Remote Work
7 min read
September 1, 2020

How To Work Together While Apart


Michael Kearns

Michael Kearns, CEO of Virtasant, explains how he’s successfully developed and managed remote and distributed teams for sixteen years by thinking outside of the box.

The average US worker typically spends 4.35 unproductive hours each week commuting to work. That’s a significant drain of time and energy. Of course, with the current global health crisis, many teams have switched to remote work models overnight but without a clear roadmap of how to pull it off.

Those precious hours spent commuting are not the only resources wasted in traditional work environments. Productivity and longevity are significantly impacted by how and where we work. According to AON Consulting research, remote workers are 43% more productive and up to 50% more likely to remain at their current position. There is also the matter of diversity. When limited to a local pool of talent, recruitment efforts can miss entire demographics. When you expand your talent pool to the whole world and offer flexible work scenarios, you have a much better shot at building that all-star team you need.

The value of building a remote team is quite evident and made even more so thanks to COVID-19. But, a non-traditional work model requires out of the box management styles. Leading teams in this space for over 16 years, I’ve narrowed my tactics down to 4 basic principles.

Head shot of Michael Kearns
Virtasant CEO, Michael Kearns

“There is no room for ambiguity. You need to go out of your way to provide instructions, feedback, and recognition.”

1. Encourage Over Communication

Silence is much louder for a remote worker than for an office worker. In a virtual setting, body language and non-verbal cues are absent. There is no room for ambiguity. You need to go out of your way to provide instructions, feedback, and recognition. There are numerous ways to achieve this, and communication practices depend on your team’s style and culture.

At Virtasant, we favor frequent informal communication in the form of instant messages and video calls. Other teams enhance communication by choosing certain days for co-working—simply working online at the same time with video turned on.

It’s essential to set expectations for responsiveness. Make use of and respect email and chat tool statuses, like "out of office", "busy", or "at the gym". Some teams have also created their own communication acronyms. For example, the Merck team tags communications with “4HR” for “Four Hour Response,” or “NNTR” for “No Need To Respond.” Using a shared language like this lays out expectations and helps avoid over or under communication.

Communication that's custom fit for your team can help structure feedback so that all concerns are voiced and not left in the shadows. At Zapier, a fully remote company and thought-leader for remote work, the leadership team encourages regular two-way feedback with four simple questions:

  • What’s one thing you are excited about?
  • What’s one thing you are worried about?
  • What’s one thing I can do better to help you with your job?
  • What’s one thing you can do to improve?

Similarly, at LearnLoft, the CEO asks remote employees these three questions weekly:

  • What have you done?
  • What are you working on?
  • Where do you need help?  

Finally, don’t underestimate the power of written communication. Written ideas tend to be better thought out and more clearly expressed. Take advantage of this by providing extensive written instructions, company wikis, written reports, and written notes for meetings.

2. Prioritize Outcomes Over Presence

Fifty-seven percent of Americans admit to shopping online while at work, and during the holiday season, workers spend almost 2 hours of the workday shopping. Vacation planning, social-media browsing, and chatting with friends are other favorite office pastimes. The reality of digital multi-tasking is unavoidable at this point.

With this in mind, the common objection of “How do I make sure my employees are productive if they are not here,” just doesn’t hold up.

In the office or out, the truth is the only thing that matters is output⁠—being in the office for 8 hours each day within view of a manager certainly doesn’t guarantee results.    

Communicating expected outcomes, measuring against those expectations, and providing regular feedback is the far superior way to measure productivity. Some businesses set goals with OKRs, KPIs, or SMART goals— but the framework is less important than what and how you measure. As you set up your goals, ask yourself clarifying questions:

  • What are the goals of my business?
  • How does each group/team drive those goals?
  • How does each individual on each team contribute to those goals?

By aligning individual and team goals with organizational goals, you can make sure everyone is working towards a united objective.

“I trust my team members to manage their time based on their commitments, the nature of their work, and what makes the most sense for them personally.”

3. Build Trust, Not Tension

The communication and feedback described above are the building blocks for trust—and like communication, trust is a two-way street.

At Virtasant, I trust my team members to manage their time based on their commitments, the nature of their work, and what makes the most sense for them personally. If they have to be offline from 1-3 PM every day, that’s fine as long as they balance that with their responsibilities.

By focusing on output rather than looking over your employees’ shoulders, you are setting the tone for trust.

Transparency is also vital to build trust. I do this by clearly communicating my expectations and measuring results, so my team always knows where they stand.

Seek to be transparent and document that communication as much as possible. Recording video meetings, using public chat channels, and group emails are excellent accountability tools.

Using shared digital spaces where everyone can see what work is complete, what’s in progress, and what’s on deck keeps everyone on the same page. Trello, Asana, Google Suite, and other collaboration tools are great for this.

Finally, when it comes to building trust, there is no substitute for team camaraderie. Even when working with a distributed team, there are dozens of ways to do this.

  • Virtual "water cooler" chat channels for sharing jokes, gifs, or news
  • Virtual happy hour
  • All-hands-on-deck meetings for non-work related sharing
  • Virtual blind-date coffee chats with randomly paired colleagues
  • In-person team or company retreats
4. Create Space For Balance

While a flexible work schedule is one of the biggest draws of remote work, the other side of the coin is that it’s easy to always be working. According to Business News Daily, 29% of remote employees said they struggled with work-life balance, and 31% said they have needed to take a day off for their mental health.

With no physical barriers separating work from other aspects of life, employees can feel pressured to prove their value⁠—especially if communication is subpar or expectations are not clear. In the short-term, this may seem like a great benefit for your company. But the reality is your staff will soon become frustrated, burned out, less productive, and more likely to resign.

When I hire new remote employees, I emphasize how critical it is to have a social outlet and activities outside of work. I everyone to create space for themselves off the clock by blocking time to be offline. Be sure to walk the walk. Personally, since I work across time zones and often have early morning and late evening commitments, I block time during the day for my family, exercise, errands, and other things. By doing this as a leader, you send the message that this it's not just okay to have a life - it's encouraged.  

Greater Distance, Fewer Barriers

In many ways, remote work scenarios break down barriers that exist in a traditional office—physical doors, seating arrangements, and office politics are no longer relevant. By having everyone online and expected to communicate through the same digital means, communication is more egalitarian, and employees have more access to other cross-functional teams and management.

In sixteen years, I have never encountered a one-size-fits-all method for remote team management—one team’s best practice might be another team’s destruction. The world is changing right before our eyes, whether we are ready for it or not. To keep up, invest in responsive communication tools that free up inboxes and foster collaboration. Remove geographical barriers that have historically restricted diversity in the hiring process. Read the room before setting expectations for your team. The result? An adaptable work environment that supports a unique business culture and nurtures creative thinking.


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