Since the start of the global Covid-19 pandemic, it’s likely you’ve had to convert your existing team to a remote one involuntarily, or you’ve had to hire a totally new remote team. Naturally, this brings challenges. Below I’ve outlined the common ones I’ve come across with our portfolio companies and the best solutions they’ve found.
The two main types of remote workplaces that have emerged are Fully Distributed Remote Workers and Remote Teams.
- A company with Fully Distributed Remote Workers may not have an office at all, or only a small one that acts as headquarters. Its workforce is mostly individuals working from their own homes. This is the model that companies have made the default due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
- A company with Remote Teams has a number of offices that may be distributed around the globe, each housing a team or a set of teams. Companies like Oracle or Salesforce have a lot of remote teams, often through acquisition — buying the entire team creates a readymade center of excellence that’s ready to scale.
The latter isn’t new. As companies grow, they might acquire a smaller one located elsewhere that becomes a team within your business. The former model is comparatively new and was already beginning to catch on — popularized by companies like Automattic, Basecamp and GitLab — before the Covid-19 pandemic sped up the trend. It doesn’t mean everyone was ready for this transition, however — below is the list of the most common challenges:
- The tools are there but need improvement
Nobody’s quite figured out how to make remote meetings work as easily as being in the same room together with a whiteboard and a marker. Part of it may have to do with the differences in focus and demand on attention spans incurred by remote meetings as opposed to in-person ones. There’s something to be said for the fact that Slack and Teams have helped to enable the remote workplaces while also having offices themselves.
The good news is that we’re getting there in terms of making things functional for the majority of people who can work remotely. With tools like Slack, G Suite, and increasingly high-quality videoconferencing at low cost, the means by which we get work done virtually are catching up with in-person methods. The software stack is only part of the equation.
2. Setting norms and culture
Even with the right tools in place, how do you create and propagate culture across a fully distributed workforce of individuals? Can you really do something so intangible and complex over apps like Slack and Zoom? It’s possible, but it takes some honing of skills and deliberate strategy.
Firstly, team members need to learn to “read the chatroom.” In the same way that in a physical workplace we acquire the ability to “read a room” — to observe the facial expressions and body language of your listeners and adjust your delivery style in response — it’s possible to do the same on a chat platform.
Look at the difference between: “Ending your sentence like this…” and “Ending your sentence like this.” Each gives off a different tone. Or acknowledging a statement with “ok” versus “k.” The first is light and cheerful. The latter one could be ambiguous and even negative. Being able to discern tonal differences in written chat is a skill like any other, and it can be honed. Consider learning from younger people on your team, who’ve grown up chatting online and have stronger instincts for the subtleties of asynchronous text-only communication.
Secondly, you set out norms in writing. This is easier to do when you’re building a remote workforce rather than converting an existing one, but it’s still doable. Talk to your team and build a consensus about what you want to work on and how you want to do it. Be prepared to experiment, and remain open to a discussion on how you can adapt norms when you find out that some new custom or system is failing. Doing this helps everyone feel more secure with how they’re working as they get used to performing without regular verbal feedback.
3. Establishing pay for people in different locations
Big companies are facing a new conundrum: do you pay two people doing the same work the same amount if they live in different places with different costs of living? In my experience, the answer depends on where they are in their career.
A junior developer living in Nebraska can expect to be paid less than the same one in San Francisco — although one can argue that their standards of living should still match. However, for an engineer, as they gain more expertise and experience, their knowledge becomes more valuable. On the other hand, based on my experience with Storm’s portfolio companies, a full-stack AWS engineer or machine learning expert tends to cost what they cost irrespective of where they live because their skills are in such high demand. Much of pay is simply driven by the market. Over time, I see many very qualified people living in lower-cost areas driving down the need to compensate with the large salaries required in some of the tech hubs around the country.
4. Coordinating workers in different time zones
Are some people in your workforce expected to stay up late or get up early to make it to meetings? They shouldn’t have to if they’re all working on the same thing. You can break up the need for synchronous daily communications by splitting the work in a way that allows large chunks of your systems to be exclusively managed by different sets of people at different times. For example, if you’re developing a product, one subset of people (all in the same time zone) can manage the backend of your software system, and a different subset in a different time zone can manage the front end.
You can think of it as a test for your software architecture. Amazon is famous for doing development like this in API-based clusters: the EC2 team and the storage team build what they need to build and interact with each other through APIs. No matter how you do the split, be sure to establish clear terms of ownership and partnership between teams, as well as their API approach, if any. Distributing the work this way is helpful because it forces you to think both about the architecture of your company and your product strategy.
Is a fully distributed workforce here to stay beyond the pandemic? This is a subject of much debate. Yes, businesses can save significantly on rent, for example. But don’t underestimate the importance of company culture as a reason to physically bring your workforce together regularly. If there’s no central office, this will still require a lot of spending in the form of offsites or other events like industry conferences. One industry indicator to watch for in the next few years is executive hiring. If businesses start committing to hiring fully remote executive teams, start brushing up on your Slack etiquette.
As the saying goes, the only constant is change. Send me a note with your thoughts on what’s worked or not worked as you’ve shifted to remote. We’re all running a grand experiment that we’ll learn a lot from in the coming years.
Originally published in the CEO World Magazine