Many people think of a remote entrepreneur as someone relaxing at home in their PJs or sipping margaritas on the beach while occasionally checking in with their employees. Of course, this is inaccurate. Not being face-to-face with your colleagues every day does not mean you should simply pretend that they don’t exist. Being at the helm of a virtual company involves plenty of hard work.
For those who are thinking about taking their startups remote, know that managing virtual teams comes with its challenges, and you need strong leadership skills to overcome those rough patches. Being able to coordinate a team of workers spread all over the world is the key skill that drives virtual team management.
Here, I’ll share some of my thoughts on leadership in remote and distributed teams:
Time zone differences
While some entrepreneurs wake up at 5 a.m. to go jogging, other remote workers have already been hard at work on their laptops for hours. If you’re in the U.S. and your virtual team members are scattered elsewhere across the globe, you need to choose an optimal time to wake up and catch up with your team. You also must be flexible enough to schedule meetings across different time zones.
The importance of communication within virtual teams is often overlooked, especially if your business initially started as a co-located team and then went remote. When you work together in the same place, people see each other every day and develop a natural rapport. However, in a virtual team, no matter what type of personality you have, you’re isolated.
According to the latest State of Remote Work report by Buffer, loneliness is the second biggest struggle for remote workers – 19 percent admit that they feel lonely, which can in turn impact their productivity.
Therefore, your task as the leader is to encourage communication.
For example, the Zapier team has a “virtual water cooler” of sorts, i.e. a dedicated Slack channel where its remote workers can chat about non-work-related topics. While you’re not likely to think of organizing such chats in a physical office, it’s a must for distributed teams.
Culture is about how you work and spend time together. Again, you’ll need to put extra effort into building this culture within your virtual team. Why? Because it will bring each team member a sense of involvement and make them feel like they are a part of a great company, rather than isolated freelancers performing tasks for a one-off project.
A great way to build remote startup culture is to organize company retreats in which team members can meet each other in person. The change of scenery will also switch up your remote employees’ daily routine, providing a boost of creativity.
Running a remote company: Dos and don’ts
Remote team management best practices are different from those of a localized team. Here are a few dos and don’ts to consider:
- Do hire independent self-starters. Remote work is not for everyone, but it can be perfect for those who need little to no guidance.
- Do empower your team members to make decisions. Let your remote employees make day-to-day decisions independently, rather than wait around for approval. The level of decision making should vary depending on the role, but in general, such a practice improves the efficiency of your team members.
- Don’t micromanage your virtual team. If you trust your team members, your best decision is to let them do what they do best. Successful remote workers typically thrive in self-directed environments.
- Don’t set strict work hours. According to the same State of Remote Work report previously mentioned, 40 percent of survey participants see a flexible schedule as the biggest benefit of working remotely. Employees who are independent will be able to be both flexible and efficient. Additionally, a fixed schedule is a bad practice for teams distributed across various time zones.
Communication strategies for virtual teams
Creating open, shared and honest communication is crucial for establishing trust within your virtual team. The following communications strategies have worked very well in practice with my own virtual team:
Use tools that are specific for remote communication
Choose simple and intuitive tools that will not require much time to learn if they are new to your employees. For example, Trello is a lightweight but powerful project management tool. Fun fact: the team who built the software is also remote. Slack is perfect for chats and its paid version also includes video calls. Google Hangouts is also great for virtual meetings. Time zone management tools such as Timezone.io will help you to quickly check which time zone your co-workers are currently in and compare it with your local time.
Embrace asynchronous communication
This is the type of communication that occurs in remote teams because of time zone differences. It’s important to educate your team members about asynchronous communication and select the best way to communicate conveniently and without a time delay. For example, Zapier established an internal blog called Async, to make sure that internally, everyone knows what everyone else is working on.
Create communication guidelines
Using too many tools can wreak havoc in your remote team. Therefore, you must have guidelines regarding when and for which purposes each tool should be used. For example, email can be used for non-urgent messages, whereas chats are better for quick questions and check-ups.
To conclude, leading a virtual team as an entrepreneur is a challenge. However, if wisely approached, it can define the future of your company as a successful startup.