Even with a small remote team, your startup can still serve customers with the professionalism of a big fish with fancy offices.
It’s no secret that remote work is growing rapidly, thanks to advancements in communication and productivity tools.
A study by the International Workplace Group estimates that 50 percent of people globally work outside their headquarters for at least 2.5 days each week. Employees report higher productivity, greater efficiency and less stress, while companies can benefit from lower real estate costs and an expanded talent pool.
Building an effective remote team isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. It requires careful considerations around factors such as your company culture, infrastructure, processes, hiring procedures and customer interactions.
Key to assembling a high-functioning distributed team is hiring the right people and equipping them with the right tools and processes to succeed. With the right structure in place, you can have a team that works from homes, boats, parks, airplanes, overseas, the boonies…and yet is highly effective and accountable.
Imagine being able to work better and faster from anywhere in the world!
My former company, Big Universe, was an EdTech startup and a fully-virtual operation. We were small, but often credited for operating like a nimble, large company. Over our 10-year history, we served millions of student and teacher users across 30 countries.
Here’s how we did it.
At Big Universe, we tried to limit our hires to the U.S. Eastern and Central time zones, since that worked well for our meetings, sales operations and customer support times for our school customers. Hiring outside and field sales reps is another geographic consideration when selling to specific states.
We primarily used Craigslist for all hires except sales and software development. It proved useful in finding teachers to help develop our lesson plans, assessments and professional development. For sales, we used recruiters and for web development, and also through Meetup.com and GitHub. We didn’t use the more expensive job sites, in order to keep costs down.
While it’s great to be able to hire from literally anywhere in the world, the bad part is you can get a lot of candidates. We screened them using a pre-interview questionnaire built in Google Form.
We also conducted multiple interviews using one-to-one and group video conferencing calls, which not only allowed us to see the candidate but also gave us a good indication of how tech-savvy they were.
Once we were ready to hire the candidate, we contacted references and used online services like Accufax for criminal background checks.
At Big Universe, we developed SOPs (standard operating procedures) for every department, in the form of checklists, which served us well for employee onboarding and establishing norms for accountability, expectations and a reminder of what needs to be done when.
Our onboarding included a walkthrough of our mission, vision, strategy and tactics. More importantly, it included a thorough overview of the K-12 school market.
We covered topics such as number of U.S. districts, schools, teachers and students; academic standards; the competitive product landscape; target user and buyer personas (such as curriculum director or librarian); and pain points for school administrators, teachers and students. While this onboarding was intended mainly for sales and customer support staff, we gave it to all new employees.
As a small remote team, it was important for us to present ourselves professionally, in a way customers would expect from a big company with physical offices. We required employees to have a quiet home-office, with no background noise such as kids and pets. We learned this lesson early on when we had employees with dogs barking in the background, kids running up to them to sit on their laps, and, yes, even a parrot on screen.
Video communication and fully online, cloud-based tools are two critical requirements for distributed teams to operate effectively.
The author of “Overcoming Fake Talk,” John Stoker, wrote: “93% of communication occurs through nonverbal behavior & tone.”
We used tools like Slack and Skype for our daily/weekly, 1-on-1 and group meetings. The online status in these types of tools, served as a way for us to know who is “at their desk.”
Video worked exceptionally well for us (even dating as far back as 2008) as our employees reported feeling more connected. Video conferencing can also reduce travel costs significantly.
Across all departments, we used collaboration tools like Trello to manage tasks and projects so that everyone knew what was expected of them, and peers could see what they were working on. It helped reinforce accountability; for example, we reviewed the status of everyone’s tasks in our weekly team meetings using screen share.
I also randomly checked in on my staff over video to gauge the status of projects and how they are doing, an idea borrowed from the “Management By Wandering Around” style of business management.
Every company has a unique culture that originates from the founders and CEO, but can take a life of its own by the employees. If your company is only partly remote, it’s vital to make the remote staff feel connected.
A study found that remote workers can feel shunned and left out, which is why video conferencing and an inclusive culture are crucial components. (It baffles me why many companies still don’t leverage video; it used to drive me bonkers to hear “Who joined?” on audio-only phone conferences.)
Maintaining a work-life balance culture is another important factor, since employees at home can feel isolated and the lines between a weekday 9–5 and after-work hours can be blurry. On one hand, I appreciated those who felt committed to go above and beyond normal hours. But on the other hand, I had to remind myself not to let my employees get burnt out.
Needless to say, having fun is almost a requirement for a thriving corporate culture. We worked very hard but also had fun on our video meetings and did things like virtual happy hours on Friday afternoons.
Most of all, have a mission that reminds everyone they are working in an edtech company to build a better world by educating the next generation. Reinforce to every employee that they are there to make a positive impact everyday. This alone can be a huge motivator.
Our customers operated at set times during the day and throughout the year, something your company should factor in across all departments.
At Big Universe, it was important to publish customer support hours on our website. We also timed our marketing campaigns according to seasonal trends (such as back-to-school, testing, Teacher Appreciation Week, summer learning), and for sales we tracked what the best times of the day and year were to reach them. For our product team, we monitored the performance of our servers during peak usage.
To gauge how well you’re doing with customers, you can use periodic surveys. (We did semi-annual ones.) Phone interviews are also a good way to develop case studies and success stories, preferably with photos of students and teachers using your product. Better yet, use video conferencing tools to do split-screen recorded interviews, or to simply watch how teachers and students use your product.
When working in a distributed team where you’re behind computer screens more than in front of people physically, it is important to get in-person, face-to-face time with peers and clients.
Visiting customers on a regular basis can be extremely rewarding, whether it’s to build long-term relationships or simply to learn what they think about your product. We tried to take the team to visit schools and districts at least twice a year.
Industry conferences can also offer a good opportunity for employees to not only meet customers and potential clients, but also see what other companies (or competitors) are up to. Attending sessions and seminars at these events can also provide valuable professional development.
Meeting your peers on a periodic basis can be an invaluable exercise. Automattic, the makers of WordPress, brings all of their 400-plus employees together for an annual retreat and in smaller, focused groups throughout the year. It seems to have worked — the company is valued at $3 billion!