Managing remote teams: key lessons on hiring, culture, and productivity from 4 top startups

Kyle’s note: This is a guest post from Dan Virgillito. I asked Dan to examine and compare how some leading startups are managing their remote teams. Remote work is becoming an attractive option for both employees and businesses. I have been learning first hand how to best contribute to a remote team in my first few months at WP Curve. It’s a large change from traditional office culture, but I find it suits me much better.

Managing remote teams: key lessons on hiring, culture, and productivity from 4 top startups goo.gl/673BcI @WPCurve – CLICK TO TWEET

There are many challenges unique to remote workforces and creating a culture that supports it takes work. This article give four unique approaches on how it can work. Over to Dan.

Technology has enabled many organizations to lead teams that work offsite, in the field or even in another country.

In this post I go into every detail about managing remote teams and how top startups get it done.

According to statistics:

  • The number of workers telecommuting increased by 80 percent between 2005 and 2012. (source)
  • 43 percent of the US workforce will work from home by 2016. (source)
  • Remote workers are 13 percent more productive, benefit from a quieter working environment, and take fewer sick leaves. (source)

There are many benefits of remote teams: access to talent globally, less overhead from office space and spontaneous knowledge exchange.

However, staying productive and ‘on the same page’ is a major challenge for workers in remote teams. Remote workers can lack motivation in nonsocial surroundings and suffer from ‘the productivity block’ as they may not have coworkers to measure their own performance against.

So, how do you overcome these unique challenges, while making sure you reap the benefits of productivity and employee happiness? Luckily, companies like Groove, Buffer, Zapier, and WP Curve have successfully built remote teams, and were willing to share what they learned.

Let’s jump in on how these high-growth startups manage their remote teams:

Groove

Alex Turnbull of Groove listed the pros and cons of choosing whether or not to be a distributed workforce. Before Groove, he founded a firm that rented a polished office in downtown Manhattan but Turnbull soon realized that despite a swanky work space, the staff wasn’t benefiting all that from sharing office space.

That’s when he built a distributed team and founded Groove. Here’s what he has to say:

Benefits of a remote team

  1. Access to better talent: Turnbull found that expanding his search to include the entire country and offshore helped him find the right employees quickly. The recruitment took 1-3 weeks on average compared to 6 weeks or more in his last startup.
  2. Employee happiness: The Groove team is happy and appreciates the freedom to spend time doing things important to them beyond their jobs. Employees work when and where they want to.
  3. Faster response to downtime: Being a distributed team helped the company respond faster to server disaster because they didn’t waste time commuting to an office.
  4. Lower overhead expenses: Having a remote team reduces expenses on costs such as electricity, furniture, and corporate internet-access. Groove’s team relies on SaaS tools to function. The amount they save is reinvested on company growth and employees. They use:

Potential setbacks of a remote team

  1. It’s challenging to find productive individuals: Turnbull saw that very talented people might not be the best workers. They may have never worked remotely before or didn’t have the skills to work from home successfully. So Groove looked for employees with experience working remotely.
  2. Difficult to build company culture: It’s far easier to build a culture in an office than it is in a remote team. Groove uses HipChat and team culture exercises to establish close contact and work towards developing a culture.
  3. It’s difficult to communicate: Different timezones and schedules make it difficult to ensure that everyone is available in an urgent situation. Groove is trying to overcome this challenge by hiring in more timezones and improving its support coverage cycles.
  4. Can’t transition to an office: Turnbull wonders if they would have grown faster if everyone was working in an office. He believes there’s still more work to do, most of which revolves around protecting the company’s collaboration and culture as it grows.

Buffer

Buffer is a prime model to follow when it comes to managing a remote team. Founder Joel Gascoigne outlined six benefits of being a distributed team. He also mentioned that the key to making a remote team work is either be 100% distributed or not at all; don’t go for something in between.

Here are the tools Buffer employees use:

  • HipChat: For one-on-one conversations and team communication. It’s like a central office where employees discuss company-wide ideas, share photos, or just talk in general, except online.

  • Sqwiggle: It lets remote workers see their colleagues and by showing everyone’s face it makes them feel more like they’re working together, just as they would have in the same office.

  • Hackpad: The team at Buffer uses it for creating, sharing, saving and editing documents. Those who collaborate on the document get their names added so it’s clear for everyone who updated which parts.

  • iDoneThis: A tool that allows team members to see each other’s list of completed tasks. Everyone is able to comment on each other’s task progress and completion, which is a great way to stay interconnected and motivate each other to get things done.

Gascoigne also addresses the following questions as Buffer grows as a distributed team:

Are there benefits of having a base location?

The team realized there were benefits of having a base location depending on what the startup does. As Buffer works in the social media space, the related startups were mostly based in Silicon Valley or San Francisco. Proximity to the company is a huge benefit for securing partnerships. Buffer also has its own office in San Francisco, which has helped in developing company culture.

In person meetings or collaboration tools?

If meetings take place in the office, they can get delayed until all team members arrive. The conclusion is that when team members aren’t in the same place they should use tools to collaborate and start working towards the thing that needs immediate attention. These tools allow everyone to jump in and share their thoughts on what needs to be done. This attention and collective care binds and strengthens company operations.

What are the appropriate perks when a startup has a distributed team?

Perks need to be an enhancement to the engrained culture. One of the most interesting perks for Buffer pertaining to its culture of self-improvement was that everyone in the team received Jawbone UP and that triggered discussions around being active and getting good sleep. For remote teams, it is a good idea to offer ‘everyone included’ perks which are not tied to a base office. The Buffer team members can also get any Kindle book free of cost.

The Buffer team goes on international retreats 3 times a year. Gascoigne says there is something special about meeting in person. Team members get to learn about each other’s true passions and what makes them tick.

Zapier

Zapier, like Buffer, works as a completely remote team. Co-founder Wade Foster lists tools, process and team as the key ingredients of a successful remote setup. For startups with small setups looking to take advantage of a distributed workforce, Foster offers the following tips:

  1. Hire people who get the job done

Doers will get the tasks done with direction and guidance. Look for qualities such as good writing skills as written communication is an important aspect of working remotely. Hire people who are ok with working in less social environments than co-located ones; the best remote recruits will thrive in such environment.

  1. Use tools to organize, collaborate, communicate & execute

In an office you can make your physical presence count to ensure everyone is steering on the same track. That’s not possible with a distributed team, so you need tools to keep every member on the same page. Some of the handy tools include:

  • Campfire: It’s like a virtual office where remote workers can communicate in chat rooms.

  • Google Docs: Share spreadsheets, documents and metrics which everyone can edit or add to.
  • Draft: It allows remote members to version their email, blog posts, or any other copy and then get feedback from the team asynchronously.

  1. Build a culture with daily feedback

Feedback will reveal how you are doing as a remote team, as it can highlight both small and big things that you can do to make remote work more enjoyable. Startups should also strive to bring the team together as it is definitely unique when teammates can work together in person.

WP Curve

WP Curve is designed around remote working and leverages it as a competitive advantage. To provide 24-hour WordPress support they have a team of 30+ developers around the world so that they have developers online at all hours of the day without anyone pulling graveyard shifts.

WP Curve does the following to keep its team running smoothly:

Slack – This is main tool for team communication, aside from general team communication they use it for the following:

  • Celebrate achievements: Creating a collaborative and encouraging environment helps build connections on the team where everyone has a say.
  • Update processes: Managing highly detailed processes for day to day operations is more efficient than trying to directly manage a diverse remote team. If a problem or an error arises they examine the process and update it to prevent that problem from happening in the future.
  • Share feedback: Honest, clear and direct feedback is important when using chat to avoid miscommunication.
  • Have fun to keep it light: They have a dedicated channel for lighthearted conversation and idle chat to allow the team to socialize.

Lighthouse – Julie, WP Curve team manager, is piloting a process to have a one-on-one with every member of the US team.

They also use Zapier, Google Drive and Trello.

Related article: 35 business tools that help us run our WordPress support machine

Annual meetup – Dan and Alex had their first in person meeting in November 2014, and worked out on many strategies and high level decisions.They are hoping to get together with more of the team in 2015.

Trends between the 4 startups

What i notice about these modern startups is that each of them increasingly rely on tools to collaborate, communicate, measure progress and get projects done, which suggests that these tools are a vital aspect of working as a distributed team.

Two of them acknowledge that building a culture can be difficult, so it’s necessary to carry out team culture exercises and bring people together sporadically. Another trend is that when it comes to hiring remote workers: people that have remote working experience will be more productive.

Having an office at the base location can also help in securing partnerships and business deals, which Groove is currently thinking about, while Buffer is already reaping the benefits.

Key lessons and takeaways

The startup world is beginning to realize it could work without walls, and these companies are the evidence that the cogs of culture are breaking down.

Chances are, at some point, you will find yourself heading a distributed team, so what can you learn from those who have already done it?

To wrap up things, here are a few tips you could practically apply:

  • Consider a plan: Develop a path you want your company to take. Be responsible for the communication, delegation of tasks, but first you must set expectations.
  • Recruit the right people: Start looking for people with skills that match your company’s needs. Conduct interviews and set trial projects to see if they are the right fit for your organization. Consider existing remote work experience as an essential skill.
  • Utilize tools: Use the right tools to your team’s advantage to maximize productivity and smooth communication. Some good examples have already been mentioned in the experiences shared by the featured startups.
  • Build trust: Share goals, ask for feedback/suggestions, hold one-on-one meetings if possible, and adopt a positive attitude with just about everything. Acknowledge hard work and offer training and incentives to help the team improve. Give constructive criticism to encourage employees to do better.
  • Nurture relationships and grow as a team: In the end, don’t forget that members on your team are humans wired to connect with others. You’ll have to grow as a team to continue being a team, which would involve meetings, team training, retreats to boost morale, and real-life meetings when possible to build long lasting relationships.

I hope these lessons help you with managing a remote team, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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About

Dan Virgillito is a storytelling specialist, blogger and writer who helps digital startups get more engagement and business through online content.

  • Great stuff Dan. This will really help us manage our remote team!

  • The best tool we have used for running our remote team is SLACK

    • You might recall James I told you about Slack 6 months ago or so and you told me you preferred Viber 😉

      • Yes and viber was good except that like Skype it is public. The privacy of Slack is what makes it work. Great tool and top recommendation.

        • It’s amazing to see how far they have come. They are one of the fastest growing companies in history, just over a year old and already valued at over $1b.

          The founder was quoted recently about why they were growing so quickly as saying ‘I have no f**ing idea’ haha.

          http://thenextweb.com/apps/2015/01/19/slacks-stewart-butterfield-doesnt-fear-facebook-work-promises-offline-mode-soon/

          • The initial appeal to the software does not seem obvious UNTIL you start using it. I have cut my email usage from about ten hours per week to 3 or 4 by sidestepping that medium. It really gives pure focus.

          • Yeah we don’t have email addresses for our team at all. If it wasn’t for Slack we probably would have given everyone an email address.

          • We have Google apps and the report shows that NOBODY other than me in the business *50 people uses email… it is not something the younger generation use. They are SMS / chat biased. None of our team communicate with external customers any other way than livechat or Helpdesk either.

          • Yep agreed. I had a grandfathered Google Apps account for free for 5 or 10 users and haven’t had to upgrade. Explains why Facebook paid $18b for Whatsapp.

          • exactly. My kids use iMessage / sms almost exclusively now. they even resist Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and dont use email.

          • And outside of rich western countries people don’t use SMS because of the fees so they only use apps like Whatsapp / WeChat / Viber etc.

            Facebook did a smart thing by (a) buying these brands that people love (Instagram / Whatsapp) and more importantly (b) keeping them as stand alone brands that people care about. That wouldn’t have been the done thing in years gone by, particularly leaving the products as is.

          • “And outside of rich western countries people don’t use SMS because of
            the fees so they only use apps like Whatsapp / WeChat / Viber etc.”

            You may be surprised to know the sheer volume of people using SMS in the non “rich western countries”. Usage of these Chat Apps assumes a presence of a data plan which is not true for the current majority of users in India where there are close to a billion Wireless subscribers. Solutions built around SMS and missed calls have more value for reaching the long tail in these countries.

          • True, I assumed a lot of the usage was on home networks but I haven’t really looked into it. I know a lot of friends who travel will also use data based messaging apps because they can do it on public and home wifi networks and not have to have a local active number.

          • kevinleversee

            Sms is still used predominately here in Philippines, the rise of smart phones has been exponential – yet the networks and infrastructure are woefully inadequate. With the Teleco Monopolies making 1 piso per SMS their cash cow for decades is not something they willingly wish to give up.

          • wow… I’m starting to feel like an old man. I need to start preparing my “back in my day” speeches about facebook.

          • Wait to see what they do with Oculus!

          • @Dan and @James you guys should do a podcast together.

          • I’ll let James respond to that one 😉

    • I’ve been looking into using Slack as a remote working co-space. Something for those of us who work remotely but would like a little bit of human interaction and back and forth on occasion.

  • Thank you! Really knowledgeable stuff! These guy are always worth reading.

    • Dan

      Thanks for reading Alexander!

  • It would have been interesting to see what productivity tool is used for Software versioning and revision control in a distributed environment. Unless it is a no-brainer for others and everyone uses Git!

    • Dan

      Hi Daksh, many developers I know agree Git is the best 🙂

  • Gretchen Roberts

    Great post! One thing no one talks about I’m curious about is how you equip remote workers. Do you mail them a laptop? Give them a stipend for buying office equipment and supplies? Let them handle it on their own?

    • bee

      i have been working at home for quite sometime. And here’s what i got to say:

      Employers’ benefits while hiring remote workers:

      – No office rentals

      – No electricity bills

      – No water bills

      – No phone and internet bills

      – Zero cost for equipments (computer hardwares, computer software apps, tables, chairs, office materials…etc)

      – Zero cost for maintenance

      – Zero cost on most of the office based benefits like: health insurance, housing and transpo allowance…etc

      – Almost no holidays and no paid holidays

      – No overtime pay

      – Zero cost for meals

      – And many more…

      Remote worker’s benefits:

      – No TAX

      – Flexible work hours

      – No transportation expense

      • I replied to this mostly above. This really depends. For employees would generally be reimbursed for most of this stuff or it would be paid for them anyway (holidays would be no different, overtime would be no different etc). Lunch wouldn’t generally be paid for either way.

        If they are contractors most of that would be claimable against their income.

    • Hi Gretchen this varies based on a few things. If staff are contractors they would generally be expected to have their own equipment. For developers generally I’ve found they have their own laptops and they prefer to work on them. We do supply stuff to staff and even contractors at times depending on what they need. In the past I’ve provided laptops, generators, 3G dongles, desks etc. But we don’t have specific rules around it.

      As someone who works from home myself I have an ABN set up which I use to invoice the company and I claim any expenses associated with working from home (office, a % of power, internet etc), most of the stuff in the comment below. Employees would generally be compensated for those costs, contractors would generally claim them against their income.

      • bee

        But my employer don’t do that. So sad…

        I mean look at the difference.

  • It’s nice to read an article about remote working that is not talking about cost-cutting as I always promote remote working more of a business strategy.

    Some would argue that communication will be an issue but with free tools and effective management, communication can be harnessed while spending $0 on it.

    Looking forward to more of your thoughts on remote working Dan.

    • Dan

      Thanks for reading Chris!

    • Great point about how this covers ‘the same topic’ but actually has some new information and resources. With all the new tools available it is helpful to see what is actually working and getting a sense of what kind of culture it is working in. Thanks Dan.

  • Nice compilation, thanks!

    Is it a problem managing the increasing number of accounts needed for each employee?

    • Not for us. The only 3 tools all staff use (that I can think of) are Help Scout, Slack and our own internal system. We have an onboarding process that the admin team looks after and sets everyone up http://wpcurve.com/hiring-developers and if people leave they close the accounts, pretty simple.

  • Sabrina Saada

    Never tried Squiggle but seems like a good tool to break the distance barrier between collaborators. Need to give it a shot!

  • hugomesser

    Great read! I think that using remote teams from day 1 in a startup is a recipe for success. You put remote work into your company structure right from the start. For more established companies, it’s much more painful to change later on, while they’ll have to for the reasons stated in this article (and mainly for access to talent).

    I have written several books on this topic, maybe interesting to read: http://bridge-staffing.com/ebooks

    We’ve also recently launched a marketplace for software teams where companies can hire remote teams (as opposed to hiring remote freelancers on sites like Odesk): http://www.ekipa.co . I believe that for companies it’s best to have a full ‘up and running’ remote team in 1 office, since you can indeed build a culture. If you have management around that team, it helps you to manage them more easily, there is local (HR/project) support which gives you ‘eyes’ to what the team and the inidividuals are up to.

  • Excellent article posted with some nice piece of information. I would like to add some more points which I think are useful for managing remote teams :-

    1. Being more proactive, approachable and connected.
    2. Always be appreciative and reward members on their achievements.
    3. Using productive Softwares like Hubstaff, Jira, Trello and Skype to increase the productivity.

    Manager
    ValueCoders

  • Thank you for the article. Virtual work-spaces have replaced many traditional offices. In many areas such setup is the most efficient if a manager can lead the team properly. Here are some tips on how to make your remote team more productive: https://screenshotmonitor.com/blog/how-to-make-your-remote-team-more-productive/

  • Ana S

    Bright list! I agree with the
    ideas being discussed on managing remote teams: key lessons on hiring, culture,
    and productivity from 4 top startups; it will surely uplift the managing and
    building of remote team. Also, it will give online companies and businesses a
    better perspective on how to get things work and what are essentials to make it
    successful. But it looks like your list is half-baked as there are more new
    strategies and tactics on how to successfully create an online presence.

    And there’s a good alternative I
    can suggest and hope will also help you by any means, “How to Build And Manage
    Remote Teams” (http://amazingworkplace.com/27-building-and-managing-remote-teams/)
    that combines functionalities and solutions which will surely address to the
    problems on building and managing remote teams. Not trying to belittle your
    list but giving you new viewpoints about the topic. Good luck to all of us!

  • Great stuff, Dan. I’m currently thinking about outsourcing some of my activities and I’m still on the fence because I had a few cases of hiring a freelancer who was really slow with doing what I asked him to. What’s the best way to make sure that your freelancers meets your deadline?

    • Hey Vitaly,

      Here’s mt thoughts:

      If you have a process to for your freelancers to follow that outlines the exact expectations and timelines for your project, it may help.

      I had this problem with guest writers. Adding exact timelines to our guest post process (http://wpcurve.com/process-for-guest-writers/) helped fix this. If you are clear at what will happen if they don’t meet their deadlines before they take the job then they will be more likely to stick with it.

      Here’s a post on how we create processes (http://wpcurve.com/processes-for-small-business/) it will work a little differently if you are working with freelances, but the concepts should still be useful.

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