Advanced Tactics for Highly Collaborative, Remote Teams
As the co-founder of Toptal, Breandan was instrumental in the creation of Toptal’s. He helped set up our infrastructure in 40+ countries.
At Toptal, nothing about remote work is controversial. Over the last four years, we’ve lived and worked remotely in more than 30 countries. We’ve been running a 100% remote, 90-person strong, venture-funded company that grows hundreds of percent year over year—almost entirely from our laptops, phones, and tablets. Working remotely is a productive and efficient reality that we evangelize to our clients, while practicing what we preach. Hiring remotely removes the constraints of geolimiting and makes it possible to build the best team, regardless of whether members are across the Bay or around the world.
But it turns out some very smart people don’t agree with me. Recently, a post by Paul Graham and a subsequent response by Automattic’s Matt Mullenweg sparked a huge debate about remote work. I circulated Matt’s post to my team, because I think it simply and concisely says what we’ve been broadcasting for years: hire the world’s best talent, regardless of where they live, and everyone wins.
You’re probably already familiar with the textbook cases of successful remote teams such as 37Signals, Automattic, GitHub, and many more, but consider some not-so-obvious examples of times when office-dwellers work from afar:
- VP of Sales traveling for a conference and reporting back to her team
- Software team doing a daily scrum with a client
- Marketer negotiating ad buys with a company based across the country
- Analysts finishing a presentation on the way to the office
- Developers messaging each other from across the room instead of talking
Any time you are physically out of the office or working with someone who isn’t next to you, you’re working remotely. The way business gets done has evolved a lot in the last couple decades… but remote working, in the simplest sense, isn’t all that new.
With 100% of the employees at Toptal working remotely, we have amassed a lot of first hand experience about how to effectively collaborate from a distance. Whether or not you consider yourself a remote worker, these tips may be helpful.
1. Have a hostile or difficult client or colleague? Use video chat
You’re probably thinking that the last thing you want to do is see this difficult person. But video chat is often better than text, voice, or even in-person meetings, because it’s not about seeing the other person at all.
It’s about the other person seeing him/herself.
Bars have mirrors behind the bartenders for the same reason: people act differently when they can see themselves—even drunk and rowdy people. In most cases, they are a lot more self aware, professional, and patient. If you’re ever talking to someone and can tell they aren’t really paying attention (perhaps you can hear typing in the background, or they keep asking you to repeat things), or if you’re ever talking to someone who’s being aggressive or is just plain upset, consider switching to video. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much easier the conversation immediately becomes.
2. Reduce scheduling volleys with remote teams
You don’t need to do this, so don’t.
One of the major benefits of having an office is that you can walk over to someone’s door and ask if they have a minute. A minute later, you’ve successfully collaborated. Super short cycle time. No minutes, hours… or even days wasted.
Not so long ago, a remote equivalent of the door knock pop-in was unheard of. Email responses were still slow and long-distance phone calls were expensive. But that time is firmly fixed in the past. Now there are countless tools, from Skype to Slack to HipChat, that make instant collaboration even easier than a walk to the cooler.
Even if your team is 100% distributed, you rarely need to email someone to schedule a call or meeting to go over something. Just double check your time zones and knock virtually.
Or better yet, don’t even ask. Just call the person. While call etiquette isn’t well established on Skype, GChat, etc., using the voice capabilities of these chat platforms is key. If people are busy, they’ll ignore you. No harm done. They can call you back, or you can try again later.
That said, it’s worth being considerate with your opening message—after all, your colleague could be in the middle of a presentation.
3. Stop Inline Email Conversations
Here’s something else you may have seen before:
We actually have a rule against this at my company. I hate long emails, and I especially hate long, confusing emails. This is how stuff gets lost and miscommunicated. And trying to make sense of one of these clusters is one way that useless time is spent at mediocre companies.
Writing a tactful email response can be time consuming, but that’s no excuse for tying your colleagues’ brains in knots. The next time you catch yourself writing “See below in bold/red/underline/whatever”, stop. If you don’t have time to write the thoughtful response you want, pick up the phone and call the person, or knock on their door virtually. If you need documentation of the discussion, follow up with bullet points and action items. This will save you, and everyone you work with, a lot of time and confusion.
4. Use a VPN to Make Your Internet “Faster”
This has probably happened to you before: something seems to be wrong with your connection—you can’t get a Skype call to work, or maybe the download time on a document your colleague just sent you is reminding you of dial-up—yet a speedtest shows reasonable results.
Your ISP might be throttling your connection.
This happens to me all the time. For example, I’ve been at conferences in foreign countries and had to grapple with carriers like T-Mobile, who throttle Skype calls on their 3G networks to try to force customers to either pay for a more expensive subscription, or to make old-fashioned long-distance calls for high rates.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) encrypts all of your internet traffic, so your ISP can’t tell what kind of traffic it is, and therefore can’t throttle it based on that information. When you travel, download a VPN client like Buffered on your phone and computer or compare the best vpn services on BestVPN.com. The next time you have an issue like this, fire it up, and you might be amazed at how your connection speed improves.
As a bonus, if you’re working with sensitive data, you’ll get a nice boost in security.
Your health is as important as any of the tips above. Herman Miller talks about the “turtle” position, and how easy it is to slip into bad typing posture. A recent, much-publicized TED Talk calls sitting the new smoking. When working in the comfort of your home, hotel room, or beach, it can be easy to settle in the same place for too long.
Nevertheless, it’s certainly possible to stay on top of your exercise while working remotely. In fact, in a recent survey from ConnectSolutions, 32% of remote workers say they get more exercise now than they did in a traditional in-office work environment. To ensure this is the case, I recommend keeping a Thera-Band near your desk at all times. Olympic gymnasts use these for resistance training, and with 6” of rubber, you can do a full body workout anywhere. When you spend long hours on your computer, you need to get up and exercise often. So I suggest making a habit of grabbing it for a few moments every time you see it—whether you just walked in the door, just finished a call, or you’re just pausing for a moment in between emails or commits.
How does this help with collaboration? Exercise has been repeatedly linked to everything from decreased stress and anxiety to increased happiness, creativity, and mental performance. And it doesn’t take a lot to make a noticeable difference. Even a little exercise makes you a better team member.
Actually, you should stop reading and do a few push-ups right now.