Remote work has been a topic of discussion for many businesses in recent years, but little did we know that we were about to put all our hypotheses and reservations to the test. Since social distancing orders have been put in place, a huge portion of our workforce has transformed their homes into workplaces and are trying their best to manage this new work environment. This is also a huge adjustment for those managers who are used to managing in person teams. Sure, this work from home thing may not be forever, but I think we are going to see more situations like this arise in the future or see a handful of employees want to work from home following the return to normal.
I asked some individuals in the NextView network who have experience in managing remote teams to tell me about their takeaways to share with managers who may be adjusting in today’s climate. There was a lot of mention of keeping your team engaged via one on one meetings and making sure that collaboration is as seamless as possible. They discuss ways they engage with their remote employees and keep culture and team cohesion alive and well. Check out their advice on how best to manage a hybrid, or fully remote team, below.
Meet our experts:
Jessica Meher – Angel investor, startup advisor, and founder. She worked at Invision, which was entirely remote, with 500 employees.
Max Goldman – Founder and CEO. Max has managed remote teams at 2 companies.
Ed Aten – Founder and CEO at Merchbar, manages 15 full time employees and has a full team of 60.
How do you handle managing remote team members differently than your in person ones?
JM: Typically, with remote workers, you need to establish a more regular cadence of check-ins since you’re not seeing them face to face in an office where impromptu conversations can happen. Even a 10-15 minute check in is fine, I suggest allocating some time to just talk about life, and not all about work (which should be happening with in-office staff, too, but it’s easier to let this slip with remote). Talk with employees about how they like to communicate and how often (some might be overwhelmed w/ email and slack, for example, especially if slacking all night). Also, as a manager, make sure you’re accessible or set an open-door policy or “office hours” time so people can find you easily, or let employees know when you’ll be online.
EA: We make sure to not do anything globally important to the company without doing it in a format that is available to our remote employee.
MG: It’s mainly a communication thing. You have to make extra effort to check in with people via slack, or jump on a video call during the day even if it’s just to say hi. The more recently you’ve started working together the more important this is. I have 2x weekly 1:1’s with my direct reports, though we often skip them if nothing important to discuss – in addition to daily standups and random daily check ins. If I don’t hear from someone, I’ll ping them. Accountability is especially important in the remote context.
We set goals in standup for the day, and monthly goals that we review 1:1 and as a team. We’re relying on tools that make collaboration easier – in particular – Miro, Figma, Asana and Notion are our backbone. You have to get more comfortable with working asynchronously and these things help.
How do you encourage remote employees to build relationships with other employees?
JM: If you have a hybrid culture (say a headquarters and remote workers), I always encourage bringing everyone together in person throughout the year, even if it’s in smaller groups or departments. You really can’t replace in-person bonding. Since the current climate makes in-person gatherings impossible (for now), there are tons of stuff you can do to bring people together. There are virtual happy hours, virtual hackathons, apps on Slack that randomly pair people together for virtual coffee chats like Donut app, Bonusly for thanking people, fun contests you can hold (like costume contests), online games teams can play, and simply walking 1:1s.
How you introduce new employees into the culture is also important, because learning who everyone is and what they do when the team is remote is super challenging. Org chart software and setting rules over Slack (like everyone needs to add their real headshot of their face and include their Title/Team and Location) is critical to helping new members get up to speed.
EA: Three things:
- Making sure that all of our leaders are invested in personal relationships.
- Ensuring we do our weekly 1-1s no matter what and spend at least 5-10 minutes on soft/personal topics.
- We typically have team-wide offsites to get together. That of course isn’t an option right now.
MG: In general, I think in-person time is really important for this – having the team in person meetings once per quarter was my plan. But, since that’s not possible these days, we are doing a virtual dinner every few weeks to hang out while we eat and mainly not talk business. I typically let everyone charge the company for their delivery dinner and then we spend 90 minutes or so just hanging out together.
What do you do to ensure communication flows easily?
JM: Survey the company at least once a quarter to ask how communication and transparency can be improved throughout the organization. Have a wiki where documentation of knowledge. Info dies in Slack/email and buried in Google Docs. Have a once a month company meeting vs once a quarter. I encourage the team to pick up the phone and chat when there are questions to topics for discussion instead of scheduling meetings days or weeks out or going on long threads over Slack. Since you can’t just walk over to someone’s desk, things can be dealt with much faster and avoid miscommunication if we just hop on the phone or a video call.
EA: In our opinion, once the right frameworks have been set up, working remote is much more conducive high-quality communication.
Here are our five defaults for communication:
- Written – 90% of conversations should be written
- Efficient – Things should not be longer than they need to be
- Effective – The goal of all communication is to share information, make decisions, etc. In everything we do, we write at the top what the goal of the discussion is.
- Async and Threaded – Unless a situation demands an immediate timely response, most topics are infinitely better discussed via Dropbox Paper or Google Docs than Slack or email.
- Public – This may be breaking as our team gets bigger, but when in doubt we default to public communication.
Are there certain practices that you have to drive a collective company culture even though people were not gathered in one place at all times?
JM: It starts by leading by example, from the CEO down. InVision invested, early on, on hiring great people, building “fun” into work, having great benefits, giving each person big responsibilities, and being transparent about company goals and performance. It’s incredibly difficult, near impossible, to have a remote culture if the company is not very transparent. One thing I loved at InVision, they hired one full-time person who’s job was “Director of Employee Happiness” and was literally our Dalai Lama and everyone’s therapist. He talked to each person once a month about anything.
MG: We hold a weekly slot for a longer 90 minute team meeting. We don’t use it every week, but in the past, I’ve used it to share an update after a board meeting, or to talk about a company value that I’m focused on. It’s kind of an all-hands like format – the purpose is to make sure everyone knows what’s going on and can hear in some depth about a topic and then to discuss that and whatever else is on people’s minds.
Do you do interviews remote? Do you have any tips for hiring someone virtually without ever meeting in person?
JM: You need to make decisions quickly and not leave people hanging. Involving a few hiring managers in the process can help assess a candidate (and try to group multiple people in one video call so the candidate is not having too many 1:1 convos), but the decision comes down to you. I ask myself “did I learn a lot from talking with this person?” and even “did I enjoy the conversation?” If you felt the conversation was like pulling teeth or wasn’t a flowing dialog, that’s telling.
MG: I typically will insist on meeting someone in person before making a decision. Often, I will double-back and meet with them a second time to follow up on questions that may have come up from the other conversations. I also rely on outside functional advisors to meet someone virtually before making a decision.
What are you doing currently for our mandatory remote work to keep employees feeling connected and supported while virtual?
JM: A lot of what I mentioned above. But checking in and “asking how are you feeling?” is important. People are really stressed out right now.
MG: One change is that our daily standup has expanded to include a bit of “is everyone okay” time – checking in on how everyone is feeling and sharing a bit of news, both personal and about the overall situation we are all in right now. I’d typically avoid that kind of thing, but in this time, I think making sure everyone feels supported and able to share is important. We are good resources for each other, and it feels like we have to be extra sensitive right now.
Any parting advice for people adjusting to remote teams?
JM: For the employee: be honest with your manager. If you are struggling with remote work, talk about it, and work collaboratively to solve those challenges. For managers: get feedback and a pulse on your team often. Be proactive in creating a better remote work environment before problems arise. You’re all in this together.
MG: Avoid scheduling everything. I think when I first started working mainly remotely, the tendency was to schedule everything to make sure it happened and then my days were just back to back video meetings. You still need time to think and work and consider. The trust you’ve built with your team is still there – I try to keep us all focused on the milestones and the mission and trust each person to make things happen.