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25 pieces of advice for managing remote teams from Buffer, FreeAgent & Mind the Product

Lucy Fuggle
25/04/19 00:09

The way we work is in flux. More of us are working remotely – and many of us who aren't yet want to be in the future.

Remote work can seem like a path to joy and profit. Employees tend to be more loyal and more engaged. Cash burn decreases significantly when you don't need an office. Your company's environmental impact is reduced.

But managing a remote team isn't easy — it requires careful consideration and some compromises, otherwise you'll end up on the road to troubled internal communication, a confused company culture, and inefficient management – and that's just for starters.

To get the real benefits of remote work, let's revisit some of the smartest insights on enabling effective remote work that speakers have shared on the Turing Fest stage over the years.

(Spoiler alert: it mostly doesn't boil down to "work from the beach"...)

Your toolkit: how top-performing distributed teams approach remote work

1. Make remote work part of your culture

Social media management startup Buffer has long been one of the best-known remote companies. At Turing Fest 2016, Buffer's director of people, Courtney Seiter, explained how the company frames its mission in two distinct halves: product and culture.

On the product side, we aspire to give people a greater voice on social media. On the culture side, we're devoted to evolving the way work happens... to creating a workplace of the future.

If you have a fully or partially remote team, take the time to consider how that affects (and is affected by) your company's culture and mission.

Learn how Buffer succeeds with a 100% distributed team

 

2. Be willing and able to invest in the kit people need

"You have to look after your staff properly," emphasised James Mayes, co-founder and CEO of Mind the Product, in Turing Fest 2018 session on making remote work more inclusive.

Before joining Mind the Product, James spent 15 years building technology teams, including the first Java development team in Europe for IBM in 1996. He started working remotely in 1999, and liked it so much he hasn't been back in an office full-time since. His pet peeve? Not giving remote workers the tools they need to do their best work:

You wouldn't suffer crappy wifi at the office, so make sure that your home workers have decent wifi provision. If your in-office designers get great screens and can see every pixel and produce their best work, make sure home designers have the same kit.

Hear what James has learned about managing remote teams

 
 

3. Build critical mass, avoid special snowflakes

"One of the most important things for me has been having a critical mass of remote workers," shared Maria Gutierrez, former VP of engineering at FreeAgent and now a director of engineering at Intercom, at Turing Fest 2017:

If you have just one or two remote people in your team, you will build friction and resentment from having those special snowflakes.

Maria gives these "special snowflakes" six months before they're looking for a new role. "They won't have a sufficient voice in the culture building process," she says. "As long as they feel like second class citizens, the balance is way off and you have a lot of work to do."

Hear Maria Gutierrez's advice for managing distributed teams:

 

4. Remove perceived glass ceilings for remote workers

If employees feel like their location is a barrier to career progression, they will move on and you'll lose some of your most talented team members, says Maria Gutierrez.

Maria advises teams to have senior roles in remote positions or satellite offices, so they understand the issues and complexities of remote work and are more motivated to fix perceived glass ceilings.

5. Be aware of remote work challenges

Distributed teams aren't without a multitude of challenges. Here's Courtney Seiter's take on how to combat the most pressing issues for employees:

  • Turning off – encourage your team to have morning and afternoon rituals to help them switch off. Make sure you have company-wide policies about out-of-hours notifications and messages.
  • Isolation – it's important to have touch-points throughout the week, including weekly or daily stand-ups and weekly one-on-ones.
  • Communication – when you don't have body language on your side, overcommunicate everything to make sure it's going through. 
  • False harmony – in a positive environment, it can be hard to get real constructive feedback. Put effort into nurturing a culture of openness and honest feedback. Don't sacrifice feedback for a false harmony.
  • Recreating watercooler moments – use a tool like Zoom for team video calls and consider peer calls between individuals from different teams.

6. Treat on-site and remote staff fairly, not equally

Office workers and remote workers both have perks and challenges that the other group doesn't have. And that's fine — but as a manager, you need to avoid giving preferential treatment to one group. 

If you have in-office training sessions, set up seminars tailored for remote staff too. Show your remote employees you care about them as much as anyone else. 

7. Have equal distribution in conference calls

James Mayes warns against group meetings taking place in the office and remote individuals dialling in. It's hard for remote workers to get a word in and be heard – and often the in-office mic sucks, too, so they can't hear everything that's going on.

Instead, have equal distribution. If you can, let each individual dial in separately. No one person should be excluded. Each person should all have a fair share of voice.

Maria Gutierrez - distributed team conference call

8. Put time and thought into planning your off-sites

You can blow your budget on a terrible team off-site, or spend a little and gain a lot. Preparation is the key to making it work. Figure out what's important – what's the real goal in bringing your team together?

Build inclusivity by carefully getting to know people's physical limitations and fears in advance. If you exclude one or two people, the off-site is completely counter-productive.

Don't make it wall-to-wall activities. Give people time to decompress. Your team may still be working, especially if they're in customer-facing roles, so make sure there's time for business-as-usual. The ROI of bringing your team together and doing fun stuff isn't easy to track, but it's there.

9. Give context to announcements on Slack

Don't make announcements without context. It might be obvious to in-office folks who can hear and see what's going on, but not to remote workers who only see one line on Slack. 

"Give them some idea of why these decisions are made," says James Mayes. "That's the kind of impact that makes people feel included versus excluded."

10. Consider body clocks as well as time zones

James Mayes shared an illustrative example here:

One person in my team loves to start work at 6:30 in the morning and she's dead by mid-afternoon, she's absolutely burnt out. Another is pretty much unable to form sentences before 10 am, but loves shipping stuff at 2 in the morning.

Don't just look at your team's time zones, get to know their body clocks. Once you know when your team works most effectively, you can plan meetings and calls around that. It might not work, but make the effort to try.

11. Don't scrimp on your tools

"Invest in the best tools you can afford," advises Maria Gutierrez. You should also make them available to everyone — not just specific teams. It's not enough to use the best tools, they need to be used properly, with readily-available and accurate documentation.

FreeAgent tools for distributed teams

Courtney Seiter shared some insight into Buffer's remote work stack:

Slack is our office. Zoom is our conference room. Discourse helps us out with team-wide announcements and bigger picture items. Trello is our project management software.

One of the Buffer team also built Timezone.io – a handy way to map where each team member is working from and check what time it is for them. 

Screenshot 2019-04-21 at 14.36.46

12. Close your office to build empathy with remote workers

James Mayes shared an informative anecdote from FutureLearn, a London-based company who closed their office for a week upon hiring their first remote worker. The new hire knew their onboarding was being taken seriously, but most importantly, the in-office team understood how that person felt. They knew what they were missing out, and how communication needed to change for that person to be understood and included.

13. Have a people-first philosophy: insights from James Mayes

Be mindful & intentional. This doesn't happen on its own. If you treat remote workers like the team you've always had, it's not going to end well.

Focus on clarity. Without consistent in-person communication, you need to be clearer than ever before. Overcommunicate and repeat yourself.

Find your blindspots. If you close your office for a week and run a 100% remote team, you'll see all sorts of gaps. Act on them.

Build empathy. It's so easy to feel excluded and lonely as a remote worker. But it's brilliant when you get it right. Communicate regularly. Take efforts to include everybody.

14. Know that perks can't fix a shitty culture

Courtney Seiter warned against participating in the "perks arms race" in tech. For years, startups have tried to out-perk the competition with ping pong, at-desk barista service, on-site massages, and whatever else is in job descriptions these days. But perks don't guarantee an engaged workforce, because engagement and happiness aren't quite the same thing:

The biggest indicator of engagement is whether people find fulfillment in their work. Perks can put a band-aid over a culture that's a little bit broken. But at the core of it, you have to understand what you're doing and why. You have to find that meaning

Screenshot 2019-04-23 at 14.28.26

15.  Strengthen your communication strategies

Remote work requires a wholly different communication style than in-office. "Most of the issues I've seen in distributed teams come down to choosing poor ways to share a point or communicate with others," says Maria Gutierrez.

Choose inclusive and respectful language, always assume the best intention, and delay judgement. "Every team can benefit from being more deliberate about communication," Maria explained. "It has benefits throughout the organisation, not just for remote workers."

16. Actually connect with your team

"It's so important to have touchpoints throughout the week... it can be really isolating to work remotely unless you plan in advance for that," says Courtney Seiter. These are the key interactions that the Buffer team relies on:

  • Standups – Weekly or daily, depending on team.
  • 'All hands' chat – Every couple of months.
  • One-on-ones – Approximately once a week with a team lead. These can follow a general script to focus on achievements, challenges, blockers, and feedback. Create a framework for coaching and mentorship to allow for continual growth.
  • Pair calls – Match up teammates from different teams to get to know one another.
  • Retreats – Get together as a company 1-2 times per year. Also consider smaller retreats for specific teams.

17. Watch the work (not the worker)... but be trusting

One benefit of remote work is the focus on the work, not the worker. The downside is that companies can focus too much on monitoring. There's a trust issue, and it's one of the reasons it takes companies so long to embrace remote working, says James Mayes. 

Book recommendation: REMOTE: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, founders of Basecamp.

Be clear and consistent about the metrics that will be measured for each employee. If they're delivering the work, trust them and allow for flexibility.

18. Give flexibility and get it back

James also recommends you encourage your team to take full advantage of working from home: "Let them enjoy the flexibility of going to the gym mid-morning to decompress, if that's their thing."

An engineer is much more likely to deal with an urgent late-evening bugfix if they know they can just sleep in the next morning without being judged or penalised. When you give flexibility, you get it back.

19. Bring your team together for more than productivity

James Mayes has a 'Team Day' once a week with his UK-based Mind the Product team. Part of the intent is to have a team meeting in a boardroom they rent in London, but it's also about just spending time together. It's not a day for massive output, but rather building connections, grabbing a bite to eat together, and feeling like a team who step up and support each other.

Maria Gutierrez is with James on this point: "The best use of facetime for a distributed team is to really get to know each other." The results show when you come home and resume working together with greater empathy and connection.

Screenshot 2019-04-25 at 11.20.43

20. Build diverse teams with culture add, not fit

Diversity and distributed teams go hand-in-hand. When you can hire from anywhere, the world's talent is your oyster. For Buffer, diversity is a fundamental part of their team's culture. Per Courtney:

We try to build products that the global community will want. That means we really need a global team to get there. If we've got a homogenous team, our product is going to suffer as a result.

As part of their commitment to transparency, the company maintains a public diversity dashboard.

Meanwhile, James reminds us of one of the key tenets of how to build more diverse teams — focusing on addition, not assimilation: 

If we honestly believe that diverse teams help to solve problems, and the use of remote workers help us hire more diverse teams, then why do we harp on so much about cultural fit? I don't want culture fit, I want culture add.

Screenshot 2019-04-25 at 11.36.01

21. Help people be their whole selves at work

"We ask people to bring their whole selves to work," says Courtney. "Flexibility is important to us at Buffer, not just in location or time and space, but in who you are... and being able to bring all the elements to work with you. If you want to sail the Atlantic, totally fine. If you just want the afternoon to go see a movie, that's fine too." 

Break your idea of how someone in your team should behave, look, and get work done. Set the parameters for the work they deliver and agree on what they're measured on. Let them work out the rest.

22. Show your work

As a remote leader, practice what you preach, encourages Maria Gutierrez. People should have a good idea of when they expect to hear from you. The way you prove what you're doing consistently is showing your work. Don't hesitate to show what you've learned, or talk about the issues you're coming up against.

23. Have a philosophy of generosity

When you take care of your employees, they take care of your business — a point of which Buffer is acutely aware. "We'll happily pay for a coworking space for you wherever you are in the world, if that's what you feel will give you a happier and healthier work environment," says Courtney Seiter.

Buffer also bases salaries on location, so you might see your salary rise and fall depending on where you go in the world. "We try to be generous and provide the best quality of life possible, wherever you are," she added.

24. Do your homework beforehand

Think thoroughly about which roles make sense to be remote. You might go all-in. You may onboard all new employees from a central location, so they know the ins-and-outs of your product and culture from the start. Some companies will view remote work as a scale rather than "all or nothing."

Having helped scale LivingSocial and FreeAgent's distributed engineering teams, Maria shared some invaluable insights into the forethought and forward planning required to make remote teams work:

  • Think about your salary model for different locations, what happens if an employee changes location, and the cost of all the tools required.
  • Remember there should never, ever be any surprises in your budget.
  • Keep your recruitment process clear and make sure both candidate and recruiter know exactly what they're looking for.

25. Default to transparency

"Unless there's a reasonable explanation of why we wouldn't share something, we default to sharing it," says Courtney Seiter.

Buffer is known for its radical transparency – they share a salary calculator and all individual salaries, alongside their equity formula. Buffer also tries to share big decisions externally as well as internally, usually on their blog. "We can build things that are better because we get feedback," says Courtney.

Screenshot 2019-04-25 at 11.29.17

Closing tips for making remote work

"We all want the same opportunities," says Courtney Seiter. "We want to know the work we're doing makes a difference. More than ever, we want to be in control of our workplace – because we're able to."

As a remote worker, it's not entirely on the company to create your ideal working environment. Maria Gutierrez encourages remote workers to open a dialogue with their management and discuss their work needs and how they can help tick those boxes.

Across the board, the remote teams that succeed nurture a flexible and trusting environment with a diverse team of individuals contributing their whole selves — which can create far-reaching benefits for the organisation.

And, as James Mayes observes, you need to think about these issues now, rather than later: the pace of change for how and where we work is the slowest it'll ever be. It can feel like a lot is changing, but it will only get faster from here.


Slides & videos from the sessions in this post

 

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