20 tips from virtual companies on building remote teams

by Rob Rawson
virtual companies

Have you ever wondered what it would be like working for one of these virtual companies, where most people are working while wearing their pajamas at home, without the need to travel to an office?

It’s possible, and there are very real, very profitable companies who have 50%-100% of their staff as virtual teams spread across the globe. We asked some of the top companies in the world who use remote employees two important questions about their remote team building practices:

What is your advice about HIRING remote employees?

We had to ask this, because let’s face it, it can be hard to look for and hire a reliable remote employee that will stick with you for the rest of their lives (okay, maybe not for the rest of their lives but at least for several years).

What are your tips for MANAGING remote employees?

This is really challenging because it’s difficult not to micromanage your staff even if you don’t intend to. Their answers are very helpful in finding other ways to let your employees know you are monitoring them without breathing down their necks

Check out the responses of these people from different virtual companies below:

Alex Turnbull, Groove

Alex Turnbull
CEO and Co-Founder

Advice about HIRING remote employees: Working remotely is a skill like any other and it’s naive to think that a good developer will necessarily make a good REMOTE developer. Hire people with experience working remotely or running their own business.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: Since you can’t see your team, it can be tempting to constantly be checking in with them all day. Communication is great and we’re always chatting on Slack or Screenhero but don’t micro-manage. Let people work when they’re most productive and judge them on output not hours.

Wade Foster, Zapier

Wade Foster
CEO and Co-Founder

Advice about HIRING remote employees: Don’t hire remote unless you’re willing to put in the effort to make remote working a first class citizen in your organization. That means investing in communication workflows and processes. You’ll feel like you’re over-communicating every step of the way but you have to do that to make remote work work.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: Manage by objectives. Give people goals to hit and then let them go make it happen. You can’t worry about hours spent at work or micromanaging a project or you’ll go insane. Make sure you give clear objectives and that it’s easy to measure.

Giacomo Peldi Guilizzoni, Balsamiq

Giacomo ‘Peldi’ Guilizzoni
Founder and CEO

Advice about HIRING remote employees: Make sure you specify the time range(s) when you expect candidates to be online. We also usually skip the initial CV step and go straight into a long and detailed online form to fill in. This has the benefit of filtering only those people who really want to work for you, going through the painful process of answering all the questions. Another benefit of this “blind” approach (as you won’t know age, race or even the applicant’s sex sometimes) is that you’ll have to base your filters on the candidate’s answers, instead of giving in to the human flaw of preferring people who look like you.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: Focus 100% on results. Try to split the work so that each person can own some projects and run with them ideally without needing anyone else’s help. Have everyone post their daily agendas on Hipchat (the equivalent of scrum meetings) and weekly agendas on the internal wiki. Have quarterly 1-1 meetings to align on longer-term goals.

Andrei Soroker, Sameroom

Andrei Soroker
CEO and Co-Founder

Advice about HIRING remote employees: Don’t do screening. It’s a waste of time. Instead, offer a homework assignment that fits the position and decide whether you want to dig in based on the results. Remember that when hiring remote you don’t really care about the “culture fit.”

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: All you’re looking for is for work to get done. That’s your only metric of success. Ask that much communication as possible happens in chatrooms visible to the whole team. By keeping an eye on (and participating in) team conversations you will be up to date with everyone’s rolling status.

Ben Welch, World Wide Web Hosting

Ben Welch-Bolen
CEO and Co-Owner
World Wide Web Hosting

Advice about HIRING remote employees: It is hugely important that you ensure people don’t need an office environment and have a strong support group outside of work. Once we tweaked that in our hiring process our employee retention skyrocketed. How do we do that? We ask questions to make sure they understand the social elements of work will be missing and that they have family friends and robust hobbies out of work they can pursue.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: The best thing about a remote workforce is that they manage themselves if you hire right and provide clear responsibilities to each of them. Beyond that, we’ve found that a small team structure works best – where they all get to know each other and can’t disappear into a group.

John O'Nolan, Ghost

John O’Nolan
CEO and Founder

Advice about HIRING remote employees: Try to find people who have experience freelancing, running their own business or otherwise working alone and getting things done. Not everyone is self-motivated but this is one of the most important skills to have on a remote team.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: Use a couple of tools that work for everyone and try not to overdose on the rest. At Ghost this means Slack for all our communication and Asana for all of our project management.

Alice Hendricks, Jackson River

Alice Hendricks
Jackson River

Advice about HIRING remote employees: Make sure you have a very open and honest conversation about working remote – set clear expectations of what is expected and understand how the employee works best. Clear and open communication about working remote is key.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: Create time in your day to check in with your remote employees everyday. Even a quick Skype “hello” to make sure they are getting what they should be doing goes a long way. Build a personal as well as professional relationship with them. Be responsive to their needs – remote employees feel “alone” when management is not responsive.

Nathan Gilmore, TeamGantt

Nathan Gilmore

Advice about HIRING remote employees: Look for someone who has produced real results in the past and don’t settle for someone that isn’t top notch. Also use Skype to help simulate an in person interview. There is a lot more that you can pick up over Skype and makes it a lot easier to get to know someone.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: Try to reduce as much unnecessary IM Slack chat as possible. One of the best perks of remote work is the extended periods of focus that can’t be achieved in a busy office. If everyone is “Slack”ing off or using IM a lot then the real work can’t get done. We try and do as much of our communication through email and TeamGantt. This way I can work for a few hours then when I’m ready for a break I check my email or TeamGantt to see what people need from me.

Govind Davis, MCF Tech

Govind Davis
CEO & Chief Architect
MCF Tech

Advice about HIRING remote employees: Try before you buy … it’s best to have some test work or small project to start with to assure people have the right skills and work habits.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: Create a culture of collaboration supported by the right tools and processes so that you can still get the ‘water cooler effect’ even if people aren’t just down the hall.

Leah Mason, Four Kitchens

Leah Mason
Director of Operations
Four Kitchens

Advice about HIRING remote employees: Do all you can to assess how much of a self-starter the candidate is as well as how content they are to not have much human interaction on a daily basis beyond the virtual space. Also create your compensation strategy with regional cost of living and average salary discrepancies.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: Have a regular video call to assess how they’re doing – it’s important to have face-to-face connection.

Chuck Vadun, Fire Engine RED

Chuck Vadun
Communications Director
Fire Engine RED

Advice about HIRING remote employees: Make sure you’re willing to put in the time and effort to hire people who are a fit for the remote culture. People who fit into our model tend to be highly entrepreneurial – at Fire Engine RED a big part of our culture is “thinking like owners not like employees.”

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: Develop a rapport with them via IM conference calls and one-on-one Skype chats (video or audio-only). Also help them feel engaged – we do this in a variety of ways. For example our CEO holds an all-company meeting via conference call every two weeks. Many of our teams have short production or “stand-up” meetings each morning.

Seth Viebrock, Origin Eight

Seth Viebrock
Founder and CEO
Origin Eight

Advice about HIRING remote employees: Have your infrastructure in place for remote work before hiring. The moment you hire your first remote employee is the moment that your team should be able to work remotely with the new hire.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: Have and use an online project management tool. Keep expectations documented and transparent. The remote employees may miss context or expectations by not being in the office, having side conversations, and missing some of the meetings that you’re in. You can resolve this by keeping milestones, due dates and tasks clear and documented in an online project management tool.

Aaron Bright, Hippo Education

Aaron Bright, M.D.
Co-Founder and CEO
Hippo Education

Advice about HIRING remote employees: Despite it’s popularity it is not for everyone. Make sure you build in a trial period for those employees that are not familiar with it. There is a bit of tech savvy either required or learnable (Slack, Sqwiggle, etc.) in order to stay tight with the team. But, don’t let that scare you! The benefits far outweigh the attention needed to pull it off.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: We’ve found that we need a very robust video on demand system. We use Sqwiggle. And, it’s important that people chat regularly with immediate supervisors and hopefully many more people. It’s important that people don’t feel isolated and text messages can only go so far. I would also add an occasional get together in the real world at least annually.

And, finally be sure that they have enough to do to feel productive and for you to measure productivity. It doesn’t matter when they do the work (for most positions) it matters that they’re getting it done. Incredibly efficient people tend to gravitate toward successful remote work. If they get 120% of the average productivity done in 5 hours a day… do you care? No, you don’t. Don’t micromanage your best people, otherwise they’ll find someplace else to shine eventually.

Pablo Hoffman, Scrapinghub

Pablo Hoffman

Advice about HIRING remote employees: Start small and scale. Keep clear goals and communicate them well. Good remote workers should pick them up and work accordingly. Self-management is a key discipline for good telecommuting, so build on that. Don’t be afraid to delegate. Focus on results, not working hours, but do highlight the importance of being responsive and available. Good communication and self-management are key factors in the success of a remote working team.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: Seek for people that are self-managed. After all, you have the whole world at your disposal to hire. Favor self-managed people at foreign time-zones over people close to your time zone that you need to micro-manage.

Walter Chen, iDoneThis

Walter Chen
CEO and Co-Founder

Advice about HIRING remote employees: Be sure people know what they’re getting involved with. Try to learn as much as you can about how they manage their time and discipline themselves.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: Use great communication tools. We obviously love using iDoneThis for asynchronous team communication. We love Slack as well.

Jimmy Walicek, WAKA Kickball & Social Sports

Jimmy Walicek
CEO and Co-Founder
WAKA Kickball & Social Sports

Advice about HIRING remote employees: Be crystal clear on your expectations and responsibilities of the position. It saves time for the company and for the candidate looking to be hired. Make sure the candidate understands exactly what is expected in terms of results and measurements. Also, don’t think twice about passing on a candidate that is not willing to find the time and resources to have a web cam interview with you (i.e. Skype, Hangout). Body language is one of the key factors in determining the right fit for your company culture.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: As a manager or remote supervisor you must continually remind your staff that you are available. You don’t need to be available 24/7, however you need to be “seen” in the office on a regular basis through a chat program (i.e. Google hangouts, Facebook chat). Staying in touch virtually is vitally important when you don’t see your staff face to face often.

Jody Grunden, Summit CPA

Jody Grunden
Managing Member & Virtual CFO
Summit CPA

Advice about HIRING remote employees: Have your candidates meet virtually with several of your team members, and test for technological savviness. In our company, remote employees must have at least 3 years of experience – recent college grads require too much hand holding. Also, be extremely clear on what your expectations are regarding availability with both clients and team members.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: Over communicate. Over communicate. Over communicate. Use many forms of communication for your team, both real-time synchronous communication like phone calls and video chats, and asynchronous communication like email and messaging platforms. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. Did I mention to over communicate?

Lindsay Goodine, ICUC

Lindsay Goodine
Director, Culture and Development

Advice about HIRING remote employees: We all know how important non-verbal communication and body language is. So, don’t rely on just phone calls or emails. Always conduct your interviews using video. Make eye contact, be expressive, and smile. Remember, the candidate is interviewing you just as much as you are interviewing him/her.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: It’s simple. Employees are hired to do one thing – get the work done. At ICUC, we are focused on achieving results. Employees are accountable and autonomous and are free to work when, where, and how works best for them, as long as results are being achieved.

Robert Glazer, Acceleration Partners

Robert Glazer
Founder & Managing Director
Acceleration Partners

Advice about HIRING remote employees: It’s critical to determine early in the hiring process whether or not a candidate is a good fit for working from home. We ask specific questions to see if they have what it takes. Have you worked from home before? Do you have a home office? Have you used a co-working space before? What does your daily schedule look like? The answers will help you understand if they have the discipline and structure to be successful working remotely.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: We’ve found that frequent communication produces higher levels of employee engagement. We use video conferencing for many of our internal meetings so people can make a personal connection with their team members. We also host bi-annual company meetings so they can get to know each other in person.

David DuPont, TeamSnap

David DuPont
President and CEO

Advice about HIRING remote employees: Make sure you hire people that are self-motivated and can communicate exceptionally well.

Tips for MANAGING remote employees: Create and encourage a culture of openness and communication. Go out of your way to make sure everyone on the team understands business, functional and project priorities. Make sure to solicit ideas and perspectives from everyone in the organization. Never let anyone feel left out.

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