Remote isn’t for everyone, but it’s worked well for us. Here’s how we succeed as a distributed team.
One of the most common questions we get on this blog is about how we make remote work work.
A lot of these questions focus on the tools that we use, but in reality, which tools you use is probably the least important factor of managing a successful remote team.
A team using Slack can be just as successful as a team using HipChat.
A team using Skype can be just as successful as a team using Hangouts.
A team using Trello can be just as successful as a team using Asana.
There’s a lot of discussion about remote working tools, and finding ones that are good enough is not hard to do.
But tools aren’t the reason that teams succeed.
Teams succeed because of culture, principles and vision, and the habits you build around all three of those factors.
At Groove, we’ve spent a lot of time working on this, and ultimately, there are three big reasons why remote work works for us:
We Hire Good Remote Workers
A great worker isn’t necessarily a great remote worker. There are plenty of exceptionally talented people who work far better in an office environment.
Remote working is a skill like any other, and sometimes an employee who isn’t at their best simply hasn’t focused on working on that skill yet.
But sometimes, it’s simply a case of temperament or preference. In these cases, those folks are better off not working remotely.
A lot of people don’t make the distinction between good workers and good remote workers, but it’s such an important one, and it’s the only way to pull off a successful distributed team.
We look for a few key factors when it comes to assessing whether someone is a good fit for our remote team:
1) They’ve Successfully Worked Remotely Before, or They’ve Run Their Own Business
This is the single biggest “tell” that someone will be a productive and pleasant person to work with, simply because it means that they’ve already done what you’ll be asking them to do.
The word “successfully” is key here, and it’s why talking to past teammates – if you can – to get a sense of what type of remote worker the person was is so important.
If the candidate hasn’t worked remotely, another great tell is whether or not they’ve run their own business. Several of the team members at Groove ran successful freelance businesses before joining the team.
It’s a good tell because it indicates that the candidate knows how to think like a CEO. That is, they can be trusted to know how to make the best and highest-value use of their time, always, without a ton of oversight.
2) They’re Mature in Their Decision-making
In any team, it’s important to empower employees to make decisions. But in a remote team, when you’re not in the same room together, it’s especially important that your team knows that they’re in charge of their time, and it’s up to them to decide how to push forward each minute.
I don’t care about a candidate’s age or education, but I do care about whether they can make mature decisions:
- Do they base their decisions on what’s best for themselves, or for our customers?
- Are they willing to take calculated risks without asking for permission?
- Are they confident enough to know when it’s time to take a break and recharge, whether it’s an hour for a walk or a week for a vacation?
These are things we incorporate into our culture, but hiring folks who are already mature builds the foundation for team-wide success.
3) They’re Extraordinarily Communicative
If I respond to a candidate and they don’t reply within 24 hours, they’re not going to get hired.
The ones who do get hired respond in a small fraction of that time.
In an office, it’s easy to poke your head around your monitor to ask someone a question. In a distributed team, that’s not the case.
That’s why it’s so important that everyone on the team understands the value of being responsive, despite being halfway around the world.
That doesn’t mean they need to be available 24/7 – far from it – but it means that most emails and Slack messages don’t sit unanswered for more than a couple of hours of working time.
This one is easy to screen for, and easy to be good at.
We Always Know Who’s Working On What
Our success metric for productivity is output, not time.
In an office, many managers assume that an employee is productive simply because they’re sitting at their desk.
Yes, your manager probably knows that you’re browsing reddit, but still, butt-in-seat time is seen as valuable in a lot of organizations.
That doesn’t translate to remote at all.
With employees all over the world, there will be a lot of time during the day when people are offline.
We want people to work when they’re most productive; so if someone naturally works best when they wake up at noon and work through the evening, great.
Remote also gives us the luxury of attracting a lot of great candidates with families who want to break up their day to spend more time with their kids or spouses, so they might be online at non-traditional times, too.
All of this non-overlap means that staying in synch is a challenge, but we accomplish it in three ways:
1) Daily Standups
Every morning (whenever an employee’s morning might be), each team member posts an update in Slack, sharing what they accomplished the day before, and what they’ll be working on that day.
This is incredibly useful on a day-to-day basis. For example, if I know a certain developer is knee-deep working out a nasty coding challenge that’ll take all day, I’ll know to ping someone else if we need some technical help for a customer.
2) Weekly Team Calls
Every Monday at 10AM EST, our entire team gets together on Skype to discuss the prior week, and the week ahead.
This is the only scheduled, recurring meeting we have on our calendar.
We use this to ensure that we’re making progress on our goals each week, and to make adjustments based on what might have happened the week before.
3) Quarterly and Yearly Goals
We set both quarterly and yearly goals for every team at Groove, and we hold ourselves accountable to them.
This ensures that our work each day has purpose, and keeps us aligned; we’re a lot more likely to make smart decisions about what to do each day if we know that the team’s specifically defined success relies on it.
We Commit To Communication For Culture
Aside from the communication that keeps us accountable, we rely heavily on communication to maintain our culture, too.
In a traditional office, the water cooler is the place where people talk about their personal lives. Where they “shoot the shit” and build relationships with the rest of the team.
Water coolers matter. A lot.
And if you want your remote team to have any semblance of camaraderie, you’d better provide a water cooler for them, too.
For us, that water cooler is Slack.
Rather than discouraging non-Groove discussion, we embrace it as a huge part of letting our team members show off their “real” selves, and of getting to know one another as more than just “our [developer/designer/marketer/CEO/support agent/etc…].”
As CEO, I also do frequent one-on-ones with everyone on the team. We talk about goals and work, but also about people’s lives, interests and families. It’s my best opportunity to get to know our team on a personal level.
I love how Rand Fishkin described culture in his interview with us:
Culture is the user experience of the company itself.
And if you don’t know the people you’re building a user experience for very well, you can’t build an excellent one.
Making Remote Work Work
There are a lot of successful remote teams out there, and there’s no one right way to do it.
But this is the approach that’s worked best for us, and whether it’s about culture, communication or hiring, I hope that you’ve been able to take away at least one insight that will make your team – remote or otherwise – work better together.