You’re growing. Your team's needs may becoming more demanding, but the cost of office space isn’t looking too appealing. So, how do you grow your team so you can grow your company if the idea of everyone in one place isn’t an idea you’re attached to?
We sat down with the leaders of four thriving and growing companies to get their insights on building and managing a virtual workforce: Derek Halpern of Social Triggers, with 15 team members in the U.S and two other countries; Gini Dietrich of Spin Sucks, with 23 team members in four countries; Chris Smith of Curaytor, with 15 team members in four countries; and Ann Handley of MarketingProfs, with 42 team members in two countries.
Why did you decide to build a virtual workforce instead of having the traditional physical office?
Derek Halpern: I'd like to tell you that I did it because I believe in a new innovative way to work, but the truth is, it started because I had no desire to go to an office myself. However, as time passed, I continued to build my team as a remote team. Why? I saw one main benefit: It's much easier to find top talent.
I run a small business, and when I post a job opening, I'm accustomed to getting 100 or 200 applicants per position. I'm not found on any "best places to work" lists. And the truth? Most people in the job market have likely never even heard of my company, Social Triggers. And yet, here I am, 100 to 200 applications per position. Social Triggers has an acceptance rate that hovers between 0.5 and 1 percent. And since I can be that picky, I'm able to find people who truly are great at what they do.
—Ann Handley, chief content officer, MarketingProfs
Gini Dietrich: We had a physical office for many years, but after the recession and during the debt ceiling debates, we found the $12,000 per month lease was killing us. We negotiated an early end to the lease and all went to our homes to work that way for a year. I found I was a much better leader and wildly more productive without a team around all day. But I still wasn’t convinced it was the way to go. After all, work-from-home businesses still weren’t taken seriously. So I asked my team and got a resounding, “Let’s stay remote!” Today, I am able to hire the very best person for the job, no matter where they are in the world, without the overhead of having to move them to Chicago to hang out in person with us. We’ve also seen significant scale since going remote, which I attribute to all the things I’ve mentioned.
Chris Smith: Prior to starting Curaytor, I was an outside sales rep for a software company based in Vancouver. My territory was Florida, and I was the only employee in the state. In that environment, you really are running your own business, in a sense, remotely. Having had success inside of that model, I knew it could scale to other divisions like support and marketing the way it had worked for me in sales.
Ann Handley: The decision was made by default. That’s a passive-voice sentence, because there was never really a decision to be made by anyone … it just happened. I joined MarketingProfs founder Allen Weiss in 2002. He was toiling solo for two years before that. So we are 16 years old. Allen is in Los Angeles. I am in Boston. Neither of us was going to move.
How long have you been building your remote workforce?
Halpern: I started Social Triggers back in 2011 and started building my remote team shortly after I started my company.
Dietrich: We moved out of the office in November 2011.
Smith: Our company just turned three years old, and we have been remote since day one.
Handley: Since 2002.
What are the biggest mistakes you’ve made in hiring remote team members?
Halpern: The big mistake I made while building a remote team is meetings. I'm anti-meetings and avoid them like the plague. However, when you're building a remote team, the only opportunity you have to build rapport with your employees and co-workers is through meetings, both online meetings and in person. At the top of 2016, I began to focus on fostering more smart meetings between employees as well as more in-person meetings.
Dietrich: The biggest mistake is not interviewing a candidate the same as you would someone who would be sharing office space with you. I thought because I knew many of our candidates online already, that would suffice. Now, we have an even more robust interviewing program, which sometimes entails flying candidates to Chicago. We also have a very strict program where the person is a 1099 employee until they pass their 90-day apprenticeship.
I’ve also found that having a new employee go directly from an office to home full time doesn’t work the majority of the time. We have better success with those who are already accustomed to working from home.
Smith: The biggest mistake I have made has been using traditional job posting sites to find team members. You end up with way too many applicants, and it becomes a time suck to find the needles in the haystack. Instead, we've found simply asking our friends, family and colleagues on social media if they know of anyone and being super specific about what we need works better.
Handley: I have a short list:
- Not trusting your gut enough. A person looks great on paper but long term turns out not to be a good fit. Every time that happens, I realize the signals were there all along.
- Not asking the basic question: “Do you have experience working remotely, with only a ficus tree as an office companion?” And the obvious follow-up of, “Can you handle it?” In other words—are you happy with that setup? Can you embrace the constant interruptions that come with working from home? I love the interruptions. Some people don’t.
- Not doing a video interview when in-person conversations aren’t feasible.
- Not ensuring that people can travel. Because inevitably, they’ll have to put on pants and travel to meet in person.
What are your favorite collaboration tools for communicating with your virtual workforce day-to-day?
Halpern: While there's a lot of technology available, we only focus on three tools specifically: Google Apps, including Google Docs, Spreadsheets and Gmail; Slack for team communication, and Google Hangouts for video chat.
Dietrich: We use Zoom for all our meetings—it’s like the Brady Bunch!—and Slack for internal chitter chatter; the water cooler, if you will. We use Basecamp to keep everything organized and on track.
Smith: We couldn't live without Slack, GrooveHQ or InVision. We also love UberConference and Basecamp.
Handley: Here are six of the tools we use daily:
- Sococo replicates a physical office. It’s like a mashup of Club Penguin, Sim City, Skype and Google Hangouts. For us, it’s an invaluable tool for internal meetings, messaging and collaboration.
- Dropbox is our go-to for project management and workflow.
- Skype. Because Skype. And because Sococo doesn’t work for some people.
- Facebook secret groups, because it replicates a water cooler/bulletin board/break room. That’s where we celebrate birthdays, post team photos, introduce new employees and so on.
- Adobe Connect. We hold monthly “all hands” team meetings in Adobe Connect. We like the platform, because it makes it easy to record meetings to play back later for those who missed it, it allows team chat, and we already use it extensively for delivering webinars to our members. So there’s a comfort level with the tool.
- Is it weird to list email as a collaboration tool? I say no, since it’s the information pulse of our organization. We send a lot of email—over-communicating is necessary in an environment where people can’t soak up information more organically, because we all share the same space.
What makes your virtual workforce successful?
Halpern: All my employees are enthusiastic to work on what they work on. If you hire someone who "kind of likes what they do," it won't work well for remote teams, because there is a lot of opportunity for employees to slack. However, when they love what they do, they won't want to slack, and you'll find they work harder and longer.
Dietrich: You definitely have to make a concerted effort to be engaged and make others feel like they belong to something big. When we were in a physical office, I tended to take that stuff for granted. Now, I actively spend time looking for opportunities to coach, mentor or just chat for a few minutes. It works.
Smith: When you run a remote workforce, empowerment is the bar and accountability is king. There is no such thing as delegation and then circling back to look over their shoulder to make sure something is getting done. You need clearly defined jobs that are to be done each day, and you need to get out of your employees' way so they can do them.
Handley: We aren’t restricted by geography when we're searching for the right person for the job. As a result, we hire amazing and talented people. The best companies are always the sum of their people. And our people are stellar.
What three pieces of advice would you give a growing company about successfully building a virtual workforce?
- Limit exposure. If you want to build a remote company in the United States, I would focus on limiting your exposure to just a handful of states. In my personal experience, each state has different rules and regulations that must apply to employees who live within those states, and keeping track of it can be a full-time job.
- Faces are important. Just because you work remotely, don't shy away from video chat, phone calls and other forms of direct communication. At first, I tried to limit my communication to just email and IM. As I mentioned earlier, you lose the ability to build rapport with your team, and that's why I believe both voice and video are essential.
- Experience counts. If you're going to build a remote team, make sure you hire people who have experience working remotely. People accustomed to working in an office may find that working remotely is much lonelier than they would have previously anticipated, and that can hurt employee retention.
Dietrich: I just have one: Leave your office and walk around. Talk to every employee in every department. And make it such a big part of your culture that no one gets scared when they see you coming. I offer that same piece of advice when you work remotely. But, instead of walking around, ping an individual and ask for a few minutes. Then get on Zoom and just check in. The first few times it happens with a new employee, they get a little freaked, but then they realize, “I have direct access to the CEO!” The things you learn by doing that are extremely valuable.
- Don’t just look for people who have past experience working remotely. There are a lot of talented people craving for a work-from-home opportunity that is legit.
- Hire slowly and fire quickly.
- Just like many non-remote companies do, start everyone on 90-day contract before making them an official employee. Three months of remote work time is going to tell you if they will make the cut.
- Over-communicate. The email CC field is your friend. When in doubt, CC.
- Hold regular one-on-one and all-hands team meetings.
- Be transparent with financials. We think this is important so the team has some basis for why we make the decisions we do, and to vest people in the company’s success. This last point is important for any company, if you ask me, not just a remote company.
For more tips to help you stay productive on your next business trip, access Business as Pleasure: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Travel.