You Need the Right Tech and the Right Culture for Your Remote Business to Succeed
Technology tools are crucial but they aren't everything.
Many startups these days are built and run by information workers. Software and services have moved online, manufacturing and logistics have been outsourced, and there aren’t many compelling reasons left to justify gathering people in one location every single weekday from 9 to 5.
The company I started in Bloomington, Indiana is now fully distributed, with more than 50 employees across six countries. We run a software solution, FormAssembly, serving more than 4,000 customers and growing. I didn’t set out to build a remote company, but we naturally transitioned into one fairly quickly and learned a few things along the way.
Why start a remote company?
The most immediate benefit to hiring remote workers is access to a larger talent pool. If you don’t limit yourself to your local job market -- and to your available office and parking space -- you’ll find it much easier to attract exceptional people and grow your team.
Setting-up your team to work remotely also lets you to reap clear productivity gains, as shown in a Harvard Business Review study where half the workers were allowed to telecommute and the rest remained in the office as a control group. The increase in productivity was the direct result of a quieter environment at home and because people at home worked more hours. The study also showed a significant decrease in the number of sick days, lower attrition rates and overall increase in job satisfaction. To top it off, the company experienced savings of $1,900 per employee over a nine-month period in space and furniture. Not to mention, the cost saved to employees by eliminating commutes to and from a brick and mortar office.
According to a Leadership IQ survey, people who work from home full-time are almost twice as likely to love their jobs than employees who work in traditional offices. They’re more motivated to succeed at their jobs as well as meet deadlines compared to workers in traditional office spaces.
How do I set up a successful remote business?
While different things may be important for different businesses, listed below are a few best practices that helped us set up a remote business for success.
First of all, build a culture of trust and accountability. Measure productivity not from the hours spent sitting in a chair in sight of your corner office, but from results achieved. Let go of your desire to micromanage employees' time. They’ll appreciate the flexibility and trust, and with the right culture and team dynamic, they’ll be the best team you’ve ever worked with.
If you have a mix of in-office and remote workers, take a remote-first approach. Work like everybody is remote. In-office workers should not have privileged access to management nor their own informal communication channel, like hallway conversations. This leads to information not being shared equally and remote workers feeling like second-class employees. In our employee handbook, we emphasize that we prefer written communication, as it leaves a record that can be easily searched, referenced and shared. Written communication also requires more thought and structure, which ultimately benefits everyone involved.
This doesn’t mean you need to adopt a formal, rigid communication process. You should aim instead for intentional collaboration. Spontaneous conversations should occur in chat, in a way that’s visible to remote coworkers, so they can stay in the loop and contribute. As the conversation evolves, it can be moved to a scheduled meeting with a well-defined agenda that everyone concerned can join.
When hiring, look for characteristics that make a successful remote worker. As you grow, you can start focusing on hiring people with the skills and motivation needed to be successful in a distributed team. Remote work isn’t necessarily for everybody, but thankfully, we often find people who have worked remotely in some capacity and understand the benefits and tradeoffs.
One of the most important skills we look for is being a good, proactive communicator. We test this during our hiring process by giving an assignment to our preferred candidates. We’re just as interested in how the candidate collaborates with us throughout the project as the quality of the work itself. Poor communication skills will likely result in the remote employee feeling more isolated and directionless.
We also look into the candidate’s motivation. Are they interested in a remote job for a better work-life balance, for lack of local opportunities, or are they into a nomadic lifestyle? From our perspective, the former is best. We know that employees that value being close to their family, spending less time in commute and having a more flexible schedule are more likely to stay with us long term. Workers with a nomadic lifestyle can be great individual contributors, but harder to integrate in a team, due to less predictable internet connectivity and working hours.
Once you’ve hired the right person, the next step is to provide training to immerse them in the company’s culture, as well as educate them on key security practices -- which become even more important in a work-from-home scenario. We’ve found that sending each of our new hires through our training success program, introducing them to each area of our organization over a period of two to three weeks, is key to helping new teammates find success at FormAssembly.
Invest in technology to support remote workers. Technology tools are crucial to ensure success of remote teams.
Chat software, like Slack, replace the informal interactions that occur in a physical office -- co-workers dropping by each other’s work space or peeking over the cubicle wall to ask a quick question.The right chat solution should overtake most email, phone and in-person exchanges. It allows real-time interactions or works as an inbox when needed.
For document creation and management solutions, we prefer solutions that support real-time collaborative editing, like Google Docs or Box. Add screen sharing and video conferencing, and you’ll get the same energy and creativity that happens when people gather around a whiteboard.
Distribute the team, but centralize your data. Everybody should have easy access to your internal documentation, project management tools and essential data.
Continually document processes for better, more streamlined work. Processes are critical for enabling your team to meet the same standard of performance that’s expected of everyone in the company.
Ultimately, foster a culture of camaraderie and build a relationship with the team in ongoing chat conversations. Know that in-person interactions have an important place even in a remote team, so schedule annual team-wide reunions as well as departmental summits.Admittedly, a remote business is not for everyone. But before you go one way or the other for your startup, evaluate all available options and make an informed decision. And if you decide to start or transition to a remote company, take comfort in the fact that there are others who’ve done it successfully before you, and that you’re embracing the way of the future.
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