Working remotely is about mutual trust. It’s the same as assessing the security of your home, the reliability of your office job, or the viability of your relationship.
If you don’t care, you’ll lose. If you stress over it too much, something seems fishy and you may get burned again.
I am a proponent of remote working in theory. And I’ve managed to build a team comprised of 70% remote employees.
But I’ve also had to go over 5,500+ CVs and conduct over 1,000 interviews for the past 3 years. We’ve started 80 trials off those 1000 interviews and had to part ways with 30 within the first 2–3 months.
The Downfall of Remote Work
Companies like Yahoo and IBM have ended their remote work policy not long ago. Overseeing requires a specific mindset and a completely different management structure and workflow as compared to a local, centralized one.
My friend Richard Laermer has also shared his failed attempt to build a remote culture for Bloomberg in The Rise and Fall of Working From Home:
Last year, Richard Laermer decided to let his employees work from home on a regular basis. “We hire adults, they shouldn’t be tied to the office five days a week,” said Laermer, who owns a New York-based public relations firm. “I always assumed that you can get your work done anywhere, as long as you actually get it done.”
Turns out, he was wrong.
Employees took advantage of the perk, Laermer said. One was unavailable for hours at a time. Another wouldn’t communicate with co-workers all day, which Laermer found suspicious. The last straw, he said, was when someone refused to come in for a meeting because she had plans to go to the Hamptons. “That was the most unbelievably nervy thing I’d heard in years,” he said.
Ten months in, he scrapped the benefit and now requires all of his employees to come into the office every day.
Truth to be told, we’ve been there as well. We’ve heard some incredibly weird stories that were so far-fetched that “the dog ate my homework” appeared to be entirely legit and logical in comparison.
It’s even embarrassing at times.
Reputation and Background Checks for Remote Teams
And since I’ve started with “trust”, the real problem comes with the lack of reputation in place.
- Good companies are hesitant to hire people with limited digital footprint and experience
- Experienced workers question the viability of a fairly unknown business online
Both of those make sense.
Ideally, everything should start with the hiring process. Asking for recommendations, hiring employees from a certain university or sponsoring an event would let you meet potential applicants directly and discuss an opportunity in an informal manner.
The interview itself should also cover some of the pressing problems for each party – such as communication, productivity, payment structure and terms, and the like.
There are plenty of scammers from each side of the table:
- Phantom companies, black SEO agencies, dark web communities and various organizations trying to steal extra manpower. Shady and greedy SMB owners looking for free help. You name it.
- Disingenuous contractors or workers, outsourcing companies in disguise, people working 2, 3, or 4 jobs at the same time.
You can easily receive a resume with 10+ years of experience, a portfolio of known companies, and even some references. Calling those references may very well lead to fake phone numbers with trusted parties instructed to praise the applicant.
How to Make Remote Working Work
While the things that could go wrong are endless, we still believe in remote work and are always open to giving an opportunity to the right applicants (whenever we have a suitable opening).
And the best way to build trust within an organization is looking in the same direction.
- The employee should work hard and deliver results in a timely manner. That includes the right communication protocol as per the company standards.
- The company should respect the employee’s needs and requirements revealed during the interview.
As long as both parties are on the same page, the rest is adjusting to the right process.
Since communication and deliverables are usually the two pressing matters, those should be the main priorities for a remote employee and their colleagues and management.
We’re usually suggesting two to three daily touchpoints with our employees. Developers should check in code in GitHub or Bitbucket regularly. Marketers should update their spreadsheets and content documents. Everyone should stick to their backlog, work together with their colleagues, communicate promptly in the event of miscommunication, and deliver earlier to avoid quality revisions.
The crispier the process, the better the communication. And with time, a reliable employee may very well become an irreplaceable unit of the organization.
We have technical leads and seniors working remotely. I’ve had a remote VP of Technology in one of my previous companies as well. Those are the reliable people you can always ping and connect with during business hours. The ones that report early in case of a challenge. The people who would come up with alternative solutions and assess risk for you. And the people who would not miss deadlines or cause regressions.
Great communicators and professional workers would rarely face any challenges working remotely.
How to Ensure Alignment Across Remote Team Members?
It’s important to outline the different types of remote working environments as this is crucial for understanding the foundations of the company culture. Being a freelancer for an enterprise is one thing. Working in a fully distributed company is completely different.
Since remote working is somewhat popular in the WordPress ecosystem, we tend to collaborate with over a hundred agencies implementing some of those remote models.
Prior to founding DevriX, I had an opportunity to work in different companies that were open to working remotely.
- My very first computer maintenance job was freelance while I was still at school
- My next two jobs mixed on-site work with “work from home” in different flavors
- The following dev job was an office gig. However, management was abroad – in a different office, and our clients were on a different continent as well.
- I had another job for a 100% distributed team of 40 people
- I had a full-time remote job for a startup that had the vast majority of the core staff on-site at their office.
As a result, I had seen the pros and cons of different team organization structures for myself – which led to the business model we’ve started with and keep aligning with time.
Remote, Distributed, or Hubs?
There are different forms of isolation or shunning remote people. Telecommuting a couple of days a week is fine. Working in a 100% distributed company with no headquarters could also be acceptable.
Most problems arise while working remotely for a team that has a strong core on-site. Keeping the heartbeat in that setup is challenging – and requires investment from both the remote worker and the company.
Which is also our case – as a team of 45 with the third working from our local office. The rest of the team – plus another 5–7 freelancers – is remote. Aligning them depends on a few things.
We never hire remote people with less than 2–3 years of professional experience.
Junior folks require a ton of training and onboarding. They lack business expertise and professional skills. It takes months to get them up to speed at the office. Training them remotely would simply require a designated senior spending a year on virtual training courses, workshops over Hangouts, and a constant exchange of emails or instant messages.
Mid-level people (say, 3–6 years of experience) are usually familiar with the work requirements and can operate somewhat independently. That still needs some supervision from the seniors but it’s manageable. They often lack enough experience working in different environments – from freelance through startups to SMEs to corporations – which often takes a while to digest.
Seniors have usually worked remotely at some point of time – as freelancers, having run their business for a year or two, or in other agencies. They are quite comfortable and can clearly discuss their needs or communicate problems as they arise.
Our standard communication channels are through Slack and Asana. Our weekly sprints and some long-term assignments are in Asana. The day-to-day chat happens in Slack.
Seniors are quite comfortable and familiar with the process and can start rocking from day one. Mid-level folks usually know the basics but aren’t familiar with some of the tools or their best practices. People with no formal working experience (interns and entry-levels) need at least a couple of months to memorize our intro documents covering work interruptions, the right protocol for discussing common problems at work, which channel to use, when to report a problem and the like.
The more experienced the hire is, the easier it is to get productive and sync the communication protocol.
Some expert hires that have worked exclusively in large corporations on-site or, on the contrary, exclusively freelance, may struggle with the communication at first. This is why we try to set a foundation that’s easier to follow (as long as you have a basic work culture).
Granted, we can meet locally at the office, grab a lunch together, or meet after hours. Still, some of our full-timers locally spend some time working from home.
We’re approaching that on a case-by-case basis – depending on each one’s personality. Some people sincerely lack the social element while others focus on solving problems.
The common practices we try to incorporate in order to reduce the gap are:
- Several Slack channels for offtopic and success stories – icebreakers, funny gifs, anything else that people are free to share and have fun with
- A Monday kick-off meeting online – syncing priorities and sharing some company data for everyone who wants to learn more about our clients or what other teams work on
- A separate Monday session including non-business questions that each team member should answer. For example, we’re asking what intriguing articles people read last week, where did they go over the weekend, a photo contest for weekend selfies or homemade dinners. We always include a “secret” question such as “If you could pick a single superpower, what would it be?” This generally helps with bonding.
- Once or twice a year swag shipping. Tees, mugs, pens – nothing too fancy but we want to make people a part of the team.
- One-on-one chats – whenever possible, just to make people feel a part of the team.
- Strict document management – we try to keep water cooler discussions to the minimum. Even if we have internal discussions, we report everything in Asana so that remote team members can pick it up and start contributing when they’re around.
We haven’t done a global retreat yet but it’s on the roadmap. We also have some side projects such as Reaction GIFs that people are invited to contribute to and use in online conversations with team members.
Overall, we’re trying to balance the strict and corporate workflow with some fun along the way. Juniors and slower performers may feel more stressed out but the good communicators easily adjust to our work process and start contributing with us.
It’s all about mutual communication and providing information transparently for all relevant team members.