11 Reasons Companies Fail at Remote Working and How to Avoid Their Mistakes

11 Reasons Companies Fail at Remote Working and How to Avoid Their Mistakes

How can people who rarely see each other in person function as a high-performing team?

While many companies have tried and failed to create remote teams, other companies, like Groove, MailerLiteBuffer, and Zapier have built a culture about remote working. Our team at Hubstaff is also completely remote.

While there are many communications tools like Slack, Skype, and Google Hangouts and project management tools like Asana and Basecamp to help remote teams function, tools aren’t the key to remote working success. Sean Graber of Harvard Business Review says that depending on tools to make your team successful is similar to trying to fix a sports team’s performance by buying better equipment.

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According to Harvard Business Review, the success of a remote team comes down to three core principles: communication, coordination, and culture.

Below are eleven mistakes that companies make when managing a remote team and how you can avoid them.

1. They hired a great worker instead of a great remote worker

A hard working employee in a normal office environment doesn’t translate to an effective remote employee. According to Alex Turnbull of Groove, some extremely intelligent and hard working individuals do better in an office environment. Remote working is a skill in and of itself. Most people haven’t worked on that skill and it may take a little more time for them to develop it.

There are two ways to tell if someone will be a good remote worker:

  1. They’ve worked remotely before
  2. They’ve run their own business or project

If they’ve worked remotely before, then they know what to expect. What’s less obvious is if they managed their own business or created a project out of their own will. This shows that they’re self-motivated and self-accountable. They know how to make the best decisions and spend their time wisely.

Other traits to look for to make a good remote hire include the ability to make mature decisions (i.e. putting the company before themselves when making work decisions), knowing to rest and recharge, and, of course, a good work ethic.

2. The person they hired doesn’t understand remote working

First-time remote workers may have an idealized view of what it means to work remotely. As remote working has become more popular, it could be mistaken as working from a beach in Thailand. This is entirely possible, but unless they’ve had experience working as a digital nomad, it’s a recipe for disaster. Employees should be encouraged to work out of a home office or from a local cafe where it’s easier to focus and get work done. They may also need help structuring their work day from home by setting “core work hours.”

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3. They didn’t hire for culture

Hiring for talent is easy, but hiring for team-fit is another question. Culture is about shared values and goals. A centralized office where everyone can easily interact and share ideas makes it easier to build that culture because more team exposure means creating a more developed and defined camaraderie. It’s clear that being remote limits that exposure.

To created a form of centralized culture, the team at Groove performed a team exercise that helped them figure out who they were and whether they were all on the same page.

4. Their employees got burnt out

Imagine working separately from your team and hardly having any face-time with them. You might feel like the work you’re doing isn’t always recognized. There might be some fear that the rest of the team doesn’t think you’re working as hard because you aren’t in the office with them, so you work more.

Because of this, it’s easy for remote employees to end up working more than they should and end up burning out.

The biggest risk with remote employees is not that they don't work enough, but that they get burnt out Click To Tweet

It’s the employer’s responsibility to look out for the well-being of their employees and encourage them to take breaks. This could mean setting a rule that everyone must take an hour for lunch, away from their desk or providing reimbursements for gym memberships to encourage them to get active.

Avoiding burnout is essential for remote workers | 11 Reasons Companies Fail at Remote Working and How to Avoid Their Mistakes

5. They weren’t focused on building culture

It’s difficult to hire for culture and team-fit if you don’t have a culture. It’s easy for a remote team to forget about building a culture because there’s less face-time. But without a good culture, it’s difficult to keep employees happy.

This may mean bringing everyone together a few times a year for a work retreat (like Buffer) or, as CEO/employer, traveling to meet employees one-on-one. A little bit of in-person facetime goes a long way. If you’re not sure how to host a retreat for a remote team, here’s a handy guide from Zapier on running a company retreat.

6. Their communication processes weren’t clear

Communication is one of the biggest threats to remote teams. Because of infrequent face-time, communication becomes even more important to get right. This may mean using more than one communication tool, including video, chat, email, phone, texting, and so on, and being clear about when to use each one.

Use chat for off-the-cuff updates, phone calls for messier situations that require discussion, video and screen-sharing to walk each other through a project, and so on.

The difficulty in communication happens when your team is scattered across various time zones, making it difficult to have everyone online at the same time. To minimize this, you can have a period of “core work hours” when everyone is expected to be available online.

7. People didn’t communicate enough

Even with a clear communication process, it’s important to use that process and communicate regularly and often. Make over-communication a top priority. Since most of your communication will be through text in an email or a chat app, body language and those nuances in communication are lost. If you think something is clear enough, be even more clear. If you’re asking for help, be specific about what you need help with.

Slack helps in this case because of the heavy use of gifs. They’re not just fun, they help make a point and express emotion better than text when there’s no face-to-face communication.

8. They had islands of individuals, not a team

What’s the difference? A team is group of people who are connected and fit together. A remote team naturally feels like various pieces of a machine that was taken apart and scattered across the world with no understanding of how they work together.

To avoid this, you should have your team updating each other about what they’re working on. That might mean having a weekly call so everyone can get on the same page or have a Slack room where everyone updates each other on the day’s projects.

At Hubstaff, we have a daily standup in our Slack channel and have a weekly sprint update.

A remote team should not be an island of individuals | 11 Reasons Companies Fail at Remote Working and How to Avoid Their Mistakes

9. There was no clear communication of goals and accomplishments

Whether it be a daily report of what each person has accomplished or weekly team meetings to discuss the previous week and coming week. If it hasn’t been clear enough already, communication is important. Again. Communication. Is. Important.

This ensures that the team works with purpose and intention and keeps everyone aligned with company goals.

One thing to consider is how your organization measures contributions. An office team may mistakenly measure time spent in the office as input. A remote team should consider results-focused management that “empowers team members to decide when and where they do their best work, tracking deliverables more than time spent in the office.”

10. There was a lack of camaraderie

In an office, it’s easy to run into each other in the hallways or go out to lunch or coffee. If you’re working remotely, it’s not as easy. Encourage employees to take the time to ask each other how their weekends were, send a funny article and talk about non-work related things. Connecting on a personal level will keep employees happy and feel connected to the team. This can be done by setting up virtual lunch dates or coffee catch ups.

At Groove, they use Slack as the water cooler to talk about non-company related topics like their workspace. They know about each others’ “real” self, instead of just the developer/support person/CEO/marketer/designer/etc.

Remote employees don’t get to socialize much. If everyone is working remotely, there might be an unsaid “rule” that everyone must be even more focused than if they were working out of an office. That means less time socializing and building community and more time working. Employees get lonely. They want to get to know each other as individuals. Set aside some time during all-hands meetings for some chit chat and catching up about weekends.

11. They got plagued by micromanagers

As a manager, create boundaries for how involved you will be in your team’s day-to-day projects. You can question the UI designer about a mock up, but don’t tell the designer how to design.

This comes down to trust. If you trust your employees, you won’t feel the need to micromanage. If you don’t trust your employees, you’re hiring the wrong people.

Did we miss anything?

While creating a remote team can be difficult, with the right approach and systems for communication, you can create and run a successful remote team.

What are your tips on running successful remote teams, and what remote working mistakes have you noticed? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • Canuck

    I am in the process of rebuilding my ‘team’, after committing a lot of time and resources to having a ‘cross’ disciplined team, I terminated them all. Why? My team lead who was good at what she did, but had constant personal and financial problems.

    I also found that when you hire someone with a computer degree you might expect to think they know a thing or two about computers or something – not.

    Through my research, I have come to understand that you hire for the role, and you hire different people for different roles. Bookkeeping and web updates do not go together. Blogging and creating a WordPress site do not go together.

    Also, hiring a full time person does not work either as either you try to get them to do more that they are capable to do – which causes frustrations on both sides, or they are constantly asking if there is anything else for them to do.

    I would be interesting to hear how a business can hire for all aspect of their business as a team. That is admin, marketing, finance and customer service.

    I have now returned to hiring someone in Canada, but as a VA for a specific task. A mission critical one called Bookkeeping. Albeit a lot more money, but she is strictly task based – which brings up its own issues. She is performing a process, and is not really a ‘team’ member as she does not understand my company culture. She prefers tasks to be done when she wants them done. Oh, and that is another issue. When a VA moves from a contractor to an employee.

    As a contracted VA, you have little control other to assign jobs or tasks. You cannot micromanage as that will make you an employer.

    I also use a lot of technology – everything from cloud based record management systems, accounting systems, phone systems, video systems, tasks and time systems and more everyday.

    In closing, I think it is hard for those in other countries or even in home ones not to pad the bill as it were. You hire the labour because compared to having someone at a desk, you should only be paying for that which is produced – but I find that unless you are tasked based, hiring for a set of hours permits them to take on more clients without your knowledge.

    Am I a little bitter in the process – yes. It has been a lot of my time – time that I don’t have.

    There are good and bad in this game on both side of the table. It is not as rosy as most will think. You cannot hire talented people for a $1.00 per hour and expect to get away with it.

    I went from paying PHP 20,000 per month, plus advances, plus equipment to hiring and agreeing to pay PHP 30,000. The latter was fired quickly as while we should understand their culture, they should understand ours too.

    • Hey,

      Thanks for sharing your experience – I understand how hard that can be sometimes, especially if you feel disappointed about it.

      Hiring remotely is definitely not a walk in the park and I specifically agree with you that you get what you pay for (so if you pay $1/hour expect to get a comparable quality of work). But the great thing about remote work is that you get access to the ultimate talent pool.