Partially and fully remote work jobs have been increasing over the past years, despite some companies taking a step backwards and bringing workers back to the office. Managing remote work teams isn’t always easy. When Emma started web development company Red Earth Design, remote work just made sense. It was a way to find like-minded team members she could trust, without having to worry about living in the same area or taking on the high overhead of office space. Her original hires were friends she had already known for several years, which made the trust question much easier to manage when she was starting out.
“Automattic, the parent company of the website platform WordPress.com, is a kind of senior citizen in the remote workspace, having operated a distributed workforce since 2005.”
It turns out RED is really an old-timer when it comes to remote work! Emma started RED in 2001, and hired her first remote team member in late 2004. But times have changed over the past decade and a half. What does a remote team look like now as compared to then? What is it like managing a fully remote team?
Q & A with Emma, owner of Red Earth Design
Q: Why is RED a remote team?
Emma: To be honest, it wasn’t a conscious decision when RED started out. It just happened that way, since the people I wanted to work with didn’t live locally anymore. But as RED has grown, we have made the intentional decision to remain a remote team.
While there are some challenges with managing remote work teams, there are a lot of benefits. The pool of qualified applicants for a position becomes much larger once we don’t have to limit ourselves too much geographically. We don’t have the overhead associated with a fixed office building, and that allows us to offer more advantageous rates to the non-profit organizations we work with. Some of our team members find it advantageous to work a remote job while they raise their children, and others are interested in traveling or pursuing other interests. At RED, we think a healthy work-life balance is extremely important, and allowing team members to work from wherever they want helps each of us find that balance.
Q: You’ve moved on over the years from hiring close friends to hiring complete strangers. What is your hiring process like now?
Emma: We have definitely learned some things about hiring remote team members over the years. It’s important to determine if someone will be a good remote worker, and that’s not always easy to see in a resume or interview, but we find that people who take initiative, and who are self-taught, often have the motivation and drive required to be disciplined enough to work from home. We’ve got a system now for sorting through resumes, having a testing portion for those who make it past the initial screening, and then delving deeper in phone and video interviews to find the right fit for our team. We have some recommendations for people applying for remote jobs, too.
Q: What surprises have you had about managing a remote team?
Emma: One of my biggest surprises happened a few years ago, when a team member quit suddenly. I felt like it was out of the blue. It turned out that that team member was discontented and wanted to manage more of his work directly with the client. Unfortunately for both of us, he hadn’t voiced those concerns to me, and I didn’t think to ask. His abrupt departure left us scrambling to pick up the pieces of unfinished projects. But in the end, that was a positive experience, because we learned from it.
Thanks to that experience, we have implemented more ways for the team to stay in touch with each other. For example, everyone on the team logs onto Slack regularly, and we have different channels for discussing different projects, business development, and just for chatting. And now we have team video calls several times a month, during which we discuss new projects, debrief finished projects, or team members present professional development talks. Beyond that, I also personally have a check-in call with each team member twice a month. During that call, a team member can bring up any concerns she has about her workload, particular projects, suggestions for improvement, or anything that’s on her mind.
We also try to work more laterally. Team members are free to share tasks they don’t have time for, or ask advice from anyone else on the team who might be able to help them solve a particular problem. This leads to closer teammate relationships as people find natural opportunities to speak one-on-one with each other. Managing remote work teams isn’t simple, but while there are still some issues that come up in a remote team, I don’t think we have “office politics” to the extent we would in an actual office.
Q: What is the best part of managing a remote team?
Emma: One of my highlights was our first remote team retreat in August 2017. It was the first time many of us met in person, and we were able to spend several days together hashing out some workflow issues, volunteering, and having fun together. I think it went a long way towards solidifying the team with our company culture.
Q: How do you keep tabs on your remote team?
Emma: I don’t like the phrase “keep tabs on,” because it’s not like I’m constantly checking in on or watching over each team member’s productivity or spying on them. But with a remote team, it is important to be able to trust each team member to get his work done in a timely manner. We use task and time tracking software to help us work more productively as a team and invoice clients for actual time spent on each project. We have task templates, checklists, and processes to make sure we don’t miss any steps when building a website. We use tasks and milestones so the project managers can easily track progress on website builds.
Working remotely does change the manager-employee relationship. So that’s where the check-in calls come into play, and I am always open to hearing suggestions from team members on how we can make things run more smoothly in our day-to-day work, our client relationships, or our team relationships. We’ve implemented an “idea list” for the company, so we can decide as a team which ideas to pursue when, to keep ourselves organized and focused.
Q: You have been a true pioneer in the remote work arena. What have you learned over the years?
Emma: I don’t really think of myself as a pioneer, but 17 years at this is pretty amazing. From the beginning, remote work seemed so much more flexible and freeing for supporting a balanced life. The regular 9-5 doesn’t seem to me to take humans into consideration – kids get out of school in the afternoon – why not create a life where parents can be there when they get home? Why not create a life where people can enjoy the afternoon sunshine before the sun sets early in the winter months? What if an aging parent needs help in the morning? Why be stuck in an office from 9-5 when all of these lovely important other things are happening during that time? Sure, I often work from early in the morning through the day, but I value the flexibility of being able to step out when important things are going on in my life. Trading an hour in the morning for an hour later in the day, or working a shorter week when needed, makes more sense to me vs. someone deciding we only deserve two weeks of down time a year and only evening free time. Flexible remote work honors our humanness.Flexible remote work honors our humanness. Click To Tweet
I’ve learned that I can’t do everything myself – and I’ve learned that often it’s better when I don’t do everything! Others come at things with fresh perspectives and energy. Ken Blanchard said, “None of us is as smart as all of us,” and I completely agree. There have been cases where the team decided something that at the time I didn’t necessarily agree with, but in hindsight, the group made the better decision. I am so grateful for the team. What I’ve learned is that it’s important to trust people and to communicate often. When you trust, people step up. We set the stage for high quality and high standards. Once people understand what those standards are, you, the manager, can back off and trust that they will deliver quality. Regular communication is key, too – people need an environment where they feel comfortable sharing their dreams, goals, and concerns. Fostering this openness has lead to fewer surprises as a manager, too, since people feel comfortable talking about things sooner rather than later.
Q: If all of your team members lived in the same city, would you rent office space for RED and require the team to come in to the office?
Emma: I would not require the team to come in even it we were in the same city. We might decide to have office space, but it would be come and go as you want, and a place for regular in-person meetings.