How do you manage a remote team?


The first question to ask is why would you want a remote team? Isn’t face to face the highest bandwidth communication channel? Don’t successful companies like Apple, Google, Facebook et al spend billions of dollars building campuses to house thousands of their employees together? How do you know what the heck your remote teams are doing if you rarely, if ever, see them?

There is one overriding reason and one only as far as I’m concerned: using remote teams means you have an edge in the global war for tech talent. Competition in tech hubs like Silicon Valley, New York, Seattle, and Boston is brutal, driving up salaries, benefits and perqs to a level that startups have to struggle to match.

But if the world is your recruiting platform and you are willing to add talent from anywhere, you can keep costs down while greatly expanding your recruiting reach. And there is a secondary benefit to a remote team – it adds diversity. A mono-culture is always at risk of some disruptive force. In addition, the ability to manage talent remotely is a valuable skill in this day of outsourcing development to India and elsewhere.

I’ve only spent a few months on a “distributed team” – we were hardly remote as we were all in the Boston area, but the founder/CEO didn’t have an office or the funds to pay for WeWork or other collaborative work space. So we relied on email and infrequent face to face meetings.

While I like working remotely at times – free from disruptions I can concentrate much better than in the office – I much prefer going in to an office and being physically close to those I work with.  But if you are a bootstrapping startup I would advise you consider at the least a distributed team and at the most a truly remote team. One operational issue with remote teams is the difference in time zones. This can be a problem when working on tight deadlines. Otherwise it’s pretty easy to compensate for.

The Inc. article Remote Teams Can Have Great Culture. These 6 Strategies Will Make It Happen by  Jonathan Steiman Founder and CEO, Peak Support  should be required reading for any founder contemplating building a remote team. I’ll just make a few comments on each point – I strongly recommend you read the full article if you have a remote team or plan on building one.

  1. Communication – I have found that a very high percentage of problems in any company stem from poor communications. Email strips communication of nuance and attempts at humor can actually be interpreted as offensive. It’s too easy to put thing in email you would never say to someone face to face. I strongly recommend that you meet in person with anyone joining your remote team when they are hired. It is well worth the cost of travel
  2. Community – community and corporate culture are the glue that holds any team – remote or otherwise – together. All hands meetings are one good way to build your community. It’s a staple of Silicon Valley companies. Meeting once or twice a year either centrally or regionally can help build bonds through non-business activities as simple as going out to eat together, taking a hike, going to a movie, etc.
  3. Narrative – the most important narrative is the origin story of the company. Other stories like how you landed your first company, your first investor, your first hire help build the company culture. Don’t underestimate the power of stories, no matter how seemingly small, so long as they are memorable.
  4. Vision – vision is the lodestar of the company, setting its direction for everyone in the company. As the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there.” Communicating the vision is one of the top priorities of the CEO and the founders. I would add mission to this. Vision is about the future, mission is about what you do in the present to help you move towards that future you envision.
  5. Values – I’ve written several posts about values, including Values: the bedrock of startups. Communicating values early and often is critical for any company and more-so for a company with a remote team. Company leaders need to live and exhibit the company’s core values. Without values you can’t build a company culture, let alone manage a remote team.

I consider corporate culture so important that I devote an entire blog category to it: Building a culture with a remote team is undeniably harder and requires more work. But it not only can be done, if must be done if your company is to succeed.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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