In the past few weeks, I’ve fielded a number of questions about remote working. And I was reminded of a post I wrote a year ago on the topic, for a now-defunct weekly tech opinion panel after Yahoo! decided to cancel its policies allowing off-site workers.
TL;DR: remote workers open up a world of talent, allow an organization to become truly global, and require a real investment of infrastructure, practice, and some resources.
Adding remote workers to your culture can feel like a leap, but before you dismiss it, contemplate your regular workday for just a moment: How often do you actually see your senior management team? How many times a day do you see each of your colleagues? I recall times where I would go a week without seeing a particular colleague in person, but would talk to them constantly via e-mail and chat. That’s not meant to diminish the challenges of remote working, but it underscores the new reality of a digital work environment.
What follows is a bit on the long side. But I think it’s valuable information for everyone working with (or as) a remotie today.
My home office, complete with boom mic and mixer for voiceovers.
Learning to be a “remotie”
When I joined Mozilla in 2010, I stepped into one of the best remote working organizations in the world, and one that had benefited greatly as a result of its investment. The ability to hire the brightest, most engaged, passionate employees wherever you find them in a global community is the envy of many an HR manager and CEO. And it’s helped to engage a global volunteer community that builds Mozilla’s products, which in turn drives better recruiting.
As Chief Operating Officer, I recruited and managed a team in five time zones. I led weekly meetings, and daily group or one-on-one check-ins. I contributed to all-staff webcasts, recruited and even hired staff remotely. And I was often a remotie myself, spending up to a quarter of my time on the road, in one of our offices, or working from home one or two days a week.
In a remote work environment, timezone conversion becomes second nature. My daily workday was built around the hours of work in Mountain View, Toronto, New York, and London. The most coveted hour of the day was from 11 a.m. and noon EST, because the PST, EST, and GMT workdays align, facilitating group meet ups across continents.
Mozilla’s story isn’t unique, at least not anymore. There is scarcely a company today that aspires to global reach and influence that doesn’t have multiple offices or outpost workers. Today I work in the Toronto office of Vision Critical, a SaaS company with offices in North America, Europe, and Asia. While there are over 75 people in the Toronto office (and hundreds around the world), I often have to work as a remote employee with my colleagues in Vancouver, New York, or London (not to mention clients in every part of North America). The skills I learned at Mozilla are essential.
Managing a successful team with remote workers requires some adaptation in three areas: infrastructure, business processes, and leadership approach.
There is a short list of lightweight tools that I have used for quick and easy collaboration and communication. It’s a bit of a Lego toy box, and I bet most people already use a few of these tools. I’ve used the paid and free versions of many of them, but my only paid services here are a topped up Skype-out account (for calls from Skype to a real phone number) and the premium version of Dropbox. The other services you can get for free at adequate levels of service and reliability.
I use Skype. At home, I have a Logitech dedicated Skype camera connected to my home theatre, which makes longer conference calls much more bearable by putting things on the big screen and adding high quality audio. On the road or in an office, headphones with a microphone are a must-have (available for less than $30 each). For multi-user video, you’ll need either a premium Skype account, or a dedicated solution like Vidyo.
My instant messenger is how I know when my team is at work. They show up online, and I know I can get their attention for a quick conversation or to pull them into a meeting. It’s way less cumbersome than e-mail, and with some tools can also facilitate mobile and group interaction. I’ve used IRC, Microsoft Lync, Skype chat, and Whatsapp all to varying effect. I’ll admit that it’s old school, but I still love IRC best.
My go-to applications are Google docs for collaborative editing, and Dropbox for shared files. The ability to collaborate on multiple screens with multiple authors on the same document is amazing. I ran a collaborative planning session with colleagues from a US foundation who are leaders in digital learning, and when we went out for dinner afterwards, they just couldn’t get over how much that kind of collaborative live creation changed the dynamic and enhanced our productivity.
The ability to narrowcast to groups by interest or affiliation is really valuable. I like good old mailing lists, Google Groups (great for archiving and asynchronous participation), FB groups aren’t terrible, and Yammer is alright if you have to work in a closed environment.
Master phone book
Finally, all this connectivity only works if everyone can find everyone else all the time. A simple master phone book, including photos and all the contacts — mobile, home, work, Skype, IRC, Twitter, etc. — means everyone can find everyone else whenever they need them. I still enjoy watching my former director of fundraising hunt down the Executive Director at parties over Twitter, turning their networks into a search party. In the end, people go to what works, and find the path most likely to give them what they need. The result: low friction, high activity, and quick results.
Both at Mozilla and at Vision Critical, I’ve learned a variety of best practices for minimizing the distance between teams and facilitating the kind of rhythm and flow of the office environment.
Schedule more, not less
With direct reports, and with functional teams, schedule weekly check-ins. With those who are operationally vital or need more attention (say in the lead-up to a major event, or in a crisis), schedule daily check-ins (I only had those with my assistant, and they were more organic, but essential). The key is that no matter where you are, you should always keep up your regular meetings. It creates a rhythm of interaction that, when combined with all the organic ways you’ll interact in a week, makes it all feel normal and connected.
Take your own notes so you remember what you talked about and agreed to do for each other. Keep a file for each person. Think of it more as a notepad than meeting minutes. I end my weeklies with “what am I responsible for to you, and what are you responsible for to me”? I open the next meeting with what we agreed to do last time.
Be available or unavailable
Don’t use the “away from my desk” or “sent from my mobile” option in your mobile e-mail signature. Instead match your desktop e-mail signature. Just be available or unavailable. It eliminates the impression that the quality of your engagement will be reduced while away from your desk. Either give the question or task the attention it deserves, or don’t. This sounds small, but makes a huge difference for those working with you remotely. They forget where you are, and just focus on the interaction and the task at hand.
Use timezones to your advantage
For a while I wore a watch with two faces, but in the end I never really looked at it and instead did conversions in my head. If one of the principles is maintaining a workflow for staff throughout the organization, then navigating timezones is key for regular interactions. Book regular meetings so they don’t get canceled when you shift timezones. The ideal window is between noon and 5 p.m. EST (9 a.m. - 2 p.m. PST. If you want to include Europe, then 11 a.m. to noon EST is all you get. Otherwise someone is up very early, or staying at work very late.
The difficult reality for folks on the West Coast who are on PST is that they are perpetually out of sync with all of Europe. It’s not impossible, but it can really create challenges if you’re trying to build strong communities outside of North America.
My last point about timezones relates to travel. No matter where I am, I stay on the timezone of my team. If they all work in the Valley, I stay available during west coast working hours at a minimum (I like the quiet hours that come before they start their workday, and because I have a three-year-old, I often do a “second shift” after my daughter goes to bed, but you get the picture).
Invest in face time
After all this virtual connecting, my last point is the most important: See people regularly. In person. Go shake their hands, have a coffee or a meal, and spend time being in their space. For a remote office with direct reports, my minimum is a week a month. If you have multiple staff spread out, invest in travel as much as is reasonable to put people face-to-face. It makes an enormous difference in productivity long-term.
My thoughts in this section are as much about my own management style as they are about how to manage people remotely. At a high level, it’s about inspiring, building trust, and empowering action.
Show your work, and show your heart
I am a very direct person. Faced with a problem, I question, listen, analyze, and then get straight to the point. I’m often last to weigh in (I like to listen and process first), but my comments have a tendency to redirect the discussion by cutting through to the core of the problem. Over the years, I’ve learned that while this is an effective approach to identify issues and move to solutions, it can also create a bit of discomfort.
People who have come to know my process also know that I’m not just there to point out the problem: I’m there to dig in and fix it together. But that trust comes over time and with experience. A friend and former colleague once helped me identify two simple things that allow everyone around me ease into the valuable chaos of problem-solving: I need to show my work, and show my heart.
I use this strategy in my interactions with staff and colleagues now, to make sure they understand not just my analysis, but how I arrived at it. And most importantly, they understand that I care deeply about the issue and about them. For many managers, this is hard, but knowing that criticism comes from a caring collaborator, not a critical judge makes a huge difference in the way people contribute and respond. Especially when you don’t buy into the whole “sandwich” theory of criticism (“one nice thing, the real thing you want to say, then another nice thing”). Working across distance, this approach is even more important.
Ask for deadlines
Maybe this is the consultant in me, but I like deadlines and deliverables. When you don’t have the opportunity to lean over the cubicle or accidentally run into someone in the elevator and ask about that project they’re working on, you need to work a little harder to keep things on track. I ask my teams to be held to account, and to hold me to account. My inside sales rep is constantly reminding me of our shared deadlines, not because I don’t meet them, but because she’s amazing and knows that there are lots of competing demands on us. We end conversations with “When do you need this?” or “What do you think is a reasonable deadline?”. No surprise, we rarely miss those deadlines.
Foster independent leadership
Leaders bring solutions, not problems. I help my teams to adopt this practice, and push them to always come with a solution, even when their solution is “a process to getting to a solution.” I resist the urge to see every problem as a chance to tell them what to do, and instead an opportunity to work with them to figure out what to do. Over time, you build their autonomy and confidence, and expand trust in your team.
Building investment and inspiration
For me, inspiration and personal investment comes from knowing the end goal, and feeling involved in the strategy — both creating it and implementing it. Teams need lots of visibility here. Sharing board slides, draft strategies, planning docs, and more as they evolve makes a big difference in their level of investment when they become final. That means inviting them into the process, showing them your work as you go, and making it easy for people to figure out what’s going on and where they fit.
Inspiring this kind of personal investment in the organization and mission with a remote team means taking advantage of the tools I outlined above, and being more clear and direct in your communications. Things can get lost when you don’t see people’s non-verbal cues, or when it seems there isn’t time to dig in because things are only structured in meetings. Still, deploying all the various touch points, tools, and tactics outlined in this post — many of which I’d argue are just good management tactics — augmented by real and regular face time will make it work.
This is the future
One of the things that surprised me as I wrote this post was how much of these insights I have taken as given. For me, it’s not about the barriers to remote workers. I know this is a difficult concept for some, and it is especially ingrained in the Silicon Valley tech community, but it is the future of business, non-profits, and social change. If you work in an organization that wants to tap into a global community, it’s essential. The benefits of collaborative remote working are many, and while it requires a deliberate approach, it is worth the investment. The real barriers today are about connecting communities — across languages, cultures, and timezones. The future is most certainly distributed.