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Building Remote Teams: Best Practices from A Remote Company Founder

Waikit Lau Waikit Lau
Building Remote Teams: Best Practices from A Remote Company Founder

Updated on December 29, 2021

Why Building a Remote Team is All The Rage

As of 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 23% of the workforce reportedly worked remotely. Since then, collaboration tools such as Slack, Github, RemoteHQ, and others have made remote work even easier — converting 16% of global companies to work remotely (Owl Labs). Point being, remote work is on the rise.

Those who work remotely at least once per month are 24% more likely to be happy and productive in their roles than those who can’t or don’t work remotely. (Owl Labs)

Leadership is taking note of the trends and evaluating the advantages and disadvantages in building a hybrid or fully remote team. Below highlights some of the pros and cons and provides a few best practices that we at RemoteHQ follow as we build an effective remote team.

The Advantages of a Remote Team

As is the case with any type of work, remote or in-person, there are advantages and disadvantages. However, with advancements and a clear trend towards remote work apparent on a global scale, many of the disadvantages associated with remote work have easy fixes that you can implement as a company today or in the near future.

Advantages:

  1. Increased Flexibility (and Productivity)
  2. A Stronger Team Overall
  3. Cost Savings
  4. It's Also A Powerful Growing Experience

Increased Flexibility (and Productivity)

The best part about remote work is the fact that, in a lot of ways, the where, when, and [even] how to structure your work is entirely up to your discretion. For many in corporate offices, it is often surprising how much time is wasted on just “face time” that is non-productive.

Gone are the days of sitting next to the same people every day in the office…because you don’t even have an office. You’re free to work from the local coffee shop, your house, an empty room on a local campus, the world is your oyster. Having the freedom to work anywhere means you don’t have to miss out on a lot of what life has to offer.

You can schedule and attend any meeting, you can visit home, you can make it to the gym. Why? Because those are all workable spaces as well. Increased focus & productivity are key reasons that employees work from home (Owl Labs). Imagine if you could maximize focus & productivity every day, that’s remote work.

Choosing where to work is only the first step in the freedom remote work grants you. Sure, you can always decide where you want to work, but did you know a lot of the time you can also decide when? Not only do you recoup the time you would spend commuting, but you’re also free to build a schedule that suits you. This, of course, is contingent on you getting work done.

As it turns out, there’s flexibility in one more aspect of remote work that’s easy to ignore, the how. Your ‘office’ becomes what fits in your backpack driving your work costs to go down and efficiency upwards. The freedom to ditch the suit & tie look for the clothing you rolled out of bed and put on is another huge driver. Many folks find that a comfortable work environment boosts productivity. Having the freedom, or the ‘how’, to build that environment is a recipe for success.

Finally, there is also the subtext of meritocracy in remote teams — deliverables, not office politics, are all/most that matter (more below). As long as your work gets done, where, when, and how are entirely up to you.

A Stronger Team Overall

If your team isn’t remote, your location can be a limiting factor when it comes to finding talent and new hires. Imagine though, that your talent pool wasn’t limited, because you weren’t limited by a location. That’s the power of remote work.

Sure, the hiring process might be a bit more complex, but it isn’t difficult to vet candidates more thoroughly. The added complexity is moot when compared to the talent you’ve opened your company up to hire from across the world.

At RemoteHQ our motto has always been “Work together from anywhere”. We understand the talent, solution, or potential that you may be looking for isn’t always down the road. With remote work, you open your company up to new degrees of success. Go where the talent is. In the end, this leaves you with a stronger team, and your company better-off.

Cost Savings

Cost Savings is huge incentive and on paper, the remote workforce looks highly profitable. Consider the following.

As a company, your biggest cost savings would be office leases, which usually are signed on 3-to-5 year terms. If your team is smaller, you may leverage co-working spaces which still adds up:

  • Office Space: $4,000–24,000 per employee per year, depending on your location and multi-year lease / on-demand co-working space. This adds up real fast if you have lots of bodies
  • Incidentals: There are a myriad of other incidental expenses (stocking the fridge, cleaning service, etc.) that add up, too.

As for the remote workers, they recoup any of the traditional commuting costs. While those costs might seem menial at the moment, they can break down as follows:

  • Public Transportation: $2,600 to $4,500 a year depending on cost per trip (CNN)
  • Driving-to-Work: $725 per mile every year account for wages lost per mile (Strongtowns)

Without even accounting for smaller cost savings the travel expenses saved are astronomical. There are also smaller, daily, costs you might not even realize begin to add up as well:

  • Second Charger for Computer: Approx. $50
  • Second Charger for Phone: Approx. $50
  • Store Bought Coffee (Daily): Approx. $7/cup

The list of small cost savings you recoup as a remote worker varies from person-to-person, heck I don’t even drink coffee, but the net-net is that you save a ton of money.

It’s a Powerful Growing Experience

As an employee, you’re driven to create a successful work environment — this is true whether you work remotely or work from a dedicated office space. The key difference, however, is that in a dedicated office space you have significantly less flexibility — this translates to less accountability as well.

As a remote worker, you’re accountable for your own work. That being the case, when a difficult situation arises and since you’re accountable, you only have two options: fail to accomplish your task or learn to adapt. This inevitably drives you to be a better, stronger employee and worker.

An entrepreneur is defined as “a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk” (Dictionary.com). Remote work and the accountability that comes with it effectively makes everyone an entrepreneur. This mindset helps to drive your company forward as a whole, with Remote.co reporting that this entrepreneurial mindset ultimately led “30% [of respondents] said that telecommuting allowed them to accomplish more in less time."

The Disadvantages of a Remote Workforce

Unfortunately, realizing the benefits of a remote team is easier said than done. Here are some of the disadvantages:

  • Less Accountability
  • Less Team Building Opportunities
  • Less Serendipity

At RemoteHQ, we've not only been able to identify some of those downsides, but we've also created solutions that help mitigate and even solve them as well.

How To Address These Remote Work Challenges

Less Accountability

While being a remote employee can be a huge growing experience, those who aren't adept at working without management may ultimately fall by the wayside. In a traditional work environment, those employees would be managed by their peers and supervisors and, based on those touch points, they'd be able to make the most of each day. Accountability is a surprisingly important part of working both remotely and traditionally, but not everyone is able to track tasks and be accountable for the work at hand without guidance.

How We Solve It: At RemoteHQ we’ve successfully managed to overcome the hurdles associated with team touchpoints by ensuring we do daily, virtual, face-to-face standups.

Daily standups have become increasingly popular for teams over the past few years, and part of the reason why is the accountability that comes with announcing your work to everyone else. As a team, this is something we’re incredibly aware of. Our daily stand-ups are kept brief, as we want to get work done, but we each tell the rest of the team what we’ve accomplished in the past day and what we intend on accomplishing in the day ahead. Adding this accountability pushes us each to perform the tasks we’ve promised so that, in our next stand-up, we can report success.

Less Team Building Opportunities

Any great team shares bonding experiences, and those can be difficult to come by when your team is entirely remote. Team bonding keeps your team working cohesively. Distributed team members won't naturally get to know each other as easily as they can when working in the same physical space.

How We Solve It: It’s important to recognize that while your team is remote, budgeting time for team members who live near each other to grab a coffee, is incredibly important. Being able to meet up with some, not even all, members of your team even once a month is a great way to bond and get to know each other. If your team is entirely remote, try scheduling a work trip where you can all work together, but from the same location!

Additionally, Digital methods of team building are different but plentiful. It takes a concerted effort to set aside time for virtual team building activities. No one wants to feel like an anonymous cog in the machine. As discussed, there are a number of tools available to project managers to not only keep teams on task, but to help their teams work as a unit and better serve their mental health.

Less Serendipity

Not being in the physical space reduces serendipitous, unplanned conversations in the corridor and easy meetups that promote teamwork. On remote teams, the default nature is silo-ed distributed people. This is one of the key social challenges. Random people collisions have to be engineered.

How We Solve It: Virtual meeting rooms turned into our "water cooler".

Tools such as Teams and Slack help a lot but there are still more ways you can help. Chat programs are optimized for short-form communication, but we needed a simple, easy way for people to jump in and out of real-time video chat or voice call. In some ways, this has been very meta and has informed us how we built RemoteHQ to solve our own needs first - we use it to jump and in out video calls as needed.

Since a meeting room is tied to a URL with an intelligible name (and not a random string of characters), everyone knows where to go. This is what we have found helpful too - Sometimes, as an always-on channel, we just stay in the room and mute our audio and pause the webcam. If anyone needs to talk to the group, he can just unmute the mic and start speaking. This alone has made our work cadence smooth and simple.

Best Practices for Building Remote Teams

Here's the short list of best practices to follow while building out your remote team:

1. Get Organized

2. Equip Your Team with the Right Tools

3. Redefine Recruitment

4. Check-In Often

5. It's Up To You

With remote work, everyone can discover what works best for them! But you have to have systems in place to make sure people are staying on track, and get accurate reads on productivity.

Which brings us to step one....

1. Get Organized

Back in the day, you didn't need an org chart to know who worked for whom. A big corner office on the top floor or a cubicle that doesn't get a sliver of sunlight all day told you all you needed to know. These days, however, working where you want, how you want, and (often) when you want, means that productivity can skyrocket, but only if you're staying organized. Scheduling and structuring are your best friends when it comes to building a productive and efficient remote team. While there are certainly rewards to be reaped when you let your team approach their tasks in the ways that work best for them, if you aren't clearly defining roles, regularly checking in, and building effective communication systems and practices, you're not going to see those rewards.

2. Equip Your Team with the Right Tools

Getting organized is a great first step, but staying organized is a lot more difficult in practice. Luckily, there are a lot of tools available to you and your team to keep you on task, streamline collaboration, and make communication as easy - if not even easier- as working in person. Microsoft Teams and Zoom help you stay in touch from the water cooler level chat to full-scale team meetings. Apps like Ziflow help multiple teams collaborate through different stages of a task, RemoteHQ helps teams to easily work together in real-time.

One mistake that a lot of first-time remote teams make is using tools only for productivity. Remember, project management and communication aren't the only ways to utilize the tools at your disposal. While in-person team-building activities might be a thing of the past, that doesn't mean you should forget about the potential for virtual team building. Think outside of the box. Don't just take your normal team-building strategies and work them into a video conference. Square peg, meet round hole. Instead, remember to take advantage of the non-work tools out there you have available to you. It all depends on what your team would respond to. Perhaps your online team members would enjoy a gaming session, virtual happy hour, non-work video chat, virtual board game, monthly virtual meeting book club, messy desk competition, or perhaps an icebreaker trivia game. And, now that you're video conferencing, while some activities may not be as feasible, a whole new set of possibilities are now an option. Learning together is not only great to help team members build trust, but it can also have work-related advantages. Setting aside work time to send your team to a virtual conference on a new cutting-edge development in your field is faster and easier than ever.

3. Redefine Recruitment

Whether you're recruiting for an entirely remote company or simply looking to reap the advantages of a remote workforce, your pool of candidates is now a whole lot bigger than traditional in-person businesses. While this can have the end result of a much more capable and qualified workforce, it also means you have to recruit with greater care. Furthermore, you're now looking for a particular set of qualities that perhaps wasn't at the top of your list before: the ability to work independently and without direct supervision, the savvy to come up to speed on all of your processes without in-person training and onboarding, and more. So while you are opening up your recruitment to a much larger pool, you're also selecting for a new set of variables. While this can be more difficult, in the end, you should be able to fill out your team's roster with people who are not only capable of the work but who are also capable remote workers.

Sure, the hiring process might be a bit more complex, but it isn't difficult to vet candidates more thoroughly. The added complexity is moot when compared to the talent you've opened your company up to hire from across the world. At RemoteHQ our motto has always been "Work together from anywhere". We understand the talent that you may be looking for isn't always down the same old road. With remote work, you open your company up to new degrees of success. Go where the talent is. In the end, this leaves you with a stronger team, and your company better-off.

4. Check-In Often

Now that you have the tools and the team, it's time to make sure they are being utilized properly. Don't leave anyone in the dark, and don't fail to utilize the tools at your disposal. While it might seem tedious to hold daily status meetings and brainstorming sessions or constantly update project status graphs and task docs, these things will keep people from being lost and keep tasks from being delayed or dropped.

Different people working in different locations (sometimes different timezones) are going to need more than just good communication skills to stay cohesive and on task. You also want to make sure you're giving everyone on the team the opportunity to communicate in non-work ways.

Perhaps have a dedicated Slack channel for content that isn't really work-related or let the gifs and emojis fly in Microsoft Teams.

And don't forget perks. In-person, you might have had bagel Wednesday, or pizza Friday, or a break-room always stocked with snacks, but just because those exact things aren't really feasible for remote employees, it doesn't mean there aren't creative ways to ensure your remote team members are getting a few extra perks to keep them smiling. Consider picking up the tab for GrubHub or hosting a fun activity during the workday. Whatever you do, just remember to find ways to check in. How often that takes the form of regular feedback, daily status meetings, or extra perks is up to you.

5. It's Up To You

While these steps are important to keep in mind, it's also good to remember that no one yet knows how best to utilize offsite workers. We're at the beginning of a paradigm shift, and it was further accelerated by a pandemic that changed company culture forever. The point is, if something isn't working, you now have the freedom to make adjustments as you see fit! As long as your work gets done, where, when, and how are entirely up to you.

In Conclusion

“If one person on the team is remote then the whole team is remote” - Lisette Sutherland

Suddenly flipping the switch and “making your team remote”, while beneficial, is incredibly difficult. It’s important to keep in mind, you can always start building a remote team out slowly. As Lisette Sutherland, a well-known influencer in the remote working world has said: “If one person on the team is remote then the whole team is remote."