6 ways to manage a partly remote team (with some help from Dilbert)

Working remotely has become a common norm across many companies, more so in startups. It provides great flexibility to employees & allows employers to work with good talent. There are companies like Helpscout and Buffer that have entire distributed teams. Their entire culture is based on having the team work from different locations across the globe.

Since the entire team works remotely, they all face similar challenges and have worked on them over time to built a system that works.

Nick Francis, co-founder of Helpscout says “When we started Help Scout, I don’t remember any of us making a conscious decision to go full-on remote. It was more of a survival strategy.”

Richard Branson says, “One day, offices will be a thing of the past.”

These guys have made a conscious decision to support remote teams.

What if one or two people in a team need to work remotely? When the entire team is not remote, this decision can be a tough one to make. Not only does the in-office team have to adjust to the remote members and their style of working. But the remote working folks have to get used to being the only ones away.

At Exotel, the marketing team has 3 people working remotely (in an 8 member team). There are some of the things that have worked us in managing a team that is partly remote.

Before hiring for such a role, you need the first consider the following:

  1. The Role — How easy is it to work remotely? What dependencies would they have? Can business be done over phone & email?
  2. The Person — Are they individual contributors? Are they focused? How hungry are they? What are their reasons to work remotely?

If you have answered the above & satisfied, the following tips can help you manage remote teams successfully -

  1. Plan

Well begun is half done.

Make sure you set expectations right with your team and seek accountability. Break down annual goals into monthly goals and monthly one into weekly ones. Set aside time every week to plan for the week.

This helps the team stay focused on what’s important and provides you predictability.

Deepa who works with Mphasis works as a part of a remote team. Her team is split across time zones. She believes in setting expectations.

“I don’t believe in long drawn emails or unwanted meetings as long as the work is done. Define clear working hours so they know when you will be available.” — Deepa

Tools Used — Gmail for Weekly Plan & Basecamp to assign Tasks

2. Communicate

It is extremely important to stay in regular touch with your team and not let them feel left behind. Share regular company, product updates with them, encourage them to work with cross functional teams;

One of the best practices is to create a team-wide work done check-in at the end of the day so that every team member know what the other is up to!

Amulya Shruti who heads creative at Paper Boat says,

“Having everyone on the same page is difficult to manager. I think that’s the biggest challenge. Once you figure your way out around that, everything else is trivial.”

Deepa says,

“Communication is the main thing. I set up calls whenever possible. I don’t resort to chat or email, I prefer to just pick up the phone and talk. It makes a difference when they hear your voice a lot.”

Tools used — Gmail for Email Communication, Slack channels for Chat, Basecamp for Team Check-In, Google Hangouts for Video Calling, Whatsapp for sharing poor jokes on the group & the good old telephone for calls.

3. Collaborate

Throw challenges that encourage them to work with multiple different people. Single member teams, especially, may get saturated if you don’t create opportunities for them to interact with other team members;

For example: Let a marketing person take demo from the sales team or talk to the Customer Support team if there’s a query about the product.

It doesn’t have to be all work either. Helpscout has a very interesting tradition called Friday Fika.

Inspired by the Swedish tradition it’s named after, our Friday Fika is a weekly 15–30 minute break to talk with a randomly chosen person on the Help Scout team. Coffee and pastries are not required, but they are recommended!
The topics of discussion can run the gamut and don’t require structure, but I’d recommend setting a kickoff topic for each week, so it’s easy to break the ice.

Tools Used — Basecamp for Team planning, Pipedrive for Sales Management, Google Drive for Document Management & Freshdesk for Customer Support

4. Motivate

This is the most important ingredient of the recipe. Never shy away from writing an appreciation email or call if your team does a good job.

Vani Saraswathi is the Associate Editor of Migrant-Rights.org, a content-based advocacy forum. Vani says,

“if you’re heading a remote team, setting a clear agenda, following through, being open to suggestions, etc. will equal to motivation.”

Amulya says,

“the team needs to feel like we’re working on things bigger than the day-to-day things asked of us.”

Allow them to work on new innovative projects, set the bar high constantly and ensure the team is excited to start work every day.

Tools Used — Slack Public Channels, Basecamp has an awesome applaud & comment feature for every check-in, Google groups for email

5. Review

There are very high chances that remote teams lose track of what to work on. One of the best practices is a daily check-in of “What did I do today” on either Email or tools like Basecamp.

Encourage the team to share work done work for the day & two interesting things they learnt during the day. Also, set aside time at the end of the week to review the weekly plan & provide immediate feedback!

Tools used — Google Hangouts for Video Calling, Basecamp for Tracking Tasks, Slack for Chat & Gmail for Communication

6. Meet in-person whenever possible

It is important to have the team meet in person whenever possible.

And this is how Buffer does it:

In order to have deliberate face-to-face time together to bond and have fun, we have multiple Buffer retreats per year, where we gather the whole team in a single location.

Helpscout meets as a team very often too. They say,

“Use the time you have in person to really get to know your team outside of the work they perform. This will help to create unity and eliminate the “cog in the machine” demeanor that inhabits teams with discord and disconnection.”

Tools used — Don’t even try to use one.

This post originally appeared on Exotel’s blog.

About the Author
Nikhil Kumar
Nikhil works as the Chief Evangelist at Exotel. He is responsible for forging strategic partnerships & building a world class developer eco-system. Prior to this, Nikhil was the Co-Founder of Voyce, a retail customer engagement platform which was acquired by Exotel.