Agencies must remain agile and flexible, especially in their early months, to mitigate risk and enable swift allocation of budget to the most pertinent areas.
There’s a fine balance to be found during fast-growth stages, and the first year can be particularly volatile. Even after this stage, hustling in a competitive market is tough.
With fine margins and tight budgets, it’s difficult to commit to office contracts, competitive staff salary, team benefits, equipment, and the myriad of different overheads associated with operating a modern business: insurance, accounting, utilities, and more. The relentless pressure of competing and growing is ever-more profound when overheads and resourcing costs are added to the mix.
For some, the answer is to adopt remote working and flexible freelance contractors. This can alleviate the pressure, free up budget, and allow for a more creative strategy. However, it’s not necessarily a silver bullet. There are certainly challenges and obstacles associated with managing a remote agency team, not to mention the potential for hidden impact on company culture and productivity.
I’ve experienced the pros and cons first-hand with the growth of Kurve as my digital consultancy. In this article, I’ll talk about the issues that arose, and take you through ways to ensure the successful establishment of a happy, productive, and dedicated remote team.
The Challenges of a Remote Team
Managing a remote team has a variety of challenges. It’s most certainly not plain sailing, and may cause some headaches, especially at the beginning of your journey.
Let's start by taking a look at the main challenges I've faced in my own experiences running a remote agency:
In a nutshell, it’s difficult to find the right people. However, this is as much the case with full-time on-site staff as it is with remote executives. It’s impossible to know an individual’s inner struggles, habits, or attitudes from one solitary meeting. Likewise, a string of messages and a Skype call can never be satisfactory.
Inevitably, strengths and weaknesses become evident over time. As a remote employer, it’s imperative to be comfortable with providing space to make mistakes, as any full-time employee deserves.
6 Tips for Resourcing a Remote Team:
- Do your research: Dig into the work history of the individual, ask for case studies of their previous roles, and do your due diligence checks before progressing. Here are some tips for screening potential candidates.
- Embrace referrals: A referral from a friend, peer, or colleague somewhat mitigates risk.
- Check testimonials: If hiring via sites like Upwork or PPH, thoroughly research ratings, reviews, and testimonials from recent clients.
- Exploit social media: Innovative talent will use social media in innovative ways to seek job opportunities. Twitter and LinkedIn are the first ports of call.
- Look local: A remote executive doesn’t necessarily need to be on the other side of the planet. Instead, they could be across the street. As a business owner, you can still advertise locally for team members.
- Agree on terms: Will the remote worker be full-time or part-time? Do they have other clients? What’s the time balance? Set strict expectations for levels of work, depending on what suits your business.
Overall, you want to hire doers and team players. Self-driven, motivated, and smart people who can adapt and provide value over the long-term. There’s always an element of intuition and gut-feeling about whether or not to trust a hire, which still remains key to your decisions and cannot be ignored.
Without exception, every member of your remote team should be self-motivated and independently proactive individuals. Without these qualities, productivity will suffer to great measure, and your agency's growth will be stunted.
6 Tips for Keeping your Remote Team Productive
- Understand personalities: Ascertain what drives your team members to achieve. Some may require more encouragement and security than others. Some team members will benefit from incentive-driven objectives, whilst others get satisfaction from other areas.
- Over-communicate: Setup clear communication procedures and regular calls, in order for your team members to stay in alignment on tasks and objectives. When you’re not sat in the same room all day, the mini-conversations that keep people on the same page are missing. Account for this gap by keeping comms regular.
- Be flexible: The very fact that you’re attempting remote working would suggest flexibility isn’t an issue. It’s proven that different people have different productivity peaks. Embracing this approach will work, so long as the individuals are self-motivated. The tools mentioned in our ultimate list (below) will help you maintain structure and cohesiveness in alignment with your flexibility.
- Set clear objectives: Individual team member objectives should contribute directly to business goals, alongside their own professional development. Communicate weekly, monthly, and yearly objectives, and ensure that team members understand the relevance of their task list in achieving these milestones.
- Monitor progress: Output is paramount. As a business leader, you have a duty to track progress against goals. Furthermore, using a tool such as Harvest (among others mentioned below) will help to understand time spent against tasks. When paired with effective project management and communication, you can track progress against expectations.
- Set processes: Read the next section for more information about processes.
Processes underpin the seamless everyday activities of a team. While you should always leave room for ad-hoc creativity, a business must also operate on an agreed set of processes. Team members should adhere to set processes in order to minimize chaos and maximize productivity, as well as visibility on tasks for the correct line of management.
From personal experience, establishing processes can be a huge challenge in the early stages of growth, especially when managing a disparate team. As team members come and go, new ideas emerge as to how we manage the delivery of our work. Ever more complex processes develop as a team grows, and new systems get entangled with legacy processes.
With some persistence, you’ll discover what processes work.
4 Tips for Developing Processes Within a Remote Team
- Automate: Where possible, automate notifications and alerts in line with team processes and workflows. As one example, I use Zapier to manage notifications for Google Drive folders; when new documents have been added, when edits have been made, etc.
- Don’t over-complicate: Be confident that natural competence and professionalism will come into play when ad-hoc communication and clarification is required. Some things cannot be automated. So long as the ad-hoc stuff works within a framework of agreed processes (and not as the rule), a bit of back-and-forth is to be expected in getting the job done. If the comms structure is optimized, you’ve nothing to worry about.
- Focus on results: Processes are only effective if they help to achieve results. It’s easy to get mixed up in a world of ideal processes and workflows, but unless they contribute to efficient delivery (and therefore results), they’re redundant. Strip out the unnecessary, and maintain the critical.
- Be adaptable: As the team grows, now dependencies will be created. Gaps will be filled, whilst new ones open up. Processes will shift to incorporate new players and alterations in approach. This, in particular, is something that I’ve had to accommodate carefully at Kurve.
For start ups, success can hang on a cliff-edge. For funded start ups targeting fast-growth, the demands on time and energy are relentless, for all team members worth their salt. To achieve ultimate productivity, your team should be inspired, determined, and must enjoy their work and the team in which they belong.
Maintaining morale within this start up pressure-cooker is undoubtedly challenging. As we all know, growing a successful business is a roller coaster. Fast progress doesn’t come without risk, and setbacks are inevitable along the way. It’s harder to monitor the morale of people you don’t see every day, which becomes a critical problem if left unaccounted for.
5 tips for keeping remote team morale flying high:
- Support: Team members have a responsibility to be professionally competent, active, and skilled in the areas for which you’ve hired them. However, as the leader, you provide stability, advice, experience, and know how. Allowing space to figure out problems is essential, but so is a structured support network.
- Listening: Non-judgmental listening is paramount to the success of any manager or business leader. Engage open ears and a patient mind. Workplace issues are rarely confined to a physical space. Working relationships can be challenging, no matter where the team is located, and issues with company structure, expectations, and task allocation also remains pertinent when managing a remote team.
- Incentives: Performance-based incentives are proven to be effective, although too often these are confined to financials. A McKinsey & Company study from 2009 championed non-financial incentives, and other research suggested that only 13% feel the prospect of a bonus motivated harder working.
- Team-building: We’re social creatures. There’s no substitute for getting the team together. Of course, this depends on the geographic location of your remote workers. Where possible, gather together for a relaxed social outing. Share stories, and enjoy each other’s company. For geographically disparate teams, keep a casual comms channel open for sharing non-work-related content, jokes, gaffes, and everything in between.
- Rewards: Recognition for their achievements is what all humans crave. Not necessarily financial rewards or incentives. Remote managers should contribute more overt public recognition for team member successes. This acknowledgment maintains a sense of value, security, and purpose. Public recognition also helps other remote executives understand the value added by other team members, which develops mutual respect.
I keep harking back to the importance of communication. This really is the fundamental element to a successful team, whether remote or otherwise. But especially in the context of a remote team, constant and efficient communication is paramount.
However, it’s well-and-good to advocate communication, but how do you optimize it to ensure maximum productivity, high morale, and smooth processes?
5 tips for effective communication in a remote team:
- Structure: Conversations must be planned in advance, with strict agendas agreed and adhered to. Structure a recurring update call for the whole team every week (or as appropriate) in which general alignment and top-level ideas are aired.
- Tools: There’s a myriad of communication tools out there which are perfect for start ups and remote teams. At Kurve, we primarily use Slack for messaging and Skype for conference calls.
- Organization: Organize your communication tools into relevant sub-groups and team chats, depending on the structure of your organization. Operating on a need-to-know is perhaps a bit extreme, but be conscious of who actually benefits from your contribution to a particular topic or area of the business.
- Reporting: Insert a standardized time and method of reporting task completion and results. This supports morale and team productivity, and helps you identify blockers, skill gaps, and achievements as the business leader.
- Refine and minimize: Keep you methods of communication concise. Maintain one or two key channels to avoid confusion and missed messages. At Kurve, I’ve all but banned email. Only very occasionally do we converse via email, but as a rule we never rely on it.
The Advantages of a Remote Team
The adoption of remote working works in tandem with the increasing popularity of self-employment among professionals. This means that there’s more highly-skilled people out there than ever before willing to take on a remote role.
Reduction in Overhead Costs
By operating a remote team, you have fewer running costs to cover. Operational costs, such as office rent, contents insurance, utilities, and everything in between no longer come into play. Depending on the nature of your team’s contractual agreements (and whether they’re freelancers or full-time employees), your business could also avoid holiday pay and sick pay.
A remote team offers supreme flexibility, whether it’s in the fast growth or for the opposite (if things are getting tight). A remote team can act with more immediacy, and can be expanded without the need to wait for notice periods, office stationery, employee hardware, and ever-less-affordable desk space.
A Wider Net
You’re not limited to the locality of a resident talent pool. Some areas struggle to attract the most driven and intelligent people, which can cause resourcing issues in the vicinity. By operating a remote team, your business can be based where it is most likely to succeed, without the need to consider the industry talent pool in the locality.
Without a doubt, company culture is much harder to nurture in a disparate team. Naturally, the removal of that everyday human contact will impact the development of a close-knit and socially active group.
If you’re a B2B organization, established clients may respect a more traditional “grounded” setup, and opt for that when making purchase decisions. To battle this perception, your PR and marketing should reinforce strengths and opportunities, and comprehensively outline the reasons why remote working is not detrimental.
Furthermore, it’ll potentially take much longer to establish a core set of processes, and a seamless transition of dependencies. I’ve also noticed that it can take longer for an individual to express an innovative idea, due to the additional communication steps required (as opposed to chatting near the proverbial water cooler).
However, by identifying these problems as you proceed, they’re quickly addressed and solved. Some areas may need overcompensation, but that’s the nature of the game.
Remote Work is Built on Trust
It goes without saying that remote working is built on trust. By implementing draconian tracking systems (like the desk sensors at The Daily Telegraph) to monitor staff movements every hour, you undermine that mutual trust and remove many of the benefits that remote staff enjoy most.
For example, so long as objectives are met on-time and pre-scheduled comms / appointments aren’t missed or delayed due to unsolicited absence, I don't really mind whether one of my team hits the gym at 3pm to avoid the post-work crowd, and returns later to wrap up the remainder of their day. Morale remains high, and my team is fit and productive. My clients benefit, my team benefits, and I benefit.
But it takes careful planning, preparation, and patience to manage a remote team every day. Whilst not exclusively beneficial to remote teams, some of the things I’ve implemented are:
- A culture of support: If [Executive X] can’t complete a task, [Executive Y] can take over with ease. This builds team relationships and encourages constant education.
- Minimize pointless comms: No meetings for the sake of meetings. Always an agenda and a list of actionable items thereafter.
- Transparency: Through the company and through projects. A collective understanding of budget, business direction, client concerns, and more. An open and honest approach.
- Mutual respect and trust: I don’t operate a dictatorship. There’s no clear hierarchy, just a group of committed people that work together in a team to do great work.
For modern forward-thinking businesses, remote and flexible working offers a superb opportunity to sustain fast-growth, minimize risk, and reduce overheads. If tackled correctly, and conducted by a bright and communicative team, this approach could provide the edge over your competitors.
Regardless, it’s not a walk in the park to implement remote working. There are very real trade-offs to be made when comparing the traditional team structure to the remote model.
There are multiple challenges to overcome with resourcing, productivity, processes, and communication. That said, I hope this article has given you a solid foundation from which to start, and an awareness of the obstacles and rewards that await should you adopt the remote setup.
Originally published Mar 9, 2017 5:00:00 AM, updated May 20 2020