Building a Remote Team

Published on: March 8, 2008 |Tags: ,,, | Categories: Articles

remote

Lately we have been investing a lot of time and energy into sproutwire.com instead of sales. Meanwhile, our team has often been idle, developing their side projects, as we hunt for work. One great benefit and risk of working with independent contractors is that they are required to have other sources of income. This is great because it means we are not responsible for keeping our team working full time, but it is dangerous because it can easily lead to attrition. Eventually we all need to get paid. So how do we manage to keep together?

We communicate our opportunities.

I’ll tell you a story about how we’ll work together in the near and long term future. You should do the same. This narrative binds us. We share a vision.

If I pay you, then you have a default interest in our relationship. If I cease to have the opportunities to pay you, then it follows that you will have to look elsewhere. And eventually I will lose your allegiance.

In fact, this is a two way relationship. If you offer me a service, then I have a default interest in our relationship. If I can no longer use your service, then our relationship is in jeopardy.

Right off the bat, it is essential that in a dry spell, we maintain optimism regarding the future of our working relationship. We need to see each other in our own futures if we are to keep together.

We communicate our lives.

I’ll call it a second line of defense, but in fact I’m beginning to think that it is most important part of building an enduring team of remote contractors: great teams are great friends.

There are many ingredients required for a friendship: shared sense of humor, complimentary personalities, shared values. But one thing is required above all: regular communication. You can’t be my friend unless you share my joys and my miseries. You don’t have to share them all, but there is definitely a direct correlation between the closeness of your friends and the percentage of life events that you share.

We make a point of checking in with everyone on the team regularly. We’ve also recently set up a team blog. We’re using a plugin which allows us to take snapshots with our phones and email them to the blog (If it isn’t extremely easy to add stuff, then no one is going to want to put in the effort). This blog in effect servers multiple purposes:

  1. Transform the remote team into a tangible team
    If you can see photos, videos, and read daily accounts of each other’s lives, then people that you’ve never met and know almost nothing about can transform into real people that you can relate to.
  2. Remind us of why we do what we do
    Sometimes we get absorbed by our work. Especially in the freelance industry, it can be easy to spend all your time working and lose track of life all together. Making a point of sharing your life and reading about the lives of our friends and coworkers is a great way to regularly be reminded of why you are working so hard. You work because you love it, but you also work because you need money, and you need money to live. Don’t forget to enjoy your life!!!

We communicate our struggles.

Every now and then, we check in with our core team and ask, “How are you doing? Are your bases covered?” Usually things are fine even in a drought. But people need to pay their bills and sometimes we get into a pinch. When this happens, we either hustle to find some work for that person or we work out some options for meeting any intermitant challenges. These range from helping think through financial options all the way to potentially even offering financial support (though this is not an ideal solution). What ever we do, we care about each other and there is no better opportunity to convey this than having a chance to help someone in their time of need.

On a reciprocal note, our core team is made up of people that we find to be really helpful. Brandon frequently volunteers to help us with internal design challenges as well as with sales opportunities. Aaron has offered to defer his billing. Eric is always looking for ways to organize ours and his businesses, and is generally proactive in offering technical and general insight (any time he notices in conversation that i am unclear about a concept or terminology, within seconds he’ll send me a stream of really useful links that explain the concepts). Kelsey regularly jumps in to put out sysadmin fires. Reid and I started a theatre husband’s club as we are both married to theatre directors – a life abound with drama.

In fact, all the people that we regularly work with are genuinely helpful. It’s easy to want to stick with those that help you.

We work on our businesses.

We haven’t yet worked out any sort of stock options in our company. We might. It’s a big debate. But even without an official stock plan, we take part in each other’s companies. We value and solicit business input from each other. We help each other find work, invoice, estimate, manage time, manage money, and above all, manage each other.

Having a vested interest in each other’s businesses and lives binds us together. We are building an environment that fosters mutual loyalty and friendship.

How do you build a team? What’s the best team environment that you’ve ever worked in? What made it great?

8 Responses to Building a Remote Team

  1. Christine OKelly says

    Wow. I love this post. From my experience in the corporate world, it was not really a good idea to get personal life with the person paying you.

    As a freelancer, I make an effort to take things to a more personal level and I think that has made all the difference – not only in building long term business relationships, but also with having a more authentic life where work and life don’t require 2 different personalities.

    When I hire freelancers, I’ll ask “What are your goals? What do you need financially to get where you need to be and how can I help you get there?” I don’t remember a boss asking me this! But when two people who have their own businesses come together for mutual value, it’s a completely different experience.

    Thanks again for an insightful and honest post!

    Reply
  2. Peter says

    I like the way you put it Christine, “a more authentic life where work and life don’t require 2 different personalities.”

    I think that nails it on the head. It’s an issue of split personality. A strong team can’t be based of of schizophrenic expectations.

    (BTW, we ask exactly those same questions when we interview contractors)

    Reply
  3. Eric Davis says

    A great way to build a team is to be super helpful to everyone. Even when I’m super busy, I still try to take some time to give advise to other, especially people who are in the same situation I just struggled through.

    Reply
  4. Jarkko Laine says

    Great post, Peter! I love the fact that you take the effort to make your remote team of contractors tight and close, while many teams inside one company that work in the same office every day are not nearly as close as yours…

    Maybe the fact that you are all free to come and go, and are working together because you decide to do so makes all the difference?

    Reply
  5. Peter says

    @Eric: And that is why we love working with you :)

    @Jarkko: Thanks Jarkko! I believe that freedom does make a difference. The real test is going to be with scale. Right now we only work with a short list of people on a regular basis. I’m hoping that this approach to team building is scalable.

    It makes me think of the early united states. US democracy was a much different beast when it was young and had only a few participants. I’m hoping that a growing team will match growing resources and that we can some how avoid cliques. That said… how import is it that a team should try to avoid cliques?

    Reply
  6. Jarkko Laine says

    Yeah, scaling up makes it more difficult as there will be more people to communicate and keep in touch with…

    I think 37signals uses their own tool, Campfire to have the team in “one place” although physically they can be anywhere. Have you tried it, or do you use something similar? Or is it mostly one-on-one discussions one person at a time?

    Reply
  7. Jarkko Laine says

    Have you noticed that all the times in the comments are xx:03? Maybe a bug in the time formatting string?

    Reply
  8. Avdi Grimm says

    Love it! The group blog is a great idea. Something related that I’ve done is to put together a group photo for team members to keep at their desks.

    Reply

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