Going remote in 2020 was a relief for many. Most of the news commentary on the changes speaks to the enhanced work-life balance of going remote — getting a little more sleep, not stressing over wardrobe, and gaining more control over your schedule. But few speak to the bottom line and logistical challenges entrepreneurs, founders, and other business leaders have been facing since teams became fully distributed. For business leaders, the shift presented new challenges in managing teams’ productivity, culture, and communications.
Our team, a hands-on digital agency originally based in Los Angeles, was already working from home on Wednesdays before the pandemic with a semi-flexible work schedule. We thought we understood how to run our business remotely. However, when we went fully remote in June of 2020, there were five gotchas we didn’t expect as a high-tech company that we’ve had to work hard to overcome.
The 5 Best Pieces of Advice for Newly Remote Teams
- You will need an updated infrastructure.
- It’s time to document everything.
- Planning to hire a junior? Reconsider it (for now).
- Give your team more structure.
- Focus on relationships.
You Will Need an Updated Infrastructure
No matter what your company does, unless it is already fully remote, its underlying operational infrastructure will need updating for virtual teams. Some aspects of your business, like payroll, accounting, and customer support might have been fully digitized already and won’t skip a beat. However, time tracking, security protocols, quarterly reviews, interdepartmental communications, quality control, onboarding new employees, operations — all of these pieces integral to your business will need a process overhaul and the creation of new supporting documentation. In some cases, you may even need custom software to integrate new processes with existing proprietary systems.
Your org chart may no longer align with your new operations and a shift in headcount or retitling may be required. The person tasked with keeping conference rooms stocked and the reception desk occupied may have been replaced with a virtual assistant to troubleshoot video conferencing issues, for example, or you may be replacing your in-house meal preparation for delivery service credits.
Once we had completed retooling our infrastructure, though, we saw a giant benefit from the automation we’d been able to achieve. We integrated our website’s contact form, CRM, accounting, and time tracking so everyone in the company has the personalized visibility and insights they need to do their job better. These efficiencies help save time and provide valuable insights we may have otherwise missed before reimagining our infrastructure.
It’s Time to Document Everything
I mean everything. We’re still in the first stages of building the newly remote, global workforce, and we should expect turnover to increase even more in the near future. The hiring landscape currently is a very busy intersection of giant companies poaching small companies’ valued employees in search of more stability and small companies becoming the benefactor of corporate giant expats looking for more autonomy. This exchange program isn’t likely to slow anytime soon, so those of us responsible for finding, training, and retaining teams need to ensure we have documented systems and processes in place for the next generation to consume and build on.
If you’re running a small team or department, this exercise of documenting everything will come a lot more naturally when onboarding a new staffer. Large companies or departments may already have some basic documentation in place. If you’re starting from scratch, take the basic outline of job responsibilities and ask your new team member to continue adding to the list as new tasks are uncovered. As they get more comfortable with each task, work with them to develop that task into a documented process. It becomes exponentially more effective when multiple team members collaborate on a shared document that new employees will use as field notes, setting them up for success.
Planning to Hire a Junior? Reconsider it (for Now)
The biggest hit our company took when going fully remote was in the loss in productivity of some of our junior team members. That’s not to say our juniors weren’t working just as hard as before. The fault was shared among our senior leadership and our inability to guide them remotely at the high-touch level they required.
When you’re in an office, a combination of check-ins, osmosis, and water-cooler talk plays a huge role in keeping junior individual contributors on the right path. In the past, a passing glance over the shoulder or an overheard conversation could be the guardrails that keep a project between the lines. When there’s less oversight, open meadows will lead to some creative, but sometimes off-center deliverables. As reworks stack up, effective delivery goes down.
To overcome this, we found that our past balance of two juniors for every senior contributor needed to be reversed: Now we needed to double-up on seniors for every one junior. While this sounds like a costly proposition for a California-based creative agency, going remote allowed us to find geographically independent senior contributors at approximately the rate we previously paid for local juniors — ultimately netting out at the same cost for more productivity. We can expect location and cost of living to eventually take second chair to experience and capabilities, but as the market sorts itself out, this is an opportunity for virtual companies to find the best talent, regardless of location.
Give Your Team More Structure
This is a stressful time to be alive — it seems the world changes noticeably every day. The anxiety and uncertainty over what the future holds are building for everyone. You, as the leader of your team, must keep in mind that the employment you provide is critical to the stability and welfare of each person and their respective families. Structure at work can be the predictability your team needs in an uncertain world. While each company and each employee will interpret ‘structure’ differently, it’s your job as the leader to ensure you provide your team with the feelings of accomplishment, appreciation, and optimism.
While you need to focus on your business’s big picture, leaders must also do everything in their power to provide teams with a framework for success in the workplace and beyond. For our company, that means all-hands daily kickoffs with video on, bi-weekly one-on-ones for each person with their manager, and daily wins shared on Slack.
Structure doesn’t have to mean rigidity, however. If someone isn’t feeling camera-ready, misses an update, or needs to skip a one-on-one, we need to be prepared for that and adapt. Virtual teams competing for talent and productivity are offering shortened work weeks, unlimited vacation days, and non-traditional perks. Be open to your team’s unique needs while also providing them with a framework to succeed and remember to lead, don’t push from behind.
Focus on Relationships
For all of the reasons above, building closer relationships with teams than we ever have before is supremely important. These bonds will help resolve challenging work situations, give insights into external factors impacting productivity, and, meanwhile, help us to enjoy the time we spend working together. Decades-long careers have been traded in for convenient-for-now jobs, so the coworker you have on Slack today could become your favorite client or hiring manager tomorrow.
When disagreements arise among team members, address them sooner rather than later. Consider private video calls with each affected team member followed by a mediated conversation with anyone impacted. Ensure your remote team has a dedicated peacemaker that, regardless of job title, is equipped to smooth over challenging situations and move your team forward. Now more than ever, uncomfortable work environments should be addressed early, before they become logistical or HR dilemmas for remote business leaders.
Going remote has helped virtual employees bond with their families, given peace of mind to commuters no longer battling traffic, and saved mounds of cash in commercial real estate leases. However, we’ve traded those gains for more software licenses, time zone challenges, the need for creating custom software, and a technology learning curve that’s been especially challenging for older workers. While we all expected many of these things to eventually happen, many of us were surprised by having to face it head-on overnight. While the long-term impact of going remote for small and large businesses is yet to be seen, the world isn’t going back to the old way anytime soon, or maybe ever. Now is the time to take stock on what’s working and what’s not to evolve your business to become an elite virtual team or watch from the stands while your competition does.