For agencies juggling a million projects at once, remote workers are often a cost-effective solution. You can hire the talent you need on-demand, typically at a fraction of the cost of a full-time, in-house designer or developer. But if you can’t build trust in remote teams, you can throw all that convenience and cost savings out the window.
Frank Garcia is founder and CEO at Cycligent, where staff is 100% remote. Garcia says, “If you hire good people and trust them to do their work, 98% of the time they will get the job done. I trust my team to get their work done, and as a result, they trust me to respect them as employees.”
Your agency may not be there yet.
That’s ok. Chances are, if you’ve stumbled upon this post, you’re on the right track. You’ve already landed on the most important question in managing a virtual workplace:
How do you build trust in a remote team?
We’ve pulled back the curtain on some of the most successful remote teams to find out how they make remote work work. Here’s what we found works best to building trust in virtual teams.Trust is the most important commodity in remote teams. Learn what it takes to build it Click To Tweet
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Enable and empower
When she was on maternity leave, Edgar founder Laura Roeder checked out. It’s obvious why she trusted her all-remote team to get things done: while Roeder was away on leave, monthly recurring revenue (MRR) increased 47 percent!
But the kind of trust that allowed Roeder to walk away for 3 months doesn’t just happen overnight. Both employer and employee need to do their part. For Roeder, that means enabling and empowering her remote workers.
That opinion is backed by the research.
Writing for Harvard Business Review, Keith Ravazzi notes that in a study of remote teams at a Fortune 500 global IT company, the most trusting teams were those where “power had been shifted among the members depending on the stage of the project.”
“At Edgar, we give employees full access from day one. Credit cards, passwords, the whole kit and caboodle,” says Roeder.
Talk about empowerment.
Now, that might be extreme for agencies managing an army of freelancers, but the principle is the same.
“Sharing of power doesn’t mean that a virtual team shouldn’t have a general leader,” writes Ravazzi. “It should, but that leader should have more of a ‘monitor and mentor’ approach to managing, instead of the traditional ‘command and control’ mindset.”
If that sounds challenging, that’s because it can be. Fortunately, there’s a wide range of innovative apps that make the “monitor and mentor” approach to empowering employees more feasible than ever.
Apps for empowering remote workers and building trust
Time-tracking and activity-monitoring with Hubstaff
Hubstaff, a time-tracking app, is well-tuned to support the kind of “monitor and mentor” approach required to build trust in remote teams. With Hubstaff, agencies can monitor screenshots and activity levels of remote contractors, see which projects are being worked on, and analyze time-based performance.
As contractors demonstrate attention to the job, you can give them the additional autonomy needed to help build trust.
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Progress reporting and activity monitoring with Basecamp
Basecamp should know a thing or two about managing remote workers. The company is celebrated for its approach to running a globally distributed team.
Basecamp’s project management app makes it easy for you to get a 360-degree view of team activity, so it’s a great tool for agencies looking to empower and monitor remote workers. Real-time “Campfire” chat, automatic check-ins, and a variety of integrations make Basecamp even more effective.
Employee status updates with iDoneThis
I Done This gives you insight into what your remote team is working on, what’s been accomplished, and what’s up next with simple, no-nonsense daily email digests.
Bonus Points: If you’re looking to empower your remote team, create a culture that encourages “safe failure.” If you don’t give remote workers the same opportunity to experiment that you afford your co-located team, you shouldn’t expect work that’s truly creative and innovative. Build trust in remote teams by giving remote workers room to get creative.
Part of enabling and empowering your remote team to do its best work (and trusting them to do so) is encouraging them to share their ideas. Whether you’re managing a group of salaried full-timers or an army of hourly freelancers, your remote workers need to be engaged in the agency’s mission.
Keep this in mind:
An “open door” policy is not enough
“My door is always open,” said every well-intentioned boss ever. But creating an opportunity for employees isn’t enough when managing a distributed team. If you want to build trust in remote teams, you have to encourage it — even if that means scheduling a couple more meetings each month.
That’s exactly what Zapier CEO Wade Foster discovered running a remote team. So Foster and the leadership team schedule monthly 1:1 video chats with employees, focused on four things:
- What’s one thing you’re excited about
- What’s one thing you’re worried about
- What’s one thing I can do better to help you with your job
- What’s one thing you can do better to improve at your job
If you’re managing a lot of hourly freelance creatives and developers, monthly 1:1 check-ins might sound like overkill. And depending on the scope of their involvement, it might be. But without encouraging engagement, remote employees don’t have much incentive to contribute their best work. They need to feel as though they’re a part of something. “If that doesn’t happen,” says Roeder, “they’re obviously going to stop offering up their best ideas.”
There’s an app for that
There are a variety of apps companies can use to encourage remote workers to contribute ideas, suggestions, and feedback. One of the most popular is Trello, a user-friendly “list of lists” that can help companies organize all that stuff.
Zapier uses Trello to crowdsource ideas for new features from its remote team. At Hubstaff, Trello is where we encourage our content team to suggest new blog topics. And The Magistrate, an internet marketing agency in Vancouver, uses the app to manage its scrum framework. The possibilities are endless, but they all accomplish the same thing: getting people engaged — a must when you want to build trust in remote teams.
For managers worried their remote workers are spending too much time on Facebook, this one might seem counterintuitive. But the research shows that trust is built on interpersonal relationships, and if you want to build trust in remote teams, you have to create a “virtual watercooler” (and encourage employees to drop by).
“We tend to trust others who we perceive to be similar to us because we believe that those individuals will react to various situations in ways that we can understand (and even predict),” writes Ravazzi. He advises managers to encourage interpersonal connection between remote workers in order to build trust — and that’s exactly what remote team leaders like Foster are doing. At Zapier, employees pair up at random each week for a 15-minute call to talk about anything.
“Sometimes cool new product features come out of these, other times it’s just good fun,” says Foster. “Regardless it helps everyone better know their teammates.”
Successful agencies are slacking off
Messaging apps like Slack are a great way to help you create a “virtual watercooler” for your agency’s remote (and co-located) teams. Worried about employees gabbing it up all day? Consider the results R/GA reported after adopting Slack’s chat software for its distributed team in 2014:
- Meetings decreased 30 percent
- 30-40 percent faster decision-making
Slack is an extremely open-ended messaging app that helps teams communicate and collaborate in real-time, and it’s making big waves in the agency world. Ogilvy, AKQA, and IDEO are just some of the heavy-hitters that have adopted the platform. More than just improve productivity, Slack builds relationships between remote co-workers. Many companies, like Groove, even create “channels” in Slack purely for socializing.
“[Slack is] our virtual water cooler,” says Groove CEO Alex Turnbull, “giving our team a place to talk about anything, work-related or not, or even let off some steam.”
Start now: Build trust by strengthening interpersonal connections among your remote team. Keith Ravazzi studied what builds trust in remote teams and says, “Managers can help encourage such personal connections by starting meetings with a ‘Take 5’ for people to talk about what’s been happening in their lives, both professionally and personally.”
Agency work is fast-paced, and details matter. But you can’t trust your remote team to get the job right if they don’t communicate effectively. Fortunately, there’s a whole slew of software applications designed to help you and your team communicate — and collaborate — in real-time.
Here are some of our favorite apps that enable more effective communication and build trust in remote teams:
Didn’t we just talk about this one?
In addition to helping remote teams build relationships and camaraderie with dedicated “water cooler” channels, Slack’s messaging app easily integrates with 3rd party services (like GitHub for coding and Cocktail for standups) agencies can use for more specialized communication.
Attentive is a messaging app built by Go Fish Digital to minimize meetings and collaborate. The tool was designed in part to help agencies brainstorm. An option for anonymous feedback can help improve the planning process, too.
HipChat organizes team communication into “rooms” and is generally regarded as a simpler but more affordable alternative to Slack.
When text doesn’t cut it
For agencies managing remote teams doing extremely technical work (think web design and development), nothing is better at keeping everyone on track than video conferencing. You don’t have to overdo it, either. Market Domination Media CEO Jonathan Long recommends framing remote development projects around three video conferences (kickoff, mid-project, end) to keep everyone on the same page.
Need to walk remote workers through something complicated? ScreenFlow is a screencasting tool that makes it easy for you to record and share video (or GIF) walk-throughs.
Hire good communicators
Still, when you’re trying to build trust in remote teams, finding the right software is no substitute for hiring the right people. The best remote employees are those that communicate clearly.
That’s why effective remote team managers look for good writers.
“In a co-located office, a lot of information is shared in-person,” says Foster. “In a remote situation, everything is shared via written communication.”
Whether you’re hiring a remote developer, designer, or project manager, make sure they can communicate effectively. If they can’t get their point across quickly and clearly, they’re not well suited for remote work — and you won’t be able to trust them to get the job done right.
It’s just one of the reasons why communication takes a starring role in our list of questions to ask when hiring remote workers for your agency.
Setting expectations is important in any business, but when it comes to managing remote workers, it’s especially critical. Cycligent’s Garcia talks about the importance of “give and take” when working remotely:
“Just like an employee occasionally has a sick kid to take care of, the company sometimes has a ‘sick kid’ to take care of. And if the company is willing to let the employee take care of their emergencies, I would like to expect that our employees are willing to take care of the company’s emergencies.”
Any agency can surely relate to the kind of “company’s emergencies” Garcia is talking about: when the client doesn’t sleep, neither does the agency team.
Setting expectations about how to handle company and personal “emergencies” is even more important if your agency is working to build trust with full-time remote contractors or employees. After a conversation with Garcia about flexible scheduling, one remote Cycligent employee observed:
“At the end of the day, it comes down to trust. The company has to trust that the employee is willing to contribute and give their best efforts to the company. Conversely, the employee has to trust the company will not monopolize the employee’s time and take away from important things like family.”
Building trust in virtual teams is not impossible
When you’re trying to build trust in remote teams, Billy Joel said it best:
It’s a matter of trust
When it comes to managing your agency’s remote team, there’s nothing more important than building trust. And building trust starts with building the right team. Check out our guide to interviewing for remote workers for your agency, or take it a step further and sign up for our email course on forming and managing remote teams: