in a different timezone, it will be difficult to collaborate and communicate if you don’t have clear ground rules. Working in different time zones can become a major dilemma in certain situations. For example, the content writer has some questions that need answers before proceeding. However, the SEO consultant will not be online for a few hours. This impedes the writer’s progress and delays the project overall. In contrast, with an in-house team, you have the luxury of knocking on a team member’s door or stopping by their desk if urgent responses are needed. To navigate these type of challenges, we use content production strategies to stay ahead of the curve. This affords us more run time between what we need at the moment and what we are producing. 

3) Company Culture and Team Dynamics May Suffer

Working remotely means you’ll be spending at least eight hours behind a computer while your team members do exactly the same thing. Sure, you may socialize over Slack messages during breaks, send emoji reactions when a task is accomplished, or even crack jokes during a Skype session. However, it’s much easier to build a company culture if everyone is in a physical office with face-to-face access to each other. When your team is local, everybody gets to know each other, some become friends, and communicating and displaying the company’s goals and values becomes easier. This is much harder to achieve with a remote team, takes longer, and requires more effort due to the higher turnover of team members.

Another concern has to do with how certain personalities, jokes, communication styles, and expectations may be perceived from country to country. For example, challenging your superior’s opinion in an open forum is not common in Asia, but welcome here in the States. As such, it’s important for remote teams to acknowledge these cultural differences and value systems while reinforcing the need for constructive feedback from all team members.

In my opinion, any dent in the lack of community amongst team members is a significant blow to the eventual success of a company. Consider and calculate the impact of this point carefully.

Bonus Read: How company culture shapes employee motivation

4) Accountability Can Be Difficult

Due to the nature of remote teams, and the impact it has on the team mindset, holding such employees accountable for their performance may be difficult. Naturally, managers will operate under the fear of losing employees over time whereas employees or contractors may not view remote work as permanent employment. Communicating and requiring a certain amount of work from responsible remote workers is easy, but that’s not necessarily the case for everyone.  

Consider how easy it is for a remote worker to simply ignore your emails or disappear completely. Therefore, it’s important to make each person feel like a valued team member. Let them know the broader risks and consequences associated with failure to deliver assignments. Hold them accountable. Additionally, ensure you have good processes and documentation to expedite the on-boarding of a replacement should the need arise.

5) Distractions are Greater

One benefit of a workplace is the ‘work‘ mindset it naturally generates. Separating work and personal life is difficult in today’s always-connected world. However, working from home brings more distractions to surface.

Depending on each worker’s circumstances, a host of new distractions become present. For example, parents may have to constantly battle between work productivity and childcare. Others may struggle with the freedom to manage their own time resulting in lack of productivity or focus. Distractions can include household chores, surfing the web, or just playing games.

I’m working from home, I can easily find 10 – 20 different things to do that are not work related. It’s a constant struggle to stay focused and certainly requires discipline (I fail many times every day).

The Pros of a Remote Team

Right now you might be wondering why anyone would choose to have a remote team. Don’t worry – there are just as many advantages. More importantly, an effective manager can identify methods and processes to ensure the team is performing well in spite of the obvious challenges. Let’s begin addressing the pros of hiring remotely. 

1) More Talent

For me, the greatest advantage to a remote team is access to more talent. When you’re not limited by location, a whole new pool of talent becomes available. Some of the best designers, developers, and marketers I work with today are all remote parts of the world, and are a part of top website design agency. It’s common for my team to be performing development activities in New Jersey, India, and Armenia, while designs are prepared in Dubai and Russia, and great content is being written in the Philippines. Limiting ourselves to a small town in New Jersey cannot provide the vast network of talent with the same depth of knowledge available worldwide.

2) Time is More Flexible

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Sometimes, having a remote team means you and your employees can work when you want to. This enables you to invest time in other tasks.  One of the worst things about working full-time in an office can be long commutes. On average, millions of people spend two or more hours a day commuting to work. That’s crazy! I’d rather have that be 2 hours of productivity. Combine a couple hours commuting with an eight-hour work day and employees are investing 10 hours into their job, which leaves them little time to spend with their families or friends. These long work days also limit employees ability to handle other responsibilities. A five-day, eight-hour work week makes it difficult for employees to take a trip to the DMV or get one of their kids to a doctor’s appointment. Eliminating commutes, allowing flexible work times, and having a lenient holiday policy has been a welcome perk for our team. 

3) Lower Costs / More  Savings

Having a remote team is more cost-effective in the long run, particularly in the case of startups who are trying to make ends meet. There are numerous expenses involved in running an office-based company, including:

  • Rent / Real estate. Renting an office space, particularly in cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles can be extremely expensive. Since remote teams don’t need a real office to accomplish their tasks, you won’t have to spend thousands of dollars a month for office space (usually no bigger than a small room).
  • Electricity bills. When running a traditional office, you’ll need to pay utility bills for internet, maintenance, cleaning, etc.
  • FF&E. Office furniture, fixtures, and equipment is highly overrated and overpriced. 🙂 Trust me, I ran a coworking space for 5 years.
  • Gas and General Vehicle Maintenance. The money you and your team spend for gas bills during two hour commutes to and from the workplace will add up in the long run. Working remotely from home means you won’t have to fill up your car as much, and general upkeep will be less frequent (hopefully).
  • Coffee and other amenities. As a business owner, you’re tasked to provide certain amenities to your employees, like free coffee, and at times, even food. If you have a remote team, this means you won’t have to set aside a budget for this and can instead opt for team outings and annual team building events.

It all boils down to the amount of money you will end up spending and earning. Having a remote team will help you offset your expenses in the long-term, enabling you to pool more resources into worthwhile endeavors like hiring a sales person.

4) Happier Team

A remote team that is running smooth like a well-oiled machine tends to be happy with the perks that come along with such an environment. The flexibility, the trust, and additional time to spend with friends or family or to partake in hobbies leads to a better personal and professional life. 

Tips For Effectively Running a Remote Team

Working from home certainly has its challenges, so you need to find ways to try and offset the cons noted above. Stick to the basics:

  • The right people. It’s always best to hire remote employees with good people skills, who can work on their own, are responsible, and take initiative. These qualities, paired with the proper expertise, will make for an awesome team that’s ready to tackle the most difficult projects.
  • The right software/tools. Remote teams rely heavily on communication and collaborative software. You need to pick the best software and tools for your team and instill the discipline to actually use it. 
  • The right culture. Even if you’re islands, states, or continents apart, remote teams need to develop a culture that focuses on and encourages team collaboration, goal setting, and quality work.
  • Set the standard. Take the time to orient your remote team members. Create protocols and standards that help them understand what is expected.
  • Don’t forget to be human. Humanize the remote environment and don’t be afraid to just say hi or drop by on somebody’s Slack channel.

10 tips to make your remote team more effective

What do all of the companies we just mentioned have in common? They’re all very flexible about how they manage their remote teams, and they have several tips to make managing remote teams easier. You can follow suit by employing software or tools that foster good communication and a collaborative virtual environment. Here are some great tools and tips to incorporate:

  1. Slack. This is arguably one of the best communication and collaboration SAAS to date. Slack creates open lines of communication and channels employees can use. Slack also integrates with other apps such as Zapier, Salesforce and more to make your workflow smoother.
  2. Asana and/or Trello. These software tools are designed to give easy access to updates regarding daily tasks and they make it easy for team leaders and project managers to assign work.
  3. Skype / Google Hangouts. These communication tools can be used for video conferences and remote team video meetings. Slack’s capabilities are limited to text-based chat (in the free version anyway), so using one of these other apps may be necessary.
  4. Have Specific “Online” Times. Although there are companies that let employees work whenever you want, it’s a good idea to have times set aside when your entire team is online. This reduces the occurrences of having to wait several hours for much-needed replies – constant communication ensures that the company keeps moving forward.
  5. Simulate Social Interactions. Create outlets for employees to chat formally and informally. Since your employees work from behind a computer most of the day, it’s likely that their social lives have taken a hit. Compensate for this with informal and fun conversations to keep everyone happy.
  6. Ask for Reports. We recommend creating a spreadsheet for your employees to fill out with the details of their workday. This increases accountability and makes employees feel involved.
  7. Screen Sharing. Since you can’t call a team member from across the country over to your desk to ask them what they think about your code, screen sharing software is a must. Programs like Skype, Google Hangouts, and Zoom offer this feature.
  8. Document Processes. Having documented processes with clear hand-offs and roles / responsibilities outlined keeps things from becoming chaotic in your remote world. Everything should be documented, and if it’s not, then assign that to someone to be included on the task list.
  9. Track Your Team’s Hours. This can be done through reports. You’ll want to track the number of hours employees work to ensure that they’re investing enough time in each project. This becomes even more important if you’re paying your employees at an hourly rate.

10 Places to Find Great Remote Workers – Since many startups offer remote work, Angel List’s jobs section is a great place to post jobs and find experienced talent seeking remote work.

LinkedIn – The best part about recruiting on LinkedIn when you’re looking for remote workers is that you can see a prospective employee’s job history. Try looking for people who have worked in remote positions before.

Flexjobs – Flexjobs is a subscription service for job seekers, but you might be surprised to learn that it’s FREE for employers to post on the site. The potential candidates are highly educated and the site is well maintained. – This is another site that exists specifically to connect remote workers with companies. However, does not charge remote workers a fee in order for them to browse companies that are hiring.

Outsourcely – This site verifies professionals from all over the world, and has a pool of over 300,000 members. There are no commission fees if / when you make a hire.

WFH.IO – This site focuses mainly on digital and tech jobs. If this is the niche you’re in, WFH.IO could be a great choice for you. It’s only $50 to create an account and start posting jobs. – The big elephant in this list and definitely one that we’ve used ourselves. This is a great site to find talented freelancers, whether you want to hire somebody for a one-time job or a recurring gig. – This site helps connect remote employees with remote employers. While you do have to pay to list your remote job on Working Nomads, they’ll promote your listing via social media and their newsletter to make sure people are seeing it. – Looking to specifically expand your growth team? Growth Hackers has a large community of marketing professionals actively seeking opportunities. – This site lists remote jobs in nearly every niche. While job seekers are required to pay a subscription fee, all job postings are free.

Running a company primarily with a remote workforce can be tricky, but if you do it right, it can be successful. All you need is the right process, a positive attitude, and most importantly, mutual trust between team members to get work done.

More Insights from 10 Companies Running Remote Teams

There are several well-known companies running remote teams and thriving with employees all over the globe.  Here’s a list of 10 companies who rely on remote teams to run their day-to-day operations:

#1. GitHub – GitHub has 478 employees working across the globe. GitHub’s Chief Business Officer views having a remote workforce as a multinational advantage.

“In order to serve the needs of multinational customers, companies need to look at their workforces multinationally as well.”

-Julio Avelos, CBO of GitHub

#2. Upworthy – this website dishes out viral-worthy headlines and sharable content. Upworthy’s co-founders believe that one of the keys to motivating employees is giving them freedom.

“At Upworthy, we believe the key to motivating folks to thrive at work is a clear meaningful mission, the freedom to do work whenever and however they see fit, and (offering) a sense of camaraderie with great colleagues.”

-Peter Koechley, Co-founder of Upworthy

#3. Groove – creators of help desk software went from office space to fully remote. Their CEO, Alex Turnbull, offers a great tip on how to get to know your remote team:

“As CEO, I also do frequent one-on-ones with everyone on the team. We talk about goals and work, but also about people’s lives, interests and families. It’s my best opportunity to get to know our team on a personal level.”

-Alex Turnbull, CEO of Groove

#4. Automattic – the company behind WordPress is 400+ strong from 40 countries around the world.

I decided it’s [hiring remote employees] a great idea and everyone should do it. I’ll keep shouting from the rooftop because everyone should do it.”

-Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic

#5. Buffer – the amazing folks behind social media sharing app are always serving the internet community valuable info. Currently, it has 42+ employees working remotely. Buffer’s CEO had this to say about developing company culture amongst remote employees:

“It is my belief that working to develop a great remote working culture is an investment that will pay dividends for decades to come.”

-Joel Gascoigne, CEO of Buffer

#6. Zapier – apart from being one of the most awesome work automation tools available, Zapier is a leader on how to run remote teams.

“People are able to work where their families are, where their lifestyle suits them. That ingrains a lot of loyalty towards an organization that allows them to kind of live that type of lifestyle that they deserve or that they want.”

-Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier

#7. CloudPeeps – this company helps you find the best digital marketers worldwide. But hey, we’re sure they’ve hired some of the best for themselves!

“You are more mindful about the people you recruit and the team you build, which I think is a huge benefit. Remote work suits a certain kind of autonomous individual who is comfortable managing and motivating themselves.”

-Kate Kendall, Founder and CEO of CloudPeeps

#8. HelpScout – if you run an e-commerce website and constantly deal with customers everyday, then you’re probably using Help Scout, a leader in customer service software.

“One of the best decisions we’ve made at Help Scout is to build a remote culture. The twenty people on our team hail from eleven states and four countries (including the US).”

-Nick Francis, CEO of Help Scout

#9. Basecamp – is another collaborative tool creator, and one of the early thought leaders on remote work – they’ve even published books about it.

“On the employer’s side, what’s great about hiring remote people is you have the pick of the world. You can hire the best people in the world.”

-Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp

#10. Baremetrics – a developer of subscription analytics software. The company is also adept in building a remote team.

“Building a fully remote team gives you access to talent that would otherwise be completely out of reach.”

-Josh Pigford, CEO of Baremetrics

Working remotely comes with significant advantages and disadvantages but when managed effectively, it can be a formula for success. Many companies are already shifting to such a team structure. Are you currently managing a remote team? Share what works for you, and what doesn’t, in the comments below? 

Charlie Patel

Charlie is always up to something. As a serial entrepreneur, he is CEO of Triberr - a content marketing suite and influencer marketing platform, - a leading podcast host and directory, 99 Robots - a digital marketing & WordPress development agency, Ampfluence - an Instagram growth agency, and several other ambitious startups. He likes random emails from users, loves story-telling, but dislikes being in the spotlight.

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