My first assumption has always been that technology alone is enough to build a successful remote team. As long as you’re using the right tools your problems will be solved, right?
Not so much.
At Briteweb, we’re constantly immersing ourselves in the new world of work, where teams and workplaces are completely reinvented and the traditional boundaries of time and location quickly disintegrate. And after years of experimentation, I’ve found that tech is just one of many components essential to a high-performing remote team.
As the founder of a company who believes deeply in these ideas, I wanted to share what I’ve learned. My experience has taught me that in order to make remote communications truly successful, there are four things that must be in place: balance, technology, structure and social connection.
How We Got Here
Our team’s journey into the new world of work was primarily sparked by two factors. The first was a realization that our clients were increasingly becoming located outside of our home city, which two years ago was Vancouver, BC, Canada. The second was a personal goal to detach myself from the constraints of working in a specific physical location, all while continuing to build Briteweb.
With those two motivations in mind, I spent over a year researching and thinking about the key factors that would make our team successful as we spread across the globe. At time of writing, we have team members in Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, Germany, and the Philippines. We also have part time freelancers in North Carolina and Poland.
It’s been a fun and demanding challenge to transform our company into one that offers flexible work schedules, open work from home and remote work policies, and multiple base office locations. While it was always easy to assume technology would solve all of our problems, I’ve come to learn that balance and a strong social connection are also critical components to high-performing remote teams.
The first condition for creating a successful remote team is establishing balance. It doesn’t work well to have a large group of people in one place (a mothership) and one or two remote people in another (satellites). It’s too easy to have a conversation with the team in the office and forget to include one of the satellite members. When the majority of the team share a space, and only one or two rely on audio to follow along, your remote workers miss the subtle nuances and physical communications that happen during in-person conversations. This lack of balance can make group sessions difficult.
If you are going to have one team member remote, you need to establish practices that allow anyone to be remote, and assume they will be. Briteweb still has a core creative team in Vancouver, so to balance them out with our remote team members, we encourage people to work from home part of the week. This way, everyone is on the same level in terms of communications. (We get the added bonus of lower overhead and more productivity as well!)
It goes without saying that you need killer technology to make remote working successful. And as a technologist with annoyingly high standards for digital tools, I’ve literally spent hundreds of hours picking apart and comparing platforms. I’m constantly thinking about how our team can harness new tools to solve communication challenges, keeping in mind that our needs are diverse and include instant messaging, process tracking, and knowledge sharing.
We use a combination of tools to create notifications across platforms. Your perfect mix will probably end up looking a bit different, but I’ll give you a quick rundown of what we use:
Instant Messaging & Communications
Slack is our go-to for instant messaging. This platform has been game-changing for us as an organization; it’s killed 95% of email inside the company and has radically increased visibility across projects and team members. A couple of notes on how we have it set up:
- We have public Slack channels for each active client or project, which any team member can join or view
- A general channel for company updates, inspiration sharing, shout-outs, etc.
- A social channel for general chatter, .gif wars, links to cat videos, etc.
- A few channels for different specific functions like #ops, #sales, and #support, again that are open to anyone
- A few private channels for levels of management
When messaging isn’t enough, we use Appear.in for instant video chats, which has also made a huge difference in our ability to communicate. Appear.in offers an add-on for Slack, which lets you simply type “/appear” to instantly create a link to a video chat room. Multiple people can join and it’s super fast. It’s the digital equivalent to asking someone next to you if they have a minute to chat. We use it ALL THE TIME, and it keeps remote peeps feeling like they’re right next to you (without having to agree on whether to listen to Top40 or classical music).
Process Tracking and Project Management
Our projects and process-based communications are managed on Trello. Each step of our process is templated and ready to roll when we begin work with a new client. Project Boards track the phases of the projects, who’s responsible, due dates, and to-dos.
Beyond Project Boards, we use Trello for a TON of different tracking functions, like:
- Process improvement projects
- Client-facing support ticket boards
- Sales pipeline tracking and communications
- Freelancer and talent tracking
- Short term and long term operational functions
- Client invoicing schedules
We even have our entire business plan for the year broken into cards for each initiative under five different areas of the business. Instead of having a PDF that gets a life sentence in a folder somewhere, we opted to have initiatives broken out into cards, with notes, attachments, assigned team members, and progress tracking.
It’s not a secret that Briteweb loves WordPress, so it should come as no surprise that our intranet, “Treefort”, is built on WP. While collecting and creating the content for an intranet and knowledge-base can be a lot of work, the platform itself is really simple. We got ours up and running in under 6 weeks total. This has been game-changing for on-boarding new team members or freelancers, and for overall visibility of our policies, practices, etc.
Here’s some of the information we publish on Treefort:
- Team bios and directory
- Company values, vision, purpose and brand position statement
- Work policies and info about benefits, time-off, sick days, etc.
- Detailed guides for the various digital tools and processes we follow
- Company updates and all-hand meeting notes
- Client meeting notes
- Various forms for time off requests, AMA forms, etc.
We’re nerds! We couldn’t help using Zapier, IFTTT, and some custom-built code to build some integrations between the different tools. These help create notifications and alerts that make sure content and comments get seen. Most of these notifications happen on Slack, since that is our central hub for communications.
- Trello comments or changes to Project Boards send notifications to their respective project channel on Slack
- New client meeting notes on Treefort send notifications to their respective project channel on slack
- If a new business opportunity surfaces from a client meeting, the meeting notes form provides a place to enter that info, and publishes a separate update to the New Business channel
- Many client meetings and presentations are recorded via GoTo Meetings. We have a cool process that allows the strategist leading the call to simply drop the video file in a Dropbox folder after the meeting. This triggers a Slack notification for the Ops team, who follows through with publishing the video to YouTube privately and embedding in the meeting note on Treefort
Once you decide on the tools you’re going to use, the most important factor of success is having clear rules and a structure for how to use them. If one person is leaving meeting notes in a Word Doc attached to a Trello card, and another person is posting them on the intranet, chaos usually ensues. This is probably the hardest step to overcome, and it’s something we’re constantly working to improve. Today’s technological landscape is fragmented and volatile by nature–taming it is harder than it sounds.
Here are a few ways we’ve achieved structure with our tools:
- Determined best practices for how to use the each tool with a small working group BEFORE launching them to everyone (consider stealth beta-testing with a few team members)
- Documenting comprehensive how-to’s on our intranet for every tool, and making it required reading for new and existing employees
- Host an all-hands demo session when a new tool is introduced. Explain how it will be used, and most importantly, WHY it’s being deployed. People inherently follow instructions better when they understand why it benefits them or the company. It’s important that everyone that will potentially use the tool is involved in that preliminary discussion. Have a senior leader provide the WHY context and the vision, and a responsible manager or operations person to explain the details and provide the how-to. The combo of a senior leader and a manager is important: having the manager explain the tool ensures they understand it thoroughly, and that they will be be responsible for follow-through with the team. Having the senior leader provide a brief overview of the importance gives the manager credibility to implement effectively. I know I’m belaboring this point, but implementing a new tool can be frustrating, confusing, and disruptive to your team’s workflow. The rollout and on-boarding needs to be taken seriously.
- Host a follow-up with the team after about a month or two to see how our assumptions held up and how the tool is working. Gather feedback and ideas on how to make it better.
- Implement those changes! It sounds obvious, but it’s not. It requires building in time to people’s schedules to implement changes. Make sure you treat it like a deliverable for a client or your core product.
The second structural consideration is implementing basic rules about remote work conditions. Part of my vision for Briteweb is that it allows flexibility, and recognizes different people’s needs and lifestyles. For instance, some people like early mornings and some are night owls. Some people prefer to grind twelve hours a day and take more days off. Others prefer the nine-to-five structure. Allowing some flexibility is key to driving productivity.
At the same time, it’s important to consider when you need everyone online or available for certain meetings or milestones. If people are in different timezones, you’ll need to ensure that there are at least a few hours of overlap for conversations.
We have a fairly open remote work policy that allows people to work from anywhere they like, as long as they aren’t required for in-person client meetings. For example, I am out of the office 75% of the time; I usually work from my home in New York, Vancouver or Bowen Island, even though I’m ten minutes away from our offices in each city. I just get more done working remotely!
To make this level of flexibility work, we have basic requirements:
- Advanced notice and approval of extended remote work retreats
- Reliable Internet access, with enough bandwidth for Dropbox syncing, video chats, and any other activities of your job.
- Staying in a timezone that has at least two to four hours of overlap with your team (usually Vancouver or New York), and a conversation with your manager about any time-specific expectations for client or team meetings
- Being available in a quiet, private environment if you’re participating in a client or team meeting (I’ve found that beaches and parks work well!).
- Other than that, enjoy Bora Bora.
Fluid and unplanned social interactions – the ones that create company culture – are hard to maintain once people aren’t in the same room together. On the one hand, you’ll see productivity go up in the short term because there are fewer distractions and less random chit-chat. But an increase in productivity can be a double-edged sword. It’s important that remote teams continue to bond and have conversations outside of the daily to-dos. Otherwise, their commitment to one another will fade, and so will the quality of their work.
These are a few ways to create culture with remote teams:
- All-hands meetings at least once a month (maybe once a week), depending on how much change is happening within the company. This is a key moment for the CEO or senior leaders to revisit the vision and values of the company and keep people inspired. It’s also a great way to share info on what various teams are up to and give kudos for recent successes. We open the floor for people to share interesting articles or do a brief presentation about something that interests them. Either way, this meeting should not be highly related to tactics and on the ground minutia. This should be about celebrating the team and the big picture.
- Unscheduled or scheduled social catch-ups. With instant video, it’s easy to grab someone for ten minutes while you both eat your lunch or take a break, and catch up on what’s happening with one another. This happens naturally when you’re in the office together, but takes intentionality to do virtually. I’ve found that the team members with the highest empathy scores are most likely to initiate these chats, which helps others do it too.
- Take a minute or two at the start of meetings to shoot the shit. This is a red flag for productivity grinders, but you’re going to naturally have less socializing and more productivity with remote teams. Taking a couple minutes at the beginning of a video chat can be the difference between someone feeling invested in the meeting or treating it like a chore.
- Choose video over phone, whenever possible. It’s just different when you can see each other, even if you have no pants on below the frame.
So why did I tell you all of this?
Don’t get tricked by the hype of new technology. Technology alone won’t save us. It’s about how to leverage technology, and how to stay aligned as a team. Briteweb has become the organization it is today through equal parts balance, technology, structure, and culture.
I don’t want to give the impression that we have it perfected, it’s an iterative process. We are continually striving to become more efficient while creating flexibility and better lifestyles for our team. That’s something I’m really proud of as a founder.
This was by no means an overnight mission. It has taken many mistakes and failed attempts to figure out how to make our systems and processes stick. My hope is that by writing this article, I can save you time, and help you avoid some of the same mistakes.
I’m interested in your thoughts, tips, and tricks for remote work in your organization! Catch me on Twitter: @steverio