As I write this post, I haven’t seen my CEO and cofounder and 1/3 of the Popforms team in 34 days. Before that, I didn’t see her for over 100 days. I’ve only met my direct report in person once.
At Popforms, we are a remote team of 3 people. And we have been thinking a lot about how you grow a company of people that almost never see each other in person. How do you build a successful team when some or maybe all of the staff have never met in person?
When our company was just the two founding Kates, keeping our remote team functional and happy was pretty easy. I can’t remember any moments where I wished we had an office or thought being in person would make things easier.
However, as we begin to grow and have added a new team member in the last several weeks, we’ve begun to think about what it means to truly run a remote team once you expand beyond the founding team. And we’re thinking about more than just how to manage tasks and make sure things are getting done.
We want to know: how do you build a team with solid trust, communication, and culture remotely?
The best teams are built on trust. They are built on understanding. They are built on a unified culture, where people are working towards the same things, knowing they are supported and made better by the people that they work with.
But how do you build and maintain trust with a group of people you never see?
Today I want to share what we do now at Popforms to make our remote team function. But then I also want to share some thoughts from leaders who are already doing the thing we’re thinking about — running a remote team at a larger scale — and how they build a functional team with communication and trust, when everyone’s working at different times in different places.
I talked to Wade Foster of Zapier, Janet Choi of iDoneThis, and Alex Turnbull of Groove to see how their remote teams build trust, foster communication, and cultivate strong team bonds without face-to-face interaction.
How Popforms does remote teams
Of all the teams that work remotely today, we are probably on the low end of built-in remote work infrastructure. We don’t stay on chat all day (in fact, we don’t chat at all), and we loosely use Trello for project management but often fall behind on keeping it updated. However, we are a fairly close-knit team. This is likely because, when there’s only 3 of you, it’s easy to keep in touch and on top of things, but for now here is how we make our team function and knit:
Weekly team calls. Every Monday, we spent 30 minutes on a conference call as a team. During this call we talk about high-level ideas and any big changes that have happened, so that everyone is on the same page about direction and priorities.
We’ll also all share our plans for what we’re working on that week, so that we can adjust anything if necessary before any of us get started for the week. In general, these calls are mostly logistical — who is doing what, why, and when it will be done.
Weekly 1:1s. The weekly team call is bookended for me by two 1:1s — I talk with Satinder for 30 minutes before the call, and with KateM for sometimes an hour after our team call. Since we cover status in the team call, the 1:1s are usually an opportunity to talk about tangential stuff like what you did that weekend, what is stressing you out, and career development topics like goals and interests.
Recent 1:1 topics have included everything from grad school to public speaking to maternity leave policies.
New hire video call. When we brought Satinder on board, we set up a video call for all three of us to chat together during her first week. It was an opportunity to become more than voices on the other end of the phone, and for us also to share “here’s what we’re working on” in a format where Q&A was really easy.
Email. Lots of email. Rather than using a chat client that we’re logged into all day, for now it is effective for us to just always be available to each other by email. It’s usually the fastest way to get an answer to a question, and for us, it’s usually a more effective way of communicating clearly than jumping on a phone call. You can CC the right people, link to resources, offer advice and side notes without distracting from the main message, etc.
We probably over-communicate by email, which is to say if we make a change in our product management tool marking something as done, we’ll also let the affected people know by email too. We don’t want anything to fall through the cracks, and it is by being absolutely sure we are all on the same page that we can trust that we’re all still going in the right direction.
Our main goal is to make communication easy and frequent. For now, email works for us along with weekly calls. We prioritize being available for each other; most emails get replied to within the hour, and most emails include a smiley face, a joke, or a question about the other person’s opinion. Many tiny opportunities to communicate the idea: “I care about how you feel about this.”
When you know where you stand, and where everyone else stands, it is easier to move confidently forward. And when you know you can get the information you need within a few minutes with a quick email, it is easy to unblock each other and stay productive.
And now, let’s hear from some folks who have been doing this longer and on a greater scale. How do you build trust on a remote team?
Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier
If I had to summarize how we build trust, here’s what I’d share:
1. Everyone shares what they’ve done via an internal blog each week. This demonstrates to everyone that each person is putting in effort to improve the company.
2. We meet up twice a year in person. Meeting each other does help build a personal connection.
3. Everyone participates in Slack every day. Seeing everyone working together, chatting together builds trust.
4. Everyone meets potential hires when they participate in a weekly hangout before they get hired. Everyone then has a chance to sign off on them. This way everyone feels pretty good about new hires before day 1.
5. Default to trust. If something outside your purview isn’t being handled the way you’d expect, give it a week or two before the project wraps up. Oftentimes people have different process for handling projects, but often get similar results. If you trust your team of experts, then you’ll often get better results with less politics.
[ed.: Wade has also done a fair bit of writing about how his remote team works. You can find his best writing on the topic here: http://bit.ly/zapier-remote]
Janet Choi, Chief Creative Officer at iDoneThis
The challenges of being a remote team is that it’s harder to keep on the same page and build a good sense of camaraderie. Easier flow of information and the sense that you’re doing and striving for something *together* are aspects that just being physically in the same room or office simply helps provide as a baseline that’s just not there as a remote team.
So we depend on over-communication and regular contact. Hipchat and email are not enough. If you think about it, there are teams who are co-located who still use chat and project management tools and email.
We have to make it up in other ways.
So some of it comes down to an approach (as opposed to a tool):
That means being much more proactive about things, and that can be a struggle to learn because it doesn’t come naturally — like speaking up when we need help or getting comfortable with revealing more in written form, since the bulk of our communication comes down to writing or moving for a meeting if you want to discuss something face-to-face. I have a weekly 1-on-1 hangout with each founder, we get together in person for team retreats every few months, if people are in the same city, we make an effort to co-work or hang out.
You also have to keep taking apart and looking at processes to see what’s working and what’s not. For instance, our weekly team google hangouts keep evolving — and it’s a purposeful evolution because we haven’t gotten it right yet.
It’s kind of lame to plug your own tool but iDoneThis has been pivotal for us as a remote team. On one hand, of course, it’s eating your own dog food (I never really liked that phrase but it is what it is) and 2. with hipchat and shared docs and asana etc., it’s hard to pull out bullet points of what’s important to know about what everyone’s up to, thinking about, having trouble with etc. We’ve been experimenting in the past few months with getting rid of internal email and so we use iDoneThis instead.
I also wrote a post about communicating as a remote team a little while back that you can refer to: http://blog.idonethis.com/post/69467027447/communication-remote-distributed-team
Alex Turnbull, CEO of Groove
Not being in the same room definitely comes with unique challenges, and overcoming those is a constant battle. We have weekly calls and we’re starting to bring the team together a few times a year, which goes a long way toward building culture and unity.
A team chat app — like HipChat or Slack — is also super important. Not just for productivity and collaboration, but for culture, too: the casual conversations and jokes that would normally take place in an office need a home; otherwise, work is just work.
In short: build regular communication into everyone’s schedule, and break down every barrier to communication outside of those times.
Do you work on a remote team or have experience with managing teams who don’t always see each other on a regular basis? We’d love to hear how you make it work, what you’ve tried, and what lessons you’ve learned.
Leave them in the comments!