How to Lead a Remote Startup in 2022
What happens when remote working is fine for the CEO, but not so much for all employees? Here are some thoughts on managing a (mostly) remote team.
Zoom fatigue? That's not a thing for me. Video meetings suit me just fine. On weekends, I can spend hours in roleplaying games, interacting with NPCs (non-playable characters) and trading gear and guns with my companions is pretty much all the social interaction I need. Real-live people, in the same room? I can take it or leave it. Running a remote company fits my personality just fine.
A lot of people aren't like that. They need actual contact with human beings. And this can be a challenge if you're looking to grow your team, without the headache and cost of leasing an office.
When I started up my public relations agency, I had a hunch that going fully remote was the way to go. It wasn't like I was attempting to be ahead of my time (about six months before Covid-19 hit), or trying to change office culture. I just figured it would be a low-cost way of running a company. Cut overhead, full-stop.
It worked … sort of. But there were some complications, and I've learned a few things along the way about operating a fully-remote company (including not being such a stickler about making it fully remote).
Technology can only enable remote working if your people use it wisely
During the pandemic summer of 2020, a study out of the UK found that productivity had dropped 20% among remote workers. The main culprit? User error. When workers couldn't get a handle on the tech, they felt flustered.
I recall one particular hire who just could not comprehend the software. Not just one application, but all of them. I understand that unfamiliarity with modern tools poses a challenge, but this person took five weeks just to register a password management app that was pretty critical to our operations and security. That was not a good thing.
There was a regular cadence of disorganization: "Where's the agenda?" and "Where's the Google Doc for this meeting?" But I remained patient. I understood it was the person's first time using a certain tool, so I asked to share screens. The hire could not figure out how to share a screen, even after multiple video meetings where we walked them through the steps. Frustration on both sides ensued. This person was just accustomed to a more traditional, in-the-office mode of working.
In hindsight, I should have recognized the signs earlier, in the interview stage. When you know what's coming, you can either reject it (i.e. not hire the person) or just make sure your training includes time spent on mastering the tools of the trade. On the other hand, you also want to make sure the employee understands there will be consequences for not getting on board with the technology the rest of the team is using. It's part of the job. Give them the support they need to be productive — and then trust, but verify that they're being productive.
Missing the subtle art of body language
In video meetings, physical cues can get lost. And when miscommunications happen over Zoom with clients, that can lead to some harsh consequences.
Recently, I wanted to candidly call attention to what seemed to be the main issue with a client: too many cooks in the kitchen. They had three or four specialists from their team looking at certain content where I figured one junior person would be able to handle it. So, we scheduled a call to sort it out, face-to-face over Zoom. My attempt at diplomacy and effective client management backfired and after the call, I had to take some extra time to figure out just how I'd gotten us in even deeper trouble.
Finding common ground or just making a genuine compliment at the outset can help build up a bit of credibility that can save you when you do misstep. Finally, if you're on a video call, be strict with yourself about not getting distracted. Checking a teammate's comment on Slack or clicking a spreadsheet tab mid-conversation means you're not looking at the other person. It's basically the same thing as texting while driving. A moment's distraction can be a killer.
Find out how your people like to work (and do that)
Would some of my employees benefit from being in a room with clients and catching visual cues or physical interactions? Absolutely, some would. Beyond the efficiency of it, many find they're just energized by being around other people. That's what being an extrovert is — and there is no shortage of extroverts in public relations. My hunch is that marketing people in particular need more face-to-face interaction than your average software engineer tweaking a piece of code on screen all day long.
My current band of associates did express a desire to meet up once a week. So we do, in a shared office space, every Friday. It's a bit of an additional cost and if it was just me, I'd see it as an extravagance. But it's not just me. Meeting up allows for those "aha" moments around the proverbial watercooler and helps keep morale high, at least for this group. What I do know is that morale wins wars, and it keeps people on your team.
To borrow a thought from Elon Musk: Companies are just a collection of people united by a common purpose. So find those exceptional people, find those motivated people, and give them the tools and training they need to succeed. This eliminates frustration and manages expectations from the get-go. Echo your common purpose, and you can all do amazing things. Hire slow, fire fast, and do meaningful work. Remotely, or not.
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