SignalFire’s Guide To Distributed Team Management

By Michael Martin, Mike Mangini | November 11, 2020 |

    Are you working remotely and wondering “How we can make this better? And what if we do this permanently?”  Or maybe you’re a new company and think that a remote team is the move but it seems complicated.

    Well, at early stage venture fund SignalFire, we spent Q2 2020 hosting four workshops across six hours with 26 experts discussing remote team management, recruiting, on-boarding, and culture. You’ll see these leaders’ profiles throughout the playbook, so feel free to investigate their profiles and connect with them. We’re here to bring you the frameworks, tools, and best practices from pioneers like Gitlab, the world’s largest all-remote company.

    You can also check out the  Full Resource List for all our suggested vendors of tools that can help your team adjust to remote work and find our top picks for each section as you move through the playbook. And for a broader view of startups in the space, check out our new Remote Work Market Map.


    Is a remote team the right approach for you?

    If you’re considering whether or not to go fully remote, here are few questions you should ask yourself:

    1. Exactly how flexible are you in terms of time zones/locations?
    2. How much faith are you willing to put on employees you may never have met in person?
    3. How would you grade your leadership team’s communication and remote management capabilities?  Are you willing to adopt new methods and invest in best practices?
    4. How do you plan to build/maintain/evolve your company culture?

    The answers to those questions may not give you a definitive “yes or no” to whether a remote team is the right approach for you, but they may guide you in how deeply you embrace remote work.

    Where to expand?

    If you’ve landed on yes, a remote team is right for you, congrats! Now comes the hard part: building one.

    There are no shortage of resources out there to help you evaluate the best markets for the talent and/or lifestyle that you’re seeking but below you’ll find a list of tools we think offer comprehensive solutions that balance affordability and quality.

    Compliance, Local Regulations, Insurance

    We recommend that you explore working with an Employer of Record (EOR) or Professional Employer Organization (PEO) to determine if you need to be following specific rules & regulations in the locations where you may want to expand.

    ShieldGeo and Papaya Global are two great companies that can both help determine where to distribute talent and how to do business from those locations.

    Hiring & Recruiting

    How to hire the right people and feel good about it

    Key Takeaways for Hiring & Recruiting

    • When recruiting across time-zones, consider the impacts of your team’s availability.
    • Build a well-defined recruiting process with a point person on your team for each candidate. Use mock interviews to train your team for remote recruiting
    • Transparently establish company values you’re looking for as you assess candidates for culture fit
    • Compensation can differ across geographies – use calculators from GilLab and ERI so you have a consistent formula!

    Hiring Globally Can be a Double-Edged Sword

    While recruiting across global locations can be outsourced or assisted, the impact on how your team works together and the way products are delivered is something that is yours alone to bear.

    In order to work best as a distributed team, you will need to be comfortable with asynchronous communication.  Be honest with yourself about how asynchronous you’re willing to be. Is a three-hour lag in response OK? What about twelve-hours?

    Another important consideration is thinking through how a global team can impact your product shipping goals. One one-hand, asynchronous communication handled improperly can be a major blocker (it’s expensive to wait hours for a response from collaborating colleagues); on the other hand, if managed properly, you could activate your team to be working seamlessly over a 24 hour period without risk of burnout. The key is building a hand-off process, which we’ll touch on in the Managing Your Team section.

    A Defined Process is Essential

    A purposeful recruiting & interview process is essential for your company when you are in-office; the same is true — and amplified — when building your distributed team. It’s tougher to course-correct on hiring when working remotely, so it’s critical to measure twice and cut once.

    First, establish who will be the point person for engaging a particular candidate.  Think of this person as the candidate’s sherpa throughout the process – they are essential in helping to tease out nuances, prepare the candidate each step of the way, and ultimately play a major role (if not leading) the closing process.

    Anticipate and solve for potential choke-points, such as scheduling across time-zones, or how you’ll handle handing off candidates from one colleague to the next. Will you have separate video chats? Or is there a specific video chat account dedicated to interviews? The best way to do this is to put someone on your team through a mock process.  Consider all the psychological subtleties of the candidate experience, and remember ALWAYS BE SELLING.

    ? Pro tip: Don’t schedule day-long interviews because you think you need to. Your process should be designed to get you the information you need in order to make the right (informed) decision. Try to keep your processes tight and don’t waste time!

    Transparency wins the day

    Have you thought about “brand” in the context of a recruiting process? Have you considered how you’re communicating those values to would-be employees via all channels? If not, now is the time to outline it, communicate it, and own it.

    You won’t be able to meet a candidate in person to hire them so the heuristics you rely on to build trust need to be re-calibrated. Your values should guide you and your interviewing team here, and should be expressed openly in order for candidates to get a genuine sense of who you are and what you stand for. Ensure that candidates have seen this information prior to your interview and try to include questions that will allow you to assess whether or not a candidate will espouse those values with you.

    Be clear and consistent on your compensation

    Growing a distributed team may be an opportunity to reduce your cash burn — be methodical in how you approach this.

    Gitlab, the world’s largest fully-distributed company, has a handy calculator that they use for adjusting salaries based on geography. Additionally, the Economic Research Institute can help you determine the median income for given positions in different places. No matter what tool you use, be consistent and communicate it. Employees will take note of the way that cost of living impacts each other and candidates should be clear about how they will be impacted before they sign-on with your team.

    Consider: even though your compensation benchmarks tend to determine the type of candidates you attract, value and vision for what you’re trying to accomplish still play a HUGE factor in the decision making process. Don’t by myopic on comp and always remember – the best candidates will join you for your values & vision, not for the immediate payday.

    Onboarding New Employees

    A self-directed process with guardrails and check-ins

    Key Takeaways for Onboarding

    • Offer a written onboarding plan for each position so new hires can be self-directed.
    • Provide a home office supply budget – you want people to be comfortable and feel taken care of.
    • Be clear about how different communication and collaboration tools are used at your company. When should an email be a video chat instead?
    • Embrace new hires with an “on-boarding buddy” program and mail them your company’s swag upon signing.

    There are three components to a successful onboarding: organizational, technical, and social.

    Organizational

    Now that you’ve hired a candidate, it’s time outline the onboarding process with them. A few things are necessary for the process to be seamless and welcoming:

    • Make a clear, written plan for every position outlining expectations with a relevant timeline.
      • Slack channels to join, contacts to have, general schedule (trainings you should be in, what module you should be on when, etc.).
    • Be collaborative in your onboarding process with your new hires.
      • Gather feedback and be open to refining and changing the process.
      • Create an Onboarding Satisfactory Tracking system.
    • Set up your new hire with a supplies budget and provide an example list of typical supplies that other employees get set up with.
      • Consider allowing new hires to buy the right office equipment, where appropriate, for themselves.

    Technical

    In addition to getting new a hire’s credentials for the internal tech stack, there are onboarding-specific technical considerations to take into account.

    • Use a platform to direct new hires on company policies/compliance – this will relieve administrative burden and provide new hires the opportunity to complete training at their own pace.
    • Keep managers in the loop by setting up Slackbots that send alerts when a new hire has passed an onboarding milestone.
    • Be clear about which tools are used and when: Slack messages vs. video chat vs. a shared notebook vs. a digital whiteboard, as well as what email list to use for which occasion.

    Social

    In order to establish culture that goes beyond 1s and 0s it is imperative that you build in explicit opportunities for your team to socialize with their new teammates.

    • Develop an onboarding buddy program – ideally someone from within their team or an adjacent team.
      • Engineers also get a second, non-engineer buddy to understand greater product influence.
      • Support the buddy program by rewarding the best buddies (make it fun!)
    • It’s generally a good idea to create a swag package ready to be mailed upon a new hire’s acceptance of an offer. T-shirt, mug, home cocktail kit – whatever it is, make them feel like they are joining a team and not just a bunch of faces in a video chat gallery window.

    Managing Your Team

    Learn to let go — just a little bit — and breed trust

    Key Takeaways for Managing Your Team

    • Your various synchronous and asynchronous communication channels serve different functions. Outline norms about what’s discussed where and expected response times
    • Structure each week around goals, have your team document those goals, and close the loop at the end of the week with a check-in on progress and your team’s general well-being.
    • Start from a place of trust — remember, you’re hiring adults! — and allow employees to be self-directed but do build a communication cadence to verify and hold people accountable.

    Trust, but verify

    In a distributed environment you can’t casually pass someone in the hall and chat about what they’re working on; you’ll have to be willing to empower your employees and let them be self-directed.

    • Architect general guard rails for communication best practices: team-based standups, 1:1’s, all-hands, etc. all become more difficult in an asynchronous environment. However, also understand that part of the magic in startups happens in random places at random times – generally outside the context of a defined day.  Embrace that!

    Communication must be intentional

    As you begin to grow your remote team you may find that communication across the team is not meeting your expectations. This is where communication planning becomes essential.

    • Think through your communication channels and how they should be used: written communication is a form of thinking and keeps a record. Synchronous conversation is richer. Asynchronous communication is for updates and handoffs.  Where does each channel fall on the spectrum of ideation → iteration?
    • Consider your communication traditions and norms. Be okay with dumping those that don’t work and/or don’t scale and find a new way to meet your goals.
      • eg. did you introduce new people on a company call when you were smaller? Now that you’ve grown, perhaps move to intro videos, then move to Slack.
      • Don’t avoid starting a new tradition just because it won’t scale. Do what works now and continually evolve.

    Relationships can thrive remotely – but you have to work for it

    Managing your team in a combination of video chats, emails, and asynchronous Slack messages can be a challenge but with a little bit of pre-planning and intentional structure your team can thrive.

    • Ask at the beginning of each week “what do you hope to accomplish this week” and check-in at the end of the week.
      • Have employees write these goals down and share with their manager. This makes it easier to hold people accountable and shift if needed.
        • Keep it at the goal-level, not the day-to-day level.
      • Managers should always be asking: “what can I do to make it easier/how can I support you in this goal?”
    • Don’t forget to check in on people’s wellbeing. The type of “softer” information you get from people can help you better manage them and build camaraderie in the absence of regular physical gatherings.

    Cultivating Team Culture

    It won’t be the same as an office — and that’s OK

    Key Takeaways for Cultivating Team Culture

    • Be intentional about implementing remote work practices – it’s likely that not every tip and tool are relevant to your unique culture.
    • Memorialize your values in writing and communicate them relentlessly – there is no informal & inherent way to reinforce them in a remote environment.
    • Social opportunities must be designed and as a leader, you need to participate in order to build a permission structure for people to lean all the way in.

    Build your culture like you build a product

    Discard your expectations of what culture looks like when generated from an “in-person” perspective. A distributed team environment is wholly different and requires a bespoke approach.

    • Start from first principles and consider what problems you are trying to solve/prevent.
    • Don’t pick and choose random features of “remote work” to implement. Reflect on your first principles and implement tools/processes to meet you goals accordingly.

    If it’s not written down, it will not persist

    In a distributed team environment, your company culture does not exist unless you write it down, share its tenets, and actively champion it.

    • Culture is often viewed as energy in office – a distributed team democratizes culture (since office culture can often be dictated by the most gregarious people on the team).
      • Gitlab’s Values page is an excellent example of memorializing values – the key is being sure to regularly reflect those values through concerted action.

    ? Caution: Power dynamics can be exacerbated in a distributed environment: people who don’t feel heard may be less likely to speak up in a Slack channel.

      • Give credit for good work.
      • Even post on their behalf (giving them credit) to lend your power.

    Build a team, not just a cadre of workers

    • Be intentional about creating social opportunities. Everyone should feel they have a place in your company beyond their title. Suggestions include:
      • Giving house tours via Zoom.
      • Budgeting for a lunch/coffee between team members.
      • Coffee chats twice a day for 15 minutes- anyone online at the time can quickly pop in for a “watercooler” chat.
      • “Lunch & Learns” where team members can teach the team something they care about (yoga, cooking, beekeeping, etc.)
      • Weekend updates.
      • Crowdsourced cookbook.
      • Photo competition: Best Zoom background.

    Now that you’ve made it to the end of the playbook, do you feel like your company is ready to join the remote work world? We hope so! You’re in good company. Here’s ourRemote Work Market Map of all the startups in the space.

    Building a distributed team? SignalFire can help. Our early stage venture fund’s talent team equips our portfolio companies with our predictive recruiting engine called Beacon that helps them find the best and most poachable job candidates to contact. Our in-house recruiters then ensure they bring their top job candidates on board. SignalFire’s specialists and invest-advisors can also help you with engineering challenges, go-to-market strategy, PR, data science, and fundraising. Get in touch with us here.

    Since the challenges of remote work are not going away, we will continue to host sessions with experts on related subjects. Click the button below to get on our list for updates and future events.

    And here’s another look at our top takeaways. Thanks for reading and sharing!

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