In the past few months I've been thinking a lot about remote-first teams. Being a founder from Sri Lanka, living in Canada, starting a company in the United States; it's become more apparent that I'd prefer to preserve the freedom to move around and work from anywhere. I've taken the time to document my thoughts and research in this post.
While distributed teams aren't all that uncommon, we're now starting to see more founders focusing on building remote-first teams from day-one. Not surprisingly, this coincides with an uptick in talent, primarily in the tech space, who value the ability to work remotely. By numbers, remote workers have increased by 140% between 2005 and 2018. Before going any further let's make it clear that the primary advantage of a remote team is the ability to hire the best possible people independent of where they are.
The apparent rise in distributed team isn't all that surprising. In certain industries, the technology space primarily, our personal motivations and work requirements have evolved such that we want to do meaningful work, on our own terms. Those of us in the tech space are afforded this luxury thanks to the independant and creative nature of the underlying work. Regardless of whether you're a developer, marketer, designer, data scientist or product manager your deep work requires focus, and can be done asynchronously.
Of course, none of the above mean that remote-work comes at no cost. At the very least running a successful distributed team requires additional coordination, tools and talent that can manage their own time. To learn more, I talked to employees from a number of companies like GitLab and Zapier that've been remote-first from day one. Here's what I learnt:
1. Hire the right people
Remote work doesn't work for everyone. You need people that can be trusted to do their part with little to no oversight. This means hiring doers. Optimize for self-motivated individuals who can do their work without the social context of a shared workspace.
Even when talking to remote workers I noticed how they're very diligent about prioritizing work in their schedule; some wanted to know how soon I needed a response and told me about which cities they were working out of over the week and what work they had planned out. Not everyone is comfortable with being this autonomous and balancing their personal and work life without the constrains of designated work hours.
2. Focus on shipping
The clearest measure of a remote team's effectiveness is the speed and quality of what they ship. A focus on shipping trickles down to the way you organize; how you frame issues, assign tasks, set milestones and what's talked about in daily stand-ups.
It's very easy to have a complete break down of processes when you aren't all in the same place. Getting approval, going back and forth with co-workers and leads can easily get out of hand. Most distributed companies organize themselves in smaller teams, usually 3-4 people who're given a lot of autonomy over their work. This way they can communicate and get things done more efficiently.
3. Build culture in person
Remote culture is hard! One of the most common complaints by remote workers is that they feel isolated and don't feel like they're a part of the team. The friendships created over chit-chats and casual banter in a physical workspace are hard to replicate virtually.
Lack of passive conversation and getting to develop in-person friendships (when the team is distributed) that migrate out of work.— Seth Sandler (@SethSandler) March 16, 2019
The isolation can break you. Wolf man beard and all.— Eric Nakagawa 💪🏻🍕🚀 (@ericnakagawa) March 15, 2019
With remote work, a lot of conversations take place in written form and on video. A lot of body language is missing in the communication methods. Depending on the teams cultural background and communication styles, sometimes tensions can arise from misunderstandings. These tensions are usually less frequent in a non remote environment because of the nonverbal communication that takes place during in person conversations. It’s also generally easier to build trust and empathy face to face - which can help defuse tensions that come from miscommunication. – Clement Ho @GitLab
Do it in person! Most successful remote companies have something like a quarterly retreat where the entire company meets in-person. Keeping your teams happy and healthy should be made a priority as a remote company.
4. Remote-first tooling
Half the problems that come with remote work can be solved by setting up the right tools.
How do you handle day-to-day meetings? Zoom, Slack, Google Hangouts. How do you efficiently share iterations of a design with your team? Figma, Invision, Sketch Cloud, Loom. You get the gist; the tools exist, you just need to decide what to use (and pay for).
Teams do daily stand ups using a Slack-bot Slack integration, it comes in at 10am local time, with our employees across the world it means we get updates throughout the day. – Rupert Douglas – @GitLab
Good communication is paramount, and with the right tools you can setup protocols and processes that everyone in the team can learn and use.
5. Document everything
Given the asynchronous nature of remote teams it's important to maintain a written record of what's being done. Ideally, in a project-by-project basis so that anyone in the team can quickly figure out what the project is about and where it's at currently.
We try our best to write everything down. If something is going back and forth a lot, we encourage the team to setup a call and have the conversation and then detail the notes in an issue so that the conversation is recorded. We also try to record most meetings so that they can be watched in case someone wasn’t able to attend. These practices are pretty common in the entire company. – Clement Ho @ GitLab
The single most important factor in the success of a remote team is deciding to be remote-first. Correctly optimizing communication for remote employees and aligning your tools to empower sustainable, asynchronous work is what will make your company work.
At Clew, we haven't yet decided if we're going to buildout our team remote-first or otherwise. You can expect to hear more about how we expand our team in the future. Subscribe to follow our story.