This guest post was written by David Schneider, when he was the cofounder of NinjaOutreach (Update - Dave no longer runs these websites, but can be found at lesschurn.io and daveschneider.me).
You hear a lot about remote teams and the benefits of each person being able to work from wherever they choose, whenever they want.
But you rarely read about the downsides.
I’ve been working with a remote team for the last year on our SaaS startup, NinjaOutreach, and I can attest to the fact that it isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.
Some of the big things we struggled with were:
Major inefficiencies in communication, whereby a single point of contact (usually me), was stuck between too many people who should have been speaking to each other directly.
Issues with cycle time taking unnecessarily long, because our schedules didn’t overlap.
A feeling of disjointedness, where people didn’t know who was involved and what their role was.
A lack of purpose, where people knew they were working and knew what they were working on, but didn’t understand why they were working on it and what benefit it was having.
In the early days, while these were definitely downsides to remote work, they were far outweighed by the fact that the team could work remotely and that we could source labor at prices we could afford.
But as we grew and the team expanded from 4-5 people to now over 10, these inefficiencies became seriously bloated and disruptive.
And what we needed was to bring all of our remote employees together so that they functioned more as a team.
This is how we did it.
Introduce Them to Each Other Via a Team Chat App
This one is going to seem very obvious but by and large the biggest change we made was to institute a central communication channel through which the entire team could function and interact.
Previously, our answer to this was a combination of Google Hangouts and Skype.
The benefit of using Skype and GH was that they were applications we were already using anyway, so out of habit it just made sense to start forming groups in each one as a new developer or support rep was added.
Inevitably, however, this resulted in well over a dozen pocket conversations, through which it seemed that every permutation of team communication was being had.
As someone who was in the middle of many of these communications, it was a disaster. I was getting very frustrated having to explain the same thing to different people across different groups/channels to make sure that everyone was on the same page.
Our solution to that was Glip. Glip is like Slack or Hipchat, although it's lesser known.
For one reason or another, I just get a better feeling from it.
Essentially, it’s a chat application that allows us to centralize team communication and ditch email, Skype, and Hangouts.
Although I still have direct communication with people as needed, we have more general channels for the product, the devs, the marketing team, and customer support so that everyone who needs to be in the know, is in the know. These conversations are stored, and searchable, so there is a real active internal knowledge base.
Although it took a little bit of time for people to break old habits (on the order of 1 -2 weeks), eventually I found myself part of less and less conversations (this is a good thing), and seeing more and more of the employees make connections with each other and associate each other as being in their respective roles.
Now, Aris, who is on the front line of customer support, can go directly to Andrey, who is the developer behind Outreach Mode, when he sees a related bug (instead of previously telling me, to tell Andrey, and then vice versa once it was fixed). Additionally, because it is announced in the channel, all the other customer support reps are aware that there is a bug and can act accordingly if another user brings it up.
It took us too long to make this switch, but better late than never - I suggest you do something similar with your team if it consists of more than 4-5 people.
Team communication should be fun.
We want people to feel like they’re a part of a team as opposed to just working in a silo, as so many solopreneur, digital nomad types are used to.
So we celebrate the little things, like people's’ birthdays.
One funny thing that happened was when one of our other employees pointed out that two employees had the same birthday.
Something minor, but important, was that I asked everyone to upload a profile pic to personalize the experience a bit more. Ideally, everyone will fill out their profile completely so that you can see their role, how long they’ve been on the team, their birthday, location, etc.
Give People a Sense of Purpose
It occurred to me that many of the developers, who typically focus on the backend side of things, aren’t really in the loop with how our customers perceive their work.
How do customers even feel about the product which the developers are working so hard to develop?
People need purpose in their work to excel and stay motivated, and we were robbing the technical employees of that purpose because it wasn’t getting past the frontline customer support reps.
So we instituted a “policy” of sharing positive mentions:
Again, it’s the little things, but this is something we never did before. This is something that real, functioning teams do when they’re together in an office.
Additionally, when an employee makes a significant contribution, such as a feature release, we can share it with the team. Sharing has merit beyond just celebrating that employee’s accomplishment: it also functions as a way to update the team about important product milestones.
How To Apply This to Your Business
This might sound obvious, but to me, it wasn’t for a long time - remote work does not “have” to be a sacrifice of office culture.
You can still create a workplace environment even when the majority of the team as never met each other.
(In fact, on our team only two people have ever met each other in person - even the founders haven’t!)
So, how are you improving your team atmosphere?
David Schneider is the cofounder of NinjaOutreach, an innovative new Blogger Outreach software for marketers. You can also find him on twitter @ninjaoutreach and at SelfMadeBusinessman.