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Managing a remote team to build community and stay connected

virtual, remote, tech

At PF, we don’t really have offices. We’ve got an address in the UK, and we go there every month or two for meetings and connecting with our accountants, but day to day, the team members work all over. From home or a coffee shop or a cave on an island or wherever they want to as long as they have continuous internet and the ability to jump on a video call anytime. 

We wouldn’t be opposed to offices: and it’s very possible in future we’ll have really cool swish creative agency offices with our own artwork on the walls and growing plants and a place to invite clients for events. For now though, we’re a remote team, working from all over the world and serving clients all over the world.

So how do we manage a remote team to build community and stay connected? 

We’ve been a long time in the building of it. I started the company in 2012 with just myself and a laptop (and a few freelancers to support me now and then). I didn’t intend to have employees – wasn’t really going to grow the business massively. Just get a few more clients and increase the sales some, job done. 

Eight years on, we have a team of full time PF employees working in different locations around the globe. A few in the UK, one in South Africa, two in the States. We’ve almost entirely replaced our reliance on outsourcers (although we use high level experts for some of our bigger branding and website projects). As the team grows, we are conscious of how important it is to truly be a team: not just a collection of individuals working from wherever they are that day. 

And it’s not just the team: we serve accountants all over the world. So the whole community is global.

Virtual tools are amazing. Google and Slack and Zoom make life so much easier for us, and I personally am grateful for the ability to jump on a zoom call from any device, almost anywhere. Or to check Slack whilst traveling or in between events. 

But as the team grows, the way we are connected and our need to be connected, changes. The power of the physical in-person meeting cannot be denied, and we’ve seen that more and more over the past few years. (For team, clients, and prospects.) 

So here’s how we do it – at least at the time of writing. These are continually in review, to make sure they’re still working for us. 

 

1. Transparency is the first of our internal values

Having a remote team means we operate daily in an environment of trust. I love Brene Brown’s description of trust: “It means what’s important to me is safe with you.” 

I shared that with the team at one of our recent team retreats. I said PF is important to me, and thanked them for being people with whom PF is safe. 

It’s safe because they work hard, and take that work seriously, and really care for our clients. They’re not churning out hours, they’re getting good creative work done. 

And it’s safe because we have identified transparency as one of our team values: which means if you’re struggling, or tired, or there’s a delivery coming, or you need a break, you say so. As long as it doesn’t prevent you getting the work done on deadline, and you honour the working day and its hours, the team doesn’t have to apologise for stepping away. Or stepping back. Or reading a book. Or taking a walk. 

Similarly, we’re also transparent about going beyond, if we need to. Something needs done late at night, or on a weekend. We become aware of an urgent issue whilst traveling. It’s not about boasting of overwork: it’s recognising real life goes both ways. 

This is what’s different from the old way of the working day. It’s not about walking in at 9am and walking out at 5pm. I used to work for a company whose culture was such that if you walked in at ten minutes to 9, you were good, even if you then spent the entire first hour of your day chatting, making tea, gossipping, texting, whatever. As long as the person was at their seat, they were “working”. Now we know it’s more important what you do, how you do it, and when it gets done: and that “work-life balance” doesn’t mean you try to balance having work and having a life. It means work is part of that life, so it’s really just a life balance.

Transparency can only survive when the workplace is a “place of psychological safety”. A place where you can make mistakes, and not be terrified about what will happen to you. A place where you get praised when you do great work, and called out when you do something not so great. A place where everyone is human, and admitting that isn’t seen as weak (but that weakness isn’t used as an excuse). 

A place of psychological safety is really tough to build, and I won’t pretend we’ve got it perfect here at PF. But it’s high on my list of priorities, because if the team feels safe, and I know the company is safe with them, we get the very best work done profitably.  

 

2. Slack for quick questions and chit chat  

I remember the first time we tried to implement Slack. This was years ago, and I was at an event for creative agency owners. Slack was a new thing, and a few agencies mentioned using it. There was enough of a pattern for it to be interesting, and it caught my attention because of comments about how much it reduced emails. Email is still powerful, but it needs to be used for the right things, and at the time of that event I was getting far more emails than necessary. (Side note: can we all agree that sending a whole email to say “thank you” is unnecessary? Thank you.) 

So I loved the idea, and I set up Slack, and told the team we were going to try it. (My first mistake. If you’re going to use something, don’t try it. USE it. Go all in. You know, the Yoda way.) 

And we did. We tried it. But the team kept sending me emails, and I’d send them back because by now it was in an email thread anyway, and we didn’t really use Slack much. 

Fast forward a year or two and I hit one of those “right, seriously now” moments (the team LOVE those, haha). I said okay we are for real using Slack, and this is how it’s going to go: we use it for EVERY communication that is quick or easily answered. We won’t use it for assigning tasks that are longer term, or for long reviews or lists of changes. And here’s what I’ll do to help make sure we stick to this: if you send me an email which could have been communicated in Slack, I’ll reply to you in Slack. If you try again by email, I’ll reply again in Slack, with a reminder not to use email. I figured if we did this often enough, they’d discover their answer came a lot faster if they went straight to Slack instead of trying email. 

I considered it the biggest victory the day I sent an email to a team member and they replied to ME in Slack. Winning! 

Here are some of the ways we use Slack now. Not a comprehensive list, but gives you an idea: 

  • #priorities: First thing when their day starts, every team member (including me) enters the top 3 things they want to achieve that day in the priorities channel. It helps individuals set a plan for the day (instead of randomly doing whatever pops up); it gives the team a high level view of what’s important company-wide; and it helps me know what the team are focusing on. Every once in a while I’ll ask a question or suggest a priorities change.
  • #public channels: Every channel is public. Unless you have something that’s truly a private conversation (like a question about a payroll amount or a personal issue you’re not ready to share with the team yet), it goes in a channel everyone can see. From time to time I’ll get a private message and start typing a reply, then realise it would be useful for the rest of the team to know about how we deal with this kind of thing, and will put both question and answer in the appropriate public channel. 
  • #random: This is one of my favourite channels. It literally is for whatever. A picture of your dog sleeping. A tweet you saw about a 4 year old who wrote a song called Dinosaurs in Love (and then the subsequent chat about said song).
  • #kindwords: This is for praise between team members, or praise received from clients. I set up this channel because I was regularly getting compliments from clients and others for the team, and I realised they didn’t always know about them (and were highly motivated by seeing them). Now we not only share what others say about us, but we’ll also thank or praise someone on the team for living up to the PF values, or just being awesome in some way. 
  • #victories: We have a zap set up via Zapier so every time someone accepts a proposal, signs up for a course, or books a workshop, the whole team knows instantly. It’s a favourite channel for all of us because it feels so satisfying to see it pop up. Ah! There’s that prospect we were meeting with yesterday, and now the whole team knows they accepted the branding quote and are ready to start the brand project. It’s worth celebrating. 

We have loads more channels, but that gives you a sense of how we use it. We try to keep the channels to a minimum so we don’t get overloaded, and if someone is really swamped they “go dark” for an hour or so by closing down Slack and any notifications, airplane mode on the phone, and Get That Thing Done. I’m literally in dark mode right now so I can get this blog content written. 

 

3. Default to video

Video is extremely powerful for building and maintaining connections: and because we’re remote, video is even more important. We default to video on all meetings now, so we’re sure to get not only what’s being said, but the tone and body language, too. It’s still not exactly the same as getting together in person, but continual video makes a difference. 

I remember the early days of PF, when most of my calls were just that – actual phone calls. Even the webinars I did every month were just a screenshare – no faces. Now it’s completely normal to have 15 video calls in a week, plus quick video check ins on Slack and all the other normal daily communications. Every once in a while for some reason I have to do a phone call, and it feels so weird. Like I’m missing a big part of the conversation. (Oh wait, i am.) 

We use Slack video for quick chats internally, and Zoom for everything else – client meetings and team meetings and anything that’s scheduled. We record all our Zoom calls, so new team members can get up to speed quickly with how we do things. Or if we bring another team member into a project, it’s so helpful to have recordings of client meetings they can review. 

We use Loom for quick questions or summaries sent to each other and to clients, including: 

  • Trainings on how to use systems (for clients and team)
  • Explanations of proposals and quotes 
  • Presenting draft design work 
  • Review of content created by our Accelerator members
  • Videos to prospects, answering questions they have
  • Strategy discussions between team members
  • …and just about anything else that’s quick and doesn’t need a scheduled meeting (or may need to be re-watched)

4. Gsuite, and a group email for the whole team

Having an email inbox accessible by the entire team was something I had wanted to implement for a long time. Even once we fully implemented Slack, we were still copying people into emails all the time. Sometimes they needed to be, sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes you forgot to include someone and then had to try to find the thread…. It was confusing. 

Last year, we moved everything to Google. No more Dropbox, now it would be Google Drive. No more Word or Excel, it’s Gsheets and Google docs. And no more Outlook 365. 

Along with that change we created an email address for the entire team, which everyone has access to. That has revolutionised the way the team communicate and get notifications about things. It used to be someone would sign a quote – and the team would see it in the #victories channel – but they couldn’t find the notification email, or the email address, or whatever it was they needed. Or a prospect would contact us while I was on holiday, and no one would reply because it didn’t come into their inbox. 

Now it’s all set up so any notifications relating to client work comes to the [email protected] email address. So if one team member is on holiday or at an event or is sick, we can see the thread and know what’s going on. 

It also means if any client, prospect, or person of any kind wants to contact us, they can use that email address, and everyone will see it. The likelihood of getting a reply goes up significantly, although I wouldn’t say we have this nailed perfectly yet! We’re still working on how we manage that email address so we don’t miss things. 

We use Google for everything else – and by default all documents are created with the team as the owner. 

 

5. Basecamp and Slack for client communications

For client projects, we use Basecamp. I’ll be the first to admit it’s not the best tool out there, but it does the job and most importantly keeps all communication on a particular project in one place. This means if another team member comes into a project, they instantly have access to all the conversations, threads, documents, and actions. 

We tried using the newer versions of Basecamp, but they’re really just a glorified email thread, so we went back to Basecamp Classic. It’s pretty dated, and sort of old school, but it does the job. It means we can categorise all the actions as to-do’s, assign them with dates, and keep communication organised by category. Our clients get email notifications of Basecamp updates, and can reply directly from their inbox, so it’s one less thing to sign into. 

Recently, we’ve begun setting up private Slack channels for clients, so we can communicate anytime, and that’s not only been more convenient but a lot more fun. We chat with clients, send GIFs and pictures, share funny things, ask quick questions (or answer them), and build a stronger relationship all round. It’s less formal, and much more convenient. 

 

6. Weekly team meets on Zoom 

Every week, on Tuesdays, we have a full team meet on Zoom. These have been going on for many years, but they’ve been through a few iterations to get to where we are now (and I’m sure they’ll continue to change as we grow!). 

Here’s how we do them: 

  • Team meets on Tuesdays. They used to be on Mondays, but we discovered with the best will in the world, it felt either draggy or overwhelming. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like a fired-up-Monday-morning-meeting works a lot better when people are physically together. For us as a remote team, Mondays work better when we use them to clear out inboxes and set tasks for the week and hold a few meetings and have a little time to adjust from the weekend. It also fits with my (Karen’s) schedule, because Mondays are my quiet day. No meetings, no appointments, no deadlines. By the time I get into things on Tuesdays, the team are ready with lots of things to discuss with me, and we’re all highly motivated (them from feeling caught up and me from feeling rested). It works really well. 
  • From 2pm to 3.30pm GMT. We have a global team, so it took us a while to find a time that suits the UK, South Africa, and the USA. It’s not just time zones – it’s personal circumstances, like children or health issues or preferred ways of working. We’re now holding them at 2pm on Tuesday afternoons, and that’s working well. We used to have them in the morning one week, and in the afternoon another week, but that meant our USA team were missing out twice a month, and it wasn’t conducive to team building. Now, unless there are exceptional circumstances, everyone is in the team meet, and it makes us better connected. 
  • Victories first. We start every team meet by going round and having each person share a personal victory, and a PF victory, from the past week. This usually takes at least 30 to 45 minutes – some weeks the victories are longer, and sometimes not. We’ve played around with hurrying these along, and getting through the victories quickly, but that didn’t work so well. People didn’t feel like sharing too much when they felt rushed. The personal victory means we all get to celebrate things important to other team members – it could be hitting an exercise goal or having a difficult conversation with a friend or writing a song or getting over jet lag. Whatever it is, we all celebrate it together. The PF victories are similar: it’s a way to focus on what each of us did well in our work last week, as well as an opportunity to praise other team members for their support. You don’t have a “work victory” that belongs solely to you: you share a team victory you got to be part of. Sharing victories first always keeps the team meetings positive. (And positivity is one of the PF values!)

7. In person connections at live events

Over the past few years we’ve been rediscovering the joy of live, in person events. Conferences, workshops, networking events – we found the more events we attended, the better relationships we were able to build with clients and prospects. 

After a while we started to notice the same was true for the team. The more often we physically got together – even if it was saying hello in between attending sessions of a  Xerocon or a Quickbooks Connect type conference – the better relationships were strengthened. 

We started to use live events as an opportunity to spend more time together. Get there earlier, or stick around after. Arrange dinner, meet up with a client, have lunch, get drinks. It really helps to top up the personal connection in between our team retreats, which have become our favourite events of all. 

 

8. Team retreats, in person, twice annually

Getting together in person with the whole team is an absolute must – and the more often we do it, the better it is for the company and individual team members. It’s a fairly major undertaking in terms of time, travel, and all the associated costs, but I’ve always seen the benefit of the team getting together. 

At first we had a two-day team retreat, once a year. Then it became twice and sometimes three times a year for the UK team. And then we started to hire more international team members, so we decided they’d attend one team retreat during the year, but miss the others. 

The last team retreat we had where we did that, it felt all wrong. Not having the full team there was like missing an arm: you could get along okay, but it wasn’t the same, and it was harder to communicate everything we covered in person. The team themselves said for future team retreats, we have to have every single person there. 

I agreed – but I also shared with the team the costs of running a team retreat, and how that impacts the company. I absolutely value every penny spent on team retreats – but I’m also conscious how quickly costs can rack up if you’re not intentional. For team retreats, PF covers everything. The flights, the train tickets, the hotels or Airbnb’s, the food, the extras. We pick a different location every time – usually within the UK, although we can go anywhere in the world as long as we can book it within the team retreat budget.

So we talked about how to make that work. One of my favourite phrases (courtesy of Alasdair McGill, who spoke at our Creativity event in Edinburgh) is “How might we…?” Alasdair said each of the three words is really important. “How” implies there is an actual practical way. “Might” refers to the fact it’s not set in stone, and there are many options. And “we” recognises it’s a community decision, and we’re doing it together. So we asked, how might we run a team retreat so every single person can come, without breaking the team retreat budget? 

This also led us to talk about real questions relating to the purpose and outcomes from the team retreats. Is it just a feel-good time, a get together, hanging out and chatting? Or does each retreat have a purpose and an intended outcome? 

After several discussions and travel research, we decided to try running a longer team retreat, which increases the budget available and helps make sure we actually have deliverable outcomes. (Two days goes by incredibly swiftly when you’re in person, and there’s a lot of travel either side.) 

We’ll continue to re evaluate the team retreats every time we run them, and the whole team gets to be involved in the decisions, the budgeting, the planning, and the evaluations. That’s what a team is about, after all! 

Remote working, and remote teams, have been gaining momentum especially in recent years, and we’re so grateful for the changes and systems worldwide which make it all possible. It can be one of the most profitable and efficient ways to either run an entire business, or to support a business run from physical offices. I hope you can see it’s not easier than having physical offices: it’s just different. No matter how you involve remote working (and these days it’s wise to involve it somehow, even in the smallest ways), it takes effort to make it work. It’s so encouraging to see all the ways in which those efforts are rewarded.

 

Interested in working with the PF team? We’re always hiring.