Building Community: A Closer Look at Managing a Remote Team

Management is defined as “conducting or supervising something” (most often people), but in today’s age of remote work, I’ve discovered it also includes a more nuanced responsibility: creating and maintaining long-distance communities and amplifying company culture via technology.

Remote culture is often treated as a fluffy buzzword but—as someone who feels the pressure of an isolated work environment every day—I think it’s a largely unexplored way to engage workers that are not tied together by shared geography. A bit of background before we dive deeper: I work from my home office in Florida for a content creation startup called Verblio, which is based in Colorado. Most of the team works in Boulder, but a few of us (including the team I manage) are scattered.

Now, remote work is fast becoming the norm and many studies have pointed to the high output of remote workers along with their increased productivity and decreased stress levels. However, I’ve also read countless articles that correlate highly-productive, successful employees to a sense of belonging, a feeling which is difficult to replicate when you don’t frequent the same watercooler. That’s why community is the very thing I strive to foster for my remote team.    

I became Verblio’s operations manager in June of 2018, so I’m a fresh-faced managerial noob. Despite that, I now manage a team of remote professional services account managers and work with a nationally remote team of writers that number in the thousands. I may not have all the answers or years of experience but, as a remote employee myself, I like to think I’m well attuned to my team’s needs and challenges (as well as those of our larger freelance community). I know that the remote bubble is alternately constricting and autonomous, and, more often than not, lonely.

Tackling the negative effects of remote work isn’t as hard as you might think. The antidote to the remote bubble problem is simply building empathy and trust between remote bubbles. Human interaction and shared experiences are powerful ways to build trust, so I’ve tried to implement a bit of both into our remote program in order to foster stronger relationships and transparency.

With all that in mind, let’s get to the meat of this article: key steps to create and maintain a remote working community.

Open discourse + honesty = community

laptop in a coffee shop
Effective teamwork in remote settings takes work, but it’s possible. | Photo submitted by Evie Carrick

More than anything, remote workers rely on the power of communication. Luckily, today’s technology gives us no shortage of ways to stay connected and be heard (more on that later). In the interest of connecting the remote community and encouraging ongoing dialogue, I’ve worked with Verblio’s director of operations to open more channels of communication for our remote team. We’ve implemented a Slack channel that acts as an outlet for conversations about experiences, problem customers, and day-to-day chit chat.

I’ve also made the conscious decision to be approachable, available, friendly, and honest when providing help and feedback. As a rule, this persona describes every member of the Verblio staff, but translating that openness to a primarily online group of employees takes an extra layer of self-awareness.

That self-awareness and desire to create community led me to many of the steps I’m about to bullet for posterity. The combination of these 5 key steps has been essential to the growth of our remote community and has led our internal push to provide the same experience for our network of freelancers.  

Key steps:

  • Lead by example by creating as many interactions as possible
  • Provide access to structured group Slack channels
  • Use best practices for effective remote communication
  • Share articles, experiences, and updates; ask for opinions and encourage feedback
  • Practice self-awareness and offer forthcoming answers to all questions

Face time is critical

At Verblio, we’re big Slack users but we pepper our interactions with a dash of Google Hangouts and Zoom calls. Now, I won’t lie, face time probably feels a lot more critical to remote employees than it does to those who are two doors away from their own managers. As such, it’s important to make time for face-to-face interactions with regularly scheduled video calls. I check in with my team regularly and try to interact with everyone on a daily basis, but the power of video calls cannot be underestimated.

Up until the last quarter of last year, we didn’t have a strict policy of how often these calls would occur. The more I got to know my team and felt out their pain points, the more obvious it was that we needed some structure to our infrequent roundtables. Since then, I’ve implemented quarterly one-on-ones and group meets to ensure we’re still moving in the same direction. These meetings include your basic happiness and productivity check as well as group discussions about future product improvements, how our roadmap has evolved, and what trends and patterns we’ve noticed in our clientele. Oh, and they further strengthen the bonds of our budding community.        

Key steps:

  • Quarterly video chat 1:1
  • Quarterly video chat account manager meeting
  • Encourage virtual coffee dates

Invite criticism

There’s nothing more frustrating than being remote and facing a challenge on your own. I’ve been there. That’s why I invite constructive criticism and seek out discontent. Our services are ever-evolving and our account managers are often the first to come up against scope creep and misaligned expectations. Their input is vital to the way we run our professional services as well as their own happiness. (Ray Dalio’s method of “radical transparency” is an extreme application of this technique, but a good example, nonetheless.)

Listening to criticism (and, more importantly, answering it with improvement) is a method Verblio has long implemented on the writer front. We’ve held writer talkback sessions to find out what the platform could do better and we monitor our open writers’ forum to push common complaints to a higher priority on our product roadmap. With this precedent already in place, it was easy to use the concept of ‘criticism hunting’ as a model for my team of account managers.

Both the one-on-one meetings and group meetings provide an open floor for tough questions and problem-sharing. In each agenda, I’ve included time for non-structured Q&A and feedback because, in the course of encouraging ongoing discourse and honesty, I also want to give criticism its due. One of our most successful pivots this past year was making a change to the pay scale after an open discussion about the extra time our account managers were spending on a single high-margin task.

Key steps:

  • Lead quarterly group discussion; find areas that need improvement
  • Check-in frequently for “problem customer” updates
  • Continue encouraging open discourse and honesty (see above)

Dig into pain points

Now, if you intend to invite criticism, you better do something with it. The invitation of feedback and criticism leads to the next major pinnacle in maintaining that open, friendly, and transparent remote culture: making changes. Everybody has pain points. Some are unique and some are experienced by everyone. In either case, digging into the pain points together to find solutions that make an impact is a huge step in establishing trust and building a better team.

Filtering through criticism to pinpoint those pain points can turn into a process. Sometimes it’s easy to determine the root of the problem and make a quick pivot. Sometimes it requires reorganizing and revamping your entire product to tackle customer-facing expectation-setting. (This very real example led to a much-needed onboarding process update as well as the creation of new marketing and sales collateral).

No matter how big or small the problem, include your team in an exploration of the problem and brainstorm the best solutions.

Key steps:

  • Structured brainstorm sessions to explore fixes with the entire team
  • If one employee is experiencing a unique pain point, identify best practices used by other team members & share

Share the big picture

What are your remote colleagues working toward? | Photo submitted by Jonathan Kalan

Being a part-time, remote worker is a combination that often leads to a disconnect with the larger company. I don’t think any manager wants their remote team feeling relegated to their remote bubbles with no insight into company-wide changes and improvements, but, alas, that can sometimes be the case.

So, here’s my working solution: share the big picture. Throw open the doors to visibility by adding the remote team to larger inter-departmental Slack channels and provide updates on the company roadmap. Hell, dig into those pain points some more and ask your remoters to brainstorm additional features and products that would solve them. After all, our developmental roadmap is the amalgam of the entire team’s input. Part-time or full-time, remote or local—all roles can have a big impact on how Verblio evolves.     

Key steps:

  • Share company goals and development plans
  • Create visibility into other departments via Slack channel access
  • Invite to internal staff meetings

Remote employment is on the rise, but are we doing everything we can to anchor our ever-expanding workforce to the company and clients with which they work? At Verblio, I like to think we are. I’m certainly giving it my best. Because when your breakroom or in-house ping pong table isn’t the draw that keeps employees around, it’s the relationships and bonds you foster.

From our vast network of writers to my small and incredibly efficient team of account managers, being attentive and responsive are the principles that have guided our growth. And as you can see from the above, we’ve got a lot more growing to do. I couldn’t be more excited about where we (and the remote workforce/gig economy) are headed!

About the author: Alexa Baray is Verblio’s (remote) operations manager. Along with a small group of account managers she also oversees professional services offerings and enterprise customer success. She’s a passionate advocate of inclusivity, community, and kindness throughout the workplace, qualities she’s found across the board at Verblio.