Running a remote team
Posted on Feb 25th, 2021

It’s been one year since we have switched to a fully remote mode of working. Like for many other companies around the world this transformation was completely unforeseen for us. We have quickly learned that the worst way of working remotely is simulating the office environment by using chat and video calls all the time. Instead of focusing on the limitations introduced by the distance, we have discovered many opportunities to improve our collaboration and to manage our time in a much better way. In this post, I will share some of the most important insights we had during this year.

Invest into knowledge management

Context sharing is one of the most important leadership skills. Knowledge bases such as internal wikis or handbooks can be invaluable tools in order to keep everyone in your team in sync. Investing time in order to setup one will pay off very quickly by saving time spent on onboarding each new employee and on responding to common queries, it will also help you reveal the hidden tribal knowledge of how certain things work and put it into writing.

There are lots of great tools these days. You should pick one based on the approach that works best for you. We use Nuclino, you can also look into tools like Notion, Roam Research or just start with a git hosted Markdown-based wiki.

One important thing to consider is that you should involve everyone in your team into the process of building and maintaining the knowledge base. This way you will benefit from fresh and evergreen representation of information across company.

Learn to communicate asynchronously

Successful remote teams always prioritise asynchronous communication. It’s type of communication where immediate response is not expected. Does this sound like an email? Well, yes and no. Email is just a medium for sending and receiving messages. What is more important is how your team members are using this medium.

Expectations management and clear writing are the main skills to cultivate among your employees to achieve thoughtful and organised exchange of information. If you are looking for a way to start, look around for successful use cases that might already exist in your company. For example, most engineers in your company are probably already using asynchronous tools such as Pull Requests for code reviews in their daily work. Support or helpdesk tickets are another good example.

Prioritising asynchronous means avoiding real-time conversations through chat or video calls as much as possible. It is not intuitive at the beginning, but reducing amount of time spent on live interaction creates room for deep focus and meaningful work. This is especially true for the makers in your company - developers, designers, copywriters etc. This distinction is covered well in the famous article by Paul Graham.

Share the company goals and the progress clearly

In a world without a physical office it is crucial to keep everyone aligned on current goals. Make sure you share simple and clear goals with everyone. Regularly update your team on the progress that the company made against these goals. Other than providing a direction, this is also an important motivation booster. Seeing the big picture helps everyone understand their roles and contributions much better, which blooms a self-driven work culture in your company.

You can use different techniques for defining goals and tracking them. Objectives and key results (OKR) is a popular approach for this. As for tools - it can vary from a spreadsheet or a Trello board to a set of specialised services. In general, try to keep it as simple as possible and only add details to it if it is absolutely necessary.

It is also important to have recurring company update sessions to share highlights, acknowledge failures and celebrate wins. A monthly or bi-weekly “All Hands” event is a good way to do this.

Know your team and prevent social isolation

Managing teams remotely is a challenge that requires a major advancement in leadership skills across the company. Having sense of current mood of your employees requires a much more structured approach rather than a casual 1:1 over a coffee. These days there are many great tools and methodologies that might help you to build an environment of trust, honesty and growth for your remote team. Check out solutions like Officevibe or KnowYourTeam, there are also plenty free resources online. Make sure you have a company-wide HR strategy and a systematic approach for implementing it.

Another important challenge is to maintain and develop a sense of community within your company while working from various locations. This can be achieved by regular meet-ups based on interests, random sync-ups and platforms for off-work discussions. All these activities should be done voluntarily and the best way to organise it is to distribute responsibilities for them among different people in your team.

Track all the work

Tracking all work is very important in an environment without live collaboration. Tracking doesn’t mean time tracking, but rather registering every chunk of work that is agreed to be done. Verbal-only agreements can cause lots of problems when working remotely. Even if it is a small favour that will take a day of work, having that data point will help to plan and organise resources more efficiently in future.

For Engineering team we use a simple framework where we split all work we do into three categories: projects, surges and small improvements. You can read about our approach in details in this post: Three types of work.

Learn from others

There are great companies out there that are run by remote teams for many years. It’s definitely worth learning from their experience. Some of these companies have shared many valuable resources on the way they organise work and and some even made their employee handbooks available for everyone. Below are some links to start with:

We are still early in our journey of building a successful remote first company, but the progress we have made so far is truly rewarding. Working remotely made us organise our work in a more mindful and sustainable way. It made us learn to collaborate in a more thoughtful way. As result we now enjoy our work more than ever.

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