13 Essentials for Building Great Remote Teams


It’s been a while since I wrote a listicle, and this stuff has been on my mind a lot lately.  About two years ago I assumed my current role as Alfresco’s Global Director of Premier Support Services.  The Premier Services team is scattered across the world, with team members from Sydney to Paris and just about everywhere in between.  This has been my first time running a large distributed team, here are some things I’ve found essential to making it work.  Some are things you need to have, some are things you need to do:

  1. Find and use a good chat tool.  When your team is spread around the world you can’t live without a good tool for informal asynchronous communications.
  2. But not too many chat tools.  Seriously, this is a problem.  Ask you team what they like, settle on one and stick with it, otherwise you end up with silos, missed messages and a confused group of people.
  3. Use video, even if it feels weird.  Voice chat is great, but there’s no substitute for seeing who you are talking with.  In his book “Silent Messages“, Dr. Albert Mehrabian attributes up to 55% of the impact of a message to the body language of the person presenting the message.  You can’t get that from voice chat alone.
  4. Take advantage of document sharing and collaboration.  A big percentage of our work results in unstructured content in the form of spreadsheets, reports, etc.  We need easy ways to find, collaborate on and share that stuff.  We use Alfresco, naturally.
  5. Have regular face-to-face meetings.  These can be expensive and time consuming, but there is no substitute for meeting in person, shaking hands and sharing a cup of coffee or lunch.  This is especially true for new additions to the crew, during that honeymoon period you need to meet.
  6. Make smart development investments.  When most of your team is remote it is easy to start to feel disconnected from your organization.  Over 5 years of working remotely both as an individual contributor and a leader I know I have felt that way from time to time.  Investing in your team’s professional development is a great way to help them reconnect.  It’s even better if you can use this as an opportunity to get some face time, for example by sending a couple of people from your team to the same conference so they can get to know each other.
  7. Celebrate success, no matter how small.  When everybody works together under one roof it’s easy to congratulate somebody on your team for a job well done.  It’s easy to pull the team together to celebrate a release, or a project milestone, or whatever.  When everybody is remote that becomes simultaneously harder and more important.  Don’t be shy about calling somebody out in your chat, via email or in a team call when they score a win.  Think to yourself “Is this the kind of thing I would walk over and thank somebody for in person?”.  If the answer is yes, then mention it in public.
  8. Raise your team’s profile.  It has been said that a boss takes credit, a leader gives it.  When your entire team is spread around the globe you, as their lead, serve to a certain extent as their interface to upper management and to leaders in other areas of the company.  Use this to your team’s benefit by raising the profile of your top performers to your leadership and to your peers.  When you bring a good idea from your staff to your leadership, your team or anybody else in your company, make sure you let them know exactly where it came from.
  9. Build lots of bridges.  A lot of these essentials come back to the risk of a remote team member becoming disconnected or disengaged.  One way to prevent this is to help your team get and stay engaged in areas other than your own.  Every company I have ever worked for has cross functional teams and initiatives.  Find the places where your teams’ skills and bandwidth align with those cross functional needs and get them connected.  They’ll learn something new, share what they know and contribute to the success of the team.
  10. Shamelessly signal boost.  Many people on my team are active on social media, or with our team blog, or on other channels for knowledge sharing and engagement.  I absolutely encourage this, sharing our knowledge with peers, customers, partners and community members helps everybody.  It takes effort though, an effort that often goes beyond somebody’s core job role.  It’s also a bit scary at times, putting yourself and your ideas out there for everybody to see (and potentially criticize).  If somebody on your team takes the time and the risk, help boost them a bit.  Retweet their post, share it on LinkedIn, post it to internal chats, etc.  Not only will you be helping them spread the knowledge around, but you’re also lending your credibility to their message.
  11. Have defined development paths within (and out of!) your team.  A lot of promotions come from networking, cross functional experiences, word of mouth and other things that are harder to achieve when you work remotely.  As a leader of a remote team, it’s your responsibility to help your people understand the roles within your organization, what is required to move into those roles, and how to get there.  It’s also your job to make sure they know about great opportunities outside your team.  I want my people to be successful, however they define success.  That might be in my team or it might be elsewhere in the company.
  12. Be clear about your goals and how you’ll measure them.  If you have the sort of job that lets you work from home, odds are you aren’t punching a clock.  If you do come into an office every day but your boss is elsewhere 95% of the time, nobody is hovering around making sure you’re there.  Work should be a thing you do, not necessarily a place you go.  The only way this works is if everybody is clear about what we are all trying to achieve together, who’s responsible for what, and how we’ll measure the outcome.  If we all agree on that, you can work from the moon if your internet connection is fast enough.
  13. Trust.  I put this one last because it is easily the most important.  It’s important from the moment you hire somebody that you won’t see in person every day.  Put simply, you cannot possibly have a successful remote organization if you don’t trust the people you work with.  Full stop.  You have to nurture a culture of trust where people aren’t afraid to speak up, where transparency is a core value.

Is this list comprehensive?  Of course not.  Do I still struggle to do this stuff?  Every day, but I keep trying.

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