Lessons From Going Remote at Microsoft

An insider’s perspective on working in the tech giant’s global remote Customer Success team

This article was written by Hasan Ali Polat, an innovation consultant based in Istanbul. Hasan is a partner in Flux’s global Cells network. To find out more, head to http://flux.am/ and book a call.

A powerful first week

I was standing alone in a dark elevator at 9PM on a Friday evening. It was the end of my first week at Microsoft. Lessons learnt: never leave the office last if you are still using a visitor’s badge — which are automatically disabled after 7PM 😉

I took the opportunity to review the experiences and memories from my first week, whilst waiting in the dark for the security guys to free me from the elevator.

I was totally exhausted, but really energised at the same time. I was already feeling like I was part of an incredible team. That feeling continued to grow during my 12 month journey at Microsoft, and I still feel the same connection with my teammates even after leaving.

If you want to work as a single organism you must let the information flow without borders and rules.

We will get why that happened shortly, but let me give you some background first.

How I got to Microsoft

I started my career at Siemens back in 1999, and spent 16 years there in various positions. After 16 years, I decided to make a change and started to explore new job opportunities in the market.

One day, I noticed an interesting job ad on LinkedIn. Microsoft was looking for a “Customer Success Manager”.

Back in the day, nobody in Turkey knew what a CSM was or what they might do, but the title was catchy, so I started to read the job description in detail:

  • Working with strategic customers
  • Being their trusted advisor
  • Providing them with strategic advisory services on how to get the maximum value out of their Microsoft investment
  • Supporting customers to transform their own businesses
  • Being part of a global team

That feeling, when you finally see something that you want!

So, I applied for the job right away. And to cut a long story short, after a chain of interviews I was honoured with an offer to join Microsoft’s CSM team.

How we worked as a global team

We were a team of 60 highly skilled professionals located all over the world. Even though we were geographically distributed, we worked incredibly closely and the team spirit was the best I’d ever experienced.

I would love to write about the amazing people that I met during my journey in Microsoft but it would take an article longer than War and Peace, so let’s leave that for another time.

The team spirit in this geographically distributed team was the best I’d ever experienced.

For now, let me just provide a couple of insights and applications for how we made it work as a global & diverse team:

  1. Pre-Boarding
  2. Use of Technology
  3. Sense of Community & Working like a Network
  4. Power Hour Meetings
  5. Team Weeks
  6. Coaching & Support
  7. Transparency
  8. Recognition

1. Pre-Boarding

My official start date was the 1st March, but my manager invited me to an external social network 15 days earlier. All my soon to be colleagues were also hanging out in that network. He made a public announcement and kicked off a welcome thread to let the team know that I was going to be joining them soon. I added with adding some personal details about me, like my background, hobbies, interests, location, etc.

This thread immediately received loads of lovely welcome messages and comments from around the world. My colleagues also shared their tips and recommendations for my on-boarding phase.

It was a great opportunity for me to start conversations with teammates and prepare myself before my first day. On top of this, I also felt welcomed, which was super important on a personal level, as I had made a bold decision to leave my company after 16 years and start a new adventure.

After the on-boarding process, it pretty much went smoothly from there. But there are a few other key elements that helped us to make it work as a global team.

2. Use of Technology

We always used technology as a medium for collaboration & alignment, this helped us to overcome the geographical distances. Some technologies we benefited from were:

  • Skype: For weekly team meetings or 1–1s
  • OneNote: To take & share notes
  • OneDrive & Sharepoint: To store & share files
  • Yammer: To keep everything together as the main platform of collaboration
  • Email: Not so much, better share it on the network :)

I think the actual technology you use isn’t that important. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Slack or WhatsApp or Yammer for chatting. As long as you chat.

3. Sense of Community & Working like a Network

We always worked as a community and network in every sense of the words.

We encouraged each other to share comments, feedback, questions, successes, challenges, and current tasks with the whole community. We were working in the open as much as possible. We called this “sharing is caring”.

I remember, the very first piece of advice that my manager gave me:

“Ask your network first, before you dive deep into a challenge. Most probably someone else has already worked on the same or a similar challenge before you.”

Another good example of the “sharing is caring” philosophy was the Weekly TOP 3 threads

Every Monday morning, we kicked off a thread in our network where everybody shared their TOP 3 priorities for the week. This was extremely useful to align globally, and inevitably conversations started between colleagues who had similar challenges.

It was also a really useful tool for me to spend Sunday evening thinking about my priorities goals for the coming week.

4. Power Hour Meetings

Every week we had a region-wide Skype call to get aligned as a team. Anybody could add items to the agenda before the meeting.

We shared our successes, highlights, lowlights, or requested help and support from the rest of the team.

Each week somebody from the team moderated the conversation, and another person took notes. These notes were then shared with the community after the meeting.

5. Team Weeks

We used run organise annual Team Weeks (on a global or regional scale) as physical gatherings.

The agenda for these meetings was developed collaboratively, so that everybody could share their opinion, add agenda items, and offer session ideas.

I was also encouraged to organise a session in my first Team Week (which happened on my first month!). With the help of my teammates I was able to pull off an interesting session.

This approach was exactly the opposite of my previous professional experiences, where the management team usually defines the agenda and runs one-way communication with the wider workforce.

For one of the global Team Weeks, we also organised an unconference.

6. Coaching & Support

Coaching — in the sense of providing support & help — was an important part of our working culture.

For example, on my first day, I received bunch of calendar invites from senior colleagues for 1–1 Skype sessions, so that they could support my on-boarding process.

I also had a weekly coaching meeting rhythm with my manager to ensure alignment. In those meetings we discussed challenges and blockers, and how he could help and support me in my role.

7. Transparency

If you want to work as a single organism you must let the information flow without borders and rules. That was something we call “radical transparency”.

As an example of this, our leadership team had their own group in our network. The would have serious discussion about the business in that group. It was an open group, where anybody could read the conversations and get informed for themselves.

Also, our global director shared his insights, learnings, and announcements regularly in the open in a blog-like format via our network. We could post questions or comments to instantly communicate with the leadership, without the normal barriers and blocks that standard hierarchies create.

8. Recognition

It was very important for us to recognise success and the good work or help of others.

We could easily write a post with the #peerrecognition hashtag for this. Success stories with this hashtag was collected centrally and shared back to the community. That way, everybody could benefit from best practice without having to actively search for them. This was also supported by the management.

For example, my manager had recognised my good work with one of the customers, and posted that on the network. It felt so good. It was like receiving a “thumbs up” in front of the whole team.

Summarising Lessons from Going Remote at Microsoft

I could go on and on with many different examples of how we built and ran an awesome remote team at Microsoft. But for the scope of this article I just want to emphasise the following points. These were our key success factors:

1. Team culture of support & help
2. Diverse team with different backgrounds
3. Leadership support, transparency
4. Smart use of technology

From my point of view, paying attention to these 4 elements can benefit all organisations who are trying to align globally, and ultimately change the way they work.

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