"Until you’ve worked remotely, it's difficult to comprehend just how much structure and sense of identity your daily commute and office community provide."
Angela Jeffrey is the CEO of Get Kelvin, a website that lets people rate, review and discuss websites. It’s kind of like Yelp for the entire internet. Over the past eight months, Jeffrey and her team of seven full-time and part-time employees have been working on building the software behind Get Kelvin, including a web application, a microservice, multiple Chrome extensions, a caching infrastructure, and the list goes on.
No one on Angela’s team has ever worked remotely in the past, and the group learned that not having an office or the opportunity to meet coworkers IRL can be challenging. Angela shares what she’s learned building a happy, healthy and highly efficient remote team.
Find People Who Build Their Own Structure
If you’re joining or leading a remote startup team for the first time, it’s important to remember that every new remote worker has an adjustment period. Until you’ve worked remotely, it's difficult to comprehend just how much structure and sense of identity your daily commute and office community provide. We might resent the drudgery of a traditional nine-to-five office job, but the freedom of remote life can be immobilizing for some or distracting for others. Sometimes, it’s both.
If you’re going to build a successful remote startup, each team member must be capable of creating his or her own structure. I look for teammates who maintain a solid routine (even if it doesn't conform to a standard nine-to-five schedule) and have access to a dedicated workspace, whether in their homes or elsewhere. At Get Kelvin, we use the time-tracking software Harvest
to stay aware of how many hours each person is working and on which tasks or projects. Part of the fun of remote work is that each routine and workplace can be tailor-made to each person, and can be altered to fit one's changing needs or circumstances. The people I have seen thrive in remote jobs are not slackers who avoid all routine; quite the opposite. They are passionate and accountable professionals who love the flexibility of remote work because it allows them to build their ideal routine and work-life balance.
However You Meet, Keep It Focused and Positive
We meet in video conferences, and I’m not going to lie, it took us a while to find our rhythm. We learned the hard way that the number one killer of a remote meeting is a poor internet connection, so all of us make sure to be in quiet, connected environments at meeting time out of respect for fellow team members.
Our procedure isn't perfect — I'm constantly reassessing and tweaking how I run meetings. Currently, we meet no less than once a week, with the option to meet more frequently if necessary. I always reserve the first ten minutes of each meeting for small talk and socializing. When you work remotely, there are few opportunities for team bonding — it’s not as though you can grab a coffee and catch up on someone's weekend or bump into each other in the break room. Those few minutes of non-work talk are crucial.
I use our meetings for planning, discussion and collaborative decision making, but not for long presentations of facts or figures. I also try not to dominate the discussions. I found that when I did most of the talking, our meetings had less value. When there is information to disseminate, such as KPIs, we put it in Slack and ask every team member to confirm they have read and understood the takeaways. If a meeting is going to involve more than four people, I send an agenda ahead of time so that everyone can be prepared for the discussions and can stay focused and productive.
As useful as video conferences are, there is a limit to what they can achieve. As a company, we’ve made a commitment to meeting up in person once a year. We call these annual IRL meetings "summits," and for our first one earlier this year, we rented a log cabin in the Catskills on Airbnb and lived, worked and hung out together for a week. To go from working thousands of miles apart (I live in St. Petersburg, Russia, while other team members live in upstate New York and in Florida) to sharing a cabin was a bold risk. Some of us had never even met in person before, but it worked out incredibly well. We were finally able to have long, rambling conversations about the strategic vision for Get Kelvin, and able to get to know each other outside of work. We all left feeling united, motivated and clear on our direction.
I also can’t emphasize enough how important it is to actively accentuate the positive in meetings when you run a remote startup. Everyone on my team is working hard. They all deal with the challenges of startup life every day. So each of their successes or steps forward should be highlighted and acknowledged publicly. For all its obvious benefits, remote work is notorious for making people feel anxious, overlooked and lonely. Take the time to build morale, celebrate your team’s accomplishments and focus on their progress.
Assess Carefully, Hire Mindfully
Making those crucial early hires for any startup is hard, but selecting the right candidates for a remote team is even more challenging. That's because remote work appeals to a wide range of people. Some people choose to work remotely because they want to spend the lion's share of their time on something else, like traveling or a side project. I’m all for that! But as CEO of an early-stage remote startup, I know they may not be ideal employees.
I’m looking for people who are passionate about what we’re building at Get Kelvin, who will appropriately prioritize time for work and whose lifestyles support full-time work. To address this issue, we bring on everyone at Get Kelvin under a three-month contract before hiring them as a long-term employee. Three months is more than enough time to assess whether the person is a good fit for Get Kelvin and how motivated they are.
Even once you've settled on a new hire, onboarding them can be challenging because introductions and welcomes feel a little flatter when they are mediated by screens. As a manager, you need to anticipate that any new member of the team is going to have a lot of questions that they won't be sure how to ask. Unlike an employee in a traditional office, a remote worker doesn't have a seatmate to turn to, and managers can’t easily see how they’re settling in. You need to go out of your way to make yourself available, check in proactively, and do your best to destigmatize asking for help.
Take Care of Each Other
As the leader of a remote team, I try to encourage people to take advantage of the benefits of remote work. We should celebrate the fact that we can sleep in, schedule appointments at unusual times, take a foreign-language course, attend a morning exercise class, run errands, or go for long walks to clear our minds when needed.
Many of us who came from traditional office environments are used to apologizing for or hiding these activities, but now, with the exception of our weekly meeting, I try to make very few assumptions about when or how my teammates will work (so long as they complete their assigned tasks) or when they may be free to meet. We tend to imagine startup life as demanding a total commitment, but it's important for people to take time to disconnect, whether that means snoozing notifications, blocking out their non-work hours on a shared calendar or having digital-detox weekends.
While there are lifestyle perks to remote work, there are few company perks. Everyone wants to feel appreciated from time to time, and words aren’t always going to cut it. At Get Kelvin, we use Bonusly
to put our money where our mouth is. Bonusly is a platform that allows everyone on the team to award public micro-bonuses to one another which can be redeemed for a variety of goods and services. We also do our best to celebrate teammates' birthdays by getting them gift cards to local restaurants or shops in their areas.
Your teammates won't always be at their best. They may be struggling with personal issues, or perhaps they're frustrated by something at work. On a remote team you won't be able to tell that something is wrong by the hunch of their shoulders or an uncharacteristic silence. You’re going to need to be proactive by checking in with your coworkers regularly to identify and address any work-related problems.
Embrace the Freedom
Despite its challenges, I'm committed to remote work, and not only because it's an expedient means of building a startup. When done well, remote work has the potential dramatically to reduce or even eliminate many of the (financial and emotional) costs associated with typical jobs, including lengthy commutes and unpleasant office environments.
Overall, managing a remote team has allowed me to find people who are as passionate and motivated to build Get Kelvin as I am. Once you find the right people and foster their passion, you'll find the results speak for themselves.
This story is part of a new series we’re producing with Femstreet to amplify the powerful voices of female founders, investors and operators with a startup story to tell. Have an idea for a story? Share it with us here.