6 Things I Learned After A Year of Building and Managing A Completely Remote Team
Nearly a year ago — May 1, 2015 — I launched an online publication for college freshmen called Fresh U. The idea for the publication stemmed from a campus magazine I created when I was a freshman at Syracuse University in Fall 2013. A year and a half after that, I launched a “for freshmen, by freshmen,” online website nationally. On my team was a social media director, an editor, and a developer. The social media director and editor were both students (like me) and the developer (who also happens to be my sister) lived in Chicago and San Francisco. When the Fresh U website went live on May 1, we began accepting students in the class of 2019 to write for us. We were also preparing for our small team to work remotely. I would be interning in New York City for the summer, my social media director would be in New Jersey, the editor in Virginia, and the developer in Chicago. But shortly after our launch, the number of people involved quickly grew.
Our base of contributing writers grew to around 300 students, and we were also establishing Fresh U chapters at 13+ universities, some of which included Northwestern University, New York University, and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. In the fall, the Fresh U chapters launched and each of them had an editorial staff of their own. My social media director began working with some assistants to help with posting, we went through a few different editors, added some more editors, maintained weekly communication with the chapters, and somehow still tried to grow.
This past semester, I studied abroad in London, England. My developer was in San Francisco, my social media director in Syracuse, and other team members scattered in Tennessee, North Carolina, and various other states. Maybe it was because I wanted to ensure that an ocean wouldn’t hinder any growth — or maybe I learned from past mistakes — but I prioritized organized communication and, slowly, we started to form a more cohesive team. Now, a few days away from releasing our writer applications for students in the class of 2020, I feel much more prepared for the growth I want our company to experience this year. Here are some of the key things I learned the past 12 months that led to that:
You have to find alternate ways to create personal connections with your team members.
I’ve never actually met some of the people I work with. While that sounds crazy and/or shady, I feel like I know them personally. Following team members on Instagram and Twitter and even becoming friends on Facebook is actually really important because it helps provide the context for their life that you might miss from working remotely. Reading a tweet that shows off their humor, or liking their selfie on Instagram helps create an outside-of-work connection. This is important for any office, not just remote ones, but I think it’s especially important when your team members are literally time zones away.
People will professionally ghost you, but you’ll start to recognize the signs leading up to it.
Ghosting (AKA disappearing with little to no explanation) isn’t just a thing in the dating world. Just like being ghosted in your personal life, you start to sense when someone is going to slowly fade out of your life, or in this case, your team. When your communication happens mostly happens over different forms of messaging like email, Facebook messenger, and text, it becomes more and more apparent when the response time between emails goes from just a few hours to a few days. In a perfect world, someone would be honest and tell you if they’re feeling disconnected or less passionate about the work they’re doing. But most of the time, that manifests itself in little details that end up hurting your team’s productivity. So I’ve found it’s best to bring up lapses in communication or less enthusiastic work. You’ll either get to the bottom of the problem and solve it, or they’ll decide it would be best for them to leave the team. And just like in a relationship, that’s much better than waiting for it to somehow get better on its own.
Weekly calls are essential.
You might think you can survive on constant messaging and emails, but you can’t. Messaging is great for maintaining a business, but not so great when it comes to growing it. For a while, I thought that emails would be enough, or only having a call when there was something to “go over” would be fine. But it turns out that the best ideas come from the conversations you have FaceTime to FaceTime. And if you’re only calling when there’s something to talk about, you probably won’t have anything to talk about that often. For every head team member, you should make sure you schedule weekly calls and actually follow through with those calls. There was one team member that wasn’t available for calls too often, and honestly, I didn’t push hard enough to make sure we talked regularly. A week between calls turned into a month, and I noticed that there hadn’t been any significant growth in a while and there was definitely a disconnect between what I was envisioning and what that team member was producing. I don’t know if the weekly calls would have solved that problem, but I think they would have made a big difference.
Replicating a collaborative office environment is difficult, but it’s really important to figure out.
One of the mistakes I made when bringing on new team members or communicating with current ones was not fostering communication across team members. Basically, I was talking to a bunch of individual people but they weren’t talking with each other. When you’re managing a team remotely, it’s not difficult to communicate with a bunch of different people at once about different responsibilities. The problem I had was getting my team members to talk with each other. I was working with individuals and while it felt like a team to me, I didn’t have an effective way for the team members to work with each other. They presented ideas or information to me, which I would then send to a relevant team member. When you don’t have a physical office space, it’s a lot harder to hold all-staff meetings, and you can’t introduce new team members to existing team members the same way you can in an office. And this definitely led to some staff members losing interest, or just not feeling invested. Why would you feel committed to something if you don’t have a personal connection with it or any of the people working there? This is an issue that I’m only just starting to find a solution for. Our team recently moved from half-hearted Facebook group chats and CCed emails to operating through Slack. The same feeling I might have with a real office, I’m creating channels for any team members that should be in communication. I’m trying to have an active channel for everyone that’s on the head staff. I’m encouraging everyone to share their ideas with the whole group and talk directly with other team members. It sounds self-explanatory that team members would talk to each other, but when you all exist in your own online spaces, it’s more difficult than you think. You have to be the one to make the introductions and figure out the best way to include everyone.
Spotting talent isn’t necessarily harder, but you’ll learn to recognize quality work in different ways.
With remote work, you can’t measure commitment by who gets to the office the earliest. And because your only interaction with a lot of people is online, you’ll figure out the best way to notice potential early on and give people more responsibility. Starting with our writers, I notice when I see a byline more frequently, especially if the article is well-put together. From there, we might ask that writer to work more closely with our editors, or we’ll assign them articles we think would be a good fit for them. And then I’ll see who responds to more responsibility, who meets deadlines without being asked, who brings ideas to the table unprompted; those are the people I want to join the head team. I think when your entire team is remote — and this includes all of your writers — you need to actively be on the lookout for the things that make people stand out. And then you should be the one to reach out to them asking if they would be interested in taking on a larger role. The signs of potential are often more subtle than you might experience in “real life,” but they are there . You just have to notice them, and then do something about it.
Quantity is only valuable if you know how to make it quality.
This is applicable to a lot of things — web traffic, writers, social media followers. But here, it applies to people. At the end of my first year running Fresh U, I realized that having a lot of people working on something doesn’t constitute a team. And communicating with a bunch of people individually doesn’t make you a leader. But by learning from what didn’t work, hopefully I can become a better one.