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Our Principles For Managing Distributed Teams and Remote Work

Like many companies headquartered in Coronavirus affected by areas around the world, we transitioned to a distributed team. Since we were set up for remote work from the very beginning, this situation is nothing new for us. So here are the lessons learned we collected since our launch.

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Posted by Mathias J. Klenk

Due to the recent developments around the novel Covid-19 virus, we initiated a mandatory work from home policy effective Thursday, March 11th, 2020. Like many companies headquartered in affected areas around the world, we are now transitioning our operations to accommodate a fully distributed workforce.

Luckily, this is nothing new for us. Passbase was built from day one to operate as a remote-first company and our Head of Business Development recently documented the challenges, strategies, and impacts while operating with a distributed team .

For the past two years, we have operated teams across three continents and five time zones, including a group of fully remote workers. With this in mind, we wanted to share the principles that have worked for us.

1) Take time to align people’s work to your mission

Running an effective distributed team requires that everyone on your team understands how their work fits into the overall company mission. People need to have enough context to prioritize their time without direct supervision.

Questions like “Why are we building this?” and “What should I do next?” should be easy to answer for everyone on your team. You cannot assume that this information will be absorbed through casual conversations.

At Passbase, we achieve this alignment by (1) spending time with every new hire to explore our mission in detail, (2) reviewing the top-level company goals on a weekly basis during the, by now fully virtual, all-hands, and (3) linking every individual’s goals to company-level goals. By overcommunicating our top-level company goals and clearly linking them to the projects and tasks individuals are working on, we empower our people to make decisions when senior management is not around.

For founders and leaders, this might seem a very tedious job, to repeat yourself over and over again. But as your startup grows, new hires join every month and start from a different knowledge point. Therefore, it’s worth repeating the mission and goals over and over again to drive alignment throughout your organization.

2) Create measurable goals with clearly identified owners

Now that your team understands the mission and how they fit in, it’s important to give people ownership of problems and hold them accountable for solving them. We do this by using objectives and key results or OKRs . Our Chief Product Officer, Felix Gerlach, wrote his final Master’s thesis on the subject.

We have company-level OKRs, department OKRs, and personal OKRs. The objectives are linked through all levels of the company. Every individual has clear goals that are aligned to a department and stem from a company goal. This ensures that people know what to do, why they’re doing it, and most importantly what not to do (aka prioritize the right things).

Our company OKRs are generally top-down and personal OKRs are generally bottom-up. We use the OKR framework to make these goals actionable, measure outcomes, and track progress for every objective. This allows us to set clear expectations with employees. Here is an example of what a company level OKR might look like broken down to team and then personal OKRs at Passbase.

3 columns with interlinking arrows showing the different goals between a CEO, VP of sales and account executive

3) Empower people to act autonomously through a culture of trust and ownership

Now that everyone on the team understands what they’re responsible for, how their work fits into the company strategy, and how progress is measured, it’s important to empower employees to operate autonomously. All this investment in alignment, context building, and goal creation will be for nothing if you don’t empower team members to actually make decisions and own the outcomes.

One of the many ways we foster this culture is by encouraging employees at all levels to operate as project owners. As a project owner you are expected to define a project, build a plan, coordinate resources, communicate progress, and ultimately own the outcome. Junior employees require oversight to succeed in this environment, however, by having full ownership, people start to understand how to succeed at higher levels of our organization early in their careers.

4) Build processes and invest in tools that encourage 1, 2, & 3 to happen efficiently

In a distributed work environment, it’s important to build processes to encourage communication, ownership, and alignment to take place. Here are some of the methods that we use:

  • Daily written standups
  • Daily virtual standups (Timezone Specific)
  • Regular businesses hours + focus time
  • Virtual coffee chats
  • Weekly all-hands
  • Company Wiki
  • Kanban for all
  • Management focused on metrics

Daily written standups

Everyday, each team member writes and submits a daily written standup regardless of level, role, or function. This stand-up is posted to a public channel that is visible to every employee at Passbase.

The structure of these standups comes in three questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What will you do today?
  3. Is there anything blocking your progress?

The purpose of the written stand-up is to help individuals commit to their near-term goals in a public forum, ensure there is transparency in what people are doing on a daily basis, and serve as a record of what has been accomplished (or not).

The tools we use to support this are Slack and the Standup Alice chatbot that asks the question above on a daily basis.

Daily virtual standups (Timezone Specific)

Everyday, all the major time-zones host a 15 - 30 minute standup at the beginning of their workday (usually around 9:00am). Working from home can lead to people feeling detached from the team and to feeling unstructured. We use the daily check in as a structured kick-off for our day, a daily human touchpoint for those working remotely, and a nudge 😉to have a plan for your day.

They usually start with 2 - 3 minutes of small talk. After that 1 minute for each participant to highlight the most important elements of their written standup with a particular emphasis on blockers. Standups often end with 2-3 people jumping on separate calls to work through any unresolved topics or blockers.

The tools we use to support this are Google Calendar for scheduling and Google Hangouts/Meet for video conferencing.

Regular businesses hours + focus time

Real-time communication is important for remote workers, however, there is a huge cost to this level of connectedness. We found that real-time responsiveness led to an unproductive amount of switching costs, especially in our engineering team. This is what led us to experiment with the concept of focus time.

Focus time is a scheduled block of time (e.g. 10:00 - 13:00) across the entire organization when everyone focuses on their core work and real-time responsiveness is not expected. It takes time to get used to in the beginning, especially for those who have to get used to “not now” by an engineer. There are of course exceptions to this rule (e.g. when something is critical).

However, we found that this practice boosted our team’s productivity, especially when most coordination is occurring over channels that have a culture of real-time responsiveness. We use Google Calendar to support this.

Virtual coffee chats

In a fully distributed team, a lot of chats between members just don’t happen due to the physical separation of spaces. Imagine in an office, how many times you had a nice small talk or work-related job chats at the coffee machine or while grabbing lunch.

In order to fight this problem, we encourage all our team members to have almost daily check-ins, virtual coffee chats or lunch breaks. This helps build a sense of team culture and bring people again in sync.

For manager-employee relationships, we recommend to put even more effort on regular monthly or weekly scheduled 1on1’s, in order to address any topics and identify areas for improvement.

The tools we use to support this are:

  • Google Calendar
  • Google Hangouts
  • Notion for OKRs

Weekly all-hands

We wrap up every week with the company All-Hands (aka Jour Fixe). This is the place to review weekly progress of our product, engineering, sales, and other projects followed by an AMA session with founders and presenters. The purpose of this meeting is to provide the entire team important contextual information about our goals and the progress we are making towards them.

The tools we use to support this are:

  • Google Calendar
  • Google Hangouts

Company Wiki (Crowd-Sourced)

The objective of the wiki is twofold. First to document all important information and be the single source of truth for everyday work. For example, there you can find everything from brand assets to playbooks, standard operating procedures, department goals, OKRs and the likes. All of this information lives, breathes, and evolves there which is why we decided early on to build a company wiki that documents all this information in an accessible and editable form.

Its second objective is to empower new team members. We’re a rapidly growing company and the wiki helps new joiners get acquainted with processes and resources at their own pace. This, in turn, helps them find out how he or she can contribute to the company from day 1 (remember again the autonomous culture above in point 2).

See for example the screenshot below from our Engineering Wiki on Notion. New team members are able to contribute their first line of code after just reading through these pages.

A glossary of the areas that the remote engineering team uses to work with

Kanban for all

The objective of the wiki is twofold. First to document all important information and be the single source of truth for everyday work. For example, there you can find everything from brand assets to playbooks, standard operating procedures, department goals, OKRs and the likes. All of this information lives, breathes, and evolves there which is why we decided early on to build a company wiki that documents all this information in an accessible and editable form.

Kanban can be a useful tool in order to structure all kinds of work. Within our engineering organization we actually use Scrumban (a mix of Scrum and Kanban) and for non-technical project management we do something similar. The purpose of this approach to project management is to allow for structured coordination and collaboration between people who may never physically meet. This also allows teammates to visually assess where they are in a task.

The tools we use to support this are:

  • Jira
  • Gitlab
  • Trello

Management Focused On Metrics

We can’t say how important it is to put the effort into identifying and keeping an eye on your metrics. We try to measure everything we can. This starts from website traffic - and trickles down to every part of our sales organization and engineering teams - and it has two benefits.

First, it helps the whole company understand its pace. Say, for example, you want to launch a new feature that’s part of a bigger campaign which itself forms a major initiative. Knowing how long it took to develop a similar feature in the past can help predict how quickly the new feature would be ready (assuming they weigh the same). In other words, using the past to predict the future. (Bonus suggestion: measure your estimation certainty to further sharpen the output prediction)

Second, they are a great way to communicate what’s expected from our teams and a chance to exchange feedback. You can only expect the team to improve if you set a baseline to compare against. This also, when done right, allows management to clearly track progress against goals at all levels.

In all honesty, our solution to this is not as efficient as we’d like it to be. We use a mixture of Hubspot, Jira, Gitlab, Elastic, and Google Data Studio all to measure metrics that matter to our business. If you have any good data management solutions, feel free to send them our way!

Conclusion

We believe running an efficient distributed team requires two key ingredients.

The first is mature management practices . This means rigorously planning OKRs down to an individual level, systematically evaluating output to measure and drive productivity and keeping regular business hours. These will be easy if you have the right foundations such as an aligned team and a culture of autonomy, trust, and ownership.

These are the practices that you wouldn’t be surprised to see at IBM or Google, because they are extremely effective at coordinating a large number of people. Half the battle of going remote is good management so our advice is to reread Jack Welsh, Peter Drucker, and John Doerr and take notes.

The second key ingredient is tools to empower remote collaboration. Tools like Slack, Notion, Jira, GitLab, Trello, and Google Hangouts, when used effectively, can streamline your communication and collaboration to the point where colocation is no longer necessary to drive progress. This is about more than just using tools. It’s about your organization forming the right habits and behaviors to succeed as a remote workforce.

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