How Trust “Just Happens” Inside Our Remote Team of 25

Image for blog post about building trust in remote teams

The Hubstaff team is 100% remote, so people are always asking me…

Dave, how do you hold everyone accountable? How do you make sure people aren’t slacking off? How do you get your team excited to want to work hard?

Beneath all these questions is a common theme: trust. What people are really asking me is how I build trust in a remote team, how I learn to trust my employees and how they learn to trust me and each other.

Trust is important for any business, but it’s especially important for businesses that let employees work whenever and wherever they want. So I totally understand these questions; they’re just the wrong ones to be asking. Because here’s the deal…

Trust in remote teams isn’t really something you build. It’s something that just happens when you focus on putting the right systems in place.

When you’re managing a remote team, you don’t have the same luxuries that co-located teams have for building trust. You can’t rely on visual cues like facial expressions and gestures. You can’t just drop by someone’s office for an informal meeting. And, when you’re working in a distributed team, there’s no perfect virtual substitute for off-the-cuff conversations.

However, by avoiding these “luxuries” you also avoid things like petty rumors and gossip (Did you see them at the bar last night?!).

Positives like this aside, there’s just no easy way to establish the kind of personal relationships typically required to build trust in traditional settings. And that’s really okay.

Hubstaff has 25 employees working in nine countries. The closest thing to “Hubstaff HQ” is Slack. I don’t know all of my employees on a super deep, personal level, but that’s fine. It’s not as if I want Hubstaff to be the lifeblood of these folks’ existence. Everyone has their own life outside of work. At the end of the day, all that matters is that the work gets done (and done right). 

How does this happen? Well, even though it feels like an organic process of just making mistakes, reflecting on them, and getting better, I’ve racked my brain for what happens in order for trust to happen.

Show employees how you think

Trust is a two-way street.

Managers need to trust their employees, and employees need to trust their managers. It’s even more important in remote teams where folks work pretty much independently on everything.

If you micro-manage, save yourself an aneurysm and forget about running a remote team. Peering over your team’s shoulders at every opportunity doesn’t just erode trust; it’s a waste of time. It’s damn near impossible to babysit someone from nine time zones away.

To build trust, you need to give employees autonomy but also set them up with the tools they need to run the business according to your direction. You can’t clone yourself, but you can teach your employees to think like you.

I’ve put together a decision tree that outlines my approach to solving business problems at Hubstaff. This is something I share with my employees and frequently refer back to when advising them on key decisions.

Over time, as remote employees become accustomed to how I think about the business, mutual trust is established: Employees feel empowered to make important decisions following the same process, and you don’t have to worry about folks “going rogue.”

decision-making-process

Decision-making process Hubstaff employees follow when making key decisions

Getting employees to think like you is all about transparency. Document everything you can, and share it with your team— processes, decision trees, even financials. (Hell, anyone can access our financials in real-time).

Show them how you arrive at your own decisions and frequently share your vision for the company. Hubstaff’s 90-day goals and vision are an open book. You can’t expect to trust employees to do the right thing if they don’t know what you’re aiming for in the first place.

Trust comes with time and/or authority

Trust is earned, and that takes time. Still, too many managers sit around waiting for employees to “prove themselves” while not doing anything to empower them.

Building trust isn’t like baking a cake — you can’t just set a timer and wait for it to cook. Give your employees time, but empower them with what they need to succeed. That means helping your employees learn to think like you but also hiring people who know what they’re doing.

At Hubstaff I look for specialists, not generalists. I want to get to a place where I can give employees ownership. It’s pretty hard to hand over responsibility for a specific channel to someone whose resume is all over the place.

“I’m a marketer, I can do anything” shows confidence, but it’s NOT the way to win yourself a job at Hubstaff. I want social media specialists, content marketing specialists, and developers who focus on Ruby, JavaScript, or PHP — not someone with only general knowledge of “marketing” or many different programming languages.

Industry is important, too. SaaS software is a hell of a different ballgame than retail ecommerce. If you want to trust your remote team, it helps if everyone speaks the same language.

Lay out tasks in advance and set expectations

In the agency world, there’s nothing much more important than setting expectations. You face the same challenge building trust in remote teams. After all, how can you trust employees to do the right thing if you’re not communicating exactly what you expect?

I can’t emphasize this enough. At the outset of every project it’s crucial you set expectations. What does success look like to you? What’s dictated by management? What lies at the discretion of the employee? Laying out tasks and setting expectations in advance generates buy-in and sets the tone.

To be honest, at this point you don’t really need “trust” so much as you just need to get the job done. That means getting everyone on the same page. So when you and your employee part ways on Slack or Skype, you have peace of mind that it’s going to get done.

When that happens, trust follows.

Hire the right people in the first place

As I previously mentioned, at Hubstaff we look for specialists, not generalists. The ultimate goal is to hire “doers,” not button-pushers. I want people that can really take ownership of a specific channel. To get these people I look for a few things when vetting potential remote hires:

  • First responders — I don’t expect folks to respond to a follow-up email in two seconds (though I won’t complain). Still, applicants answering my follow-up email within a few minutes or a couple hours are definitely demonstrating themselves to be more reliable and on top of things than folks who take days to respond.
  • Plans, not just questions — If an applicant replies to my follow-up email with a million questions, to me that shows a lot of self-interest and says they maybe don’t have their head in the right place. I want someone who has concrete ideas for improving the business. “Here’s what I did in the past, here’s what I understand about your business, here’s what I can do and even what I might do a little bit differently.” I want someone who can take the lead.
  • People that are better than you — If I’m doing my job right, every designer, developer, and marketer on my team should be better than me in their area of specialty. In another post I talk about how startup founders are more like project managers than anything else. The same is really true for managing remote teams. You have to find people that can execute better than you can so you can spend your time keeping things moving.

Give them ownership

If it seems like I’m really hitting this one hard, mission accomplished. The org chart for remote teams is typically pretty horizontal. There aren’t as many layers of management as there are in a traditional co-located organization, so people have to really step up and take ownership.

For our two core teams (development and marketing), we do this a little bit differently.

Development

A single developer “owns” each new feature. They work in a collaborative team environment but one person is responsible for every project. We don’t just hand features off to be built according to spec. The responsible developer writes the spec himself, gets sign-off, and builds the feature.
hubstaff-example-spec-2
Org chart for development at Hubstaff

Marketing

On the marketing team each channel has its own “owner” — a single point of responsibility. Channel owners are specialists, managing areas of the business such as:

  • Social
  • Communications
  • SEM
  • Advertising
  • Content
  • Frontend design

Communicate early and often

When it comes to building trust in remote teams, there’s really nothing more important than communication. It’s not that communication in and of itself builds trust; rather, communication supports all the systems needed to do just that.

For managers and employees, effective communication means different things. Communication by managers, in particular, is not something that often happens in remote teams — at least not well. Many times, remote managers hire someone (often at a very low dollar amount) and expect them to be an all-star. They expect they’ll just jump on board, know exactly what to do, and make shit happen.

Good luck with that.

Things go off the rails, the manager gets frustrated, but the truth is, more often than not it’s their own fault for failing to communicate.

How managers should communicate

  • Set priorities — Your business strategy should be an open book. Lay out 90-day goals and get everyone on the same page. If remote employees have no sense of what’s most important, you can’t expect them to make valuable use of their time.
  • Blueprint tasks — For every task or project, we document everything and provide a “blueprint,” typically organized in Hubstaff Projects, our in-house project management software (more on this later). The blueprint clearly lays out expectations for the work, establishes a timeline, and outlines the general process.
  • Remove any impeding items — It’s critical that remote team managers frequently check in with their employees and ask what’s wrong (and force them to tell you).
  • Be there for questions — Just because you empower your employees to take ownership doesn’t mean you step back completely. Managing a remote team in a way that builds trust is all about being accessible — not out on the golf course every day.

How employees should communicate

  • Add improvements to the blueprints — If you want to empower your employees to really own their work, you want the blueprint to guide them — not confine them. I encourage my remote employees to make and document suggestions for streamlining work and not assume our “proven” processes are the best ones possible.
  • Ask clarifying questions — You want to create an environment where employees steer their own projects but also don’t feel hesitant to ask questions. Employees have to feel comfortable asking for clarification and managers in turn have to be accessible.
  • Communicate when things go off the rails — This is especially important when it comes to due dates. Because managers can’t (and shouldn’t) be looking over their shoulder every second, remote employees have to be proactive about identifying potential delays, obstacles, and all-out shitstorms. Remote employees have to raise red flags early.
  • Own the task — Taking ownership is about more than just being responsible for the work. Employees are also responsible for communicating clearly, proactively, and efficiently. That means asking questions only when necessary, keeping managers informed of progress before they’re asked, and figuring out which folks need to know what and when.

Have the right tools

If you’re not equipping your team with the right tools, how can you trust them to get the job done? And how can you expect them to trust you if you’re not doing everything you can to make them successful? If your employee needs a bulldozer and you give them a shovel, that’s not exactly a recipe for trust.

Of course, more specialized tasks require more specialized tools, but for the most part, we rely on three key tools to get the job done at Hubstaff:

  1. Hubstaff — Our software isn’t just our product; it’s actually key to empowering our remote team. We use Hubstaff for hourly reporting which we track to specific tasks. Hubstaff also provides managers with insight into employee activity — screenshots, apps used, activity levels, etc. A lot of remote team managers use these tools to verify that time tracked is actually time worked. But for us, they’re most valuable for giving us an at-a-glance look into what’s happening — without having to bug employees for status updates all the time.
  2. Video — Working remotely means our employees can’t just run down the hall and show folks what they’re working on. So we use Jing and Monosnap (both free) to record and share screen captures whenever we need to walk through technical issues, or are collaborating on design changes. I save these videos to Dropbox to share them with the team.
  3. Project Management Software — Any task-related communication is documented within PM software. We use Trello for this, and are also cooking up the PM solution I mentioned earlier, Hubstaff Projects. Here’s a sneak peek:

    Concept design of Hubstaff Projects – a new feature coming soon!

Daily standups

We use Slack to organize a daily standup at 9:30am EST every weekday. Every employee updates the team on four things:

  • What did you work on yesterday?
  • What are you working on today?
  • Is there anything impeding your work?
  • Is your sprint list on track?

hubstaff-standup

An example of our daily “standup” in Slack

If employees are giving updates on feature development, design changes, or marketing concepts, we encourage them to share a quick 5-minute screencast video.

Keeping these standups public on Slack promotes accountability for both managers and employees. It’s also an opportunity for team building and provides an open forum for employees to raise questions and concerns with management.

End-of-week summaries

At the end of each week, every employee submits a quick summary of what they’ve been working on using our project management tool. This is where most of the discussion happens. And because we document it in our PM software, we can look for trends this way.

These updates are public so everyone can stay up to date on what’s happening. From time to time, my co-founder Jared and I also share important updates with the team on marketing, development, and 90-day goals and vision.

When trust just happens

I talk to lots of folks managing remote teams, and it seems they’re always looking for tips on how to build trust. Problem is, trust isn’t really something you can build — not in the traditional sense anyway. It’s not like something you just buy at IKEA, unbox, and assemble A to Z.

In my experience, trust is something that just happens when you put the right systems in place. Give your employees what they need to be successful, and nine times of ten they’re going to do the right thing for the business.

A lot of remote team managers stay up late worrying if John and Jane are actually doing the work, without ever asking themselves if they’ve done everything they can to actually let them.

Trusting our employees to do the right thing means empowering them with the processes, communication, and tools they need to actually do it. The steps I’ve outlined above are a big part of how we’re doing that at Hubstaff.

Are you managing a remote team? How have you approached building trust? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.