Seasoned tech startup leaders share tips on how to build effective remote-first teams and operations for technology companies
With the rise of the internet company, remote work emerged as an inevitable development in the way we work — the next milestone after the Industrial Revolution ushering the factory and office. The tools are there, with videoconferencing, chat apps, and data storage platforms. The incentives are also aligned between job seekers and companies.
Remote work has evolved as a way for companies to tap into a larger pool of talent, especially in markets where the cost is lower. It has also become a way for job seekers, mostly millennials and Gen Z, to access career opportunities and experiences that they would not have been able to have in their locality, without having to take on the costs of adjusting to a new country. This has led to the rise of outsourcing, most often business support or customer service and software engineering and development roles.
While remote work has been around for a few decades, it’s only during this COVID19 crisis that companies have been forced to place remote work front-and-centre. And not just any kind of remote work, but work-from-home (WFH).
But WFH has proven to be easier said than done. While tech giants like Facebook and Twitter are able to leverage their own internal tools and organizational structure to transition teams to WFH, tech startups and SMEs are not as equipped or not as mature. Remote operations require a certain level of institutionalization (ie set processes) and task delineation across roles.
That said, it’s not impossible. Even as countries reopen after months of lockdown, there’s certainly the impetus to develop teams that are prepared to go remote, if not stay remote for the long-term. We talked to three technology leaders with experience managing remote teams across Asia: Jianfeng Lu, chairman and co-founder of conversational AI talkbot company WIZ.AI, Kelvin Chng, co-founder and Head of Tech at Southeast Asia’s leading car marketplace Carro, and Ridy Lie, Insignia Ventures Partner and Head of Tech.
From their experience managing remote engineering teams even before COVID19, they share insights on how to build an effective remote-ready (if not remote-first) culture, which we curated into five key points:
- Small teams, but never alone.
- Find good tools that remove FOMO.
- Set up “anchor” meetings.
- Small steps, fast pace.
- Set checks for the “quality” of productivity.
While their experiences have largely revolved around managing software engineers, their learnings apply to remote operations in general. And even though WFH will likely not be gospel by the time this crisis has passed and we will readily return to our offices, certain teams and companies will find remote a better arrangement. Others will upgrade their business continuity programs to go fully remote if ever the need arises again.
(1) Small teams, but never alone.
Carro’s engineering team is spread out across Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar, and a pair based out of Wuhan. For Carro’s engineering team, forming small teams across multiple markets was not intended, but a result of tight corners in the local hiring market. “Hiring engineers is extremely difficult in [Southeast Asia],” says co-founder Kelvin Chng, “so we chose to go where talents are, rather than being fixated on a [specific] country.”
But even with the inevitable fragmentation, they made the conscious decision that every country they would go into to expand their engineering team they would never hire only one. “When we [brought in] our first foreign overseas hire, that person was alone in the country without any support structure — no colleagues, no office, nobody to pow-wow with, nobody to brainstorm or bounce ideas with.”
Concerned about the wellbeing and long-term commitment of their first remote hire, Carro wanted to make sure that their remote hires feel involved and part of the team, in spite of being physically miles away from the office. This commitment means that they can’t just hire carelessly in any market — Carro needs to be prepared to build a remote team in the market if they do start hiring for remote positions there.
“We make sure that we have a team. We make sure there’s a support structure around that person so that there is a certain level of teamwork that they can actually experience [in] that structure itself,” says Kelvin.
That support structure goes beyond building a team. They also ensured that their remote hires are roped into major conversations, even if they are not involved in the immediate work at hand. Ensuring awareness and involvement is important in creating that sense of belonging. As Kelvin put it, “We do not work like an offshore center — “Oh, okay. This team does this, that team does that” — we don’t do that. Ours is a team structure.”
And these conversations aren’t confined to work. “We use Slack for communication for the most mundane stuff. So we even created a channel to post, “What did you guys have for lunch? Or what did you guys do over the weekend?”…We have Telegram channels, we have WhatsApp channels, [where] they do share about what they’re eating and stuff.” By creating online spaces for remote teams to interact beyond work-related conversations, Carro’s remote team is able to transcend the distance and come as close as possible to the kind of camaraderie that comes out of face-to-face interaction.
So while forming fragmented, small teams are part-and-parcel of expanding into remote operations, they are ways to work around the separation and innovate the kind of interactions employees are able to have.
“In a nutshell, the key here is to make sure that even without the physical office, face-to-face interaction, that bond that you build cannot be in any way lesser than what it’s supposed to be,” says Kelvin.
It is really a culture-building effort. As Insignia Ventures’ partner and head of tech Ridy Lie puts it, “We have a small team, but we’ve always adopted the remote-first culture. So that means as a company, we are committed to make it this first-class experience for remote workers. If you are working in different countries, if you’re working at your house or in the coffee house, we give you a commitment that you will not be missing anything. All our processes and tools are designed in such a way that more than workers will be able to fully participate.” This approach to building remote teams fosters inclusivity while still being able to hire and manage talent from anywhere in the world.
(2) Find good tools that remove FOMO out of the equation.
From the get-go, finding the right collaboration and communication tools are necessary for creating tight-knit remote teams. “If we were to operate these small teams, we needed better tooling, better collaboration. So right from the start, we tried to find tools that will allow multiple small teams to communicate with each other,” says Kelvin.
As COVID19 rendered office work unsafe, WIZ.AI began using Larksuite, Bytedance’s work collaboration platform. According to the chairman and co-founder Jianfeng Lu, “It’s a combination of tools, several different features, such as messaging like Slack, collaboration docs like Google Docs, shared drive, like Google Drive, video conferencing like Zoom, and also a team calendar, translation tools, integration, et cetera.” For Jianfeng, this ubiquity in capability has made it a very practical platform for his team transitioning in and out of remote work as lockdowns and reopenings varied across markets.
Kelvin also tried Larksuite before COVID19, but his team was already settled with Notion. “So Notion is our defacto tool in communicating. We have online [sharing] of documents, and we’re able to share files in there. We don’t have the video conferencing capabilities, but it actually promotes a lot of discussions and a lot of accountability in how a discussion goes, because the changes and comments are recorded.”
According to Kelvin, this ability of Notion’s platform to provide “accountability” accommodates the different experiences of engineers with different seniority. Senior engineers are able to develop the document further as a record for the more junior members of the team to review and read up on.
Regardless of the tool of choice, it should be able to remove the “fear-of-missing-out” (FOMO) effect out of the equation. The best remote teams are able to operate and interact in a way that isn’t in any way significantly less productive than being in a physical office. Thanks to COVID19, more and more tools designed to do this are coming into the fold, or in some cases, companies in the productivity space like Microsoft are adjusting their platforms and offerings to remote-first operations.
(3) Set up “anchor” meetings to work with personalized schedules.
Remote operations don’t just mean fragmentation in space, but also in time. Even within close enough time zones, schedules can easily go out the window. For every employee adjusting to work from home, there’s serious mental work and discipline that goes into delineating working from non-working hours and aligning that segregation with one’s own personal working style. Distractions abound, though in most cases, employees have to take care of other responsibilities especially if they are working from home, from spending time with their children to cooking their own lunch.
Kelvin shares what he’s observed from his own team. “I do have staff who start working or being productive after 7:00 PM. And I have staff who will take longer lunches because they are at home where they cook. So they prepare longer lunches. And at the end of the day, they don’t stop work at six, they stop work at [around] nine. So it really depends on each individual way of wanting to operate within their own confines and their own structure.”
In an office work setting, managers and employees would normally leave at the same time once work for the day has been completed. But with remote work incentivizing personalized work schedules, accountability is more difficult to monitor from the manager’s point-of-view.
But it would also not be productive and practical to force a standard schedule for remote employees. From the employee’s point-of-view, once they’ve gotten into a certain rhythm that works for them, disruptions and distractions can be difficult to handle.
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