Over the past 18 months, we’ve found a unique challenge here at FullContact. We’ve gone from a team of 20-something, all located in an office in Denver, to a team of nearly 40 with a second office in Latvia, a Content Director in Nashville and a potential executive hire out of San Francisco. We’re truly becoming a distributed team, and we’ve learned a few things along the way that we’d like to share with you.
While companies like Yahoo and others are pushing people back to the office, we’ve found that letting people work where they perform best is a better option. But how do you keep people on the same page, moving in the same direction? These are the challenges that we’ve found, and while our methods aren’t yet perfect, we’ve also come up with some solutions.
This is probably the biggest challenge of any. You need to find the people who can work without someone in the same place as them. They need to be driven and disciplined, they have to communicate well both written and verbally and they need to be able to build a bond with the team even while they’re away.
When I sat down with our CEO and VP of Business Development to interview for this position, I told them in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t going to move to Denver. I also told them that I had a habit of working strange hours, often times finding myself at the computer at 4am, pounding out 3 days worth of minutiae that needed to be handled. Their response? “We don’t care when you work, as long as your shit gets done.”
What we’ve found is that, by making sure that our remote team members are available for meetings, but otherwise leaving them to their own devices, they accomplish much more than making them show up for a specific set of hours.
Use the Technology
When I first started with FullContact, we’d handle meetings via Skype or Google Hangouts, using someone’s laptop sitting in the middle of the table. It took about 3 meetings for us to figure out that this wasn’t going to work. I couldn’t hear, they couldn’t see me and that lack of face-to-face communication was detrimental.
So we invested in technology to solve the problem. We dropped a bit of cash on Google’s Chromebox for Meetings hardware and we solved our problems. Now not only can I hear and see the team, they can hear and see me just as if I were sitting in the conference room with them. Now a sarcastic comment doesn’t get confused for a serious concern because there’s facial context to go along with it. As someone who relies heavily on sarcasm (perhaps too heavily…), I appreciate the clarity.
We also had a heck of a time deciding on a chat platform. We used Skype, Google Talk and a bevy of others before finally deciding on Slack. One thing that we noticed here is that it takes some training of the folks in the office to get into the habit of using a chat service first rather than just talking to someone when a remote person is needed in the conversation.
Tools like Google Docs, Asana, Pivotal Tracker and 7Geese help to keep us all connected, and allow us to work together no matter where we are. The last thing that you want is a bunch of “campfire knowledge”, where only the people sitting around each other in a circle know what’s going on.
We have a daily stand up for our Marketing and Sales teams at 8:45. Even though I’m an hour ahead of the team and a thousand miles away, I still call in every day to make sure that I know what’s going on. We also have a weekly Marketing meeting, another for Creative and our monthly All-Hands. No matter where we are in the world, every member shows up for every meeting to ensure that there’s always an open line of communication.
We’ve even gone so far as to have monthly 1-on-1 meetings remotely. When you’re using the right tech, it’s really no different than sitting face to face in a room, and it helps to free up time for both sides since they can do the meeting from anywhere that they have an Internet connection.
Get Them in the Office
It’s important to get your remote folks into the office if it’s possible. Heck, when we acquired Cobook the entire team flew in from Latvia to spend time with us in Denver. You’re never going to gel as a team until you can dedicate to doing face time, and there’s no better place than the home office.
But you also have to make sure that you’re not killing your staff with travel schedules, as was the case with me after a few months. Between driving to get my kids every other weekend, then spending every fourth week in Denver, I was constantly exhausted. I never got a chance to catch up. Fortunately, after the first year, we decided that once every other month was sufficient and things have been better.
When you make the decision to allow remote workers, it’s an all-in or all-out choice. Don’t straddle the fence or neither side is going to be happy with the results.
While this probably works for people inside of the office as well, it’s especially true for remote workers. When people are in an office it’s fairly easy to see what they’re up to at any given time. But when you’re talking about remote workers, their day may look completely different from what you’d expect. For example, I start most days around 6:30 AM, so that’s 5:40 in Denver. By the time that the rest of the team comes in to the office for our 8:45 stand up, I’ve already been answering emails, doing research or any number of other tasks for three hours. So when I hit the door at 3 PM Denver time, it can raise some eyebrows if people are only measuring input.
That’s why it’s critical to measure output from your team, but especially your remote people. Set goals, deliver clear expectations and then let them achieve those goals and expectations in the manner that works best for them. This is probably great advice for anyone in a company, but it’s especially true with remote workers who tend toward flexible scheduling anyway.
While there are no doubt countless other factors to hiring and managing remote teams, these are the stumbling points that we found, and the solutions that made sense for us. Gave some of your own? Drop them in the comments. Want to be part of the FullContact vision? We’re hiring.