Why Remote Teams Fail (And How They Succeed)

By John Cunningham

Over the past few months I’ve seen IBM end part of it’s remote program, and watched Automattic go completely remote. Clearly, IBM is a larger entity than Automattic, but I would wager that their respective remote teams failed and succeeded because of the same three factors.

At the root, successful remote teams have the same three characteristics: great communication, remote-specific management, and the right people. On the flip side, the absence of just one factor causes remote teams to tailspin.

For remote organizations, the relationship between management, remote talent, and communication is almost like a closed loop.

If done correctly, a productive, happy, and scaleable culture is born. If the loop is broken though (meaning one characteristic is not present), the remote team sees decreased productivity, culture problems, and risks getting “sent back to the office” or axed completely.

I’ve personally seen 2 different scenarios, at 2 different companies where the loop was broken:

  • Scenario 1: Good remote-specific management, good communication, but the wrong people: I worked at a company where my manager had managed a remote team in the past, and communicated extremely well with us. But…I had team members that began to miss their sales numbers almost immediately after going remote.

As their monthly number diminished, communication started to break down. As a result, our team regularly missed our monthly quota, putting pressure on our manager.

  • Scenario 2: Good communication, good people, bad remote-specific management: I’ve worked for someone who had in-person management experience and managed my team as such.

We had all the right communication tools, and everyone was passionate about our work, but we were being micromanaged. My team began to get resentful of our manager and communication began to break down.

As our team started to communicate less with our micromanager, the micromanagement got more intense, causing good people to leave the company.

In both cases, we had two pieces to the puzzle, but the third missing piece broke the entire culture down, destroying the other two pieces. Remote teams fail without the third piece whether they are a 4 person marketing agency or a 300,000 person tech giant.

Let’s dive into all 3 remote team success factors:

The Right People (For Remote)

Honestly, teams that start out fully remote tend to have an easier time staying fully remote and fully productive.

Why? Because they hire and onboard people that are a good fit for remote specifically. They don’t bring co-located hiring criteria into the process, and culture is solidified from the start.

Even though company culture has proven to be a success factor for most companies, co-located (in-office) culture is very different than remote culture.

See the problem here?

A good culture fit for a co-located team might end up being a really bad fit for remote work, even if their skills and work experience look great. In effect, if part of your workforce is remote, your recruiting team is almost hiring for two cultures within the same company.

Partially distributed companies run into trouble for this exact reason. We tend to assume that a productive person in the office is going to be productive at home. Worse yet, one might assume that an unproductive person in the office might work better at home (because remote teams are touted as more productive).

In fact, people that perform poorly in person are likely to perform at the same level (or worse) from home. Some productive office workers might become unproductive at home too. Distractions and lack of personal interaction can be morale killers depending on personality type.

That said, some personality types and characteristics are essential for remote success and worker happiness. Here they are:

  • Enthusiasm for work – home offices supply distraction. People that love what they do won’t let distraction keep them away from shipping work. Remote workers really need to like their job. Some might even say that successful remote workers don’t just like their work, but they are passionate about what they do.
  • Trust – without trust, remote companies don’t work…period. Working from home means much less supervision, and managers need to trust that work is getting done. The best remote workers are people that can be trusted to do the right thing, even when no one is looking.
  • Communication skills – We’ll talk more about communication, but this is a non-negotiable with remote work. Communication is the weak spot for remote organizations, so remote teams compensate by staffing people with great communications skills.

It’s one thing to find good workers, but successful remote companies find workers that are good workers for remote work specifically.

Management

As you can imagine, if we’re working hard to create a successful remote culture, remote workers need to be managed differently too. Companies go remote because they want to benefit from higher productivity, lower fixed real estate costs, happier workers, and access to global talent…But to have those things, management styles need to change to fit the workforce.

I alluded to this earlier, but the biggest factor in remote management is trust. Remote workers spend almost all of their time working autonomously, so naturally, managers need to trust that work is actually getting done.

Successful remote teams let employees have decision making power. Managers trust that they’ve hired the right people, and workers are left to do what they’re good at.

Of course, management exists for a reason, remote teams still run into problems that managers need to solve. Remote managers are still very much involved in their teams, but minute to minute problems and decisions are usually left to the individual worker. Otherwise workers would be spending all day going back and forth for permission to do things.

Knowing that trust is such a huge factor for remote management, here are some the attributes that make up a successful remote team:

  • Micromanagement – Just kidding! No remote teams/ companies have micromanagers…ever. Some do, and they are probably horribly inefficient. I’ve seen the effects of remote micromanagement personally, and workers become unproductive really fast.

If managers can fully trust their team to do good work, there is no need to be constantly involved in the minutiae of every project. At the root of micromanagement, trust is simply not there. If a manager doesn’t trust that work is getting done correctly, he or she is going to be overinvolved. Or…maybe that manager has a control complex.

One of the biggest attractions to remote work is efficiency. Micromanagers kill efficiency, and play a big role in remote team failures. Insert trust and remove micromanagement.

  • Fewer managers – Now we’re getting next level: Successful remote teams not only eradicate micromanagers, but the management organizational structure is usually smaller.

One would think that less management equates to more problems and less productivity, but it’s actually the opposite. Again, we’re assuming that workers can be trusted. Ideally we’ve given them some decision making power, we’re allowing them to work autonomously, we trust them, and we’re providing them with resources if problems arise. Multiple layers of management can be redundant at remote companies.

In effect, workers manage themselves most of the time, and traditional oversight becomes less of a necessity. To be clear, I’m not saying that remote workers don’t have managers, I’m just saying that one manager may have the bandwidth to manage multiple teams, given more autonomous workers.

  • Process oriented (but not too much) – Red tape is an impossibility with remote work. If an employee lives in New York, and his or her manager lives in Seattle, what happens if a problem pops up at 8:15 EST? Successful remote teams let the worker make a decision without consulting a higher up, but process is usually behind that decision.

We’ll talk more about process in the communication section. But smart remote managers have collateral and processes created for situations ranging from total emergency to onboarding a new client.

Communication has always been a concern for remote teams. Workers are happier and more productive at remote companies, but not by accident. Remote managers need to recognize the nuances of remote communication, and consciously manage team interactions.

Part of the job is recognizing where in-office interactions used to exist, and recreating those experiences for workers in a remote environment.  

As you can see, In-person management paradigms don’t really apply to remote teams. New managers don’t necessarily need to be hired (unless current managers are a bad fit for working remotely), but they do need to learn new techniques to be successful in a remote environment.

Communication

We’ve mentioned this frequently: Communication is like the glue holding remote workers and management together. When communication goes bad, the whole remote organization goes bad.

When communication is done right, remote teams run smoothly. After all, the advent of communication software is what has made remote work…well…work.

Let’s start with the basics. Remote teams need updated tools to be successful. Here are a few of them:

  • Slack – Duh. Slack is the gold standard of team communication at this point. It’s an amazing internal communication tool that pretty much every remote team uses. Gifs are commonplace here, making this a great tool to foster a remote culture. Lately, I’ve also been placing voice calls with Slack for those “need to talk” moments.
  • Zoom.us – I use Zoom internally and externally. If I need to do an internal screen share during a meeting..no problem. Conference call with a client..easy. Zoom.us is great video chat and meeting software, especially for meetings with multiple people (other video chat software limits your attendance).
  • Google Docs & Sheets – The standard for internal documentation. Documents are easy to edit and share. Google Sheets is also great for any spreadsheet or metric tracking.
  • Skype – Most remote teams are successful with just Slack and Zoom for meetings, but I like to use Skype for calls if I’m away from my home office. Skype rarely drops calls, and I find it really easy to use when I’m on the move.
  • Trello or Basecamp – Most remote teams have project management software. Trello is probably more well known, and widely used, but don’t count out Basecamp. I’ve seen marketing agencies and software companies that swear by Basecamp. These tools are used to keep track of projects, and to keep the communication running smoothly on each one.
  • Process Street – This one is less well known, but highly recommended for onboarding (client & internal) and internal process documentation. We talked about removing the “chain of command” in remote companies to preserve efficiency, and Process Street allows remote workers to access internal processes without having to consult anyone else. It becomes a repository for your SOPs and business procedures.
  • Github – Any remote company or team with developers should consider using Github. It’s a code “hub” or repository to be shared by your technical team.

The right software is absolutely essential to remote success. Without these tools, remote teams of the not-so-distant past had almost no chance of success. That said, a remote team can have all the tools in the world, and communication can still suck.

You might ask: How’s that possible if the software is so good?

Actual communication skills are still required. Most remote companies won’t even consider job candidates if the communication skills are iffy.

Even with software, successful remote companies need to consciously work at hiring great communicators. Gifs and emojis are great, but writing and communication skills are essential.

The last big part of successful remote communication is an intranet. This is a form of asynchronous communication and a backup of important company information. Intranets and “wikis” are found in co-located companies too, but remote companies absolutely need them.

The old “ask a neighbor” technique works perfectly for in-person interactions, but what if you are in NYC and your neighbor is in Guam? Your neighbor might be sleeping, and you have no idea what protocol to follow in an emergency. Enter..the intranet.

An intranet is a repository of company SOPs, best practices, competitive info – basically everything that anyone would need to know in an organization.

No intranet? It’s never too late to get started. Remote teams from all over the world utilize an intranet of some sort to remain efficient.

How Remote Teams Succeed

To close things out, I’ll leave you with this:

Companies like Automattic, Basecamp, and Zapier (fully remote companies) are militant about hiring the right people for remote work, managing them the right way, and facilitating communication.

Automattic just closed their 10,000 square foot office to let everyone work remotely, manages a 500+ person team, and is valued at over 1 billion (with a B). Zapier passed 1 million users around this time last year, and Basecamp literally writes books about remote work.

Stats aside, their success did not happen by accident. We talked about the relationship between remote workers, managers, and communication before: these companies have perfected it (with company-specific variations of course).

Remote-Specific Management + The Right People + Communication = Success

As we talked about earlier, if one part of the formula is not followed, the other parts begin to suffer. Companies have a lot to gain from going remote, but they fail if remote-specific processes are not developed and followed. Remote teams need to be built the right way, and armed with the right formula, there’s no excuse not to do it!

2017-08-10T21:27:19+00:00