Entrepreneurship Leadership Uncategorized

The 5 Keys to Managing a Remote Team

Remote teams are well on their way to becoming the norm in modern business. With global interconnectivity eliminating the distance between everywhere and everywhere else, the 20th century office model is quickly going the way of the fax machine. While it may sound strange, it’s likely that the concept of “going to work” will soon be as irrelevant as it was in our not-too-distant past. Therefore, knowing how to adjust to this new paradigm is a must for new entrepreneurs.

Here at Business Republic, we like to think we have a pretty amazing remote team dynamic, with employees living and working everywhere from California to India to the Philippine Islands. That dynamic is no accident. It requires assembling the right team, and it’s only possible with competent, mindful management. Managing a remote or virtual team is very different from managing a traditional office, as we’ve been forced to learn in helping to pioneer it. With little literature out on the topic, our experience has been our best teacher. Through it, we’ve discovered these 5 key concepts to remote team management:

1. Don’t Herd Cats

Before the Internet, the traditional office was a necessity in order for employees to be able to communicate and work together efficiently. It also became a way for management to constantly “keep an eye” on their employees, like wardens in a prison made of cubicles. While the efficacy of this approach is debatable even for an old-fashioned office, it’s not even a possibility for a remote team. If your virtual employees are goofing off at the water cooler, you’re never going to know- partially because they’re miles away, but mostly because there’s no water cooler in the first place.

In Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the founders of Basecamp argue that excessive oversight is a fool’s errand. They liken the effort to control your employees’ every movement to herding cats: as pointless as it is impossible. Instead, the remote manager’s job is to verify results, not monitor the process. All that matters is what comes back, and that it comes back by the deadline you’ve given.

With this approach, communication is clear and precise, but it’s succinct. A remote manager doesn’t need to know how long an employee’s lunch break was, or offer any instruction as to how they manage their time. They only need to know what they’re expected to produce and when. What they do in the meantime is their decision- a liberating, modern approach to management that sees employees as adults capable of more self-management, and attracts self-motivating people.

2. Clear and Consistent Communication

Since remote management allows such freedom and independence for employees, it becomes more important to communicate effectively. Instructions have to be almost excessively clear and explicit, but they also have to be to the point. Brevity and clarity have to rule the day, as your team needs to know exactly what they’re expected to do, without being able to pop by your office or be shown in person.

At Business Republic, we use Gmail, Slack and Skype. Gmails are for the day-to-day communication, and the central hub through which projects are assigned, tracked, turned in and modified through Google Docs and Sheets. To make emails more efficient, we have a standard language of subject lines that automatically clarify their intent. Our “EOD” (End of Day) emails are summative, while “Action Needed” in the subject line makes it clear that whatever’s in the body has to be addressed as soon as possible. By keeping it clear from the subject line, our email communication is faster, more clear, and more effective.

Slack is our messaging app for quick, spur-of-the-moment or minor questions and clarifications. This allows us to carry a running conversation with remote employees in between emails. Again, it’s concise, it’s smooth, and it’s functional above all; not a second is wasted, and our team can work together as efficiently as a group of people sharing a physical space. When we need to have meetings or a live dialogue, we simply use Skype- no airfare or conference room required.

3. Organized and Efficient Systems

Since a remote manager doesn’t directly guide the course of their team’s work, it’s imperative to have the most self-sustaining systems and procedures in place. They can take time and a great deal of thought to build and perfect, but clear and organized procedures replace the need to “manage” in the traditional sense by acting as a standing guide for employees.

Your systems and procedures are the support infrastructure that keeps your team on track. Therefore, they’ve got to be as simple and reductive as possible, while also being intuitive. At Business Republic, we write out all of our procedures for every task in detail. We create shared documents on Google Drive, create short tutorials on ScreenFlow, and use LastPass to keep everything cohesive and secure.

It’s a relatively short list of tools, and there are many great remote management resources like Basecamp and Asana, with different variations on the same features. Whatever you use, all that matters is that it enables each employee to access their work quickly and complete it smoothly.

What you put into these systems will determine what you get out of them. It can be pretty time-consuming to establish your procedures at the beginning; for instance, a task that only takes a team member 10 minutes to complete may require an hour’s worth of work to describe and write into the systems. It’s less efficient on the manager’s end, but the net gain in efficiency by the team is well worth the effort. As your employees become more familiar with your systems, they can also be invited to suggest modifications that will increase their efficiency even further, perfecting the workflow collaboratively.

4. Create a Strong Culture

What holds a great company together and attracts the best and brightest is its office culture. But without an office, it takes a more conscious effort to establish and maintain that culture. Companies like Airbnb and have perfected this art, and as a result people flock to work for them. Just by reading the emails of a company with a great culture (remote or otherwise), you can get a sense of how upbeat and uplifting the attitude is.

Great attitudes among team members is no accident; it’s the product of conscientious culture management. Positivity, mutual supportiveness, inclusiveness and encouragement can be shared just as easily (if differently) through an email or Slack message as in a physical meeting, if you take the time. Learn to recognize the difference between efficient communication and communication that’s terse or impersonal. Take the time to foster good culture not as an aside, but as an integral part of your management strategy.

You’ll soon find what we found- that your own employees will draw more and more talent your way, because of the happy experience they’ve lived firsthand.

5. Honest and Abundant Praise

Part of your business’s culture should involve your making time for praise. Somewhere between absent-minded pats on the virtual back and insincere flattery lies the genuine expression of your appreciation for great work. That appreciation creates a feedback loop in which team members, feeling appreciated, want to give their best for more than just monetary gain.

The art of effective praise is detailed in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Honest praise and well-earned rewards have an exponential effect on motivation and work quality that will be reflected in your team’s productivity. While some managers see praise as something to be held back, in my experience it’s best to let loose with it, so long as it’s sincere. A good manager doesn’t need to be reserved in order to maintain their authority. They need only be honest.

In the end, good managerial policies and practices are all that you need, even without your hands on the reins of a physical team confined to an office space. You’ll discover which employees thrive under more or less supervision and guidance, which ones have the attitude that supersedes all experience or learnable skills, and how to best motivate each individual.

Take the time to get to know your team personally. Without seeing them or having those interstitial water-cooler moments, it takes a mindful effort to build human relationships with them. Building those relationships is important, and not a detraction from your efficiency. In fact, strong interpersonal relationships will breed loyalty and motivation more than anything. With the right approach, that’s just as doable online as in the office.

Entrepreneurship Leadership Uncategorized

The Right-Sized Team

American entrepreneurship has a certain mythos to it. It involves a lot of historical figures like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, fighting against insurmountable odds, and sacrificing all comforts in pursuit of success. That success comes in the form of massive wealth, the product of a huge company employing thousands of people, the hero’s name emblazoned on the front of a massive corporate headquarters for all to marvel at.

Is this the only model for success? Is the sheer size of a company, the size of its revenue stream, or the number of its employees the only definition of whether an entrepreneur has “made it?”

When a small business is growing, it has to grow carefully. It has to grow at an appropriate rate, and to an appropriate size. What size is appropriate for your business is a question worth putting thought into. Everyone wants to reach their fullest potential, but relentlessly pursuing growth for its own sake can be counterproductive.

Deciding on the size of your team, then, means carefully balancing the potential benefits of expansion against the daunting challenges that come with it.

Is Bigger Better?

Deciding on the right amount of people for your business team will depend on what kind of business you’re running, and what its ultimate mission is. Many like to assume that bigger is better, but 21st-century business models make it clear that sometimes, leaner is meaner. Instagram, for example, sold to Facebook for a staggering amount (hint: it starts with a “b” and rhymes with million) of money. That company was comprised of 13 people.

Instagram is an extreme case, but small businesses regularly make big-time profits in today’s web-driven market. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s Basecamp (formerly 37 Signals) is a twenty-person team making millions through their various business products. Noah Kagan’s AppSumo is a nine-person teaming pulling seven figures as well. Clearly, size isn’t everything when it comes to putting together the most effective team.

When starting out as an independent business person, either by yourself or with a partner, it’s important to explore this issue from the outset. Once you add members to your team, it can be very difficult and very costly to change your mind. Especially once people depend on you and your business for a living, downsizing is painful. At the same time, small teams are capable of working wonders- provided they’re part of well-designed system.

This doesn’t only hold true for “soft” online products like education or software; brick-and-mortar businesses with physical products can follow the Mighty Mouse Model too. Especially in the right markets, small businesses like restaurants can rake in incredible profits with no more people than it takes to play a pickup game of halfcourt basketball. Morandi’s in Manhattan has a single location in the West Village and a small staff, but makes more profit than restaurants several times its size. The key is that their little team is part of an effective and well-managed system, a formula that they’ve perfected over time.

Deciding How Many to Hire

Once you’re convinced that it’s time to add members to the team, proceed with what I like to call “optimistic caution,” a more positive spin on cautious optimism. Understand that expansion comes with inherent extra responsibilities, expenses, and demands on your time. Realize that eternal growth for growth’s sake isn’t a real goal, unless you’re measuring yourself only in comparison to others- a very counterproductive approach. Remember that it’s possible to grow in revenue without growing in overall size.

The key is to start by setting reasonable goals. How big do you really want your business to be? How much of your time are you willing to spend doing managerial and administrative tasks? Is your business a way to do something you love for a living, like web design or the culinary arts, or are you happy being in the business of business, further removed from the actual production? This will help you estimate how many people you’ll want to end up with ultimately.

To avoid raising overhead unnecessarily, it’s important to keep your team streamlined. Never hire someone just to increase the number of employees under your umbrella. Instead, look for multi-talented people with a diverse range of skills, especially in the early stages of the company’s growth. If you can pay one person for two or three skill sets, that’s far better than paying two or three people.

Make your goal to have as close to one person per department as possible. Sales, marketing, tech and customer service may need only one person each. Take advantage of the shrinking world of telecommunications we live in, and don’t be afraid to hire freelancers, contractors and part-timers who can contribute smaller amounts of work from all over the map. Keep the team lean, and pick up the slack yourself where extra support is needed temporarily, rather than hiring someone during a busy time only to leave them idling later.

The Advantage of Small Teams

The beauty of small teams is that the fewer people work together, the more powerful a dynamic they can create. Members of small teams tend to work more closely with each other, and develop interpersonal bonds and dynamics that have a multiplying effect on the quality of their work. Like a family or a sports team, they come to know each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and dispositions, adjusting and compensating to achieve the best results as a group.

For the head of the business, it’s much less stressful, and even enjoyable. People you know personally are easier to manage and to motivate, because you have the time to develop strong relationships- relationships that can turn out to be a company’s greatest asset. With creativity, flexibility, and the loyalty engendered by a small amount of people feeling as though they rely on each other, a pint-sized team can outperform dozens of cubicles’ worth of large-firm employees.

The Bigger Question

In deciding how large you want your team and your business to be, you’ll have to confront your own personal philosophy of success. Is size what you really want from your business, or is the desire to be at the helm of a big operation merely your ego talking? Do you want to pursue a passion, or confine yourself to the endless administrative duties necessary to run a big operation? Ask yourself what it is you want to do as well as what you want to have.

The best advice I’ve gotten and given in my years as an independent business person is this: define success for yourself, and then question that definition. Be honest with yourself about what would truly make you happy, and what would only be a status symbol. “Success” is a social construct; it is whatever we decide it is. Maybe success doesn’t mean huge revenues or armies of employees. Maybe it means the freedom and flexibility to be your own boss. Maybe it means having more time off to fish. Maybe it means contributing something of value to the world.

Whatever it is, it’s up to you, and no one else. Bear that in mind when deciding on the size of your team. At the end of the day, there are more options than going big or going home.