One of my designers lives in Turkmenistan. Every day, he wakes up to email and assignments to create beautiful front-end designs from our commercial team in New York and San Francisco. When he’s done, he sends them to a developer in Ukraine to implement. Throughout the day they work on various projects, and when they go to bed our design and development teams in New York take over. The system runs smoothly and it means that my team happily works around the clock — without any one person actually working around the clock.
People often ask me about how I managed to build this global engineering team at RebelMouse, and before that at Huffington Post, relaying their outsourcing horror stories and wondering how I got around them.
A lot of it comes down to being really intentional about how our globally dispersed team communicates. We can’t take remote team members out for a beer to show our appreciation, so we use other methods. In my 15 years managing remote teams, I have learned to:
- Live and breathe your email and make sure the team does too. Currently my team is spread across more than 20 countries. Instant messaging relies on everyone being there at the same time. Email, on the other hand can be totally asynchronous as it fits our time zone difference and odd working hours in general. The only way I’ve found that works is when everyone on the team keeps their inboxes open and checks emails as their absolute highest priority. Without that we operate blindly to each other since there is no tapping someone on the shoulder as there would be in an office.
- Give the benefit of the doubt. My team has huge cultural and language differences (although everyone does have a working knowledge of English as the basic way we communicate). We all were raised with different ways of approaching projects, handling conflict resolution etc. It’s essential we forgive each other constantly for odd grammar, odd behavior and instead try to make the beauty of building something together lift us above any confusion.
- Overcommunicate. Especially as part of a startup, it’s sometimes hard to understand where we are going and what we are building. Asking questions all the time helps. I want people to always be inquisitive while also working on the little pieces of concrete stuff that we definitely know. If a question doesn’t get answered because of email overload, I like people to ask again or bump up the thread so that we make sure everyone is on the same page.
- Be intentionally positive. It’s way too easy for things to sound negative in an email. Without tone, body language or anything else, it’s extra important to make sure emails don’t turn into hurt feelings. Sarcasm and deadpan humor can come across the wrong way (especially because humor doesn’t always translate across cultures). But being friendly and approachable – even if it means using lots of emoticons – is always welcome. I try to encourage my team to be overtly friendly in their emails, even if it means they sound less “businesslike.”
- Offer suggestions, not critiques. When you disagree with someone in person, you can often discuss the issue until you’re both on the same page. That’s much harder to do from halfway across the world, when a brief “I don’t get it” can steer the conversation into a dead end. I always tell people to make sure to move the conversation forward: if you don’t like someone else’s idea, can you suggest an alternative instead of simply sharing your dislike? If there’s anything you do like about their proposal, make sure to include that. In general, I’ve found when I have something positive to say, I send it immediately and when I have something negative I sometimes give myself some time to mull it over. I am usually glad I did.
As the one assigning the work, you can also prevent communication frustration by making sure everyone has multiple tasks in their queues. That way, if one thing gets stuck in a communication bottleneck, remote employees can move on to the second or third task on their list while they wait for a response on the first task. This keeps everyone moving full speed ahead – no matter where they are in the world.
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