Founder & CEO at Microverse (YC S19), the global school for remote software developers.
Remote work has become the most transformative labor trend of our lifetime. Long before ‘social distancing’ became a household term, businesses chose to operate with remote teams because of its benefits.
In a recent survey by FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics, they found there was a 159% increase in remote work from 2007 to 2019. Whether your company has been planning to be remote-based for years or the need to adapt came suddenly, remote work is an opportunity for any business to operate with more efficiency, resilience, and flexibility.
I’ve been building a fully remote team for more than two years, and managing remote teams for many more so have been asked a lot of questions about managing remote teams. These are the most common questions and answers to help you navigate this, broken into 3 sections:
Recruiting becomes easier since companies aren’t limited to just hiring locally. Instead, they can choose from a global pool of talented applicants. In addition, companies experienced with managing remote teams are more resilient.
With the right practices and good structures in place team members become more resourceful, independent, and effective communicators. This means teams run smoothly, even in the face of unpredictable circumstances.
From the perspective of an employee working remotely, advantages go beyond saving money on transportation or meals. Employees gain more flexibility in organizing their work life and their personal lives. This can mean having more free time to spend time with family.
Many people also find they focus better working remotely because they encounter fewer distractions compared to working in an office. All of this makes employees want to stay at the company for longer.
Communicating while working remotely can be challenging for employees. When you work from home, you can’t just ask your co-worker sitting next to you when you have a question about something. Similarly, building social relationships with colleagues requires extra attention, since informal chats during coffee breaks or after-work drinks are not possible the same way they are for office workers.
Remote workers may also struggle with new distractions when working from home, like having kids, dependents, and roommates in close proximity. But these challenges can be resolved by rethinking work routines.
For companies, the main challenge is promoting more work autonomy and building more trust in employees. This requires better documentation and a different way of measuring performance — not by the number of hours, but by results.
Everyone is different. Some people find themselves more productive and enjoy the autonomy of working remotely. Some prefer an office environment, and others work best with a mix of both.
I recommend that companies maintain flexibility. Experiment with remote work but maintain the option to use office space for certain meetings or types of communication. This way, if employees need to work remotely because of an extreme circumstance, the company is prepared to handle it.
Remote work relies on three fundamental principles: autonomy, trust, and transparency.
First, working remotely means working autonomously to be productive. At Microverse, we embody that principle in a saying: “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than asking for permission.” This encourages team members to be proactive to solve complex problems rather than wait for approval.
Second, autonomy requires trust. Managers need to trust that team members will do the right thing and do their job correctly. Team members can foster trust and enable more autonomy for themselves by getting the job done consistently.
And third, autonomous work is enabled by transparency. Team members need to have access to the right information at the right time, so it’s crucial to be diligent about documentation. That goes for every meeting, decision and action item, onboarding and staff processes, experiments, and metrics — almost every detail of your business.
With these three principles, you can create a virtuous cycle of autonomous work: Team members have the right information when they need it without depending on other people. They make better decisions based on the right data, increasing mutual trust between the team and management.
Make writing documentation as easy and frictionless as possible by using the right tools for your team.
At Microverse, we use Notion. Other options are Confluence, Slite, Coda or GoogleDocs. Whichever you select, the tool should keep documentation simple and make it available to everyone. In our company, we follow the principle to be transparent by default — only restrict access if there is a strong reason.
The trick is to make writing documentation not feel like documentation — it should write itself. For example, the Microverse team rarely responds to questions by typing an answer. Instead, the response is always a link (e.g., to Notion) where to find that information.
If it’s a novel question, we write the answer in our open documentation system and send that new link. This takes more time than typing a response, but it helps everyone find answers on their own.
Remote work has many advantages that increase productivity in the long run. In transition, productivity may slow down as employees adapt to new practices. Keep in mind that temporary conditions at home can hurt productivity. For example, when schools are closed during a pandemic, parents struggle with the double responsibilities of caring for their children while working at home.
Employees need to avoid a feeling of social isolation. Companies can create structured opportunities for their team members to connect with each other. Virtual coffee breaks and other types of virtual meetings, from daily stand-ups to all-hands meetings are important.
It is really important to encourage remote employees to periodically disconnect from work, too. Setting fixed working hours and disabling work notifications while on a break and on weekends is strongly recommended.
Many managers of remote teams want to know whether their employees work two, eight, or 15 hours a day. But measuring the hour's employees' work tells you nothing about their results.
I strongly advise you don’t measure inputs like work hours, or outputs like the number of meetings they held. If you want to know how productive employees are, measure outcomes. The amount of new software pushed in production, the number of bug fixes, or how many contracts the sales team closed are good examples of outcome indicators.
Some work interruptions are inevitable. Parents who are working at home have a lot on their hands with schools and child care centers closed due to the pandemic. As a manager, showing empathy can alleviate a lot of stress for your team. Be sure to communicate with your team that they are not expected to be as productive as in normal times.
However, if family life keeps distracting employees from work duties, the company can advise on how to set up a proper work environment. Having the right hardware and a dedicated room free from distractions is a good place to start. Setting norms, like uninterrupted work hours, can also make a big difference.
Working in pairs can be a useful technique for employees struggling with distractions. Have team members call each other in pairs and keep the video and audio open while they work. Feeling accountable to another colleague like this helps some employees stay on task.
Lastly, if necessary, managers can install more regular check-ins or strict accountability mechanisms like daily stand-ups with affected employees. However, as trust and autonomy are fundamental for successful remote teams, these measures should only be thought of as short-term.
A basic rule is to have an agenda outlined ahead of every single meeting. Everyone needs to know the items to be discussed and the expected outcomes of the meeting. I would also advise having a participant volunteer to keep a watch on time for each section of the agenda.
Every meeting also needs a note-taker. This helps to keep the conversation focused and creates a record of the meeting for anyone who couldn’t be there. A meeting should close with a list of action items, including the ‘what’, ‘who’, and ‘when’ of action plans.
Start with a good work environment with little background noise and the right hardware. You don’t need to invest in the best headphones on the market, but a set of proper headphones — and microphones — not the ones that are in your laptop — are a minimum.
Next, invest in the best video conferencing software. As mentioned, Zoom is generally considered the best. Depending on your company’s budget and requirements of infrastructure or data regulation, you might opt for a different provider.
As the founder and CEO of a fast-growing company, I have a lot of meetings, so I appreciate a tool that helps me to organize them. My recommendation: Avoid having meetings spread out throughout your entire workday, or you won’t be able to get anything done. Clockwise automatically moves meetings into blocks to help maximize focus time.
Lastly, make sure that meeting documentation is easy and frictionless for everyone.
If you are limiting yourself to only hiring locally — or in a single time zone — you are limiting your talent pool. If you can hire in any time zone, anywhere in the world, you are able to find the best person for the job regardless of where they live.
Having a team spread across time zones is a unique challenge for management. Paying attention to proper documentation, improving asynchronous communication with video messages, and measuring performance by outcomes instead of inputs work will make your team more successful.
Make sure they want to join your team for the right reasons. It is not uncommon for a candidate to look for remote work because they want to be a digital nomad. Be wary if they only want the job so that they can constantly travel.
Some might interpret “flexible” work times as working some hours here, some hours there. Try to ensure that applicants have the level of commitment that the position requires. Ideally, candidates already have previous experience of working remotely and managing their own time. If they are new to remote work, plan the onboarding accordingly to give them the guidance they need.
As a basic rule, do not drop any interview step you would consider important in local hiring practices. Whether it is testing for technical knowledge or probing to see if the candidate is a cultural fit, make sure you find a way to implement every step remotely. Not all steps of the interview process have to be carried out through a real-time call or video meeting.
The interview needs to cover the experience with and expectations towards remote work. Be clear about both the benefits and challenges, and ask them about their own strategies to stay productive when working autonomously.
The short answer is yes. If you are hiring flexibly in locations and time zones across the world, you will be able to access talent at lower costs than in most big cities or Western countries.
However, saving money should never be your main motivation to transition to remote work. The main benefit of a remote workforce is access to a more diverse talent pool — and the advantages that team diversity brings to your business.
Remote work is one of the most transformative economic trends the world has seen in generations. For employers and workers alike — not to mention our global society and our natural world — the rewards are too compelling to ignore.
As mentioned, these are some of the most common questions I get asked about remote work. But there are so many more. Check out our Ultimate FaQ for Remote Work for answers to more of your questions. Feel free to Tweet at me with any other questions or comments you have!
(Image by Oksana Ivanchenko)