Creating a Healthy Work Environment with Remote Staff

By Bobby Gill on September 6, 2019

Managing teams in charge of supporting and developing technology can be problematic – you’re going to encounter odd-balls who reflect the “IT guy” archetype, sales and marketing members who are still bullshitting their way through their jobs as they learn how to discuss your product or service, among other interesting characters. For companies with remote jobs, there are unique obstacles to navigate.

At Blue Label Labs, we are a purely remote team of over 65 people spread out throughout the globe, working in teams of up to 10 across many different disciplines who bring complex software systems to life. We’ve been a remote team from day one when the sum total of our company was me plus my co-founder. Since then we’ve grown quite a bit and remote work is ingrained in the culture of our company and is something that I do not see changing anytime soon.  Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned about how to create a healthy and productive work environment for remote staff.

Communicating with dispersed remote workers

Any time you bring new people into the mix, there’s an adjustment period for everyone to get used to each other. If you’ve spent time around animals, you may have seen similar situations when bringing two dogs together – even though they might get along, sudden, unexpected meetings create stress and someone might get bit.

To prevent existing team members from “chewing on the furniture,” proper introductions and team-building exercises are just as necessary for remote workers. At Blue Label, we’ve found ways to address the challenges with the physical distance while also building a great culture.

Of course, it’s not perfect as there are human aspects that need to be mitigated.

For example, there’s a fine line between an asshole on your team that creates strife and a talented person whose ego is a just bit overbearing. Both need to be put in check as this is critical for team harmony. Unique personalities “make sense” when you work in the same office but some people come across as odd over Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or whatever platform your team uses.

This is perhaps one of the biggest caveats of today’s technology – many of our communications transpire over text, a messaging platform or email where humor and other undertones simply don’t translate. Not only does concise communication keep projects moving along, but it’s also necessary for team members to “get” each other as different communication styles or humor can derail a conversation. It’s just a little trickier when you’re not all in the same office.

Developing a great culture for remote teams

Remote teams can experience poor dynamics without good communication or clearly defined expectations. Here we’ll provide the main methods we use to keep our staff focused and team members working in a productive, yet sustainable environment.

Set up a communication schedule. This should go without saying but your teams absolutely have to communicate on a constant basis. Using systems like Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Slack gives everyone the ability to talk about projects in specific channels – or just banter and send memes! – which keeps conversations organized. The video and voice conferencing along with whiteboard tools in these systems and others can help communicate a process or challenge more efficiently.

Develop culture around output and quality. Technology enables us to work from just about anywhere we’re comfortable. Rather than imposing rigid hours around the old “9 to 5” model, figure out what works best for your team. Blue Label Labs has people all over the world working in different timezones. This is helpful for team members that have families with younger children – a toddler that needs attention will inevitably slow you down when trying to work from home but it’s better than trying to work on a dynamic project around a fixed childcare schedule!

The focus should be on meeting deadlines with quality projects so let things fall into place as far as work location and hours are concerned. A focus on output has a self-selecting benefit in terms of employee happiness and retention – people who rely on slick talk and appearances to succeed in lieu of actual work are quickly snuffed out and those who can produce are rewarded.

Recruit self-starters with integrity who enjoy autonomy. Effective time management is more difficult for some than others but it’s critical that individuals are able to manage workstreams without the need for constant supervision. This ties into the culture of output-focused products. As long as someone can keep in the communication loop and stay motivated to move through their tasks, allowing some slacking or at least time to decompress keeps team members fresh. However, for those that constantly need to be monitored to ensure they’re being productive, such people should be replaced as soon as possible so as not to weigh the rest of the team down. One of my bedrock principles of management is that if you need to look over the shoulders of your team to make sure they’re doing their work, then you’ve got the wrong team.

Encourage face-to-face meetings. Working mostly from home is great for certain models but teams will build better rapport with each other when they work in the same location. Facilitating in-person meetings at regular intervals by getting people together from other sites, who typically work from home  – and sometimes even exclusively remote workers – helps everyone “read” each other better. Video conferencing solutions are certainly helpful, but elements such as body language and other subtle components of communication don’t quite make it through these mediums. 

By getting people together under one roof, team members can sit and have lunch together and get to know more about each other which can help enrich their lives outside of the office too. Some people are less social (which is fine) but most teams tend to better motivate each other when good relationships are established. At Blue Label, we like to get the team together for a ‘social’ every six weeks – we usually end up going to one of our apartments, hanging out for a few hours and just shooting the shit. 

Use project management tools diligently to prevent things from falling through the cracks. The one issue with great software is that if no one uses it (or uses it improperly), it suddenly becomes not so great. In addition to communication tools we use to keep conversations going, we use a few project management tools to keep efforts organized. When used diligently, there are fewer instances of, “I thought Mikey was supposed to be doing that?” or frustrations that mount because you didn’t realize there was an issue with some portion of a project. Everyone should feel that staying on top of using these tools is an expectation, not an option. 

In a remote environment where there are no whiteboards or other totems for teams to organize around, it’s critical that remote teams have a disciplined process around project management and are all bought into a common set of tooling to organize their work.

Let Blue Label Labs build your app!

Navigating the complexities of team dynamics is much easier when teams are equipped to communicate properly and track their projects with high-visibility software. The baseline for success is a great culture that accommodates people’s needs and rewards autonomy. With the right talent and good bonds, completing projects is like putting the business on auto-pilot!

Get in touch with us at Blue Label Labs to learn more about how our services will help your business stay on the cutting-edge.