181: How to Manage Remote Teams
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In this episode, Steli and Hiten talk about the challenges faced with managing and building remote teams. Listen as they list several key issues every mobile team encounters—from selecting the right members to dealing with miscommunication. Tune in to find out some key strategies Steli and Hiten have used with their remotes teams that enable them to work with their teams more effectively.
Time Stamped Show Notes:
- 00:04 – Today’s episode is about managing remote teams
- 00:41 – In previous episodes, the day-to-day operational challenges have not yet been discussed
- 00:50 – Hiten has built a number of remote teams already
- 01:35 – He mentions Episode 92: How to Build Kickass Remote Teams
- 01:48 – He started building remote teams since 2003
- 01:59 – “Not everyone’s right for a remote team”
- 02:52 – Hiten shares about a team member who didn’t want to work remotely, anymore
- 03:28 – Design of work and work environment relies on the person himself
- 04:18 – People working remotely might feel lonely, which is a challenge in this field
- 05:25 – Working remotely is still poses a risk – will your members work as expected?
- 06:01 – Slack is a great help
- 06:47 – Zoom, Uber Conference, and Google Hangouts work well for video conference meetings
- 07:48 – “It’s not just all about work”
- 07:55 – Create channels where people can communicate about things other than work
- 09:19 – Steli’s team does one 25-30-minute long virtual meetings every week
- 10:56 – “Just because it’s remote, doesn’t mean you have to not do a lot of things you would do in an office”
- 11:51 – One strategy that works for Hiten is that everyone in the team shares what they’ll do for the day, each and every day
- 13:27 – Steli’s team uses Asana
- 15:36 – Team members who cannot use tools for project management may not be good for a remote team
- 16:19 – Hiten and his team use a special Slack channel
- 17:54 – “Over-communicating” is a big key to success for remote teams
- 19:18 – Communication is the easy solution to any problem
- 19:38 – It’s easy to upset with somebody over a text
- 20:38 – Video calls can help you know how your team member is doing
- 21:50 – Disagreements can escalate in a bad way in written communication
- 23:04 – Steli and his team have their own “The Guide to Working with Me”
- 23:36 – Each team should have a communicated etiquette
- 25:23 – Be explicit and clear
3 Key Points:
- Create a way or channel for your team to communicate about other things besides work.
- Video calls and conferences are a great way to communicate and check in on one another.
- “Over-communicating” with one another is the best way to make remote teams work well.
Steli Efti: Hey, this is Steli Efti.
Hiten Shah: And this is Hiten Shah.
Steli Efti: And in today’s episode we wanna talk about how to manage and run remote teams, or a remote company, right? So, we’ve talked about, I think in the past, how to hire freelancers and why remote is powerful and why it can be an alternative model to having an office and hiring everybody on-site, but we’ve not yet talked about the day to day, the operational challenges and opportunities that come with running remote companies. I know you have built multiple remote teams and are constantly creating new remote teams that are working on projects and for us we went from, kind of a semi-remote setup, where we had a bunch of people in the office and a bunch of people remote, to now finally transitioning to being a fully remote company and team. So, there’s probably lots to talk about. Maybe to kick us off, what are some of the things that you had to figure out and learn on a practical level, through trial and error, that today are kind of like, whenever you think about remote teams, the first thing you think about, when it comes to setting up process and making sure that the team is managed correctly?
Hiten Shah: Yeah. We actually talked a bunch about how to build kick ass remote teams in episode 92, so, I definitely wanna mention that, in case anyone wants more about just how to build them and a little bit higher level than what we’re probably gonna get into today. For me, I’ve been building remote teams since about 2003. One of them has been hybrid as well, where there’s a office and I’m not sure if that was a great idea at this point, but one of the things that I would put out there is, not everyone’s right for a remote team. I do interviews with people. I talk to people when we’re hiring them and usually if they’re not right for the remote team, there’s some hesitation in their voice the second you tell ’em: well, it’s all remote, you’re actually not gonna meet with anyone in person and you have to be okay with that and then here’s what that means. Here’s what you get. Here are the positives of that, here’s the negative. How do you feel about it? I try to get that taken care of in the first interview. Sometimes it takes two just ’cause the person might be wishy-washy and not really know. So, if you look at all the pool of candidates that you have in the world today to work on your team, the majority of them haven’t worked remotely. So, if someone already has a natural hesitation towards it, it can be very difficult for them when they start, if you actually accept them and they join, to deal with it. So, I would just start there and say, that’s one of the first red flags, or whatever. I had one recently where, the gentlemen had worked remote before. Lately, he hadn’t been working remote and he started working with us for about a month, month and a half and one of the reasons we didn’t continue after that, is ’cause he was lonely. It just seemed like he wanted more in-person interactions and stuff like that and that just wasn’t gonna be possible. So, yeah, that’s the first one I’ll throw out there.
Steli Efti: Yeah, it’s an interesting one, right? Remote is not right for everybody because it is a type of work where people have to organize their day and work environment in a way that allows them to be really productive and the design of their work and work environment is very much in their own hands, versus when you have an office. The work design, which can influence the way your productivity and your happiness at work, it’s kind of out of your hands, right? You show up at whatever the office, the HQs, are location-wise, people-wise, noise-wise and wherever your desk is, the lighting you get. Whatever the amount of interactions are that you’re gonna have with co-workers, the energy of the office. All these things are given and then either they work for you, or they don’t. When you work remotely, you have to create that from scratch for yourself and that’s just not something that is, some people will love that and thrive under that and some people will hate it and the most common reason is, you said, is the loneliness, right? So, for most people, working remotely means they feel disconnected from their co-workers and their peers, which makes them lonely, which is something that can be a challenge to deal with and I think that the people that do work remotely really well, they either appreciate the productivity and the focus and the silence that they create in their own work environment much more than the connection with the day-to-day random connection with their peers, or they create a different type of feeling for community, either going to co-working spaces, or to coffee places and kind of scheduling a day where they have focused downtime in their own office and then they go out and enjoy a lot of the benefits of being in control of their own schedule and environment. So, that’s a big one. Now, let’s say you hire people and you make sure that they are right for remote and ideally, if they have the experience in it, that can be a big benefit because that means that they probably know, versus if this will be their first time they do a remote gig, they might find the idea appealing, but it’s just still a risk. How will it be in practice? Will they really like it, or not? But, once they join, when you think about the tools and methodologies and communication channels and the processes that you guys utilize, maybe we wanna just run through a bunch of things that you use, or models that you apply, in order to manage remote teams that are maybe different from things that a founder would do in a team that has an office and it’s easy to show up physically every single day. Well, what’s the first thing that comes to mind there?
Hiten Shah: Yeah. I think Slack has helped a lot, so has HipChat before that in helping people feel like they are connected to everyone else, so, that’s been the big primary thing that we’ve used and also, a remote team does have a culture and a lot of it has to do with the images you post, or how much people are sharing about their lives on Slack and places like that, so, there is some level of personal sharing that happens in Slack. Sometimes there’s even rooms created just for that, not necessarily the random room, but if you really felt like your remote team is just working seven days a week and you want them to kick back a little bit, you would have a ‘Weekends’ room and make it so that people are sharing what they’re doing on the weekend. Another thing that I’ve seen that might be very effective is, when you have a virtual meeting on Monday, unless people are using Zoom these days, just ’cause it’s been pretty popular and growing, but you could be using UberConference, or whatever, Tool Hangouts, or whatever. You’re actually in the deck. Usually I would recommend having a deck, where the product managers, or CEO, or whoever is creating a deck, depending on the size of the team, or teams inside the company. There’s a lot of other people’s faces, what they did. If someone took a great picture on a vacation, you highlight that. So, there’s a lot of things that normally would happen in a office, that you end up, if you really wanna healthy culture, you wanna be doing as much as possible in this remote environment and it’s not like I say: oh, you should do one of these, or this one will work for you. It’s more so, cultural to the remote team, to the founders, to the executives, or even the managers and how they think about it and what culture they want and I found that to be super effective. So, there’s a lot of strategies to make it so that, you are still able to know about the people on your team and it’s not just all about work.
Steli Efti: Yeah. I think that’s an important one, right? I think you want to create situations where people can communicate about things other than work ’cause that’s how, a lot of times people-, that’s gonna be the social glue that makes everything sticks together, but also it will allow you to understand your co-workers a lot better, right? We’re not one dimensional beings and understanding the people you work with, purely based on their work skill and their work product, is gonna be good, but not enough, necessarily, to really feel connected with them, to be able to communicate really effectively and to try to be able to have a connection on a human level, but once you know what somebody’s quirks and hobbies are and interests, or what reason, also, it puts the work in perspective, right? If you know that somebody just went through a big move, or they just had this amazing vacation, or they had this crisis in their own family and somebody got really sick. It puts everything else they do and who they are and how they communicate, into a grander context that will allow everybody to communicate better and work better with them, understand them better, interpret their own actions a lot better, so, I love the idea of the ‘Weekends’ room. We have a room that’s called ‘Shenanigans’. It’s probably the most active room … (laughs)
Hiten Shah: (laughs) That’s awesome.
Steli Efti: … in all of them and it’s just a never-ending stream of mischievous threads and messages and funny pictures and articles and whatever. So, that’s really cool. We recently started doing something. So, we do have one virtual meeting a week, which is on Tuesdays. Every team lead basically sends out a report on Monday, of what has happened the past week and what’s gonna transpire this week, with the KPIs and metrics and things like that, so, people have a day to look at those reports and comment on them digitally in a drop box paper, or a goal log and then on Tuesday, we have a team meeting where we just have Q&As and discussions around the progress of different teams and right after that, which is 25 to 30 minutes long. It’s a fairly tight meeting and right after that, we just started a few weeks ago, to one on ones, so, there’s just a spreadsheet and randomly two people are connected together, to just have a 10, 15 minute, one on one and it’s highly encouraged to actually have it not be necessarily about work, so, you’ll have somebody from the marketing team talk to somebody on engineering, that they usually just don’t work with on a day-to-day basis, don’t interact with as much and now have a connection, or the ability to have a little bit of space to do a one on one conversation, figure out what’s the weather like in Russia, or in Thailand, or in the US, or wherever people are and what are you currently working on and how are things going? So, that’s been really effective, to just talk to people, especially people that you don’t interact with as much on a daily basis, but still getting a chance to really understand people from other teams and people that you don’t deal with on a close work relationship basis.
Hiten Shah: Yeah. I think what we’re both pointing to here is, just because it’s remote doesn’t mean you have to not do a lot of the things you would do in an office. There are still norms in your company. There are still these things happening. The Shenanigans makes perfect sense for your company culture. You know what I mean? (laughs) I’m not surprised that’s the name of your room, right?
Steli Efti: (laughs) That’s right. (laughs)
Hiten Shah: So, it’s perfect. I know you, I know all of that and the culture of your company, so, you don’t wanna feel like you can’t express yourself, as a human being, in a remote company. You wanna create those norms. You wanna create those things and give people the opportunity to share more about themselves. So, one other piece, switching gears into something that I think would be less fun, compared to all the non-work stuff, is how to get work done and I have one thing that really keeps hitting home and it feels really prescriptive and almost robotic, but it’s been really helpful in my companies, which is, everyone that’s working on the teams, is essentially putting in everyday, what they’re actually doing. So, what are you gonna do today? What did you do yesterday? And then, once it gets done, or whenever there’s progress, there’s an update. And there’s a bunch of tools that you can use that people have built on top of Slack. Ours is literally called ‘Daily Ship Goals’ in one of the teams and it’s literally putting in what they’re planning on shipping that day. It’s a very product engineering heavy company, so, literally, the team is just putting in there, exactly what they’re planning on shipping that day and it’s literally a daily cadence. And that’s been super impactful in helping everyone know what each other is doing and holding yourself accountable in this remote environment when someone’s not looking over your shoulder, so, you can’t just walk over to somebody and be like: hey, what’s up with that thing?
Steli Efti: I like that. We’ve tried this a while ago. It’s been a minute though. The team has changed and grown a lot since then, but I remember when we were trying this and for some people it worked really, really well, partially probably because of their personality, but also, partially because of the type of work they were doing, then for some people it seemed pretty repetitive because the kind of things that we’re doing on a day-to-day basis, at least at certain phases, maybe for a two week, or three week period, was pretty repetitive. So, we struggle with that. We did that for a little while, and then we stopped and we’ve been switching and experimenting wildly with the model of people reporting what they do and keeping each other, both accountable, but also, having a level of transparency. Now, a bunch of our teams are using Asana pretty heavily and putting their to-dos and that has been very helpful for certain teams, to just transparently, what people are working on, what they finished today and what’s going on, but it doesn’t have that daily, report to everybody function. So, I’m curious about that.
Hiten Shah: I’ve found it to increase accountability and alignment on engineering and product and I’ve also found it, when marketing teams get involved in it and they start doing it too, and this is all shared across the company, or your team, if the teams are really large. That works too, but when marketing gets involved, basically what happens is, everyone knows what marketing’s doing and that totally changes the game quite a bit into terms of everyone else’s involvement in it and even coordination actually changes quite a bit in a positive way where people start coordinating more and understanding how they can help each other on things and realize: oh, Shawn’s working on this marketing page, I’ve already got a bunch of code he can use, or we can just copy this one other page that we have. We don’t have to build it from scratch. So, a lot of these things start happening, just because everyone’s sharing what they’re working on, what they’re doing. In a way, in a remote environment, where it would be Asana, it would be Confluence, it would be all this stuff, that usually would require a product manager, or somebody who’s responsible for those tools and the upkeep of the tools. Instead, what we’ve found is that, this has been a lot more useful than the upkeep of Asana or a tool like that, just because those tools also turn into very problematic things, where you’re forcing your team to use them, or everyone has to put their tasks in there and often times, that leads to it’s own sort of issues. So, we found that people posting what they’re doing that day, what they did the day before and how it’s going as the day progresses, that’s been some of the most impactful things, ’cause it just leads to way quicker collaboration, without making it like: oh, I have to enter this task in, I have to hit done, I have to make sure that I’ve got every detail in there and bla bla bla. This has felt a lot better and we’ve used all other tools too. We do find that team members who can’t do this, might not be good for a remote team. This newer kind of thesis I’ve been developing, simply because they might not be able to figure out how to chunk up their work into daily work and that’s part of the problem. If you can’t chunk up your daily work, no matter what part of the team you’re on, or part of the company, I think that’s a problem, especially in a remote company.
Steli Efti: Yeah because you have to manage your own productivity much more so than you would usually in an office environment. What’s the channel that you guys use to communicate that. So, is it an email that is sent to everybody? Is it a unique Slack channel, where everybody posts their daily-
Hiten Shah: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s a unique Slack channel called ‘Daily Ship Goals’, in one of the companies, just ’cause we needed to switch to daily goals and so, everyone has ship goals, regardless of where they’re at and what they’re doing.
Steli Efti: And how many people are part of that? How you ever found that, let’s say if you had 50 people in a room like that, do you think that, that would then start breaking because-
Hiten Shah: Yeah. So, you would break it up into separate teams at that point. So, usually the teams are pretty small, so, Amazon’s ‘Two Pizza Rule’ of two people, or whatever, two to eight people. And then after that, we just start splitting up the rooms, or splitting up the teams. It has worked though, up to even a dozen people and I’m sure it would work even past that, as long as you’re using some kind of tool and because of the way you can search through Slack, it actually hasn’t been a big problem. When you have though, 50 people and they’re all sharing it, that’s when it becomes a problem ’cause then you just can’t keep up with it, but up to about a dozen it doesn’t seem to have broken.
Steli Efti: Cool. That’s awesome. So, maybe to round this discussion. So, this is, I think, a really powerful tool and to summarize it, a lot of the things that we’re saying are basically like: in a remote environment, to manage it effectively, A. You need the right people, but also B. You need to communicate a lot, right? And communication, funny enough, has been a theme recently on Twitter, for you, I’ve noticed. And how communication’s kind of like the more you communicate, the more friction and misalignment goes away in relationships with others and the less communication happens, the more of these things tend to pop up. So, in a remote environment, it seems like over-communicating, communicating much more-so than you probably naturally would tend to do, is a big key to success because the beauty of an office environment is that there’s an insane amount of communication happening without any effort, even if nobody’s talking, just by people’s body language, they’re communicating to each other. There’s a certain vibe in the room. There’s a certain energy in the room. You walk into the office, you look at some of the people’s expressions on their faces and you already know a ton of what is happening in their life, or how they’re feeling right now. All that is not there, so, you have to compensate for that with active communication. You can’t passively communicate. And in doing that-
Hiten Shah: Definitely agree.
Steli Efti: Right? And, there’s part of it that has to do with fun and social environment and shenanigan rooms, weekend rooms. We even wrote an article once, about how we use Snapchat in the team, to have more fun and kind of connect socially. There’s a lot of benefit to doing that, but then there’s the other side of it, which is: okay, how do you over-communicate around work? And how do you communicate to get more work done and to get better work done, right? So, I love the simplicity of the approach that you suggested. What other, maybe one or two tips, can we give people to round up this episode?
Hiten Shah: Yeah. I’m gonna still stick to the communication theme. You’re right, it’s just been a theme I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’ve just found that most of the problems in a company, even in any relationship, just communication is the easy solution. The easy meaning, the fastest, easiest path and whoever is willing to communicate, ends up being able to solve any problems and really kick off the solution. So, on a remote team, I think it’s really easy. This is the one tip I’d give. It’s easy to misinterpret text and what someone said. It’s really easy to think, especially when you’re new to a remote team, or you haven’t worked with someone a lot, they could say something and it can set you off and you can have all these feelings about it. So, this is on the communication theme, I just communicate about it. Just tell somebody like: hey, when you use those words, it just made me feel this way, I just wanna make sure nothing’s wrong. I wanna make sure you’re not mad at me and everything’s okay ’cause if not, it’s worth talking about. So, I find myself doing that, or at least coaching people on the team to do that more often, just because somebody said something a certain way in a email, or in a Slack message, it doesn’t mean that they’re mad at you. It doesn’t mean that anything’s wrong, it just might be the way they communicate, or they might not be very good at sugar coating something, for example. So, that’s one. Another one is, I know on remote teams because of all the video technology, we are getting on video, quite a bit more. I find it really powerful to just get on a video call and you can pretty quickly figure out how somebody’s feeling just by looking at their face, their energy level, et cetera and that can really help give you some guidance on how that team member is doing.
Steli Efti: Yeah, I love that. I think that’s such an easy one to miss because when you remote you’re like: ah, why should I do the video call, we can also just do voice call and people a lot of times are self-conscious with my hair’s not perfect, or the light here is really shitty, or I’m in my basement, or something. If you can’t get over that, it is really powerful. The amount of passive communication and the amount of signals you give just by your facial expressions and your body language is massive and adding that as context to what you’re saying just makes communication usually a lot better. So, I love that tip and it’s such a simple one, but I see there’s such a temptation for people that work remotely, to just not do it. So, for me, the two tips, well, the one thing that I’ll riff on, was coming across maybe in the wrong way in written communication. One thing that I learned early on is that, particularly with one of my co-founders for instance, when we had disagreement and we were writing to each other, it usually escalated in a bad way, but when we had disagreement and we talk to each other it was always a really good discussion and we always quickly got to either one side, or the other, or got alignment again. So, I just learned to, whenever we started having an argument in the written communication channel to switch to a synchronized voice call or something like that.
Hiten Shah: I really like that. I have a few partners, literally in all of my cases, the disagreements are best settled of voice or video.
Steli Efti: Yeah, yeah. So, I’ve learned that early and has made all the difference in the world because these, in the early days, would just escalate to these massive arguments that would consume the entire day, right? Because it’s chat, so, I just argue the entire day with this person and not get anything else done and now the moment we start disagreeing in chat, I just call him and within five minutes we’re good, right? And we’ve solved it and figured it out and it was all fine. So, that leads me to another point, which we started recently, we’re still experimenting with, which is, we now have these one pages, that’s like the guide to working with me, right?
Hiten Shah: Awesome.
Steli Efti: And it’s like a quick like: here’s the best way for you to work with me. Here’s what I really like. Here’s what irritates me. Here’s how to deal with me in certain situations. And we found, especially now that we’re like 20, going to double this year to probably 40 people on the team and it’s all remote people. It’s been a useful tool to be like: alright, I’m working with these three people and here’s their guides on how they like to be communicated to and all that. And the second thing, when it comes to communication is, I do think that remote teams should have a practice communicated etiquette on how to talk to each other. So, what I mean by that is that, chat, for instance, when we were a small team, it was kind of understood that I could chat you at anytime in the day of the week and I never expected a response promptly, right? So, chat would be like: whenever I have something on my mind, I ping you, I say Hiten, what do you think about this idea? And I could wait for days. If it’s urgent, I’ll call you, or email you, but if it’s chat, I have all the time in the world to wait, right? Unless I say, I need an answer ASAP. And that was kind of understood in the small team, but as we grew the team, people didn’t know and I would chat people at like 11:00 PM because I was thinking about something, I had some idea and they felt the need to respond immediately, so, they were out for dinner, or having a good time and saying: shit, Steli is chatting me about some work-related thing and they would feel the pressure to answer immediately, or get the thing done, or whatever. And I didn’t realize that at first and then once it came out in a team meeting it made all the difference in the world and we started being more explicit in saying: here’s how we communicate in chat, here’s how we do it in email. But also, I started at times, to just be like: okay, it’s Saturday and it’s 1:00 AM and even if I’ve told everybody they don’t need to respond, let me not chat because they still-
Hiten Shah: You can only control yourself, Steli.
Steli Efti: Yes because they still might see it, right? Even if I told them they don’t need to respond, it might still pop up on their phone, or then I recommend everybody not to have notifications on. So, I’ve also kind of started to be a bit more mindful, myself. But, yeah, just be explicit and make sure that everybody on the team understands. Here’s the channel that needs urgent and immediate response. Here’s the channel that’s much more casual and make sure that everybody’s on the same page there so that, people don’t feel pressure to communicate or respond to things if there’s no real good reason to do so. Alright, I think that’s it from us for this week.
Steli Efti: We’ll hear you guys very soon. Bye-bye.