More than ever, startups are expanding their applicant pools through remote hiring – leaning on technology to keep their employees connected despite geographical distance. A remote team represents both a huge potential cost savings in reduced office space and a better way to attract young, mobile talent.
Today, 43% of Americans spend at least some time working remotely and that number is even higher in smaller, more agile companies. And they generally like it. A recent study by PGI, for example, showed that 82% of workers who telecommute reported lower stress levels and that 80% had higher morale.
But there are downsides, and frequently companies are unprepared to deal with them. A perceived lack of communication, a diminished or watered-down company culture, and a general lack of cohesion among a team that spends little time in physical proximity to one another can lead to many issues. Often, though, these issues are because of a lack of clarity and communication on behalf of the company. Fortunately, these are issues you can directly address.
Clearly Define Your Company Values and Culture
Whether your culture was clearly defined from the outset or organically developed over time, it’s important to articulate your values in such a way that everyone can take to heart.
A formal culture code or handbook not only makes it immediately clear what your priorities are as a company and what you expect from your employees; but it also allows remote employees to be part of that conversation from day one. While they can’t “see” the culture in action right away, they can study it and better understand the motivations behind the people with whom they are working.
Establish a Strong Communications Infrastructure
People should feel like they are part of the office environment, even if they rarely are. Slack is by far one of the most popular tools for this, providing a platform that enables teams to share documents, voice chat, screenshare, and direct message one another on the fly – both on a desktop or mobile device. Skype, Google Hangouts, Trello, Drive, and dozens of other apps offer similarly robust tools for collaboration.
Whatever technologies you implement, keep open and clear channels that anyone can use to ask a question, say hi, or spark a conversation. You want everyone to be involved in these conversations – not just the people who are most comfortable speaking up.
Encourage people – even those in the office – to use channels like Slack to have the kind of loose, watercooler style conversations that build camaraderie in a team. Setup channels specifically for fun stuff and prime it with talk of weekend plans, the new Marvel movie, or pictures of everyone’s pets. Leaders should be try to be part of these conversations on a regular basis to set the tone and the regularity of the discussions.
At the same time, establish clear expectations and guidelines for the communications methods you want your team to use. This doesn’t need to be formal. A short document that outlines which channel to use at which times should be sufficient. For example, Slack and Skype for quick chats and questions. Email and your project management platform for documentation and project discussions that need to be logged and easy to find in the future.
Make New Employees Part of the Team Immediately
What do you do on an employee’s first day? You walk them around the office, introduce them to as many people as possible, and make sure they know who they will be interacting with and how to reach them.
It’s easy to forget this very basic introduction to the team when someone is hundreds of miles away. You can’t call everyone in front of your webcam, but you can use the tools at your disposal to make those introductions.
A short email that encourages new employees to share a bit about themselves, and for others in the company to reach out to welcome them is a great way to kick things off. Additionally, encourage your new employees to schedule one-on-one meetings over Skype, Hangouts or Slack with the people they will be interacting with, the same as if they were in the office. This cuts out weeks of potential awkwardness as they try to learn the office dynamic from hundreds of miles away.
Facilitate In-Person Meetings When Possible
While obviously not something you can do consistently, technology will never fully replace in-person meetings. While budget and the size of the remote team will ultimately determine how often this can be done, it’s highly encouraged to get people together to “meet” at least once or twice a year. This can be done as part of a high-level strategy discussion if yours is a small team – a retreat to discuss key parts of the company. Or it can be to celebrate and reward a team for their hard work before the holidays or as a team building activity.
Nothing helps improve collaboration and welcome remote employees to the larger team like days in the office, together – even if it’s purely for fun.
Collaboration is About Connection
The closer people feel to one another, the better they can communicate and collaborate on their efforts. When left alone, remote employees will become isolated. They might not know everyone on the team and will avoid social interactions for fear of awkwardness. Leaders can help alleviate and avoid this from happening with the right blend of codified culture, technology tools and rules for its use, and facilitation of communication.
Even if your remote team seems to be firing on all cylinders, take the time to ensure you have a strong foundation to keep it that way as you grow.
To learn more about communication for remote teams, download our Guide with Tips for Better, More Insightful One-on-Ones. In it, you’ll learn how to get more out of your conversations even over long distances, make sure others feel heard, and express your opinions and suggestions in line with the needs of others.