Remote teams get a bad rap. They’re supposedly hard to manage, hard to motivate, and hard to communicate with effectively. But if you’re a startup located anywhere near a major business hub, remote teams have become the only practical way to get your company off the ground.
Top engineering talent is so hard to come by these days that unless you’re printing money it’s virtually impossible to find all the skills you need locally, especially in white hot fields like data science and machine learning. There’s also a mercenary attitude to employment in areas like Silicon Valley and New York. Developers are such a valuable commodity that they can easily jump ship for higher salaries or more stock options. I don’t blame them for capitalizing on their worth, but it makes it almost impossible to build a business.
Hiring workers far from the major business centers has become the only viable option, and it’s not difficult once you know what you’re doing. At our San Francisco-based startup, Rainforest, our engineers are in 13 countries as far afield as Brazil, Portugal, Czech Republic, Japan and Hong Kong.
We learned some tough lessons along the way, but our remote team now functions well and the benefits extend far beyond costs. A widely-dispersed team makes it easy for us to offer cross-timezone support to customers, and our team is diverse almost by default, with all the benefits that can bring.
Here are six lessons we’ve learned about how to build a remote team that operates smoothly.
Make your hiring process remote. It took us time to figure this one out, but if a person is going to work remotely, you should interview them remotely too. Most companies fly candidates in for a day of meetings, but it’s a horrible way to figure out if someone will be a good remote colleague. You need to know if this person can work well from a distance -- how communicative they are and how responsive they are -- and that’s not something you gauge in person. People can be absolutely charming when you meet them but awful to work with remotely.
Avoid first-timers. Working alone doesn’t suit everyone, so you need to choose a candidate who’s worked remotely before. Most people don’t know if they’ll be able to stay focused working solo if they’ve never tried it. Save yourself a lot of aggravation and hire people who know what they’re getting into. Dig into this in the interview: How did the candidate keep themselves motivated in the past? What tricks do they use to stay engaged? These are important qualities to look for.
Pay a local wage. If you’re hiring in a region where wages are typically lower, like Eastern Europe, it’s tempting to overpay because, well, you’re getting a deal anyway, right? But you’re actually short-changing your local staff. If you pay someone so well that they can live like a king or queen, it’s unfair to your team back home. By all means pay above market rate, but don’t go overboard.
Share the friction. Accept the fact that it’s harder to communicate with people not in the office. That means sharing in the friction with your remote teammates. When we do an all-hands meeting at Rainforest, everyone joins a videoconference from their laptops, even the staff in our home office. It feels strange at first, but it’s a great leveler that makes everyone feel equal.
Regular facetime. You need to bring people together to make them feel part of a team. It’s essential for maintaining a bond and ensuring everyone is on the same page. Plus it reminds you that you’re working with actual humans and not avatars. At Rainforest, we bring everyone to our San Francisco HQ quarterly. Teams discuss their progress over the quarter and have the hard discussions around strategy and objectives.
Be inclusive. If there’s a perception that people at HQ get a better deal, an “us and them” culture will build up. Last week, one of our remote team was upset because a new hire was doing an “about me” presentation and the screenshare wasn’t working. We could have carried on regardless, but we knew it was important to get it fixed so the remote staff weren’t excluded. We also take time out to celebrate birthdays, and if it’s a remote team member we hold up their photo and sing happy birthday. It sounds odd, but the little things make a difference.
Remote teams can be hugely beneficial, so don’t let the naysayers put you off. But you need to be purposeful about how you hire and manage them. Salaries for skilled engineers aren’t getting any lower, and if you’re building a startup in this climate, it may be the only practical way to get off the ground.
Fred Stevens-Smith is co-founder and CEO, RainforestQA.