How We Make a Remote Team Work

In this post, we’ll explore how UpBuild is able to work as a close-knit team while being geographically distributed throughout the United States (and sometimes the world).

At the moment, I’m waiting to board a flight from SFO to PDX. I just spent most of the day visiting one of my favorite clients (who am I kidding? They’re all my favorite!) and I haven’t actually been in my Portland office this week and won’t be stopping by tonight after I land.

I haven’t missed out on anything by being out of the office today, and I wouldn’t miss anything if I were traveling for the whole week. That’s because our team is 100% remote and we have been since Day One. My office is just a second bedroom in my Portland apartment, but whether I spend the day there, in a coffee shop, in the air, or in Brazil, I can stay 100% connected with the whole team.

Productivity central
Productivity central

There’s no missed office chit chat, no meeting action items I need to be filled in on, and no surprise fire drills or deadlines to deal with once I’m back. It’s all thanks to being a fully-distributed and 100% remote team.

The Key Takeaway

Consistent and thoughtful communication is the cornerstone of a successful remote team. That’s really what it boils down to. I’ve been asked, “What’s your biggest takeaway from working as a distributed company?” many times over the last year, and the above is the answer.

So why communication specifically? That’s important everywhere, right?

It sure is, but for a company that’s geographically distributed and conducts nearly 100% of its operations over digital channels, our ability to communicate is the glue that holds it all together.

Photo credit: William Iven

There are three different types of communication that we rely on here at UpBuild:

  1. Real-Time: Rapid fire back-and-forth conversations. In an office setting, this is mostly in-person and face-to-face. With us, it’s Slack chats, conference calls, or Google Hangouts.
  2. Asynchronous: Back-and-forth communication with some amount of time delay. Think email or comments on a Trello card.
  3. Persistent & Dynamic: Information available in a static location that will evolve and change over time. Imagine a Google Doc outlining a company process — it’s always available at a known location, i.e., at a uniform resource locator (URL), but it can be modified over time by one or multiple contributors. An internal wiki is another perfect example of this.

That’s really all there is to it — communicate effectively and consistently and a remote team can function as well as or better than a traditional office-based team. “Better, you say?!” Yes, better.

A remote team can function as well as or better than a traditional office-based team.

Remote v. In-Office

Teams who shack up in brick-and-mortar locations face the risk of falling prey to comfortable and easy-to-make assumptions about communication. Information is shared in meetings, on calls in the fishbowl conference room, in the “open office” (i.e., distraction factory), or during lunch. Sure, some people will try to take good notes (some will succeed; many will fail; others will have their notes trapped on physical paper until the end of time) but more often than not, it’s assumed that everyone got all the information in-person and knows their next steps.

But what about when someone can’t make the meeting, or they’re on leave for a few months? What about when a new team member joins the company? What about those times when you need to do a post-mortem on a project that went south and everyone has to rack their brains trying to remember that one planning meeting where a red flag should have been raised?

Impeccable communication and documentation are little more than a “nice to have” in most workplaces. I experienced this first hand for over a decade. The person who was awesome at making sure everyone was kept in the loop, that usable notes were kept, etc. was a rockstar. An exception; not the rule.

In a distributed company, impeccable communication is a must-have. Without it, everything falls apart. It quickly becomes part of the company’s DNA…or else.

We take the ease of face-to-face communication for granted and forget that the client is the odd person out.

How This Benefits Our Clients

Empathy gets a lot of lip service these days but not without good reason. Working on improving your capacity to put yourself in your customers’ (or your coworkers’) shoes is vital to fostering satisfaction and delivering happiness.

A fully-remote company lives in the customer’s shoes each and every day.

Well, at least in one respect — we’re together in being isolated.

The client of an office-based digital agency doesn’t share office space with them. Most of the time, that client isn’t privy to every conversation or meeting about their account either. Sure, they’ll get a monthly report or a weekly call with an account manager, but they’re in the dark the rest of the time. This is by no means intentional but is due to the comfortable habits that an in-office team gets into. We take the ease of face-to-face communication for granted and forget that (much of the time) the client is the odd person out.

With a remote team, communication and inclusivity are in your DNA and the benefit of that transfers directly to the client. It’s no extra effort to use the same modes of communication you’re using internally in an external and client-facing way.

It’s my strong belief that by virtue of having a 100% remote team, UpBuild provides better service to our clients than anywhere else I’ve ever worked.

Supporting Systems & Tools

So beyond a high-level prescription for “communication”, let’s take a look at what’s under the hood of a remote team. Here are some of the systems and tools that allow us to work effectively.

Background Processes

  • Office Hours: “Office Hours” at UpBuild are 9:00 AM to 2:30 PM Pacific / 12:00 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern. Because we have team members in multiple time zones, we have to be mindful of how available we are to each other. We want to allow team members the choice of how they structure their workdays, but also realize that we need to be available for each other and our clients at consistent times. So for five and a half hours each day, everyone on the team is guaranteed to be online and available. That’s when we schedule almost all of our standing meetings (internal and external) and it’s when we collaborate together the most. Outside of that, team members are free to work when they’re most productive (e.g., I’ve become insanely productive by starting work at 7 AM Pacific each day. Others might be night owls and prefer to work office hours and then from 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM.)
  • Processes & Documentation: Clearly defined processes and guidelines have been absolutely key for us. Some in-office bosses are inclined to micro-manage and nag. We’ve found great success in simply maintaining and referencing processes and guides that are specific enough to minimize ambiguity but also flexible enough to avoid restricting freedom and creativity. Some examples of our documented processes would be for Trello project management, client communication (how to do it well), making company purchases, and setting your work schedule.
  • Anchor Meetings: These are just twice-weekly video meetings and while no one here actually calls them “Anchor Meetings”, I like the description. These company-wide meetings occur at 9:00 AM Pacific on Tuesdays and Thursdays and kind of provide an anchor for the week around which everything else revolves. We cover company news, clients, our sales pipeline, and just get some face time. Tuesdays and Thursdays are big meeting days for us; conversely, we try to minimize meetings (at least internal ones) on M/W/F so the team can focus.
  • Pair Calls: Ruth, our Director of Strategy, suggested this when she joined our team in early 2016. The idea of pair calls is one lifted from Buffer (another now-fully-distributed company) and it’s been a great way for us to make connections on a more personal level.
  • Client Dashboards & Weekly Check-In Emails: We do calls with clients, too (it’s a staple in an agency setting) but one thing we layer onto that is sharing weekly status emails and maintaining client dashboards. This is an area where we’re literally transferring the benefit of how we work (our internal communication) directly to clients. Oh, and we follow up each and every meeting with a recap email.
  • Team Days: In my mind, working distributed is almost 100% upside. Yet, there’s still the human need to occasionally connect in the same space and interact in a non-digital way. That’s where our twice-yearly Team Days come in. We fly the whole team out to the same location and spend a whole day together doing work and non-work related things. The frequency and length of these Team Days may change over time, but they’ve served us very well in our first two years.

The Tools of the Trade

Everybody loves tools. Here’s a few our ours that make our remote team successful.

  • Slack: Slack is our primary mode of communication for most of the day. We always have Slack open.
  • Trello: We use Trello for all of our project management, for client engagements and our own internal projects. Many team members use a Trello board as their personal task list as well.
  • Email (boo! hiss!): Email is so last decade, right? Yet for all its acknowledged failings, sometimes email still makes sense. This is the primary channel through which we communicate with clients (since it’s familiar to everyone and platform-agnostic). When Slack and Trello just won’t do, fall back to email.
  • Google Hangouts: There are a lot of video call solutions out there, but this continues to serve us well. Plus, it’s hard to beat free. We do all of our internal meetings through Google Hangouts.
  • UberConference: When we need voice conferencing and screen-sharing, UberConference is a reliable choice (most of the time).
  • Skype: At UpBuild, we use Skype handles instead of phone numbers. We believe that team members should have the right to disconnect (did you know that in France it’s against the law to allow work to intrude into employees’ private lives unchecked?), so we have a policy of withholding personal phone numbers from our clients. This isn’t because we’re jerks or because we don’t trust our clients (they are awesome); it’s about setting the expectation that work is work and you should have the ability to turn that off. So instead of giving out personal phone numbers or providing work phones, clients get our Skype handles and can get ahold of us during Office Hours for real-time voice conversations. It’s 2017, who still uses phones anyway?
  • Everhour: Ah, time tracking. The necessary evil in every agency. However, at UpBuild, time tracking (for which we use Everhour) also eliminates the need for those “what are you working on?” questions. With one click, we can see what everyone on the team is focused on.
  • Google Drive: This is the primary way that we create and share our work with clients. It’s great because everything is dynamic and version control is a breeze (no more hunting in your inbox for “Keyword Research v 5.4 (with feedback).xlsx”). We also use Google Docs so that we can collaborate on email drafts, meeting notes, or brainstorming.
  • CodePen: For our more code-heavy work (like semantic markup or analytics implementations), we use CodePen. It’s great for collaborating on code and sharing the end result with clients. There’s even a Professor Mode that’s great for teaching technical concepts to other team members.

To build an organization with a fully-distributed team that’s ultimately more valuable than the sum of its parts takes thoughtful effort and deliberate action.

Trying Remote is Not Without Risks

Remote has been an unqualified success at UpBuild, but it’s not right for everyone and there are risks. There are a few things that our experiment has made us think about.

Complete autonomy would be problematic. Things like standing meetings, team days, and defined processes are the pins that hold our operation together. If we promoted so much freedom that the only directive at the beginning of each week was “Go and get X, Y, and Z done”, I think things would fall apart pretty quickly. There’s a big difference between having a distributed team and having something more akin to a collective of freelance consultants. To build an organization with a fully-distributed team that’s ultimately more valuable than the sum of its parts takes thoughtful effort and deliberate action.

Photo Credit: Matthew Henry
Photo Credit: Matthew Henry

Satellites will likely be the left in the dark. When discussing remote work with other startup or agency folks, I’ll often hear, “We had a remote employee and it didn’t work out”, or “we tried letting people work from home sometimes and it was a disaster”, or even, “we had a small satellite office but it was too hard to manage two teams”. I’m not saying that these situations never work, but the remote aspect will likely be very challenging. I’m sure most have experienced being out sick for a while or taking a vacation and then struggling to get back up to speed when you get back to the office. That’s because office life carried on in its office way without you. A lone remote employee can easily (and sadly) have that experience all too often.

What we’ve learned through being a remote-first company and then observing remote-later companies is that, unless the tools and processes of distributed workforce are a part of your organization’s culture, you’re set up to fail.

Remote not only puts the hard and meaningful work first but it gives the control and ownership over working conditions back to your team.

Remote is the Future

I’ll take a risk and go on the record as saying I believe that remote is the future for all digital companies. For companies that focus on software, web services, or knowledge work, there’s no reason to force a group of humans into an expensive office, let alone one that employees have to give up one or more (unpaid) hours to travel to.

So why does anyone even have an office?

  • We cling to it because it’s safe and it’s aspirational.
  • Having a cool office is impressive to customers and prospective employees and gives off an air of success (which can all too often be baseless).
  • We’re used to getting into a room with people, recognizing that doing so feels like work.
  • We equate jumping into a conference room for a meeting with being productive.
  • We (most of us) like interacting with people and forming bonds in-person.

So what’s wrong with that? The answer is that none of those things further the objectives of the organization. Remote not only puts the hard and meaningful work first (what happens when simple attendance, likeability, and appearance aren’t a disproportionately weighted part of your perceived performance?) but it gives the control and ownership over working conditions back to your team. Each team member is the only true expert on what they need to be productive and effective. Maybe that’s working from a home office or on a couch, maybe it’s in a co-working space, or maybe even from airplanes as they travel around the globe. Allowing your team to make that choice allows them to do their best work and shows mutual respect. Furthermore, our industry now has the tools to solve nearly every pain point related to remote work (see above).

And of course, a company can be way more profitable than when it’s paying $30+ per square foot for office space.

That’s how we make a remote team work at UpBuild. Thoughts, counter-arguments, questions? Let us know in the comments!

Written by
Mike founded UpBuild in 2015 and served as its CEO for seven years, before passing the torch to Ruth Burr Reedy. Mike remains with the company today as Head of Business Operations.

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