Building and managing remote teams in early-stage startups

For any working environment to flourish, having social bonds and camaraderie between employees is crucial. Here are some tips on building collaborative teams who are apart but together.
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With changing times, the way businesses work is evolving as well, especially when it is about how and where employees work. Remote working style is the new norm and is being adopted by a lot of companies these days. Its popularity is higher among early-stage startups, where every penny counts.

On the impact of remote working on different departments of a company, the pros and cons are not identical. For more individual centric departments like sales, it does not have a major impact. However for collaborative departments like engineering or product, the pros and cons are not one sided and need critical analysis.

I started building my team for Refrens.com in Feb 2020, a month before the lockdown. We were open to remote hiring from day one, but the pandemic made it compulsory. The team members who joined in Bangalore moved to their hometowns soon after. Today we run a completely remote engineering and product team. Here are my learnings from the experience -

Advantages of a remote engineering team

  1. Better productivity due to flexible working hours of employees. Though at least four hours of common working time between all members was needed.
  2. Access to a larger talent pool. Geographical boundaries of hiring talent will cease to exist when you are building a 100% remote team. This is liberating.
  3. You get to know more about your team member than just work. When someone works remotely, largely from home, you indirectly get to know about his family and other things. This helps one to be more empathetic, and manage an employee better.

Disadvantages of a remote engineering team

  1. Too many meetings. As they say, the favourite phrase of 2020 is “you are on mute”. Remote working means more calls and meetings which would not have otherwise existed in a co-located environment.
  2. Weaker team bonding and culture. The lack of an in-person interaction and connecting only for work related talks will lead to team members feeling alien to each other. The lack of casual talks over lunch or smoke breaks will not bring the team members closer, leading to a poor team engagement. This might lead to lower sense of “belongingness”.
  3. Technical and logistic issues. Logistic issues such as device breakdown or technical troubleshooting will take a lot more time and resource as compared to a co-located setup. Not to forget issues specific to engineering teams like pair programming, where initial knowledge of tools will be all the more difficult to manage.
  4. Freshers have a tough time. People who are straight out of college generally learn a lot by seeing. There is no seeing each other now, so there is lesser learning. Exchange of productivity tools/hacks or general pair programming is a lot less. Freshers do not feel a sense of belonging.
  5. A lot of Indian households are not designed for work. Remote generally means work from home and not all homes are designed to be productive for work. This problem started surfacing pretty early.

How does one build and manage effective remote teams navigating through these pros and cons? Read on to find out more -

In order to build a new team, one needs to keep the following points in mind:

Check your hiring objectives

You need to have more clarity as to what you are looking for while hiring. Whether it is a long term hire or short term hire? Is it a core technical role or a strategic management role? Having this clarity in mind will help you communicate and hire the right fit for your remote team.

There is lesser tolerance for wrong hire in a remote setting as the weak links in the team will be visible easily. Interpersonal skills will not cover up for bad work.

Involve the team in interviews

Get more team members to interview the incoming candidate. Empathy and tolerance will be higher when they are included in the process.

Meet the team virtually regularly

When a new entrant joins, he/she needs to feel comfortable in the working environment. Set up regular video conferences to stay in touch with the team or to introduce new members and their role in the organisation.

Try to keep it informal at times. You can make it a weekly activity. Talk about the general direction in which the business is headed, and what are the broad objectives going ahead. This will also give your employees a sense of belongingness and motivate them to perform better. Creating a bonhomie is difficult but very important when it comes to managing remote teams.

Train employees for the tools

In an office environment, the need for collaboration tools may be low. In a remote setting, you will need tools to optimise every kind of communication. Adapting those tools and then training everyone to use those tools is a task.

There is less learning by seeing, so you will need to spend more time for training. We use slack, zoom, loom and asana for basic collaboration. For new team members, learning various hack around these tools can take quite some time.

Mentorship (Key Point of Contact)

One of the most effective ways to unlock the full potential of any new employee is by assigning a mentor. The mentor is ideally someone who has been around at the company for a long time and can pass knowledge about the ins and outs of the trade.

For any junior, their mentor is the example whose work-values they can imbibe. The role of the mentor is to regularly check with their mentee, answer any questions (even the obvious ones) and make them feel comfortable.

However, this should not be mistaken for micromanagement which might be a common result in case of remote teams; the mentor needs to draw a fine balance between autonomy and delivery.

Focus on communication

Building a company culture within a remote team is a difficult task. However, by maximising communication, you can create an atmosphere which reduces almost all barriers faced by a remote team. Talk to the team as much as possible; and encourage them to talk.

Having a smooth flow of communication online is vital to put your point across and to sync better with each other. Effective communication is the key to day-to-day operations amongst remote teams.

Remote work is not exactly about the freedom to work whenever you want. While it is flexible working, you still have to put rules and constraints on employees to get their full potential and to ensure that everyone is in the same direction. Setting ground rules is crucial, however, there are other things that you need to deal with for managing a remote team:

Discover tacit knowledge

For any working environment to flourish, having social bonds and camaraderie between employees is crucial. With available tacit knowledge, your teams can prove to be the best performing ones. It refers to the kind of knowledge that exists but is not officially on the papers.

For example, knowing about what an employee or a colleague has worked on in the past or about their skills, which might prove to be helpful in your current project work. Encourage informal/casual conversations between your employees to foster their social bonds.

Be open to one-to-one conversations

In a remote working environment, employees fear going to the boss or a colleague when faced with a problem or in need of advice. Promote an environment where employees do not hesitate, and feel free to seek help when needed. The person will try to solve the challenging problem himself, however, it will be time-consuming and might result in work not getting done on time.

With online communication, it becomes a challenge to know how the person is feeling. Promote one-to-one structure for video chats. Be firm with remote employees while also being appreciative of them. Give positive feedback, be mindful of any issues they are facing, and collect feedback from them on the company’s remote working process.

Work on attendance and time zone issues

Instead of negotiating lunch time with colleagues, remote working now mandates that you negotiate with other employed family members living under the same roof. Be clear on what you expect from each of your employees with respect to time.

Talk about the working hours, leaves, deadlines, timelines, emergencies, etc. from the beginning itself. Have a fixed schedule for meetings and work deadlines. With whatever timings each of your employees follow around the clock, make sure to have the whole team on a conference call regularly (every day or week) to help them feel valued and to avoid the feeling of isolation. At the same time, trust your team with some autonomy to an extent.

Keep in mind the infrastructure and equipment issues

Having the right facilities such as a stable internet connection and technology equipment are necessary for remote working employees. Ask them if they have any problems regarding this. You want everyone to have the basic things needed to work, additionally, a camera and a good microphone for communication purposes are required too. Pay attention and ask the candidate about these things during the interview itself.

Considering the importance of having a strong company culture, a lot of people worry about building it right, especially with remote teams. That is why it is crucial to invest in your team, for example with good rewards/gifts.

You can send them gifts during the festive season or at a major event (such as birthdays). Such small gestures make the employees feel valued. He/she will identify proudly with the company and try to give their 100% for the business.

The above-mentioned points, when implemented correctly, will help your early-stage startup grow and become more efficient. While for each startup the teams may be different, following these points ensure better working and can be used for the long-term too.

Edited by Anju Narayanan

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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