Remote work. Work from home. Telecommuting and teleworking. Whatever you call it, distributed teams are becoming increasingly popular… and it’s here to stay.
A recent Gallup Poll noted that, in the U.S., telecommuting for work is up 37% in the last decade. 34% of business leaders surveyed at a recent Global Leadership Summit in London predicted more than half of their company’s global workforce would work remotely by 2020. Around the world, more and more companies are building distributed teams, just like we have at Mailbird.
When you look at the benefits of having a distributed team, it’s understandable why we chose to build our team this way. Happy people make great work and, generally speaking, those who work remotely are happier, more engaged, and dedicated to the work they do. At Mailbird, we have access to some of the best and brightest minds around the world—not just within a 100-mile radius of an office. Our talent pool isn’t limited by geography, and that means we can hire the perfect person for every job.
Despite these benefits, it’s not always easy to manage a distributed team. We have faced (and still face!) a lot of challenges. But we think the benefits of remote work vastly outweigh the challenges. Through experience, we’ve learned how to tackle these challenges and become experts on telecommuting.
So let’s look at some of the keys to successful remote teams, and how we handle the challenges of them.
The most important step you can take in building a distributed team is hiring the right people. But that’s much easier said than done. It’s much more challenging to assess a candidate through technology, rather than in person. The best things you can do is clearly define what you’re looking for—and do not compromise on it—and take your time with the interview process. You wouldn’t buy the first car you test drove, right? Maybe you would, but most likely not. New hires are an investment, and you should interview multiple people before you decide who to hire, even if it doesn’t end up being the first person you met with.
Even if you follow all the right steps in the interview, people can still surprise you. They may have seemed great on paper and in the interview, but when actually put on the job, they fail. It happens! That’s why we always recommend a probationary period to assess fit and productivity, usually around 3 months. If it doesn’t work out on either side, you can go your separate ways.
Hiring the right people isn’t just about finding someone with the right qualifications and skills to do the job. It’s also about matching on cultural fit. If your entire distributed team isn’t on the same culture page, it can be disastrous for your business.
At Mailbird, open communication, transparency, and autonomy are extremely important to our culture. If someone isn’t pulling their weight on the team, it’s obvious. That can be challenging, especially for new hires—but it also presents the opportunity to address the issue early and avoid any tension within the team. Transparency through time and task management tools holds our employees accountable, but also helps them feel empowered and that they have impact in the organization. We’ve also built an agile business with minimal hierarchies. Some people need more oversight to be successful, and that’s okay. They just wouldn’t fit well culturally on our team.
Every company is different, and it’s important to be clear upfront with new hires on what kind of culture exists at your company. You’d hate to waste your time on someone who isn’t a good cultural fit, just like that person would hate to waste their time with a company that misled them on culture.
Once you’ve hired the right people, open and effective communication is key to a successful distributed team. It’s how collaboration occurs, despite being around the globe. It’s how innovation happens. It’s how project move forward and success if achieved. Every employee has to be available when needed (or communicating when they’re not available) and actively communicating with their team.
Of course, nothing beats a face-to-face interaction in effectiveness. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be effective while distributed. There are so many tools available to stay connected with your team, from video calling to workflow apps to productivity tools. Real time, real life interactions (such as through video chats or conference calls) are ideal, but that can’t always work due to time zone differences. Still, the right tools will keep you on track and staying in touch.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges on an individual basis for a remote worker is staying productive. Without your boss constantly checking on you, it can be easy to get distracted and difficult to manage your own tasks. The simple solution is to hire the right people—those who take initiative, work well independently, and have a strong work ethic. But we’ll admit it’s much more complicated than that.
We combat this challenge in two ways at Mailbird. First, by having an awesome set of tools in our productivity toolbox. Regardless of time, distance, and location of your team members, these tools will help you stay on top of tasks and get the job done.
Our second solution is to get our team together two times each year, in-person and in awesome exotic locations, such as Bali. We call these “Mailbird Hackathons,” where we prepare for a big software release/launch or update. It’s our chance to hang out in person and bond as a team over a huge accomplishment, while having a lot of fun as we do it.
Whether you like it or not, distributed teams are the future of work. Employees are looking for jobs that allow them the freedom and flexibility to work from anywhere in the world. If companies want to hire the best candidates, they’re going to have to start accommodating this desire.
Having the right programs and processes in place before you adopt a remote work culture will help you avoid the main challenges of a distributed team. Make sure you have a solid interview process in place, so you can hire the right people with the right cultural fit. Implement the right tools, so you can maintain great communication and keep your employees motivated and productive. In the end, you’ll have happier employees and, ultimately, better results because distributed teams rock!