One Year Of Running A Department Remotely

I have learned a few things about remote working after a year taking part digitally in a startup and being accountable for one of its departments. Before getting to the takeaways, let me tell you a bit about the team and how I got there.

I came to Fargreen as its mission to fight climate change resonates with me. One day last summer, I decided it was time to stop being a slacktivist so I sent an email asking Fargreen’s CEO if she wants my help with the company’s communication efforts. She took up on my offer to do some work online. Yes, I did see the irony too! What’s else one could do when she lived in the Netherlands and wanted to work for the Vietnam-based company, though?

This is not me but I was similarly happy starting my remote work with Fargreen

I started with sketching out a communication plan, writing and sending newsletters, and shaking up the blog, from the study in my Amsterdam flat. As it’s often the case in startups, there’s more to do. Before I knew it, I got an assistant.

My first assistant D is easy going, friendly and agile, but she no longer works with me. Firing her was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do even though I never met her face to face.

D was a real people person. She got on with the whole team in Hanoi and was loved by many volunteers as she helped to build various communities around Fargreen’s mission.

Her works brought to Fargreen many other youngsters who are interested in doing good and learning about concepts, such as sustainable development or social entrepreneurship, which have not been discussed much in Vietnam.

With her in the communication team, I was able to produce more content and have them available in both English and Vietnamese, to equalise the efforts aiming at partners and investors in the western world as well as potential Vietnamese consumers. I had a great plan for D to be my eyes and ears, collecting the intel needed for reports, newsletters, press releases that I would write during dark winter days in Amsterdam.

Everything sounded perfect, only that it didn’t work. Results differed from expectations. Tasks needed redoing and deadlines were too often missed. I failed to get the right attention from D.

I tried inspiration, encouragement as well as gentle warnings. She returned promises, yet slackness stayed. I was full of frustration and self-doubt. As I obviously failed to communicate with my own assistant, how would I communicate Fargreen’s mission and business model to the world? Besides, why couldn’t I work with the such a likeable girl?

Not me either, but not far off

I was as miserable as Northern European winter. As the work piled up, I found another assistant while delaying the decision to let the first one go. When the talk eventually happened, she seemed surprised. Directness was not my strong point, evidently.

N was my second associate. Being introvert and spontaneous, she reminded me of myself. When N started, she worked in the same time zone with me and also remotely. We seemed to click but, as one would say, our band didn’t go viral.

At that point, I have managed to talk the team in Vietnam into using Slack. Excuses like “…but all my contacts are on Skype” were no longer accepted. It took a few weeks, but they gave it a proper try. Once on board, they could not leave. The whole team was reachable within seconds, but my assistant was somehow out of my reach.

She would go missing on her creative mood for hours or days, trying to create something perfect. I love creativity but I needed results. If you are familiar with startups, you have probably, once or many times, nodded to an okay job, thinking “That’s good for now, we can improve it later”.

I could feel the second failure coming, a worse one as I thought we had a special bond. Early March, I spent some weeks in Hanoi, working face-to-face with N. That didn’t help. The only difference was that I could do the final talk in person, feeling less like a jerk.

Either an introvert or an extrovert, a creative type or a working bee type, I could not work with. I held the thought “Maybe it was me” for a couple of months and refused to look for new team members.

Fast forwarding five months, we now have a marketing communication team of four, producing more work than ever. Ever every two weeks, I chair a one-hour meeting on Google Hangouts. We have a content calendar on Trello where everyone actively contributes. It has been amazing. I stop tearing my hair out in distress every morning when I woke up to tasks from the the Vietnamese side. I have left my Amsterdam flat and living like a nomad, yet managed a smooth running of the team.

I believe these are the few reasons why it started working:

Have written guides

At Fargreen, we are doing a lot of new things that have not been done in Vietnam and that we could only learn by trial and error. Once we see success in certain tasks, we note it down and make it a standard procedure.

It’s especially effective when you work with farmers who have lived by the force of habits for years. We keep communication clear, structural, transparent and in writing. Forms and spreadsheets are available for every process from fermenting straw to picking mushrooms.

We realised that written instructions helped with our team members too. I now have documents describing steps in sales material production, social media content preparation, and website update flow, to name a few.

To-do lists, Reminders, Follow-Ups

I ask my team to do follow-ups at all times. They have to bug me until they get a reply, a confirmation, or a solid promise. If they don’t and I forget, they are accounted for any delays.

I am running another business of my own and my commitment to Fargreen has always been part time. Besides, I am traveling full time and I’ve just gone through two weddings. There are also many good books that I enjoy. That is to say, I am the prime candidate for forgetting tasks.

To manage my work, I’ve got a to-do-today spreadsheet, multiple Trello boards, and a Wunderlist account that syncs across devices. I share my lists and boards with my team so they could follow up with my work easily and talk them, well it’s more like hectoring them, into doing the same thing.

Team structure

I am accountable for the team’s performance, hence the manager title, but I don’t think of my teammates as my associates or assistants. We don’t work like that.

We have a spreadsheet of tasks we need to do. People pick their tasks based on what they want to learn or improve, and where their talents lie. 
They lead the whole process: working out who’s involved and the timeline for prosecution. I might have a final word on certain decisions but we are equal in handling our tasks and taking the responsibility to get things done.

I believe this structure and the autonomy lie at the centre of our success so far, as no micromanagement is needed. If micromanagement is unhealthy, trying to do it remotely is insane.

The right SaaS tools

Slack is a great help: it cuts down the number of emails and saves us a bunch of time on sharing files and looking for information. It calls to your attention.

Trello is great for managing various projects. It is involving in the way that you can set deadlines, assign a task to various members, add links, photos, and comments. We use Trello for our Content Calendar. When anyone in my team adds a new card tothe board, the notification on the Slack’s channel of the communication team tells me that piece of content is being taken care of. It’s a good feeling.

We are trying automation. I started with small things like sending a reminder to a Slack channel when a meeting scheduled on Google Calendar is about to happen. More technical things such as to add a Trello card directly from Slack using a command line takes a bit of time to train, but there’s a learning curve and I am sure it will help in the long term. For now, our content calendar is full and categorised in beautiful colours, so I am dead proud.