Most arguments against using remote employees boils down to largely the same thing – that they won’t be as prolific as in-office counterparts, and that it’s much harder to monitor their progress.
To a certain degree this is true – it’s much harder to monitor an employee when they aren’t in the same office, and it’s especially difficult when they’re in a completely separate time zone.
However, to another degree it’s a load of rubbish.
Remote workers can be more productive than their office counterparts, only you don’t have to pay for the real estate to house them as they put in their time. The key with managing a remote team, however, is making sure that you have an open culture of communication and centralization.
In other words, everyone needs to be working out loud and talking to each other.
Over the course of this post I’ll highlight the benefits of encouraging your remote team to work out loud, including:
Not only that, but I’ll go over the best ways to make sure your team works out loud, including the main way you should be communicating, how to organize your team’s work, how long and frequent your meetings should be, and much, much more.
It’s time to nullify the drawbacks of having remote employees and only enjoy the advantages.
As I’ve already mentioned above, remote teams have even greater hurdles to communication than typical office employees. Not only do you have the physical barrier (potentially thousands of miles between you), but you might not even be able to easily talk in real time due to time differences.
To negate this, you and the rest of your team needs to be working out loud.
Not sold? Well, let me highlight just a few of the inherent advantages of a remote team with strong culture of communication and centralized information.
It may sounds obvious, but knowing what the rest of your team is doing is incredibly helpful to… well, acting as a team.
Let’s say that you’re releasing three blog posts per week, each written by a different team member. By working out loud you can know for certain how far along each post is, what’s blocking the author’s progress, what’s falling behind schedule and generally predict where your attention needs to be.
If, however, your remote team keeps to themselves then you’re working on blind faith alone. That might work for a casual side-project, but when running a business it just isn’t an option.
Giving regular updates (even if it’s just once per day or so) lets everyone know how you’re doing, meaning you won’t be stuck on the day of publishing with nothing but a rough outline of a post in Workflowy.
In other words, everybody will know what’s happening, what priorities they should have, and can prioritize their day accordingly.
One of the easiest ways to fall behind schedule is for your remote team to not know who’s accountable for what. To run with my previous example, posts can’t be reviewed and commented on if they’re not submitted for criticism.
Working out loud, however, means that everyone will know what they need to be doing, and what they’re responsible for carrying out. Not only that, but the responsible party will have ample time to take action because they’ve been kept up to date on your progress.
You’re essentially getting rid of any grey areas by putting everything out in the open. There’s no excuse of “I didn’t see it” or “I was waiting for review”, because everyone’s up to date.
An extension of increased accountability is that your team will be more motivated to complete their tasks (especially those with vague deadlines). This is something I’ve learned from experience – I’m a master procrastinator myself.
If, however, I lay out what I’ll be working on at the start of each day in a group chat I’ll more often than not hit my targets. That’s because working out loud like this turns a self-imposed deadline into a promise to the rest of your team. Fail, and I’m not just letting myself down – I’m messing up everyone else’s schedule because they have to wait longer on my tasks.
This works so well, in fact, that I’ve taken to doing this in my side-projects too. Whether I’m feeling motivated or not, if I tell my friends that I’ll do something by a certain time, that’s what will happen.
Not to mention that no-one wants to look like they can’t handle their tasks; that fear alone can spur most into motion no matter how they’re feeling.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; remote teams live and die by the strength of their company culture. When you’re working with people you’ve probably never met and who may be half the world away it’s important to link them together using your culture.
This can be difficult (especially for remote teams) – you’re trying to foster bonds and friendships between strangers who will almost never meet in person. Luckily, one of the best ways to create and support an inclusive culture among your workforce is to get them to communicate regularly.
Working out loud by nature encourages communication between your employees. Even if it’s only about work, they’ll be reaching out and talking regularly, which is a great way to break the ice and open up more casual conversation with colleagues.
This is especially true when onboarding employees. The inclusive culture you’ve fostered among your current team will make it easier to welcome them, and getting them to work out loud will let them see the humans behind the names in their Slack channel.
A loyal employee is a powerful thing indeed. By creating ties to your company and team, you can reap rewards such as extra word-of-mouth marketing, greater employee retention, dedication to and passion in their work, and even suggestions to take your business to the next level.
There are a couple of ways to inspire loyalty among your employees, including rewards for hard work, actually listening to their input, and allowing a more flexible work schedule to suit their needs. However, one of the best ways is to have an inclusive culture from day one.
As stated above, working out loud (and communicating in general) encourages this inclusive culture and, by extension, greater loyalty among your employees. This happens because of the relationships formed with such a transparent communication culture – nobody’s shoved to the side and help (when needed) will be available in ample time.
Again, because everyone knows what tasks are being worked on and what progress has been made, it’s a cinch to link up and collaborate. Having that vital context on your task list (compared to the rest of your team) lets you get the full picture of your workload and plan to collaborate however you need to well in advance.
Any hesitation to collaborating is also lessened, since everyone is communicating frequently. The distance between your remote team members is no longer a problem, because they’re communicating frequently and well in advance of any obstacles.
One of the biggest drawbacks to hiring remotely is the potential for time zone differences. At best you’ll either be synced up or an hour ahead or behind each other, but at worst you’ll have completely separate day/night cycles.
For example, my team has members in Latvia (myself), England, Spain, the Philippines, and the US. If we didn’t work transparently and communicate regularly it’s entirely possible that a simple approval process (“can you check this post?” to “yeah sure, it looks good to go”) could take upwards of two days.
Instead, because we all know exactly what’s coming up for review and who’s involved in creating it, we can make sure that we’re around to give immediate feedback and approval without disrupting our own tasks.
So, yes, working out loud is a great idea whether you’re in a traditional or remote setup, but how do you go about making it happen? People are creatures of habit – if it’s easier and more common to not communicate then they won’t want to start now.
At the same time, you don’t want to go full overlord and force everyone to swap stories like boy scouts over a campfire. Getting your team to forge relationships doesn’t work like that.
Instead, there are a few simple tweaks you can make to your current setup to naturally encourage your team to work out loud and collaborate. From switching up how you talk, to how you use meetings and store your work library, here are the easiest ways to encourage a centralized and transparent work culture in your remote team.
Working and communicating over email is a one-way ticket to disaster. Not only are you unnecessarily making everything take infinitely longer to discuss, but you’re increasing the chance of getting distracted, or worse still losing the conversation entirely.
Take a second to stop and think about how you feel going through massive strings of emails, trying to retrieve a single piece of information – it’s frustrating and just not necessary (even with the benefits apps like Inbox bring).
Now think about the number of times you’ve had to scramble to remember which conversation you were having before replying – email’s backlog only goes a few messages before collapsing after all. Hell, that’s not even mentioning the times that conversations can span multiple email threads, and putting them all together really is a nightmare.
Save yourself (and the rest of your team) the trouble, and stop using email to communicate.
Instead, try giving Slack a go – it’s a fantastic replacement for company communication, with plenty of room to integrate with other apps.
Slack lets you create different “channels” to talk to groups of people at a time, each of which can be pinned to the top of your display for easy access. In other words, you can create both a general channel for your team to socialise and separate group chats for each of your teams to be able to talk amongst themselves and collaborate.
Choosing to use Slack for our communication had a second, much greater benefit which we didn’t predict – it encouraged us to have a clear culture of centralized communication. In other words, our remote team talked to each other and bonded more just because we could talk to each other.
Having a general company-wide channel along with our individual team channels gave each chat room a separate feel and inherent purpose. With a little help from our more extroverted team members, the general channel gained a casual atmosphere where we post music recommendations to help each other focus, and make announcements.
The individual team channels, however, grew their own smaller cultures (which didn’t become too exclusive, due to General existing). For example, our own “Content creation” channel uses Slack’s giphy integration to greet each other every morning, using the word “morn” as our trigger.
I can’t remember why or how it became a thing, but the eternal quest to see a feed full of rotating Morns from Deep Space 9 is now a part of our culture. It might sound stupid, but it breaks the ice each and every morning, letting us get on with whatever we have for the day (and acting as a kind of clock-in, since we all do it as soon as we get online).
The main problem with using an app like Slack (or really using anything – email suffers from the same problems) to onboard a new remote team member is that it can be intimidating for the new hire to reach out. After all, until they’ve talked to your team they’re faced with nothing more than blank names and avatars, messaging each other random gifs and getting excited when a weird alien shows up.
One of the best ways to avoid this is to introduce new hires to as many people as possible during your onboarding process. That way the hire and your team have a point of contact to go off and build a relationship – they can both see the human behind the avatar.
This also makes sure that any new employee knows who is responsible for what, and has an introduction to their new team’s culture without being excluded. For example, assigning a mentor is all well and good, but better to do that and let them know who to go to with questions about certain things. That way their mentor isn’t completely unable to do their own work from a deluge of questions – it’s spread out among the rest of your team.
This is the single biggest step to making sure your remote team can function and work out loud – everybody, and I mean everybody, needs to save their work on a shared platform, be it through cloud storage or uploading files to Trello cards.
The main reason behind this is to make sure that everyone can access everything they need to – after all, when you’re working with a team who could be half the world away, you’re going to want some kind of security against having to spend several days in a back-and-forth asking for information.
By setting up a shared set of folders in Google Drive and letting everyone save their work there, you can give access to anyone and everyone who needs it, meaning your team might not even have to bother the file owner to use it. Whether the author is busy or even on holiday / sick leave, the rest of their team can view and access any files which they may need to.
Storing your team’s work on a cloud storage platform has another advantage too – it insures against data loss. By having both a local and cloud version of your work, it’s highly unlikely that anything (or at least anything much) will be lost in the event something happens to your computer.
Whether you drop something on your desktop, spill coffee on your laptop, or accidentally walk too close with a powerful magnet, your work is backed up, ready to be downloaded on a new device, ready-to-go.
Finally, a great way to encourage an inclusive culture and to get your remote team working out loud is to have short but regular meetings, like developer standups. This works because it ensures a consistent stream of information between the various members of your team, and between the team as a whole and you.
The number of meetings and best schedule will largely depend on how many people are in your team, the nature of their work, how independent they can be, and on other factors such as (for a marketing team) your blog’s content calendar.
For example, our team consists of three content creators (including myself), one visual and media creator, and one co-ordinator. Each of our three writers publishes one post a week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday slots. Because of this, we decided to have a call on Zoom four times a week.
Our calls on Tuesday and Thursday mornings are general status reports with just our team taking part – this is where we can get a second opinion on posts and other media, while noting what we’ve been working on and what needs to happen to let us carry on. These don’t usually last long (30 minutes to an hour, max), but serve as a brilliant way to remove obstacles and keep everyone up to date on their priorities.
Meanwhile, in the evenings on Tuesday and Thursday we have our main calls which Vinay (our CEO) takes part in. These are our “final approval” calls, in which he can take a look at our content, let us know of any upcoming updates or change our priorities according to what he wants doing. However, because of our morning calls he doesn’t have to spend extra time dealing with small issues like someone not having access to a file or giving feedback on a basic post plan.
In other words, try to organize your meetings so that you’re not wasting time. Yes, they’re a great chance for your team to properly talk to each other and catch up (which everyone should do to break the ice), but you also don’t want to be losing too much time out of your regular schedule.
You also don’t want to be wasting the time of anyone who doesn’t need to be there, hence why we don’t have our CEO in every meeting – he pops in frequently enough to give feedback and final approval on each blog post, but we deal with the rest. Incidentally, this increases the trust and respect our team has for him, since he trusts us enough to only require one round of final approval.
The benefits of regular communication and working out loud in general are truly hard to list in their entirety, but you also need to know when to stop. Pushing communication too hard will have the opposite of your intended effect, breeding irritation at best and resentment at worst.
Essentially, don’t pester anyone to the point where it interferes with their own work. After all, the ultimate aim here to to encourage communication, not put them off it.
Host meetings regularly enough to get what you need to done, but don’t distract your team every morning with a 15 minute standup where it isn’t required. Sure, reach out for advice on a bit of keyword research, but don’t incessantly pester your team to the point where they start to ignore you – if you don’t strictly need their advice, follow your documented processes and do your best. At worst you’ll be given feedback during your regular meetings.
About the Author:
Benjamin Brandall is the head of content marketing at Process Street and the writer at Writerzone.net, where he writes about technology, productivity, and startups. Follow him on Twitter at @benjbrandall.