Operating a fully-remote founding team: Learnings

Even before this forced wave of work-from-home, I consciously built Workomo as a fully-remote, distributed US-India team from scratch, viewing it as a key competitive advantage. In fact, even today, most of my team have never met each other in-person :). Here’s my learning from operating a founding team of ‘strangers’:

 

Reinforce — remote teams don’t have the luxury of office space, day-long huddles, and offsites to maintain focus and motivation. Founders need to reinforce the “Mission” 10x more than usual — why did we start this company? Why should we exist? Why did you join in the first place?

Plan — this becomes especially crucial as people aren’t under the same roof. Each person having razor-sharp clarity on what the team needs to achieve and in what time frame, is super-important. The Plan needs to include Monthly KPIs (make it Quarterly for scaled companies), translated to Weekly Tasks. More on this next.

Break it down — tracking, measuring & course-correcting becomes really challenging when people can’t be physically pulled into review sessions. I have found breaking down KPIs into really small, byte-sized tasks per member per week to be incredibly helpful. Small is beautiful!

Communicate — remote teams need even more rigorous and frequent KPI communication. Both for Monthly KPIs and Weekly Tasks, ideally schedule a) kick-off session, 2) mid-period review and 3) end-review+retrospective. Just to re-emphasize, do these weekly even for tactical execution tracks.

Clarify — remote teams have a big challenge in people not being able to walk up to their leaders/peers and ask clarifying questions. It’s hard anyway to ask questions in digital meetings, & time zone differences make it worse. Founders need to proactively clarify the “Why” behind each execution track, perhaps even multiple times especially during a crunch week where several priorities are getting worked on in parallel. Repetition of the “Why” is never enough. Clarifications are never enough.

Cadence — set a cadence (daily/ weekly, as applicable) for huddles, standups, town halls, and 1:1s. Ensure they are respected and taken seriously. Founders need to personally drive discipline around attendance, starting on time, tight agendas & focused discussions.

Empathy — effectiveness of remote WFH is deeply impacted by the personal environments of employees. Founders should make themselves aware of these surroundings, so the team’s operating style & cadence is empathetic to their situations. For instance, which team members have kids, and of what age? Do people have space to make a home office? Do the engineers prefer to code at night or during the day? Accounting for these elements can go a long way in driving both productivity and a caring environment.

Observe — pay attention to everyone’s energy on the Zoom call. Who seems to be on top of their game? Whose shoulders are drooping? Who seems low on energy? Is anyone not feeling well? Follow-up accordingly — perhaps a quick 1:1 pep-talk. Some love. Some advice. Bit extra care!

Mix it up — internal digital meetings with the same agenda every week can quickly get boring. Try mixing it up by say, together watching a YC video on getting first 1,000 users, getting a guest speaker for a product huddle or asking a team member to present something cool!

Involve — unlike in-person, it’s really hard to observe body language, transmit energy & get everyone onboard in remote work. Extra-effort is needed towards getting everyone truly involved in digital meetings, energizing them, and making them partners in decisions. Some good ways to do this: a) function-specific huddles where members executing that function lead, manage and participate, and b) every member should routinely “present” their work to the entire team, even if it’s for 10 mins. Provide everyone with opportunities to earn & share respect.

Celebrate — a big part of co-located teams is going out to celebrate mini-wins. Happy hours, brown bag lunches, etc. Like any solid sports team, celebrating wins together is important for creating bonds & reinforcing a shared mission. Don’t shy away from doing it even over video!

Humor — it’s hard to have workplace banter when everyone is glued to a screen. Digital meetings anyway tend to become intense due to maintaining constant eye contact. So, while accomplishing work goals is important, don’t forget to have a few silly laughs with the team.

Ultimately, operating an effective & happy remote team involves going the extra mile to create a strong human quotient. Software like Zoom, Meet & Slack can only enable efficiency. In the end, it’s all about emotions, motivations & bonding over a common cause. Keep it real!

This post was originally published on Soumitra’s personal Medium blog.

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