10 steps to build the best Remote Team in 2019

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For the past couple of years, We’ve tested, failed, succeeded at a number of different ways to build the happiest & most the productive remote team (for Inviited and other products).

If you have nagging thoughts about your remote team dynamics.

Read on for the 10 steps we followed when building a kickass distributed team from scratch!

Step 1. Understand what remote model you want

There are many working models - from not remote at all (left) to fully remote (right). Your choice of model determines how you work.

different models of remote teams
Detailed explanation of different models at martinfowler.com

We chose the Remote-first model because it was important to us to access the global talent pool, not to mention it was cheaper to find talent when starting out.

Try to be aware of the inherent characteristics of each working model.

For example, our Remote-first policy meant we spent more time up front documenting SOP (Standard Operating Procedures), software documentation, and actively spent more time communicating and building engage with our global team.

PROs and CONs of each Remote team model
PROs and CONs of each remote team model

Victor Vorski who has been doing remote work & leading distributed teams for over a decade advocates an all or nothing approach to maximise your success:

  • Either everyone works from home

OR

  • Everyone comes to the office (Satellite offices allowed)

His experience with Hybrid models (where some people come to the office, others don’t) has not been great, and warns against such model.

Circumstantially, we’ve always leaned toward the Remote-First model of everyone picking their own workplace (home, coworking space etc). So best you experiment and see what works for your team.

Step 2. Build an inclusive Culture from Day 1

An inclusive Company Culture for your remote team is essential regardless of which model you choose.

Don’t treat your offshore employees as 2nd rate citizens, think of them as onshore members of your team who happen to be travelling :D

What does that mean?

Offer the same privileges and perks (where possible) to your remote colleagues, so:

  • the same health care, sick days and holidays
  • the same performance management and career growth opportunities
  • the same onboarding experience - e.g. 1 on 1 catch-ups, conduct a virtual office walkthrough, spend the same times with remote employees explaining processes and “how we work” conventions, etc
  • the same company / team wide communications
  • so on...

Balance equality with respect for foreign culture.

Start by observing foreign holidays, religious events, language usages etc. When in doubt, ask how something works. It’ll not only educate the local team, but help build rapport with everyone.

"Great Culture doesn’t happen by itself, it's a cumulation of time, effort and intentional planning."

Step 3. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Remote communication is already hard. Compared to talking to a colleague in person, at the same office, there are numerous non-verbal queues and cultural etiquettes that don’t translate well in a virtual meeting.

To compensate, you should deliberately over-communicate with your remote team, and be more upfront & explicit with the company’s communication protocols and norms.

  • List technology tools you want everyone to use
  • What customer service response time is
  • Meeting etiquettes

Here’s a snippet from our new-starter on-boarding manual:

a snippet of our onboarding manual

This is just the tip of the iceberg, your team will have its own communication protocols and social norms. Start gauging what works for you.

Step 4. Right tool for the job

Contrary to popular belief, tools matter. The right tool makes remote working a breeze, the wrong one could further lead to miscommunication. Or worse frustrate everyone involved and make your team lose respect for your company.

We’ve experimented with a number of tools and have tried to find the best breed of tools for each categories:

Real time chat: Slack

Alternatives:

  • Email, yeah right 😉

Tele / Video conference: Zoom

Alternatives: neither very reliable for group meetings...

Internal Wiki / Team Collaboration: Quip

Alternatives:

  • Google Docs - only docs & spreadsheets support (no Kanban boards
  • Confluence - feels bloated and slow for small agile teams

User Story / Task Management: Trello

Alternatives: all are pretty good, depending on your use case

  • Asana - great for team based To Do List
  • Pivotal - Opinionated agile software delivery (we like it!)
  • JIRA - Industry leader for User Story, and project tracking. A little bloated and slow for our taste

Meeting Scheduling: Inviited

Alternatives

  • Calendly - what if you want to meet 2 people at the same time?
  • Doodle - what if you want someone to book you?
  • call us biased, but we think Inviited combines the best feature of Calendly + Doodle, and is the only scheduling tool your team needs!

The essential tools for remote team work
Best tools we've found for Remote team work

Step 5. Regular formal & informal catch-ups

Work is never just work. It’s about social bonding and building relationships with your peers. Did you know that Jack on your team recently got engaged, or Maxim is putting his dog through Puppy School? These are the social nuances that make working together meaningful.

Building social relationship between the team is even more important than having work meetings. Employ team building exercises, icebreakers, encourage the team to catch up socially, build specific interest groups, book clubs, hobby show & tells.  Make work fun and sociable.

When we go out of our way to help the team build relationships with each other. It’s a lot easier to build work practices, respect and positive collaboration once the social bridges are in place.

On a more formal front, we use Agile (Kanban or Scrum specifically) heavily in our product development.

This means we listen to our customers a lot, work quickly, and generally ship sooner. This is perfectly suited for remote team structure where lack of physical presence means even greater ability to focus.

The scarcity in meetings make every meeting even more special. From the 1st day, we put the following team meetings  / Agile ceremonies into all new hire’s calendars:

Daily Standups

  • Deliberately scheduled for the overlapping time in Europe, US and Melbourne

Weekly Showcase & Retro

  • a way for people to see what everyone else on the team is working. We generally do 2~3 hours and everyone demos what they worked on from marketing, designers to developers

Monthly social events

  • we do this local to the people in the same office, we’ll get together to celebrate wins, trade stories, and just share laughs. Photos etc are shared with the remote office.

Yearly retreats

  • virtual is all well and nice, but a few days of R&R in a getaway location (think Thailand, Bali, or Portugal) and hacking in the same room goes a long way toward both productivity & building great friendships amongst the team.
The occasional Face to face meeting is pivotal to remind us there's a person behind the distant voice, or on the other side of a vid cam - a person with the same capacity for dreams, fears, insecurities and happiness we all have

Virtual communication + anonymity has been a breeding ground for internet trolls. So let's balance virtual efficiency with real human contact.


While we're starting to hit a groove for the right frequency, duration and format of catch up. As we work further to maximise maker time, and limit manager time, there will always be ways to optimise further as the team grows and roles change.

Step 6. Make meetings count

Reinforcing the previous step, try to meet with a purpose. Do engage socially during meetings, but also:

  • Know what you want to get out of a meeting - an agenda helps
  • Clearly delegate someone to takes notes on decisions and action - we recommend the meeting host does it

Tesla Meeting rules advocated by Elon Musk could equally apply virtual meetings. The end goal is the same: only meet where necessary and make the meeting on point.

One meeting etiquette we try to stress is no one should be multi-tasking during the call. This fosters engagement and prevents distraction. Informally, it reinforces trust & respect between team members.

what not to do during virtual meetings
what not to do during virtual meetings

This shouldn’t be hard if you’re minimising your meetings - once daily, and a couple of times a week - you are minimising meetings right?


Step 7. Keep up work momentum

We know that Momentum is important in the same team. Correct work momentum builds a culture of fast work (great for any Agile team), makes everyone feel productive, and empowered.

So it’s even more pivotal for distributed teams where a delay of a few hours means a day or more of delayed output when factoring for timezone.

To ensure continuous work momentum. Distributed Teams should:

  • Choose real time communication over email - hello Slack
  • Prioritise offshore requests over local - to minimise delays
  • Have regular check ins - ad hoc chat, and startic daily daily check ins
  • Gauge team momentum in Retros

Even if your team members don’t mention it, everyone can feel the team momentum. Done right, fluid team momentum is the equivalent of Flow state, bringing with it the same level of joy and propensity to be increasingly productive.

Step 8. Lead for engagement

The biggest pitfall for remote team is dis-engagement. Limited face to face communication, cultural differences, timezone issues makes team bonding difficult.

As leaders, our 1st responsibility is to build a happy team. We’ve personally found the more engaged a team is, the happier they are with their work. And naturally happier employees means happier customers.

According to Dan Pink, the three top factors for motivation, and better performance are Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

Throughout the years, we’ve tried a number of ways to boost these measures for ourselves and for our team. Here are some examples

Autonomy

  • Empower localised decision making - e.g. flat structure where everyone is trusted to make decisions for their day to day tasks, and can strongly influence key decision in the business itself, such as developers influencing technical architectural decisions, and often do so on a daily basis when engaged with our CTO. Designers influencing Copywriting and growth tactics
  • Team awards for being the most Open, most Supportive
  • Rotated organisation of social events - everyone takes a turn

Mastery & Purpose

  • Provide a learning expense for everyone - where they choose what they want to spend it on
  • Regular 1 on 1 founder catch ups - for us to understand skill progression, dreams, and career tracking, and just social catch up
  • Articulate clearly the company vision

Step 9. Start small, grow slow

Team Culture takes time nurture. For every new hire we make, there is the risk of diluting the Culture your company spent so much time building.

"While you want to grow your business fast, you want to grow your team slooooow"

So employ Lean Startup principles, and only grow on an as-needs-basis. In other words only hire for roles where the existing function in the team is at 120% capacity.

And even then, hire judiciously & sparingly.

Hiring deserves its own write up, rule of thumb: Trust your gut and the gut of your team - it’s either ”Hell Yeah!” or “No”

grow your team slowly
your company is like a tiny fledgling. Nurture and don't overwater!

Step 10. Experiment, learn, improve - think Kaizan

Kaizan is Japanese for "continuous improvement". Not only should you embed it into your team culture as a way to continually grow, it should also be a requisite when learning to build distributed teams.

At the beginning of our remote team journey, we got a lot of it wrong. We hired the wrong people, hired for the wrong role, and didn’t realise when people became disengaged. Since then, we’ve learnt to do things differently with a focus on experimentation, doubling down on what works, scrapping on what doesn’t.

We’ve learnt a lot from writings of leaders in the field like 37Signals (aka: Basecamp), and Buffer, and hope to broaden the eco-system of distributed with you, our readers.

Have you discovered any tips in your remote work?

Drop us a comment 👇!

Johnathan Zhuang
Johnathan (JZ) is fascinated by optimal human performance and product design of all sorts. He co-founded Inviited to bring meeting scheduling into the 21st century. You can find him on Twitter as @iamjz