Creating a Healthy Remote Culture

The delayed results were starting to annoy. “Why can’t this guy (let's call him Bill) get his stuff done?” “Can’t he manage himself?” He was one of our first remote workers and it wasn't working. My mind was full of negative thoughts, 'Why did we agree to remote working?' 'We should have never done this.' 'Are we going to have to 'let him go?'" Time went by and eventually, like immature teens we parted ways. He left disappointed - we left jaded. We vowed never to do remote working again. Little did I know, that the collapse of this remote relationship was my fault, not Bill's. It's really true, the buck stops here. 

Remote working is quickly becoming the way work gets done in the 21st century. The greatest benefit is your talent pool is as big as the internet. This means you can hire exceptional people from all over the country—even the world. But how do you manage from afar? How do you build comradery? How do you gain synergy? How do you keep a remote team healthy? That's what I'm trying to learn. 

This new work frontier, like the wild west, is chock full of challenges. Perhaps the greatest challenge is the loss of face-to-face communication.  Without it, things easily get lost in translation. There is something about being in-person that's hard to replace. Isn't it true that someone's face says more than their voice? Without being in the same room, team work deteriorates, inefficiencies are born, and emotional context disappears. All off this culminates into lonely, disengaged people, like Bill.

Conquering remote challenges takes radical vigilance and I've had to learn to be proactive, not reactive. After working in a variety of remote contexts I've found there are two pillars that support healthy remote teams: transparency and availability. Let’s pick those off one-by-one.

Transparency is the first column that keeps a remote culture healthy. This was where we first missed it with Bill. Our startup wasn't transparent. All of the details were locked away for our eyes only. Only we knew the sales stats, new user growth, strategy, and even simple things like what our customers were saying about us. Essentially, we created our own island of information. We lived there and Bill, somewhere else. This environment we unknowingly were creating fostered the unconscious, identical reaction from Bill. He became walled off. He built his own information island. Nick Francis, co-founder at Help Scout, nailed it when he wrote, “By giving everyone access to the same information and designing processes accordingly, we can eliminate the most common cause of remote failure.” 

The opposite of transparency is ambiguity. Ambiguity, in the remote world, means team members don't know what everyone is doing, which, leads to ineffectiveness and breeds suspicion.  Once a remote team member feels out of the loop or forgotten, you’ve lost him. However, remote cultures click when everyone has access to the same information and the access to that information flows routinely. 

What I've learned in the last couple of years, is that information and updates should be shared regularly and could include, metrics from last month, information about a new hire, new features added to the website, or an exciting new strategic opportunity. Transparency is the key. Team members need to know what's happening. And they need to share their own work with the rest of the team. When this happens, you lay the groundwork for healthy remote habits. 

Availability is key to flourishing remote teams. We never sat up standing meetings with Bill. We only talked when there was a problem–our communication was virtually reactive. Now with our development team, that works remotely, we have a standing weekly meeting. We rarely miss it. This Skype meeting keeps information flowing and makes sure we have access to them and vice versa. A standing meeting is a way we make ourselves available to each other. 

This is part of building a predictable schedule. When you do this you will help establish each team member as a fixture in your mind. On that same point, each team member should share their general schedule with every team member. Remote team members may be in different time zones and ‘golden hours’ should be decided on.

Golden hours happen when everyone on the team is working at the same time. Establishing this time, even if it's only an overlap of a couple hours, helps keep everyone feeling connected and gives a predictable and available window to connect in real-time.

Lastly, organizations are creating availability by hosting an annual or bi-annual team retreats. This creates face-to-face communication and gives the entire team something to look forward too. Imagine if I had the opportunity to sit down with Bill face-to-face at a nice hotel over dinner and just talk. So much heartache could have been avoided. Building a face-to-face component into your remote strategy is crucial. Without it, chances for success are slim. 

Those are the two columns; transparency and availability. Keep them both standing and you can reap all of the benefits of remote working. Neglect one, and the whole relationship crumbles. I often think about Bill. I wonder how things could have been different. If I would have been a better leader he may still be working with us. John Maxwell was right, everything rises and falls on leadership.