Nomads. Remotes. Telecommuters. Whatever you call them, non-office based workers are rapidly shifting the landscape of corporate America. Supported by massive leaps in cloud and collaborative technologies, some 20-25 percent of the American workforce  now work remotely to some capacity, and the trend shows no sign of slowing.

Remote workers make up around 60 percent of our team, with the other 40 percent based out of our NYC HQ. Like many companies, our road to remote began out of necessity when one of our top developers moved to Hawaii. Desperate to keep him, we took a leap of faith, made him our first remote employee, and haven't looked back since.

We've learned and ironed out many of the kinks to remote team building since then. Here are some of our best practices today:

Think remote when hiring remote players

We perform the entire hiring process remotely using tools like appear.in and zoom. This gives us a good sense of how they'll communicate once they're onboard. To work seamlessly, remote staff must be able to communicate and be comfortable with these tools.

Look for hires with a track record of getting things done remotely. Or as Wade Foster, remote enthusiast and CEO of Zapier, describes it, look for the 'doers'. Meaning, look for motivated and disciplined people who will deliver, regardless of time and space.

To get a sense for how they'll perform out-of-office, ask specific questions directed at their remote experience, such as: What tools have they used? Can they show a remote project example they executed from start to finish? Are they comfortable working autonomously? And (very important to live collaboration needs), will they be available to overlap part of each day with the entire company?

Once they're hired, we fly them out for a week of onboarding in our New York HQ. This gives everyone a good chance to meet face-to-face and establish some rapport before the real work begins.

Communicate on the same level

Having an in-person meeting with one remote employee on the video screen will not cut it.  Working with remote employees requires everyone to communicate via the same medium. If one participant is remote, everyone gets on videoconference.

Communication also needs to move away from face-to-face and into the tools and channels where everyone on the team can see it. If we do end up talking about something in-person, we have trained ourselves to quickly summarize the contents in a #notes channel so remotes never feel left out.

Be deliberate when building culture

Maintaining culture is probably one of the most difficult aspects of remote team management. But with deliberate effort, corporate culture can thrive across time and space.

We take a very intentional approach to our culture building. Much of team bonding happens in those informal 'water cooler' moments that naturally occur in offices. Aware of this, we devised a series of activities to foster similar bonding moments amongst our remote staff. These include:

  • Annual company retreats where the whole team is flown out to a single location to brainstorm, relax and socialize.
  • Social committees are in charge of remote-friendly activities like online trivia nights and coffee meetings.
  • Mr. Rogers chats where people are randomly paired up across the company on a bi-weekly basis to connect and chat, regardless of their location.
  • Monthly live-streaming town halls help patch all employees in to keep everyone up to speed on company-wide goals, progress, product demos and new hires.
  • Slack 'culture' channels where staff can share pictures of their kids or talk about fitness goals. Completely staff-driven, they pop-up organically and give people a chance to socialize even remotely.
  • Technology that supports real-time collaboration like Slack and other project management tools not only give teams a social outlet, they also provide critical support to instantaneous collaboration across distance.

Most importantly, whatever you do, make sure it's applied company-wide, regardless of location. This keeps culture seamless and ensures there aren't any cultural silos between HQ and remote teams. From the little (like sending a birthday cake to every employee) to the big (like changes in processes), every employee should  fully included in what you do as a team.

Key Takeaway

Building a successful remote team is not as simple as hiring someone outside your office. It requires a shift in how you hire, how you communicate, and changes in the way you cultivate your culture. With a bit of effort, you can make your company an amazing place to work for anyone in the world.

Published on: Mar 21, 2016