Cracking The Code Of Remote Working: Lessons From The Future Of Work
Building and managing remote teams isn't easy. Andreas Klinger the Head of Remote for AnegelList shares lessons learned.
Remote work may be the future, but how do you do it?
Jan Schulz-Hofen, founder and CEO of Planio, wrote in a blog for Toptal: "If you ask me, working remotely rocks. I'm currently writing from a small beach bar located on a remote island in southern Thailand. Looking up from my laptop, I see nothing but the endless ocean and its crystal clear blue waters. I'll be enjoying this morning undisturbed and focused on my work because the rest of the team hasn't even gotten up yet. Time zones work out well for distributed teams."
It sounds idyllic, but what should aspiring beach bums/company founders be thinking about when it comes to building a remote team? I spoke to Andreas Klinger about what he has learned building and managing remote teams. Klinger is the head of remote at AngelList a website for startups, angel investors and job-seekers looking to work at startups that employs over 200 remote staff and was previously CTO of Product Hunt, a fully remote business, which was acquired by AngelList in 2016.
Attracting talent in cities like San Francisco, London and New York is challenging. Recruiting top talent in these places is expensive and loyalty is fleeting, at best. Although there is a difference between the salaries paid in San Francisco and salaries paid in Tallinn or Warsaw, cost is not as much of a factor as it once was because a good engineer understands what their value is in the market. As Klinger noted, "Hiring remote means you are able to hire the best possible talent anywhere on the planet, and allowing those people to choose quality of life over the rat race is a serious draw for the person you are looking to hire."
From the business's perspective, Klinger explains, hiring remotely has a wealth of benefits: increased productivity, ("a well-structured remote work setup typically leads to fewer distractions and office politics, a quieter noise level and fewer, more efficient meetings"); higher staff retention, and thanks to the development of web-based communications like Zoom, the ability to easily keep in touch with people working from home or in far flung locations.
"Done properly," Klinger says, "online communication tools allow for greater transparency between departments, which avoids teams getting siloed and opens conversations up to the wider company." In an age of mass digital distraction, abysmally low levels of employee engagement and the unprecedented levels of change that any company mired in bureaucracy is ill-equipped to face; these benefits have transformational potential.
You need a lot more process than you realize
However, remote working is not an instant holy grail for efficiency and productivity. I asked Klinger what the one unexpected thing is that most leaders don't realize when it comes to leading a remote team and his answer was, well, surprising. "A remote team needs five times more process in comparison to a co-located team. Take something as simple as a meeting: in a co-located team, you can get a group of people together for a meeting in a matter of minutes, especially when the team is small. Even in a five-person remote team, you need to be better organized and disciplined from the outset."
Klinger explained that you need to plan and announce a remote team meeting in advance, an agenda needs to be shared, notes need to be taken, the meeting needs to start and finish on time and you need to follow up with communication regarding further actions resulting from that meeting. "A lot of these things don't happen in co-located teams either because the team is small enough and they don't need to or because people are lazy and the discipline is not in place."
In remote environments, it may be 1 am local time for a team member, or they might simply not be working when you are, or they may be focused on doing deep flow work and don't want to be disturbed. According to Klinger, the things that happen automatically with little consideration in co-located environments need to be thought about and systematized. I previously interviewed David Darmanin, the cofounder and CEO of Hotjar, which is an excellent example of a company that has systematized their workweek. Darmanin explained that a structured work week is crucial for the efficient running of a remote shop.
The company's weekly structure is described in their Team Manual.
Mondays: Call-heavy days! We have our planning meetings, 1-1s, sync calls, etc., on Monday. People are likely to be in meetings for the large part of the day, so they might be a bit slower when it comes to responding to messages.
Tuesdays: Focus days! Tuesdays are generally the most productive working days of the week. Having a focus day on Tuesday allows each team member to focus more on their sprints. We try to avoid having regularly scheduled meetings on Tuesdays unless they are project-centric. This doesn't mean that communication or cross-team collaboration is off the table—we can't work without speaking to each other, neither do we want to encourage this! Other team members are less likely to be tied up in meetings on Tuesdays.
Wednesdays: No meeting Wednesdays! We never schedule calls on Wednesdays unless it is an emergency. People will jump on quick calls as necessary to collaborate, and still communicate via Slack/email.
Thursdays + Fridays: All our “big” meetings are scheduled for these days—weekly demos, monthly meetings, Leadership planning, etc. How call-busy people are will depend on the week we are in during the month.
Finding what works for your business will likely take a bit of time and experimentation and will vary depending on the type of business you run.
Hybrid-remote is challenging
Running a remote shop is harder to do in what Klinger calls the hybrid model, where you have a small percentage of your team working remotely and the majority of your team is office-based. The biggest challenge is typically that people working remotely don't get the level of investment in systems and processes that they need and consequently can end up feeling like alienated second class citizens in the company. They also miss out on the banter and relationship building that their colleagues benefit from simply through being in the office together each day.
Klinger believes that to be successful in a remote environment you need to act like a bigger company from the outset: "A five-person remote team requires the same systems and processes as a 50-person company and leaders of hybrid teams don't usually get this."
Successful companies with hybrid-remote teams require an almost fully-remote mindset from the leadership team. It is clear that the leaders who invest in the necessary processes and structure for the remote minority will be able to scale more effectively than those that don't.
Think about the type of work you do
Effective communication is critical in any organization, but it is especially important in remote companies. When communicating via Slack or Zoom, many elements of the conversation that would be present if you were face-to-face can be misinterpreted, ignored or lost. There are also technical issues that can arise with a poor internet connection or equipment that doesn't work properly. Not only are these annoying, but they can also interrupt and impair the quality of the conversation.
As a result, Klinger believes that "Creative or innovative work is better when it's done in person and process-driven, or iterative work, is where remote comes into its own. That's not to say creative work can't be done in a remote setup. Still, from my experience, it's simply easier and more effective to do in person."
So, what do you need to consider if you are embarking on building out a remote team?
First and foremost, make sure you hire the right people. You need to be rigorous in the recruitment process because you won't be working next to your team day in and day out, which means you won't know what type of person you've hired for quite some time. Nor will you know how effective they are.
As Klinger explained, "You have to be able to trust your employees from day one fully." You also need to ensure that they suit working remotely–not everyone who thinks they will enjoy it does. Your approach should be first to hire smart people who can work remotely. Then create an environment where the processes are systematized for them to be able to do their jobs well.
Working remotely, your people will often be in a position where they must make decisions on their own, without being able to wait for any input from the team. Here, rigidity and rules are not your friends. Klinger advises defining a strategy that is "clear enough for your people to understand how the decisions they make fit with and enhance it," but which doesn't squeeze the life out of their creativity.
"Your goals need to be well-defined and clear enough so that your team can benchmark themselves or the decisions they make," he explains. "Do not try and micro-manage! You should do the opposite: think about how you can limit your involvement in decision-making within the team and define the system so that only the critically important no-way back decisions are referred to you."
By the end of our conversation, I am more convinced than ever that while remote working is going to be crucial for many businesses who want to be future-fit, it isn't a panacea and it takes intelligence, hard work and close attention to make it work. It's no surprise that Klinger is the head of remote at AngelList.
This article originally appeared on Forbes