What were your biggest fears in managing remote workers?
The biggest fear is “culture cracks” as our CEO calls it. Since we do have such a significant amount of remote team members, it is crucial for us to keep a strong focus on culture and to ensure that we are constantly listening to our team and what is important to them. On our team, we have had a few times we felt some culture cracks. However, the team worked very hard to fix these cracks and engage team members in team events and training, and provide transparent updates and feedback.
It can be difficult to connect with co-workers on a personal level when you’re rarely face-to-face. Those personal interactions while waiting for the coffee pot or foraging for snacks in the company fridge are lost when people work virtually. It’s really important to take the time to get to know your co-workers on a personal level and that doesn’t come as naturally in a virtual environment.
I don’t know that we had any preconceived fears in working remotely, but I think generally speaking most organizations are fearful of remote workers because they fear productivity will decline. However, the fear is unwarranted. Statistics show that remote workers outperform their in-office peers due to lack of distractions (office parties, anyone?) and there’s an overall increased employee engagement and happiness due to reduced commutes and better work-life integration.
To me, making the work visible was a big fear. Even in traditional companies, there are people working nobody knows what they are actually doing. In a remote environment, those people are nearly invisible. But it’s actually the other way round. Because everybody knows how important communication is, people make an effort to keep the team updated on what they are up to and what their progress is.
Trust is a big fear and challenge. At the end of the day, as a business owner of a remote team, you aren’t there to babysit what your team is doing and saying … and they are a reflection of your brand. Communication, communication, communication is the only way forward … but even then, this really is a challenge that in some respects is insurmountable. The flexibility benefit, however, outweighs the cost.
As is the trend with other remote companies, we worry about workplace culture. It’s a bit harder to foster when you only see one another on Skype, but that’s where our love and passion for our job comes in. We rally around our mutual desire to help our company, and that unites us more than anything else.
My first opportunity to manage a full-time employee came at Fire Engine RED! I had previously supervised contractors and freelancers … but now I was going to have my first actual direct report! And he lives 3,000 miles away! I’m happy to say that none of the drawbacks I’ve read about with regard to managing remote employees have manifested. Now I have two direct reports on my team, and I’ve developed an excellent rapport with them, via IM, conference calls, and one-on-one Skype chats.
My biggest fear is that one day I’ll wake up and simply be too frustrated that I don’t get to physically hang out with other Formstackers on a daily basis. Video chat does get the job done, but it can’t always overcome the need to physically be around people, and being on video too much during any given day can actually be rather taxing. I once also feared that I’d have trouble trusting people to get their jobs done. That went away quickly when someone taught me to “give people your trust and let them earn your mistrust.” Said differently, until they break your trust, expect that they are doing a great job. That was a life-changer for me.
Our biggest fear was that if we weren’t sitting right next to employees, it would be hard to ensure they are executing at the level we would expect. However, we’ve found that if you hire the right people and empower them to be successful, they will work at or beyond what you expect of them because they view remote work as a privilege. There have been some hiccups along the way, but definitely nothing more than the issues I’ve seen when working in an office.
Quality. We feared that because we couldn’t see, in person, what someone was working on, that quality would drop. We have to trust that our team members are putting in the time to create a quality product. It hasn’t come true as much as we thought. We created a peer review system to hold everyone accountable.
When we started out, especially when we had to grow and hire new people, my biggest fear was that they’d not work hard and would be looking to take advantage of us. That classic fear when you can’t see what people are doing. That they might not be doing anything at all! That couldn’t have been further from the truth, but I think what was key to making that happen was telling myself to stop worrying about holding people accountable and pushing them to be more productive, and instead to focus on the flip side of that: motivating people, supporting them and trying to make sure they’re as happy as possible. With those factors taken care of, productivity has been an almost inevitable side-effect.
We did so much research before going remote that we were not too worried about making the change. Once we made the switch, we never looked back! Both our clients and staff love the model, and we have found there to be very few downsides. One occasional difficulty is trying to figure out where everyone is at all times, however this can be managed with shared calendars, telecommunication, shared technology, etc.
Our biggest fear with regards to having a remote workforce was that individuals would feel left out, not engaged, or like they were missing out on being part of a community. We’re human beings with social needs—and we didn’t want our employees to feel hampered in that regard.
To address this, we encourage—and pay for—our employees to join their local networking groups, because we feel in-person connections are key. If someone works better in a social co-working space, we’ll support that.
We’re also very cognizant of that transition phase when a new employee comes on who has been working in a traditional office environment. We aim to help people make that transition as smoothly as possible.
My biggest fear was probably that everyone was just going to goof off and not get any work done with little oversight. This has been far from true. We’re a very performance-based company, not an hours-at-the-keyboard-based company, and I think this has helped. At the end of the day, I could care less how many hours you’re working if you’re producing high-quality work equivalent to full-time work. Looking back, the funniest part is I used to goof off 35 hours/week when I worked at the desk next to my boss at my corporate job. That probably wouldn’t of happened if he would have judged me based on my performance.
Accountability. The fear that people would simply flake, walk off into the distance, play video games instead of work. Sure they came true. And then we learned to recruit better. We learned to manage people in the void. While it can be an issue today, I personally suspect it is less so than in many collocated organizations.
Not being able to express when an issue is truly urgent. This is a problem, but it’s gotten easier the more we all work together. When we’re short on time and I say: “This is urgent” via chat, it’s hard to instantly convey what that means in the context of the other pressing matters that have already been defined as urgent.
My biggest fear is that I do not always know what employees feel. When I make an update, what do they think? Sure, they give a thumbs up or another funny emoji, but what do they truly feel? Also, when we make our biannual survey of how happy employees are and see positive results, are they true? What are the thoughts behind? Some might not want to write in detail about their feelings.
We knew that shifting to remote would mean that much of the verbal communication would have to be replaced with documented process. In an ideal world, that’s how it would always be, but in a rapid prototyping, tight deadline environment, verbal communication is key. When we went remote, we enforced the documented process, tried to keep it as lean and mean as possible, and it’s been successful. Again, it’s given us an audit trail, which is helpful for everyone.
We heard some small commentary from traditionalists when we started the company as a virtual company, wondering how we could manage remote workers effectively when they could theoretically be off watching TV or snoozing all day. How could we manage without walking around an office space and catching people and conversations on the fly?
We have hired outstanding employees with great communication skills and strong work ethics who value the benefits that come with remote work. We use collaboration tools like Sococo that enable us to have a certain level of visibility into who is online and available. And we set clear performance goals against which we hold people accountable.
People being dishonest about the amount of time they are spending working on your project and doing things on the side. There are big brother style tools to prevent this, such as Worksnaps.com to track your employees presence, but people generally don’t like them—and neither do we.
My biggest concern is worrying about the happiness of our team members. It’s easy to tell how someone is feeling in person. Fortunately, we haven’t had any unexpected surprises. No one’s left Sticker Mule since our inception. I’ve been thinking about developing a survey to gauge internal satisfaction to overcome the challenge of monitoring workplace happiness with a remote team.
My biggest fears were around not being able to manage work output, and not having clarity into someone’s projects. For the first 6 months this was definitely true, but I’m proud to say that we’ve implemented systems and strategies to overcome this. It really just comes down to planning through Trello and constant communication with each other including our daily standups.
I never had any fears. We’ve been told countless times that at some point we need to get an office and have a headquarters so we can be a real company. Our team is very proud of the business we’ve built and will continue to build for years to come. And we did it without wasting countless hours commuting!
The biggest fear is definitely running into a situation where you need something from someone, but that person isn’t available or is unresponsive. This obviously applies to cases in which something has happened and we need to put together a response very rapidly, but it’s relevant to all of our ongoing initiatives as well. Our teams are very cross-functional and collaborative, and we try to move very fast on projects. A key person going unresponsive when their expertise is needed can slow things down considerably.
Cases like this happen very rarely here, largely because we invest in figuring out how to hire people where this isn’t an issue. That’s actually part of the reason we started Toptal — to build a global network of extremely capable people in which location, drive, and responsiveness aren’t issues. We’ve had great success here hiring and working with people who are extremely proactive.
I’m a first-time people manager and first-time CEO. My fears were (and still are) around leading a team of people. Being remote was never part of the concern. I didn’t consider myself a leader before Tortuga, so I’m trying to develop those skills, lead by example, and always put helping the team first.
We’ve always been worried that they wouldn’t commit to teaching online in the long run, because most of our teachers are busy with a full-time job or young kids at home.
Those fears have absolutely not come true.
Our teacher retention rate is amazing. We’ve found it’s a challenge to get teachers started with us, but once they’re in, they stay and love the company.
I would say more fear a lack of productivity, lack of communication or engagement, even how to manage potential issues like workers comp claims. In almost 20 years of business, I can’t say we’ve never had an employee who didn’t work well remotely, but the instances are very few. Our team members value the benefits they receive working remotely, and are happier and more effective as a result.