When Ryan Malone started his digital marketing agency SmartBug Media in 2008, he didn't bother opening an office. And as the company grew, he began to let staff work remotely. Today, Malone's three-time Inc. 5000-ranked company, which did $8.9 million in sales in 2018, employs 81 people who work everywhere from Orange County to Halifax to Berlin.
As for an office? There isn't one. Malone has been managing remotely--and with great success--since long before any of us knew the term shelter-in-place.
Malone has these six suggestions for those who are new to managing a team from home.
1. Perfect the art of the handoff.
Since starting Smartbug Media, which builds digital marketing campaigns for healthcare, manufacturing, and technology companies, Malone says he's been obsessed with documenting the processes involved in his company's projects, especially transitions from team to team.
"We always thought of our agency as a manufacturing line for creative work," he says. Each task is precisely defined with clear guidelines and checklists, and employees send along their work with supplemental materials, such as a video of themselves describing why they made certain decisions and what still needs work.
"You've got to build the systems assuming that you might not be able to get the person right back on the phone," says Malone. "In a relay race, the most important part isn't always how fast the runners are, but how smooth the handoff is."
2. Challenge minds, not schedules.
One of the biggest advantages of a remote-work model is how it empowers employees to start and stop work on a dime. With no sunk cost of commuting, employees can unlock new value in their schedules. Savvy managers use that flexibility as a form of non-monetary compensation.
"I always tell people to prioritize two or three things that really matter--that they'll remember someday," Malone says. Some employees train for a marathon in the afternoon, others spend one morning a week volunteering.
Still, Malone sets ambitious goals and deadlines for his employees, ensuring they make the most of their remaining time, no matter where they may be.
3. Take the DVR approach.
Rather than blast out a lot of written emails or hold a lot of company-wide meetings,
Malone sends out prerecorded videos of messages and announcements that the staff can watch on their own time. Malone favors video especially because it's quick for him to make and conveys the emotion and immediacy of face-to-face interactions.
"In my case, they can experience my monotone voice in all its glory," Malone says.
4. Don't stress about your messy home office.
Earlier in March, as shelter-in-place orders took hold, Malone sent a casual email to customers and partners telling them they didn't mind if those folks, in effect, let it all hang out. Nobody's house is perfect, and family foibles offer a chance to bond.
"We said, 'You know what? You've probably met our kids and seen our pets before, because we're remote--now just expect more of it," says Malone. "And you're home now, too, so why don't you introduce us to yours?"
5. Stop wondering what your people are up to.
Let go of the concept of the 9-to-5 workday--or the idea that your people necessarily need to be working when you are. "There's always this tendency to feel uncomfortable, to wonder what your people are doing, wherever they're at," says Malone. The key to good management was never proximity or scrutiny in the first place--and smarts and motivation don't punch a clock.
Remote workplaces flourish when managers put faith in their employees to do the same level of work at home that they would in the office. "You've invested all of this time in vetting them," says Malone. "Why would you now say I don't trust you, because I'm not staring at you?"
Plus, overweening surveillance techniques can backfire by inflaming stress and resentment. Even remotely, any problem will reveal itself quickly enough.
6. Encourage company tribes (so long as they have nothing to do with work).
When all work takes place over Slack and email and other digital platforms, it's rare to talk to, let alone befriend, people with whom you don't work directly. Malone invites new hires to take part in one-on-one get-to-know-you-calls with every other employee in the company--the only prohibited topic is work--and join hobby-themed groups on the company chat.
"It's like going to a new school," says Malone. "You're trying to find who's in the computer club, who's in the sports club, or whatever." So if you manage one of the fortunate companies still hiring, don't forget to give the newcomers a warm, virtual welcome.