Managing a Virtual Team: Advice From Leading Remote Companies

How many times have you heard or seen the phrase, “Remote work is on the rise”?

Well, it’s true. As more and more industries accept and welcome various levels of remoteness into their companies, questions like, how to manage and lead a remote team are also emerging.

We spoke with four remote companies that are leading the remote work movement. These reputable companies provide stellar environments for their employees and offer progressive tactics that keep their teams intact–not because it’s cool or trendy, but because they genuinely care about their people and are passionate about making remote work, work.

aha!doistmetalabskillcrush

Focusing on culture, hiring, communication, supporting your team, and creating connection, these talented folks were generous enough to share the wisdom they’ve gained from working remotely and managing their respective virtual teams.

Lean in, folks. There’s a lot of richness to glean from this.

On Culture

Step one: develop your mission and let it be your foundation

“We have a strong mission that we revisit a lot. In every all-team meeting, we take a minute to remember our mission, our values, and why we’re doing what we’re doing. It’s about having articulated values that actually are our values; they’re not aspirational. We are those things. We try to keep our culture and company values very front of mind with every decision that we make. Particularly on the operations side—it’s a consideration from every new benefit we offer to the policies that we write. We ask ourselves, ‘Is this a reflection of our values? Is this a common thing we want to see in the world?’Having a constant reminder of what we’re doing here, of who we want to be, helps keep us accountable.”
-Caro, Skillcrush

Define and embody your company culture

team

A handful of awesome folks from Aha!

“There are many things that make Aha! special, but one that really stands out is our culture of gratitude. We have made saying ‘thank you’ on a daily basis a priority with what we call 'hatitude'this daily practice helps us pause and recognize how important small acts of kindness are. Even when we are not physically in the same building, hatitude inspires the team to stay committed, giving more effort and care to each other.”
-Brian, Aha!

Check your intentions: company benefits and culture go hand-in-hand

“Talk is cheap, especially when it comes to culture. The truth is, if you don’t put things like benefits and values into practice, they lose their meaning quite quickly. For example, if you have an unlimited vacation policy, you can't deny someone's paid vacation request because you think they take too many days off. Or if you offer flexible work hours, you can't micromanage when they are -- or aren't -- online. Deltas between what you promise and what you deliver compromises your employees' ability to trust that you have their best intentions at heart.

Authenticity and good intention are powerful and necessary tools to making your employees feel truly cared about.”
-Elexa, MetaLab

Remember: Culture is not always defined by a location

aha

Aha! Team Meeting

“From the beginning, people scoffed at the idea of building a high-growth company with an entirely remote team. People told me and my co-founder Dr. Chris Waters that we would not know if people were working hard, the team would not be engaged, and there would be no company culture. Six years later, I can confidently say — false, false, false.

We now serve more than 250,000 users and are one of the fastest-growing software companies in the U.S.

Effort, achievement, and deep connections are not defined by a location. These come when exceptional people with shared values work together towards the same goals. Many of our teammates have shared that they feel more connected to their remote colleagues at Aha! than they ever did with their teams at previous office jobs.

Being remote allows our team to stay focused and work hard while still being a part of our local communities. It also allows us to save on costs. We estimate that we save more than $1.2 million a year on office space and operational costs. We are able to give that back to the team in the form of profit sharing — honoring the success of the company with the people who helped us grow.”
-Brian, Aha!

On Hiring

Consider expanding your reach: “The whole world is at your fingertips”

caro

Caro in the Sahara

Remote work has made it so much easier to hire. We get way better candidates as a remote company because there are plenty of people who really want to work remotely. It increases the candidate pool because you’re not having to source from one location; you have the whole world at your fingertips.”
-Caro, Skillcrush

Consider the cultural context of remote applicants

doist

Team Doist at their company retreat in the Azores, Portugal

“The policy [before] was we rejected any application without a cover letter. The cover letter served to give us a broader idea of the candidate's motivation and a first impression of the communication skills. Later we changed the stance on this because we excluded many candidates that came from cultures that didn't have a tradition for writing cover letters.”
-Allan, Doist

Include a test project or task in the interview process

“There are some things we look for in a remote hire: the ability to self-direct your work, and know when you need to figure it out yourself versus when to ask for help. Trust is a big thing. Personal accountability. These are hard things to screen for, so one of the things that really helps is doing a project. Our ops team works with hiring managers to create it and it’s directly representative with the type of work [the applicant] will be doing in their job. Having candidates do a project and also have them present it to the hiring manager in an interview is great because hiring managers can see how the candidate receives feedback. We also pay people for completing these projects–I feel strongly that applicants should be paid for time spent on this kind of work.”
-Caro, Skillcrush

“Anyone hired has undergone at least one test task and at least three interviews with three different Doisters. The hiring committee rates the candidate based on several criteria including communication skills, and in the end, all interviewers must vouch strongly for the candidate as a great fit.”
-Allan, Doist

Define your hiring audience by keeping the company benefits offered in mind

“Are you looking for more diversity? More women? Look to the benefits you’re offering because they say a lot about you.

The culture - what you’re doing, what you’re offering, how you’re communicating - it supports how and who you hire.”
-Caro, Skillcrush

On Communication

Foster a communicative ecosystem through invoking transparency

“We try to keep communication transparent and fully accessible to the whole team as it supports one of our core beliefs that at Doist the best argument always wins – regardless of who you are, your title, or your seniority. It’s impossible to live by such a rule in a remote structure unless you have a centralized place with full transparency around what’s going on, including decision-making.
-Allan, Doist

Let your overall communication structure evolve and adapt over time

doist

“Our communication structure hasn't been static; it has had to evolve with the company because what worked for us five years ago when we were 25 people, doesn't work for us now at 70. Twist itself is an example of a communication tool we had to develop to fit the way we work as a growing and fully distributed team, and we continue to modify it to accommodate our needs as we grow.”
-Allan, Doist

On Supporting Your Team

Adopt a philosophy to empower your team and power your company

“Aha! has been a fully-remote company from day one. Our team of nearly 100 people work across four continents, six countries, and eight time zones.

The engine that powers Aha! is called The Responsive Method (TRM). It is centered around the belief that interactions with urgency are what propel people and organizations forward. We pioneered TRM in 2014 as a framework for personal and business success. We wanted to build a business that put people first. The best way to do this was to increase the number of urgent interactions we had with both our customers and the team. Building TRM into every part of our business operations has been fundamental to our success and our team's happiness.

Another way we foster connections across our remote team is through volunteer work. There are proven benefits to volunteerism for both the organization and employees — studies have found that giving back leads to more engaged and satisfied teams. We volunteer together twice a year when our whole team meets up in person for our “onsite” meetings. We also recently launched the Aha! Cares program, which supports grassroots nonprofits in the communities where our teammates live.”
-Brian, Aha!

Support your team through investing in your remote employees’ workspaces

metalab

Metalab team meeting

“Fostering positive, productive workspaces and routines is huge, especially for remote folks. In 2015 [as we began to hire more remote employees], we incorporated benefits to support their work/life balance, such as annual fitness and equipment stipends. Since then, we also offer a $1,000 bonus to remote employees when they join to ensure they have the workspace setup they need to do their best work. We also started offering global access to coworking spaces in case working from home or coffee shops doesn’t work all of the time for our remote contingent.”
-Elexa, MetaLab

Offer benefits that actually reflect who you are

metalab

Team Metalab at their annual remote summit

“At MetaLab, our unlimited vacation policy is exactly what it sounds like. Unlimited. And we don't offer it because it's trendy -- we've been offering it (and living by it) for nearly a decade. For us, it's so central to our belief that doing your best work requires being your best self. We have high expectations for our teams and the quality of what we deliver, but burnout is real. So without the option to recharge if, when, and as long as you need, nobody wins. If a company is smart, they'll understand how much there is to gain in putting people's happiness at the top of their list of priorities, like increased productivity and goodwill. It’s just good business!
-Elexa, MetaLab

Trust the people you hire

“You have to trust people to get their work done and manage their own time. Some things that come naturally out of a remote work environment facilitate a better culture. I know my employees are on Facebook throughout the day but I don’t have to see it. I don’t see who goes home at five on the dot because they have to pick up their kids by 5:15. All I see is that person got their work done. And maybe they took a really long lunch break or had to pick up their kid, but they made up that time and that’s all that really matters. Something we say a lot is, outcomes, not output. Because it doesn’t matter how much work you’ve put in. It matters what results you deliver.
-Caro, Skillcrush

On Creating Connection

Use apps/tools to encourage team building, and collaboration

skillcrush

Lizu shares her paragliding experience in Romania live with Skillcrush team

"People are skeptical that I can really know my co-workers. We have baby showers, movie nights, birthday parties, and happy hours. We do all of the things people do with their co-workers, except I don’t have to smell my co-worker’s smelly lunch or get annoyed by their foot tapping and loud music."

rabbit

"We host movie nights with a software called Rabbit and it’s basically like a Google Hangout. The main screen allows you to login to Amazon, Netflix, or Hulu, pull up a movie or tv show, see everyone, and chat with each other. We did a Hocus Pocus theme for Halloween, and did the sing-along version of Pitch Perfect for someone’s birthday; We usually use it for celebrating something. We also have book clubs, lunch and learns, and professional things too.”
-Caro, Skillcrush

Encourage team members to take the lead

“Letting team members take the lead is also a good way to keep casual chats from feeling like top-down initiatives. One of our team members recently created a #food channel in our Slack (to much acclaim) and it's become a virtual watercooler of sorts. We also encourage team members to "Paircrush" with someone once a month by randomly pairing them using Donut, but we try to make sure that everyone knows it's optional.

All of these things happen during work hours and could be seen as a distraction or barrier to ‘real work,’ but developing relationships with one another helps us do better work so we encourage stuff like this where we can.
-Caro, Skillcrush

Prioritize watercooler time

“People think those two to three minutes of small talk are a waste of time, but I think it’s really important. You don’t get that in-person watercooler time, so you need to make the time to ask things like, ‘How did your weekend go?

I don't feel like I have to force small talk or watercooler moments-at least not any more than I would on a colocated team! There are moments where these casual exchanges can happen naturally if you let them. For example, at the beginning of a meeting while you wait for everyone to trickle in.”
-Caro, Skillcrush


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