Remote teams are increasingly becoming the norm, especially among digital agencies who manage everything they do online.
There are so many benefits for businesses who go remote: lower overhead because you don’t need offices, wider access to skilled workers, ability to cross time zones and offer solutions at any time of day… yet none of those matter if you don’t have a good handle on how to manage a remote-based team.
Some of the specific challenges of managing remote teams are:
Hiring the right people.
Successfully communicating and understanding each other.
Inefficiencies causing downtime or reduced productivity.
Building a real team connection.
So, how do you overcome these challenges and successfully turn out high-quality projects? We’ve got a few ideas:
#1. Hiring The Right People
Getting hiring right is arguably the biggest challenge for remote-based agencies. Your team is the most important ingredient in determining whether or not your business delivers well for clients and is ultimately successful.
We actually wrote about how to hire remote workers in more detail a little while ago, but we have a few additional tips on who to look for to get the right people for your team.
Look for doers
These are the people who have a work history of strong results while working independently. A doer just gets stuff done, even when there is no one shoulder tapping them. They will have personality traits such as consistency, independence and a focus on quality deliverables.
These are also people who anticipate ahead of time and will often go ahead with things that are needed without being asked. That is not to say you should expect not to have input – they will need some guidance, especially in terms of what your priorities are.
Another characteristic of the doer is that they are okay in a low-touch, less social environment. No matter what you do to encourage teamwork, a remote environment will always be less social than a physical office.
We mentioned in our previous article that you may want to hire for shorter-term projects to test people out – check for doers by providing clear deadlines and processes to follow.
It might seem in opposition to the independence required by the last trait, but having people who work well in a team is almost more important remotely than in-office. This is because you tend to be working on mutual goals, even if everyone has their own separate duties to perform, and it’s more difficult to “force” teamwork remotely than locally.
The best remote workers not only are strong independently, they don’t mind lending a hand to help the team achieve its goals.
Apart from other mediums such as video conferencing, a large chunk of the communication within a remote agency will be written. This means you should look for people who are good, clear writers, able to succinctly communicate what is needed with no room left for interpretation.
The other side of communicating is listening, a super-important trait for remote workers. You want people who pay close attention to what clients are requesting and give them their space to talk on client calls they’re involved in.
Besides that, if you have expectations such as for how often people check in and when they report on what they’re doing, make sure you outline this clearly from the beginning and monitor progress. You want people who are going to follow your preferred system rather than disappear.
What you consider to be appropriate and professional behavior will be down to your own preference, but the best team members tend to be those who are devoted to cultivating a professional image as a high-quality remote worker.
What kind of standards do you expect? For example, punctuality for client and team meetings, not turning up in their PJs for video calls, using appropriate language, and not letting personal problems become a focus in the work environment.
A professional is also someone who does not rely on excuses and who is prepared to take responsibility where appropriate. It’s also worth noting that excuse-makers are probably not doers…
Image source: Trello
What should you look for in a remote hire? Grab our free checklist here
#2. Successful Communication
You can have the best possible team, but if you haven’t set up good systems for communication, you will have a hard time producing successful projects.
Creating a “remote office” with a few tools in place to facilitate your team is essential for any agency looking to promote good communication. There are a number of possible options to choose from when it comes to setting up your tools, but start with a few core basics and avoid tool fatigue, as we’ve written about previously.
For example, it’s always good to have a chat environment which can act as your online office for back and forth chatter among your team. Slack is a great tool for managing this as you can create different channels for different aspects of your work (for example along functional lines such as marketing, development, support etc.), as well as your “watercooler” kind of channel which creates camaraderie among your team. Files can be uploaded and all conversations are searchable, which makes it easier to manage than some other chat apps.
You’ll also need some kind project management app to centralize and easily keep an eye on each project. A good project management app helps with keeping people accountable as it provides visible to-do lists, deadlines and responsibilities. As we’ve mentioned previously, you can easily dive into a rabbit hole of different options, but to remain clear-headed, it’s important to know what you’re trying to organize and how you want it organized, as each different tool out is based on a different style of project management. If Kanban style agrees with you, we think Trello is a great option.
From time to time, you’ll probably want to run team meetings, and again, there are a lot of options for tools to facilitate them. GoToMeeting, Appear.in, Google Hangouts or Skype are all options. We recommend using a version which you can record to refer back to (so for example with Skype, you would need extra software such as Evaer or other third party apps).
#3. Reducing Inefficiencies
The nature of remote-based work means that you often encounter inefficiencies which may not be as prevalent in a local office. For example, a remote manager interviewed for a Forbes article described how a lot of his time was taken up waiting for responses across multiple continents and time zones.
Image source: Wiki Commons
If you’re working across borders you may also encounter language or cultural barriers which make communicating more of a challenge.
You can’t do much to speed up communication with someone who is asleep on the other side of the world, but one of the best ways remote teams can counter potential inefficiencies is to have clearly documented processes for how each task is completed. Make sure that it is clear to team members where to look for guidance, who to ask for help and who to notify when their part is completed, especially if the next step is contingent on them finishing theirs. This will hopefully mean that there is less need for people to be asking questions and help up while waiting for a response.
We like Google docs for detailing processes and easily shareable documents. Anything that will be repeated should be documented, firstly because your team can refer back to the document and secondly because you can use them in training of any new staff.
Depending on how you are set up and how your people are getting paid, you may also wish to use time and activity tracking software in order to monitor productivity. Some popular apps include Hubstaff, Time Doctor and Toggl.
#4. Building A Team Connection
Building a team connection can be a real challenge when no one ever meets in person or has Friday night beers like they might in a physical office. As a remote agency, you will need to put extra thought into how to build that camaraderie.
Yes, in-person team events are a great solution if you can make them happen, but otherwise here are some ideas for remote team-building:
- Celebrate successes – It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but share with the team any successes, including projects that are well done or compliments received from clients. You could just do this on Slack or your preferred communication tool. Other ideas could involve surprising everyone with a gift or voucher, or even just sending out thank you notes.
- Allow time for chit-chat – Remote workers don’t get the same opportunity for bonding small-talk that colleagues in a physical office get. Provide a space (such as a “watercooler” channel) for this kind of chatter.
- Introduce everyone properly – It’s a basic, but give everyone the chance to learn a little more about each member of the team.
- Have a “question of the week” – It could be anything from favorite bands to preferred vacation spots, but having a question for team members prior to meetings or even just in your Slack channel is another good way for people to get to know each other.
- Initiate “pair calls” – This is a technique used by Buffer now that their team has become large and wide-spread. Each week the pairs rotate so that everyone will end up pairing with each other at some point for catch-ups.
What should you look for in a remote hire? Grab our free checklist here
Managing a remote team presents unique challenges, especially when your agency needs to create a cohesive unit for successful project completion.
Your people are always at the core of your abilities to provide quality service, so start with hiring well. From there you need strong systems for communication, process management and building your team dynamic.
If you can manage these challenges well, you will be better positioned to enjoy the many benefits that remote work can bring and deliver quality for your clients.