Managing a remote team?
Here's how we do it.
…or how I stopped worrying and learned to love leading my remote team
by Anna Bogdanova

As Founder and CEO of Shiba500 strategic marketing agency, I manage a fully remote team. Why did I choose to go remote? That's a matter of personal ideology (and preference). I believe that remote work is the future. I don't believe in borders. I believe in collaborating on a global scale. I believe in self-reliance, communal collaboration, and self-determination.

For many teams this week though, going remote is not a matter of choice or preference, it's a matter of necessity. And in the face of COVID-19 quarantine we all need to go that bit further right now to help each other out, to offer reassurance, and to make this challenging but very much so shared experience as smooth a transition to remote working as possible (even if it is a temporary measure.)

With this in mind, I would like to share with you a little about how we've made our company's remote working processes more efficient and more fun!

Where we are and how we do what we do

Our core team is based in New York, Barcelona, and Kyiv. However, all of us are avid travelers and we try to harness our remote life to be location-agnostic. So we regularly have people working from Ireland, the UK, Greece, Russia, Japan, Hawaii, Australia, California, and Uzbekistan, to name but a few. Our clients are based throughout Europe and the US.

As a boutique strategic marketing agency, most of our core team members juggle multiple responsibilities. This also means that we draw on many freelance resources, depending on the project. This allows for maximum flexibility. But on the flip side, it also requires stellar planning, communication, and collaboration on our part.

We always have extensive internal and client-facing project plans, that's the cornerstone of our process. At any stage of any task, we need to have a full understanding of who's doing what, what they need to do it, when it needs to be done and what depends on it being done.

The online tools we regularly use

Much like any other company:

Slack: for both team communication and client communication. We make sure our clients know that we are reachable through Slack, this minimizes incoming communication in other messengers and email.

Toggl: for time tracking. Like most agencies, we track hours.

Notion: for internal communication, tasks, etc.

Worksection: for client-facing project management

Google Hangouts: for internal calls

Zoom: for external calls, workshops, etc (lots of really cool features and allows calls to be)

Google Docs and Sheets: duh!

Temi: for automated transcription (part of our research work is interview-based)

We draw on lots of specialized B2B solutions for remote companies for our back-end, such as Xero for invoicing.

Something we're still on the lookout for is the perfect virtual whiteboard tool. We run lots of workshops for our clients and a whiteboard is usually center-stage when it comes to in-person workshops. We've tried a number of solutions, but at this point, we prefer to create customized Google Slides and share them with workshop participants ahead of time.

My own work day - calls, lots of calls

We have weekly company-wide calls in which we discuss ongoing client business, internal processes, and business development.

Other calls include:

  • Strategy calls with my co-founder, twice-weekly

  • Operations management call

  • Marketing call

  • 1-2-1s with the team

  • Status call with each of our clients.
These are regular calls, so they just stay in my calendar, allowing me to schedule things around them. Ad hoc calls arise on a weekly and even daily basis: we may need to brainstorm, or review certain deliverables and discuss them.

We might need to have a business development call or an interview. We often just call each other on a day-to-day basis because some things are best resolved via a 5-minute call rather than a long string of Slack messages.

People management and strategic planning

In addition to people management, I need to do strategic planning, resource management, and financial planning. We do this just like any other company, mostly in many, many spreadsheets.

We have an important distinction though: we've been a multinational company from the outset. This means being extra-careful from the very start, surrounding yourself with geography-specific advisors.

My managerial life is very similar to the life of my colleagues who manage non-remote teams. The processes are all the same and the face-to-face meetings versus video meetings are a non-issue on a day-to-day basis.

An important difference between us and a non-remote young SMB is the fact that processes have been essential to us from the beginning: careful organization (from company folders to quarterly strategic planning), project planning, and reporting have been with us from day 1.

We couldn't just "talk it out" like other boutique agencies. This required some effort at the start but it also means that we are now a highly scalable business.

Challenges of managing remotely

The biggest challenge by far has been managing motivation and communication.

As human beings, a decent chunk of our communication is non-verbal. When you see your team on a daily basis, you can usually "read the room" pretty well: who looks happy and motivated, who looks stressed, who looks bored or frustrated. This is invaluable information and it allows you to be flexible and correct the course in real-time.

In a remote team, frustrations, stress, or lack of motivation tend to be swept under the rug. People usually put on their best faces for calls. We combat this through radical candor: we're not afraid to share the good and the bad, and we're not afraid to ask difficult, uncomfortable questions.

Opportunities of managing remotely

The benefits of a remote workforce are staggering while commuting to a common office space is a mode of working that predates the digital era. Limiting your workforce to just those people who can commute to an office on a daily basis severely limits the pool of talent you can draw on.

When you're a remote company, the whole world is your talent pool.

Being a remote-first company, we (obviously) attract people who seek out the remote life. I feel that our team does their best work with us because they have such freedom and flexibility while enjoying constant support and guidance.

The time zone problem is severely overrated, for us at least. As projects have specific plans and check-in points, everybody pretty much knows what they're working on at any given time and we can usually find at least some crossover for a check in call.

I actually see multiple time zones in one team as an asset: it means part of our team can get stuff done while another part is asleep. This creates some pretty quick turnaround times and pretty happy clients.

What I wasn't expecting as a remote manager

The elusive thing called "culture" is very important when starting a company. When you go from being one person working on a set of tasks to being part of a company working towards a common goal, you need to start forming ties and building trust with your team. Regardless of whether you're in an office environment or in a remote-first environment, trust isn't something you can see our touch. It largely happens in your head.

Sure, legal frameworks come into this, but at the end of the day, they're there to fall back on. On a day-to-day basis, collaboration happens between people, not between legal entities. And people collaborate best when they are part of the same story - that story is the company culture.

Building a completely remote culture is a difficult task. You can't readily organize team socials and other activities to get to know each other better. You don't have the proverbial cooler chats about your pets, kids, or weekends. I was, and continue being, amazed at how our company culture blossoms in a remote-first environment.

We built a company based on a balance between self-reliance and over-communication. We adhere to candor, transparency and communal effort. It's truly inspiring to witness this culture grow and develop as a new, separate entity.

Not everything can be done online

Building trust still needs face-to-face time. We always meet our clients in person before signing them - it helps to build trust for both parties. I think it personifies each party: they're no longer letters or a floating head on a computer screen — they're a real person. For some interactions this is indispensable.

The same goes for in-company communication. Some uncomfortable conversations are better had in person. Though as time goes by and trust is built, more of those can happen via video conferencing.

We consider in-person meetings to be a part of our culture, but we don't usually meet to work together. Instead, we meet up for non-work-related activities, and we try to make it special: dinner, coffee, short company trips, workshops or other helps us understand each other better, communicate better and therefore work better together.

Tips for newly remote managers in COVID-19 quarantine

The first and most important thing is not to be too hard on yourself. Things will feel weird because things are weird. This isn't a "new normal" for you and your team. In fact, this is probably as far from normal as it gets.

We're feeling weird and we're a remote-first company!

  • Look on the bright side: this is a great time to take stock of your tools and processes. Any problems with these will become starkly obvious once people are not in the same physical space together.
  • Do you really need that meeting? Does everyone who's invited need to be on that call? Nothing is more obviously superfluous than those dozens of silent names on a Zoom conference.
  • For the first week at least: observe, don't change anything. This means don't change your routines or your team's routines. If you're used to certain things: like working on tasks together, having regular check-ins throughout the day, etc. keep doing this. But observe and take stock.
  • How transparent are you with your strategic goals? People can be more autonomous and produce amazing work and amazing ideas if they see the big picture.
  • Lead by example. Over-communicate, set tasks early and clearly, be punctual, value your team's time, take regular breaks, set your working hours, etc.
  • Give space to process the weirdness and uncertainty of it all. Dedicate some of your team call to talking about the changes. Encourage your team to actively participate in taking stock of your process.
  • What's in your power in terms of compensating for the perks your team lost? Can a Friday Karaoke night on Twitch compensate for the lack of Friday Happy Hour drinks? Can you order delivery for everyone instead of having that Free Food Friday? Remote workers are usually compensated for the lack of office perks through better pay, more flexibility, remote perks, or all of the above.
Remember that working remotely is not for everyone and you don't have to fully adapt to it. But it can be productive, fun, and rewarding. And for us, it's glorious!

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