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Two Keys to Working Remotely

In Company Culture — by Erin Engstrom

Let’s take a look under the hood. Here at Recruiterbox, we’ve got two distinct teams . We’ve got a technical team in India, where two of our co-founders and a staff of about 25 engineers build product. They all work out of an office in Bangalore.

Then there’s the U.S.-based team, where everyone works remotely. Though we have an office in San Francisco where our CEO and third co-founder Raj works, the other six team members are scattered across the country. All of us are in non-technical roles: support, inbound sales, marketing.

According to Raj, there are two keys to successfully managing a remote team. The first is process –and it doesn’t stop at merely creating one. “Beyond defining your process, you need to write it down and make it accessible to everybody,” he says. “And the team needs to be able to comment on and edit this document. Process means you write down your activities, you write down scenarios, you write down problems and solutions. Process doesn’t mean you have to jump through a series of hoops. Process means you’re creating a blueprint for building your structure.”

My colleague Chelsea is based in Boone, N.C. She was the second support person–in Recruiterbox parlance, customer happiness representative–to join the company. When she came on board, our other rep had all of a week’s experience under his belt, so they were learning the job together. When a third rep joined several months later, they realized training was a little too improvisational and developed a manual.

“Not so much a set-in-stone how-to on every single thing, but more of a guide to reference,” she says. “Something that documents standard processes. I feel this is important to have for remote work, because it’s not like you can just walk to someone’s desk and ask, ‘Hey, how do I do this?’ We’ve added a fourth person since developing this manual, and I think onboarding her was a lot easier.”

Which isn’t to say there isn’t still room for improvement with onboarding. During a remote employee’s first two weeks at Recruiterbox, everyone works on customer support, regardless of role. We do this to learn the product, hear what customers are asking, see how fast we’re responding and just get an overall sense of the company’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s a helpful and informative exercise. But I will say that for me, as a marketer, I did wonder how much the day-to-day of these first days would resemble my subsequent work routine (answer: not much). I lacked a holistic perspective–and Raj agrees we can do more in this respect.

“If you put yourselves in the shoes of somebody who came in recently, I often wonder if they’re getting the complete picture of what we’re doing,” he says. “There may be some information that we need to share earlier–the context of how we got started, what we did to get to where we are now, why certain things are the way they are. A lot of this usually gets covered during interviews, but I think we can be more structured about delivering information during onboarding.”

Which ultimately comes down to the second key to working remotely: communication . Look, communication is key at any workplace. But as Chelsea noted, with remote work, you can’t just walk over to your colleague to talk. You’re physically isolated from the rest of the team, but you still need to feel connected.

For Chelsea, the physical separation was actually part of the appeal of working remotely. A self-described introvert, she frequently found day-to-day office interactions exhausting. In contrast, our colleague Josh is very social and loves being around people. The Denver-based inbound product specialist went from meeting new people on the job everyday to working in his bedroom closet. Still, both feel they have the tools in place to connect the way they need to with the rest of the team.

Our most widely used communication tools are Slack, Skype and Google Hangouts. (We also use a variety of tools to facilitate communication of a more technical nature, like Mingle and Github.) Josh appreciates how he’s still able to enjoy casual conversation with colleagues. “I chat with them, I post memes,” he says. “Interacting with other people socially at work is valuable.”

We definitely have our moments of fun, but we’re able to buckle down and get serious, too. Our product and customer happiness teams hold regular standups, where they communicate about new features and what we’re telling customers. All of the remote employees also take part in daily standups with one of the co-founders. “Daily standups are vital,” says Raj. “People have a way to express their thoughts, assign issues, reach out for help.”

I’ll admit, daily standups with the boss has required an adjustment on my part. In most of my previous positions, I had weekly meetings with my boss, which usually included other team members. Of course I’d interact with my boss numerous times over the course of a day, but on a much more casual basis. Now I feel like I have to prepare for a meeting and discuss deliverables every day of the week, and frankly it can be a little anxiety provoking. I understand the importance, though–when you lack those casual touchpoint opportunities you have in an office, you have to be more intentional and organized about checking in.

All of us at Recruiterbox are new to working remotely–the U.S.-based team was all hired in the last six months, and aside from one or two telecommuting days a week, none of us had worked remotely before. We’re still making adjustments and figuring out what works best for the company and as individuals. But we know that process and communication are the dual engines that make us run and are helping us build Recruiterbox into a top-of-the-line car–no factory required.

Image: Rennett Stowe

About the author
Erin Engstrom is the web content strategist at Recruiterbox. I’m in Chicago for now, but hope to take advantage of Recruiterbox’s remote workplace and do the digital nomad thing. Relax and eat the elephant one bite at a time.

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