How to Run a Remote Team

Many companies, such Automattic, Buffer, Zapier and GitLab are successful as 100% remote teams. Yet it's still not a common company structure and, unfortunately, information about how to set up remote work so that you and your team can be successful is still scarce. We want to share what we've learned so far.

3 Ingredients of a Successful Remote Work Setup

It's highly unlikely you could pluck any random set of people, at any random moment in history, dispersed around the globe, put them together, and expect them to build something amazing.

We've found there are three important ingredients to making remote work, well, work: TeamTools, and Process.

 

Team

By far, the most important ingredient is the team. Not everyone can work well in a remote environment. Not everyone can manage a remote team (though I suspect with a bit of time and learning, a lot of managers could figure out how to make it work). Therefore, it's important to assemble a team that's 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 working from a secluded island. 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 or customers. 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, almost everything is shared via written communication. Communication is one of the most important parts of remote team. Therefore, good writers are critical to a team's success.

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 is that remote workplaces are usually less social than co-located ones. People on remote teams need to be ok with that and have their own social support system. And the best remote workers will thrive in this type of environment. That said, as you grow you might find multiple people in cities and some social environment will emerge. 

 

Software/Tools

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 as a rapidly growing team. While the exact tools aren't super important, you likely will need a tool in certain categories like group chat and video conferencing to make remote successful. These tools have changed quite a bit over the years.

 

1. Slack

Chilling in Slack

Slack is our virtual office. If you're in Slack then you're at work. A group chat room like Slack is also great at creating camaraderie.

Depending on your team size, you'll want to make use of channels in Slack 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, when you're a small team.

At around 10 people, start creating multiple channels. Functional channels like #marketing, #support, and #hacking, along with project-specific channels like #team-growth, and social channels like #fun-cooking work well. Prepending Slack channels with words like "fun-" or "feed-" help organize and communicate to new teammates what can quickly become an unruly list of channels in Slack.

2. Trello

Zapier Roadmap

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 each card needs to have 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.

We also use Trello boards for keeping track of our marketing campaigns, support documentation, and really any project that needs to get done.

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.

4. GitHub

We use Issues and pull requests for specific purposes. GitHub houses all code related project management. Pull Requests are how we ship feature, while issues are reserved for bugs only. Feature requests and planning happen in Trello, a planning doc, or another tool like Airtable.

5. 1Password

Since we have logins to hundreds of services—those we use as a company or integrate with as part of our service, it's helpful for anyone who walks into the company to be able to access any of them without having to fire off an instant message or wait for an email reply. With 1Password, any teammate can log in to any of the services we use or integrate with without having to know the login credentials.

6. Google Docs & Quip

For almost any other documentation, Google Docs is great. We share spreadsheets for ad hoc analysis of key metrics. We share spreadsheets with team info and other vital info that might be used later. We share documents for contracts and records. Anything that might get used multiple times should be documented, and Google Docs is an easy, shared environment to make that happen. All you need is a Google account (or, in a company setting, a Google Apps account.)

Google Docs is not ideal for organization and collaboration, though. We've found Quip great for our internal knowledge base. Any documentation that needs to teach someone how to do something—such as how to do QA testing or format a post for the blog—gets added to a Quip doc and folder so others can quickly access the collective brain.

7. Zoom

We've tried a bunch of video conferencing tools over the years, from Google Hangouts and Skype to GoToMeeting. As we've grown, we've found Zoom to be the most reliable and clear for large group video calls. We have a weekly all-hands meeting in Zoom that's essential for putting faces behind the names of our many teammates and gives us all a chance to just hang out for a bit as a company, virtually.

8. HelloSign

Every now and then, you and your employees might need to sign something. Spare yourself the hassle of printing out the document, signing it, scanning it back onto your machine, and sharing the document with the next person that signs and instead just use HelloSign. It'll make your head hurt a lot less.

9. Help Scout

Help Scout is the tool we use to support our customers day in and day out. Its reporting features help us find ways we can be more efficient in our ticket responses, tags help us categorize conversations, and integrations (of course) with other apps make sure we can keep on top of support requests in our favorite communication tools.

 

Processes

The third ingredient in a powerful remote team is process. I know most people don't like to think about process, and process might feel boring and rigid. But if you think of process as "how we work," it starts to feel more powerful.

Good processes let you get work done in the absence of all else. It provides structure and direction for getting things done.

That doesn't mean processes should be rigid, unchanging, or pointless, though. Process, at a small company, is more about providing a feedback loop so that you can measure progress for both the company and the people in the company.

Here are a few of the processes we use: 

1. Everyone does support

The customer is our lifeblood. We strive everyday to solve our customers' problems and help make their job just a little bit easier. When everyone on the team does support, everyone gets to hear the voice of the customer.

2. A culture of shipping

As we grow, maintaining a culture of shipping has been crucial. The best way we've found to do this is to keep product teams small. To keep the focus on shipping, we divide up into small teams—usually 3 to 8 people with differing skill sets. The base roles are a PM, an engineer, and a designer.

These teams have a singular mission, for example, improve onboarding. They then have full autonomy to set their own roadmap to make this happen. With that autonomy, they also hold responsibility for the success of their initiatives. This works well, since small teams can move and ship fast and also appreciate the autonomy and responsibility for their own projects.

3. Weekly Hangouts

Every Thursday morning or afternoon (rotating every week to accommodate people in different time zones), we get together for lightning talks, demos, and/or interviews. These hangouts are a chance to say "hi!" to folks you may not normally see.

These hangouts are also a good chance to learn something new. Each week, someone inside the team does a lightning talk or demo on something interesting. We've had folks share their latest project, new teammates share fun facts about themselves and their backgrounds, and leadership members conduct well-being workshops through these hangouts.

Many teams do these weekly meetings as All-Hands Meetings. In a remote team that's across many timezones, this becomes an exclusionary event. As a result, this meeting becomes more about camaraderie and showing off the work of the company. We record these so folks who can't attend are able to catch up. But we're careful to avoid core strategic topics which typically are discussed in Slack, Async, or a Zoom call that can make sure to incorporate all the relevant teammates for that decision.

4. Pair Buddies

As we've grown, it can be harder to know all your teammates. One easy way to mitigate that is to have folks on the team get paired up with one other teammate or two at random each week for a short pair call. We use Donut in Slack for this to chat about life, work, or whatever random thing seems interesting. Sometimes cool new product features come out of these, other times it's just good fun. Regardless, it helps everyone better know their teammates.

5. Weekly One-on-Ones

In every job I ever had (even co-located ones), there wasn't enough feedback between me and my supervisor. We set up a recurring weekly event with each team member I manage where we both jump on Zoom to chat about how work is going. These one-on-ones follow roughly the format outlined by the Manager Tool's podcast.

We use a feedback tool called Small Improvements to run our 1:1 sessions.

6. A culture of accountability

People often ask "how do you know if employees are actually working?" Any easy way we know is with Friday updates. Each Friday, every person on the team posts an update about what they shipped that week and what they are working on for the next week.

This makes it easy to keep in the loop on projects and also holds everyone accountable to everyone else to do their part.

7. Building culture in person

The Zapier team in New Orleans

In person interaction is valuable for any team. There is definitely something unique that happens when teammates can work on something in person—tap someone on the shoulder and point to your screen to go over something, or share downtime with fun games and casual banter. So we strive to bring the team together two times a year somewhere cool.

We've visited Florida, Washington, Colorado, Alabama, Utah, Texas, Vancouver, Toronto, and New Orleans on company retreats.

In addition to the all-company get togethers, departments hold their own retreats and small groups of us might get together on an ad hoc basis throughout the year to coordinate the start of a major project or feature. Usually this is just one person jumping on a flight to visit another person or, if more than a couple of staff members live in close proximity (we have many teammates in Austin and Portland, for example), they'll have impromptu co-working sessions.

If this seems expensive, that's because it is. But the great part is that you'll likely have the money to cover this plus more since you don't have to pay for a central office that everyone is working in.

8. Automate anything that can be automated

The core is automation. There are a couple reasons why we automate things. One, it allows us to keep the team size small since we don't need people on staff to perform repetitious, mundane, and boring tasks. Two, it lets teammates focus on high impact work nearly all of the time rather than figuring out less impactful things, like the proper deploy commands. Our philosophy is: If you're going to do something two or more times, automate it so you can eliminate busywork and do more meaningful work. 


Hopefully, these insights into how one team manages a remote team inspires you. Don't take this as universal truth, though. One of the beauties of a remote team is that because remote work feels like an experiment, everything else feels like it can be more experimental too. So go ahead and experiment! The biggest wins aren't usually found in a post on the internet, but in what you discover on your own. And if you have tips, tricks, or best practices of your own, we'd love to hear them, too—we're @growrk on Twitter.