A lot of energy has been expended over the last few months debating the merits of remote work. Unfortunately, not much information is shared about how to setup remote work so that you and your team can be successful.
After we posted our job for a content marketer, I got a lot of questions about remote working and how our team manages to make it work, so I thought I'd explain here.
Now, if you want to debate what's best: remote work or co-located work, this post isn't for you. But, if you want some ideas on how one team has setup their team to be successful at remote work, then stick around. This post is for you.
From day one, (October 2011) Zapier has always been a distributed team. Even though Bryan, Mike and I lived in the same city, we had different schedules and were bootstrapping Zapier on the side of our day jobs and school. We worked on Zapier in every spare moment we each had, but those moments didn't magically line up at the same time when we could work in the same room, so by necessity we became a remote team.
In June of 2012, we were accepted into Y Combinator and moved into a shared apartment in Mountain View, California. The next three months were the only period in our company's history where everyone has been in the same city at the same time.
In August of 2012, Mike moved back to Missouri while his girlfriend was graduating law school and in October of 2012 we started hiring. And since we were already a distributed team it made sense to keep moving that way since we could hire people we knew were awesome, but just didn't live in the places we lived.
Over the course of 21 months, we've learned a few things about building and managing a remote team. There are others with more experience at this than us. I'm not sure how large it will scale, though companies like GitHub, Automattic, Citrix and others have proven that it can be done. But if you're a small team and want to dip your toes into remote work, consider this your crash course.
It's highly unlikely you could just pluck any random people, at any random moment in history, dispersed around the globe and expected them to build something amazing.
We've found there are three important ingredients to making remote work, well, work: Team, Tools, and Process.
By far the most important of the ingredients is the team. Not everyone can work in a remote environment. Not everyone can manage a remote environment (though I suspect with a bit of time and learning that a lot of managers could figure out how to make it work). Therefore, it's important to assemble a team who is capable of executing in a remote environment. Here's what has made the best remote workers for us:
1. Hire Doers
Doers will get stuff done even if they are in Timbuktu. You don't have to give doers tasks to know that something will get done. You'll still have to provide direction and guidance around the most important things to be executed, but in the absence of that, a doer will make something happen.
2. Hire people you can trust
Remote work stops working when you can't trust the person on the other end of the line. If you continually find yourself worrying what someone is doing, then you are spending brain cycles focusing on something other than the product. Trust is key.
3. Trust the people you hire
The flip side of this is you also need to exhibit trust with the people you hire. As a manager, you need to learn to manage by expectations rather than by "butts in seat," so make sure you can show trust in those you hire.
4. Hire people who can write
In a co-located office, a lot of information is shared in-person. In a remote situation, everything is shared via written communication. Communication is one of the most important parts of remote team. Therefore, good writers are valuable.
5. Hire people who are ok without a social workplace
It'll be important to try to create some social aspects with a remote team. But the truth of the matter is that remote workplaces are usually less social than co-located ones. People on remote teams need to be ok with that. And the best remote workers will thrive in this type of environment.
Tools are really important in a remote workplace because they enable you to better organize the team and keep everyone on the same page.
In a co-located facility you can always round up the team for an all-hands meeting to steer everyone on track. In a remote team, you'll need the right tools to make sure everyone stays on the same page and can continue to execute without a physical person standing next to them.
Here are some tools we've found handy:
Campfire is our virtual office. If you're in Campfire then you're at work. A group chat room like Campfire is also great at creating camaraderie.
Depending on your team size, you'll want to make use of rooms in Campfire as well. At a certain size it can start to get noisy, so it makes sense to section off rooms into things like "water cooler", "engineering", "marketing", etc. I would hold off on this as long as possible though.
Sqwiggle is a persistant video chat room, but instead of having a live video feed on all the time like you might do with Skype or Google Hangouts, Sqwiggle takes a picture of you every 8 seconds. It's a great way to see everyone at their workspace while they are working. And whenever you do want to chat with a person you can just click a button and you'll have a live video chat up in less than a second.
Everyone likes to hate on email, but in a remote team it's still immensely valuable because, no matter what, you aren't going to take email out of someone's daily routine.
We have email setup with lists that let you easily ping the whole team if you'd like. This makes it easy to involve the whole team in discussions and it's documented for reference should you need it. A great example of a company using email effectively is Stripe. While they aren't a remote team, the process could easily be replicated in a remote setting.
Trello acts as our default roadmap. Anytime we have something we'd like to do, we add it to a to-do list in Trello. In most situations, you'll find yourself creating way too many cards trying to do too many things. The trick we use to avoid getting card overload in Trello is that in order to create a card you also have to write a detailed description of what the feature is, why it's important, and what the results of a successful implementation of this feature should look like.
This works great for remote teams, because if anyone in the company is looking for something to do, they can just go pick a card off the Trello board and know that it's going to be a positive feature for the product/company.