How to Manage Remote Teams - Single Grain Case Study
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How to Manage Remote Teams – Single Grain Case Study

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For countless startups, agencies and even established businesses, hiring remote workers remains a tantalizing idea. Yet the prospect of managing a remote team can deter even the most determined of entrepreneurs.

Despite this, nearly half the workforce is expected to work remotely in some capacity by 2020. Companies that use remote workers save up to $11,000 per worker per year and employees who work remotely have much lower turnover rates their office-going counterparts.

As a digital marketing agency, Single Grain naturally relies on remote workers as a fundamental part of how we operate. It is also one of our biggest strengths. Because we are open to hiring people regardless of their location, we manage to attract A-players we wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

Along the way, we’ve learned a thing or two about how to manage remote teams which I’m going to share below.

Hire the Right People

Successful remote team management has a selection bias. That is, if you hire the right people, you’ll also find it much easier to manage them.

Not all people make successful remote workers.

If your team needs extensive supervision and micro-management, there is a good chance that they won’t succeed in remote roles.

There are three things you should keep in mind when hiring for remote positions:

1. Look for a history of self-management

In your hiring process, prioritize people who have a history of managing themselves.

Look for the following:

  • Freelancing experience (especially if they’d freelanced full-time)
  • Remote work experience
  • Hobbies or interests that require substantial time investment (like mountain climbing or running a successful YouTube channel)
  • Entreprenrurial experience

Such people make good remote workers since they are already used to setting their own priorities and working with minimal supervision. They also tend to have the ‘doer’ spirit that’s vital for successful remote work.

2. Hire people who have the right support system at home

One thing no one tells you about remote work is how lonely it can get.

Unlike a regular office, remote workers don’t have colleagues to chat or go out to lunch with. Staying cooped up alone in a home office can negatively impact motivation very quickly.

When you’re hiring, look for people who have some sort of support system at home – those with families, a social life and hobbies make good candidates.

You can simulate a social environment with video chats, but your remote workers will have to have their own support system to fight loneliness.

3. Hire people who can write clearly

While communication is vital for any role, it becomes even more important when hiring remote workers.

You don’t have the luxury of popping into a colleague’s office to hash out a problem. You’ll have to address most concerns and queries over e-mail or chat programs.

When hiring, look for people who can write clearly.

They don’t have to have impeccable prose, but they should be able to communicate their thoughts in a clear, concise manner over e-mail or chat.

This will take a lot of pain out of managing your remote team.

Use the Right Tools

If remote work is feasible today, it is largely due to the many, many communication and collaboration tools available online.

While the specifics will vary depending on your line of work, you should have at least the following in place:

1. A chat tool

Your chat tool will be the heart of your remote team.

While e-mail is still important for more formal messages, you’ll use chat for all casual communication and file sharing.

Ideally, you should have separate tools (or channels within a tool) for team chat and one-on-one communication. The former acts as your ‘virtual office’. The latter is better for communicating with a specific team member.

At Single Grain, we use the following chat tools:

  • Slack for team chat, collaboration and file sharing. We have separate channels for different departments, projects and tasks.
  • Skype for one-on-one communication and screen sharing. If I want to have a longer chat with someone, I’ll use Skype instead of Slack.

2. A video chat tool

E-mail and regular chat will take care of most of your communication needs. However, you’ll still need a place to check in visually from time to time. For remote work, video chat is also vital to creating a feeling of an office environment.

As Buffer’s Joel Gascoigne says:

We generally leave (video chat tool) open whenever we’re working. This helps us to feel more like we’re working together, by seeing everyone’s faces like we would if we worked in the same office.

When choosing a video chat tool, look for the following:

  • Screen-sharing
  • One-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many video chat options
  • Scheduled chats

Some of my favorite video chat tools are:

  • Google Hangouts: Free, fast chat from Google that can accommodate multiple people.
  • Fast browser-based video chat that supports up to 12 people.
  • Very reliable video chat for large teams.
  • FaceTime: Apple’s free solution. Works great for one-to-one chat.

You can also make video calls over Skype or Slack, though I prefer a dedicated platform for it.

3. A project management and collaboration tool

Collaborating is one of the biggest challenges when you’re working remotely. Consider a good PM/collaboration tool a must-have for managing a remote team.

At Single Grain, we use two tools for project management:

  • Trello, for managing temporary and recurring projects internally. The kanban card format works well for keeping track of things. You can also communicate and share files within Trello itself.
  • Basecamp, for external project management. This centralizes all communication with clients and ensures that nothing gets lost in the inbox.
  • Google Docs & Drive, for collaborating and sharing documents.
  • Toggl, to keep track of time spent on each task. Although Toggl is not technically a PM tool, when you have remote workers, you need to keep track of what they’re working on and how much time they’re spending on each project.

Develop Rock-Solid Internal Documentation and Processes

Who should a new hire contact in case of a problem?

What is the right way to onboard a new client?

What is X and how is it used?

Your remote hires will invariably have such questions. Developing detailed documentation can help you save time. It can also orient new hires to the way you work.

Here are a few things you should detail in your internal documentation:

1. Communication protocols

As an agency, communication is integral to the success of our business. Detailing communication protocols clearly ensures that everyone is kept on the same page.

In your internal documentation, make note of the following:

  • Communication deadlines: If you’re running a client-focused business, have clear deadlines for responding to client e-mails (like “respond to all e-mails within 24 hours”).
  • Communication style: This is particularly important for client-focused businesses – detail what tone and style to you use when communicating with clients.
  • Email templates: If you use any email templates for client outreach, project reports, etc. list them here.
  • Communication tools: List which tools to use for each communication type. You might use Skype for longer conversations (30+ mins), Slack for chat and e-mail for sharing documents.

At Single Grain, we also have a system for classifying and dealing with problems:

  • Red alert: For breakdowns, angry clients or any major issues, use phone or text messages to get an immediate answers.
  • Yellow alert: For queries, requests and help with non-urgent tasks, use Slack or e-mail to get answers within a couple of hours.
  • Green alert: For general questions and low-priority tasks, use e-mail or Trello to get answers within a couple of days.

2. Clarify how-to’s

New hires will frequently have questions about how to do a task.

Make your work easier by anticipating these questions and answering them in your internal documentation.

For some tasks, you can even record screencasts to show how a particular task is done. This is especially useful when outsourcing low-level tasks to remote workers. Use Screenflow or Camtasia to record these screencasts.

Some examples of how-to’s that you can document are:

  • How to use a particular software tool
  • How to perform a specific task (such as researching competitors for a new project)
  • How to create, manage or access an asset (such as an e-book)

3. Document processes

At its root, your business is the sum of its processes. Documenting each process in detail will make for a healthier organization. In the context of remote work, it will also help new hires understand how you work much faster.

The key to documenting processes is to take a complex task and break it down into its constituent parts.

For example, if you run a content marketing agency, you might have four broad processes:

  • Content ideation
  • Content creation
  • Content promotion
  • Reporting and analytics

Each of these processes would have different parts. Content creation, for instance, covers creating blog posts, visual content, videos, etc.

Document the process for accomplishing each of these tasks and assume the perspective of a beginner. That is, make a list of everything that someone would need to accomplish the task as a complete beginner.

For example, the rough process for creating a blog post might be as follows:

  • Come up with 10 titles. Test titles using CoSchedule’s headline analyzer.
  • Create an outline and get it approved by the editor.
  • Write the content. Use Hemingway app or to calculate readability score.
  • Add at least 3 images. Use Pixabay to source images.
  • Add the target keyword at least 5 times in the article.
  • Use Grammarly to check for grammatical errors.

You might have dozens of processes like this.

It might sound like a lot of work, but fleshing out each process will help your new hires and you understand your work better.

These processes will also be immensely helpful if one of your workers is out sick or on vacation – another team member will be able to easily follow the process doc to complete the absent person’s work.

Set Expectations Early and Develop the Right Culture

If you want to be successful with remote work, you have to set expectations early.

How much (or how little) responsibility your remote team takes will depend on what you ask of them.

Make it clear early on that you expect them to manage themselves and you’ll find that your team will rise up to the challenge (if you’ve hired the right people, of course).

There are three important ingredients when setting expectations:

1. Onboarding

Your onboarding process has a massive impact on how new hires see your company and their work. If the onboarding is haphazard and poorly managed, it will reflect in the employee’s behavior moving forward.

In your onboarding document, make it clear that new hires understand what is expected of them.

Tell them about:

  • How you work (including the tools you use to work)
  • How you communicate
  • How to deal with problems and seek help
  • What decisions they are expected to make
  • What decisions they are expected to defer to managers
  • Daily reporting, check-ins, deadlines, etc.

New hires should walk away from onboarding with a firm understanding of their work and expectations.

2. Culture

Your company culture is a complex thing. It is a combination of your company’s explicit and implicit values.

What values you prioritize and encourage will affect every aspect of your business, including the morale of your remote workers.

[ctt template=”1″ link=”nedO3″ via=”yes” ]Businesses that encourage personal responsibility, trust and transparency in their culture thrive with remote work.[/ctt]

For example, Buffer, a $13M ARR company staffed entirely remotely, has these 10 values:

The emphasis on self-improvement (which is a form of self-management), transparency, clarity and “doing” helps Buffer succeed with remote work.

How you create a remote culture that promotes such values is a topic for another post.

The most I can say here is that your culture should be a part of your new hire onboarding process.

It should also be a part of how you work.

For example, Basecamp, another remote-only company, encourages employees to take time off. It also gives them plenty of red-tape-free perks and expenses.

The implication is that Basecamp trusts its employees enough to do what’s best for themselves and for the business.

3. Data

You can promote a culture of personal responsibility all you want, but it also helps to have hard data to see what you’re doing wrong and how you can improve.

Here are three things you should track:

  • Task tracking (including time spent on each task and rate of task completion) using tools like Toggl.
  • Employee happiness tracking through apps like TeamMood.
  • Employee feedback and performance review through tools like 15Five or a recurring Google Form.

This will give you the data (subjective and objective) you need to evaluate how your remote team is doing. Combine all this and you have the ingredients for running a high-performance remote team.

Over to You

Managing a successful remote team requires a unique approach.

For one, you have to have the right people in the team. People who can manage themselves will perform far better remotely than employees who’ve never worked without supervision.

Once you’ve hired the right people, you need to:

  • Document all processes
  • Set expectations right after onboarding
  • Use the right communication and collaboration tools
  • Create a culture that promotes transparency, trust and individual responsibility

If you can do all the above, your remote team will not just meet but exceed your performance expectations.

Guest Post by Eric Siu

Eric Siu is the CEO of digital marketing agency Single Grain, which has helped venture-backed startups and Fortune 500 companies grow their revenues. He’s also the founder of marketing podcast Growth Everywhere and hosts the Marketing School podcast with Neil Patel.

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