At Range, we’re perpetually curious about how people work today, and how they will work in the future. Many companies now have remote and distributed teams, thanks to the birth of the internet and new communication tools. Remote teams have clear advantages (such as the ability to hire a talented global workforce), but there are challenges, too (such as the difficulty in creating a cohesive company culture).
To tackle this topic, we gathered a small group of leaders for a mini-conference focused entirely on leading remote and distributed teams. We heard from Alianor Chapman, Director of Engineering at Mailchimp, Anthony Maggio, Director of Product at InVision, Pamela Hinds, Professor and Director of the Center of Work at Stanford, and Dan Pupius, co-founder and CEO at Range.
The group discussed the benefits of working with remote teams, outlined the top three challenges inherent to managing these teams, and offered creative solutions for how leaders can overcome those challenges. Here are some key learnings and ideas you can implement on your teams and at your company today.
We’re detailing what we learned here, but if you’d like to jump straight to the video of our panel discussion, please scroll to the bottom of this post.
The who, what, and why of Range's mini-conferences
Before diving in, here’s a bit of background on Range’s mini-conferences.
We started hosting mini-conferences last year because as we were meeting teams we were hearing them talk about similar problems over and over again. What was interesting is that we might talk to one company struggling with how to structure team meetings and then talk to another company that had a great system for structuring meetings but struggled with setting and tracking goals.
What we realized is that there is a ton of knowledge out there in our growing tech community about how to solve problems like communication, accountability, or team-building, but it’s hard to spread that knowledge because we’re all very busy people. So we wanted to bring people together in a small and intimate setting where everyone could share their experiences and learn from one another. And that’s what we did.
Remote teams: The challenges faced and lessons learned
Challenge #1: Communication
When you work with people in person, it’s easy to show up at someone’s desk with a simple question. This is completely different from remote work. Yes, there are tools like Slack and Skype to make things easier, but it can still be challenging to communicate seamlessly when all channels are virtual.
When you’re small, the challenge is producing the right information and making sure that everybody has the information that they need to do their job well. Then, as you grow, the challenge becomes how do you actually find the right information. —Anthony Maggio
At the “coffee-cooler,” there are a lot of serendipitous moments people in a co-located office get to experience that don’t transfer over to remote employees or distributed teams. The Pixar office was designed to force these types of moments.
To help with communication here, leaders can designate someone, perhaps informally, who can be a liaison between different locations. This person, typically a gregarious and outgoing teammate, would reach out to people to find out what’s going on. Thirty minutes later, what started as casual check-in has turned into an informal meeting where a necessary exchange of information has taken place. Cross-functional or distributed teams can now maintain their alignment and proceed forward with appropriately set expectations.
Our panel also suggested implementing twice a month all-hands meetings, as well as sending out weekly newsletters that share roadmaps and future plans. Additionally, it’s a good idea to set up a #watercooler Slack channel for random posts, thoughts, and ideas. There always needs to be a place for people to have a little fun.
Challenge #2: Process
In order to have good communication between remote team members, you need process. Process is essentially formalizing how you work so that people can collaborate easily and always find what they need.
Co-located teams have the same problems with process as distributed teams. However, on distributed teams, you don’t have as many crutches or get out of jail free cards, nor do you bump into each other in hallways or the kitchen. So you have to be more disciplined.
Going remote from a largely headquartered company has really exposed some of the problems we needed to work on as an organization. —Alianor Chapman
When you have a remote team, you need to be deliberate about your process (i.e. the way you do things) so that people feel connected. Pamela shared an example of two remote employees based in the Bay Area who decided to leave their Germany-based company because of its processes. Despite the company’s efforts to include the remote workers, the two felt like their voices were never heard. Too many conversations took place where they were left out of the loop; they were too frequently left out of discussions leading to decisions that affected them.
Anthony says technology can make a big difference here. When people aren’t physically in the same room, it can be all too easy to forget their presence. If you’re leading a remote team you probably already know this. When you’re not all in one room for those quarter planning sessions or team off-sites, try having everyone join meetings from their laptop (even if some of you are in the same room). It puts everyone on a more level playing field and ensures those furthest away are remembered and brought into conversations.
Challenge #3: Culture
Because your remote employees are not occupying the same physical space every day, it can be a challenge to get them feeling as though they are a part of the culture that exists. You have to make a greater effort and invest in culture.
The challenge for when you’re geographically distributed is that norms don’t develop the way they do when we’re together; it’s not implicit or organic. —Pamela Hinds
This means actually traveling to meet one another. Even if you can’t meet very often, one meeting can have a lasting, long-term effect that lasts up to a year, according to Pamela. And, until people get to know each other in person, they can be overly cautious and more reserved.
Alianor suggested turning the traditional “come to HQ model” on its head by encouraging team members based in headquarters to visit satellite offices for events. This is a great way to help spread the culture of the main office to smaller offices in different regions, and it’s a great opportunity to bring in remote workers to those regional offices. Everyone will return home feeling valued.
If you’re looking to help your team relax, get to know each other, and ultimately feel more comfortable, Anthony recommends taking the first 10 minutes of meetings to talk about things happening outside of the office. Checking in on how the individuals on your team are doing is a great way to foster trust and deeper connections, and it’s why we at Range conduct check-ins and check-outs in all of our recurring meetings.
And finally, everyone needs a moment to let their hair down everyone once in a while. Slack’s emoji reactions are a way to help people bond, and the different channels you create will help to further develop the culture on your team and at your company. If you don’t already have one, create a #random channel where—you guessed it—random work-appropriate conversations can take place. And consider creating #animal-therapy where people can share photos and videos of puppies, kittens, and bunnies to help their colleagues make it through those especially tough days. It all brings people closer together and fosters feelings of comradery.
Don’t forget the unique advantages of remote work
Although there are challenges inherent in leading a remote or distributed team, there are unique advantages that can’t be ignored. On a remote team, employees get to interact with more offices in different countries around the globe. Occasionally this can introduce a bit of conflict, but the diversity of perspectives, knowledge, and skillsets makes it incredibly beneficial overall.
Additionally, it’s amazing to be able to hire the best folks to do the job, no matter where they live. And these employees can pursue their hobbies and interests in the places that make them happy. You get to work with the best people and you get to take better care of people.
It’s amazing that today’s companies can work with partially or fully distributed teams. As a leader, you’ll want to find creative ways to overcome the challenges, while remembering to celebrate the many advantages.
Watch the video below to gather your own learnings from the panel discussion.