How to Design Your Remote Team

February 13, 2020

According to a report by FlexJobs, remote work grew 159% since 2005. Despite this positive growth, remote work can be hard. Without human connection and communication, problems intensify. (It can happen in every workplace; co-located or remote.) Here’s what I’ve learned managing remote and distributed product & design teams for nine years— and it goes beyond emotional intelligence.

Understand your baseline.

Know that remote work has both an upside and a downside. Make sure you understand the state of remote work and implications on teams. Remote work can be isolating for some. For others, working remote is incredibly positive and allows life-changing flexibility.

  • Is remote work brand new to your company, or has your company been remote since the '90s?
  • Do you have a hybrid model such as a handful of fully remote employees with a home office?
  • Are some of your teams distributed in different office locations?
  • Is your company remote-first (only or mostly remote encouraged) or remote-friendly (allows remote)?
  • Does your company have an official remote work policy?

If your company is remote-first, then documentation that empowers remote workers should be in place and readily available. Review it to understand your company's "official" approach. If needed, start a draft of improvements. Find someone in management to support you in an improvement proposal.

If you're feeling the problems with remote work, I promise you're not the only one.

Say your company is remote-friendly but doesn't have remote work documentation. In this case, you're surely dealing with some ambiguity. If your company doesn’t have this policy, don't be afraid to start one with your HR team. HR will be able to help in this process and make sure you don’t reinvent the wheel if your company already has programs in place but may be hard to find.

Forge relationships.

Because remote work literally separates us, it can create divides when teams don't focus on culture. Getting to know and appreciating the team is not just the job of a manager. It's everyone on the team's responsibility to work on these connections.

Trust your team to get their work done. One of the most common mistakes I've seen managers make is expecting their employees to reply within minutes of receiving a message. In my experience, this can make some employees feel as if you don’t trust them. Equally important, it can stop them from being productive. When someone is interrupted in the middle of a task, can take almost 25 minutes to get back to the same level of productivity.

When I say trust, I mean trust, *and* verify.

Interview your team. Show your team you’re actively working to improve their work environment. This kind of improvement doesn’t end, it should be continuous. Context and communication are essential. Your team may be experiencing the pain points of working remote and may have some of the best ideas for improvement. Start by letting them know you’re working on making remote work better for them. Here are some starter questions:

  • What’s your experience working remotely for us vs. other jobs?
  • What are we doing right?
  • What can be improved?
  • How can we learn from that and work better together?

Remember to let your interviewee talk. Take tons of notes— you’ll need them later. You can incorporate these questions into your 1-on-1 time with all of your team, especially those who are remote. When you work on-site with someone, you might see them, ask how they are doing, and receive vital feedback. When team members are virtual, this likely happens less often so managers must commit to hold 1-1’s regularly.

Survey your team. Start short term. If you have employee satisfaction surveys, take a look at your existing numbers. If you don’t have surveys, consider starting one to create a baseline. They can be as simple as setting up a NPS style poll in Slack.

Simple Poll NPS Survey
You can use SimplePoll's Slack integration to get quick feedback.

If you’re looking for something more in-depth, you can use a free template from Typeform. Longer surveys should cover job satisfaction, rate managers, and the company overall.

Typeform Templates
Typeform's templates are easy to customize.

Review toolset.

You know that with remote work, communication is everything.

What are you using for video conferencing? Right now, I prefer Zoom for ease of use both on a desktop computer and a phone. Before you invest in a paid account, make sure whatever tool you choose is stable and has native and browser solutions for a variety of connectivity situations.

Are you using chat tools? Does your team work better synchronously or asynchronously? For most teams, the answer is a balance. Slack works well as a real time messaging and collaboration tool. You’ll need an asynchronous solution too for documenting conversations and non-real time talk like a wiki, Confluence, Carrot, Twist or Threads. I'm a believer in the less tools the better, so be on the lookout for the tool(s) that serve your unique needs. For example, fully distributed teams without lots of timezone overlap may choose to only work with an async tool like Twist.

Keep your eyes out for more remote work-friendly tools. Donut onboards new hires and pairs remote coworkers. Miro is an online whiteboard for visual collaboration with video chat built-in. Figma and lets you design and collaborate in the browser. InVision Studio has real-time draw and comments. Look for remote usability testing tools that fit your team’s needs.

For design, one of the challenges of distributed critique is how to effectively “point to something”. I haven’t found the perfect solution, but the real-time collaboration of @figmadesign or throwing up screens in @InVisionApp Freehand can allow for more gestural input.
Alexis Lloyd, VP Product Design, Medium

Look outside.

Start by doing your research. Research remote well being, read remote company’s blogs, subscribe to remote work newsletters, and follow their accounts on social. Find the positive accounts of remote work and learn from them. Take note of ideas as you come across them.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite remote work resources & companies who publish a ton of remote/flex work-related content:

Create a roadmap based on goals.

What does success look like for your team? Medium-term, it could be to increase employee engagement scores or trim design delivery times. Long term, a goal could be increasing employee retention rates.

Once you establish a goal, how might you get there? Start by listing all of the ways you might improve your team’s remote work experience. Don’t hesitate to get your team involved in the brainstorming and host a mini-workshop with a “How Might We?” exercise. When your team sees you’re actively working to make their work life better, you’ll see engagement increase. 

Once you’ve finished and recorded workshop outcomes, list out example initiatives and fill in ideas from your workshop and team interviews. Rate the ideas by level of effort, time to execute, cost, technical considerations, etc. Sound familiar to product development? 

Example goal: have less meetings, but make them matter.

On the fly, in-person meetings are a killer of positive remote culture because they simply leave your remote team out of the conversation. This isn’t always intentional, but be aware of this as you’re designing your remote team. 

If there’s a meeting, schedule it for your remote teammates so they aren’t left out. Make decisions as a team in meetings or on asynchronous tools like Twist. Don’t make decisions on your real-time messaging tools like Slack; it will perpetuate the need to be “always on.” After the meeting, have an identified team member document the decision in your chosen wiki and notify with a link via your team’s messaging app.

Prevent decision making at the watercooler (whether IRL or on Slack) to help team unity and focus. Now your team won’t have to choose between watching the Slack comments roll in, feeling the need to participate vs. getting deep work done. Random meetings and Slack chats can drain productivity, so plan the meeting and everyone wins. An easy way to build inclusive remote behavior is to have everyone in the room turn on their video/Zoom feed or use a Meeting Owl.

Example goal: make project management more remote friendly.

You’ll need to review and potentially update the way you manage projects. Standups are no longer the same when you’re not in person and potentially across the globe. Review your current project management process and look for ways to improve based on how your team is distributed. 

The team at Doist has some awesome learnings on how to manage projects with a fully remote team. They don’t have standups unless they need them. To avoid scheduling madness, they prebook weekly standups at the start of the project (or as they call it squad) and they cancel the meeting if it’s not needed. If communication is flowing and there are no critical issues, you will be able to cancel these prebooks and have less meetings.

Example goal: align timezones.

Here’s where your HR partner comes in again— timezone policy. If your team needs to work heavily in synch, meeting through the day and real-time messaging, then you’ll need to cap the timezone difference. A good rule of thumb is no more than 4 hours difference within teams so there’s enough time for overlap. 

If your team is all over the world and you’re embracing fully remote, asynchronous work, you will need to create realistic expectations around replies and “on hours.”

A good balance might be a worldwide company, with timezone grouped teams. This way, hiring managers can take advantage of a wide talent pool, while their teams can work easier across fewer time differences.

However you structure timezones, use a tool like Spacetime or HappyTools to understand work hours at a glance. Remind your team to recognize timezone differences when scheduling or use a common one. For example, if most of your team is in PST, use that and make sure your team knows the baseline for scheduling.

Example goal: modernize workspaces.

Remote work is changing the face of the modern office. More companies are embracing flexible, thoughtful, modular solutions. Individual offices are not as widely used. Create spaces for people visiting the office to set up and work. Open, unbooked space should be balanced by bookable rooms of varied sizes to allow teams to connect with their remote/distributed co-workers.

If your team is fully remote, then provide stipends for people to outfit their own workspaces. Hold home office show and tells or share them on your company blog. Workspaces are personal and should be celebrated.

Remote workspaces via Flexjobs & Fast Company

Reward, recognize, engage, repeat.

If your team is co-located, recognition isn't as hard to pull off as it is remotely. However, if your team is mostly remote, it's important to find ways to include them in team appreciation activities. For example, try a “bring-your-lunch-to-the-video-conference” birthday party for team members and send them lunch that day or send a gift certificate. You can also send the Pizza. If a speaker is on-site, make their teachings available via conferencing tools to your remote employees. Better yet, host an all remote lunch and learn. Keep adding ideas for engagement to your list. Company swag goes a long way for remote workers.

Swag from the awesome team @BL3NDlabs

Learn to lead and iterate remotely.

Even the best leaders need additional training managing remote workers. Seek out opportunities for training & advisors. Never get too comfy. Remind your team that remote work takes a ton of empathy. As you design your team, be patient and recognize your team’s unique surroundings. Assume good intentions. Model how flexibility comes with responsibility.

It's design: understand, improve, iterate.



Map image: @boldtuesday

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