The tools and tactics we use to manage our distributed team

The distributed team model has been a common approach to work in software companies. Multimillion dollar companies like Zapier and Basecamp have their teams distributed all over the world. The WordPress parent company Automattic (valued at over $1.16B) boasts over 500 staff located in 57 countries.

The notion of remote working has become a hot topic amongst professional services providers as of late. With trends moving towards the distribution of knowledge, highly skilled and talented workers know that they can work just as effectively from places outside the office, while also attaining a better work-life balance. Employers should consider this a win.

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At SmartBooks Online we made a decision from day one to operate in a distributed environment. All the tools we use to undertake work, interact with our clients and engage prospects are all via cloud based applications. We only make ‘in person’ meetings if absolutely necessary. These are typically business development and sales meetings as well as our monthly and quarterly strategy meetings.

We tell our clients (and firmly believe it) that being a virtual business has no downside, and in fact can have large upside to your operations. To stand behind this philosophy of virtual working, we encourage all of our staff to work from where they are most comfortable – from a beach, pub, bedroom – they choose. 

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Yet for all their advantages, distributed work environments do come with a unique set of challenges. The top two challenges we face as a business are:

  • Ensuring team accountability; and
  • Lack of a cultural of camaraderie (sometimes hard to feel part of a team when you’re on your lonesome in your bedroom).

While these issues are not uncommon across every organisation – virtual or not – the distributed environments do present additional challenges.

These are the tactics and tools we use to manage our teams in our virtual business.

The Rockfellar Habits (Tactic)

The Rockefellar Habits is a methodology termed by Vern Harnish, an American business strategist.

The Rockefeller Habits provide a number of strategies that help organisations align their workforce around solving its most important problems. The strategy establishes a communication and accountability rhythm so that every employee can measure their own progress as well as observe the progress of others. This is monitored through the identification and regular reporting of critical numbers, as well as a series of daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly meetings.

We broadly follow the strategic planning principles of the Rockefellar Habits followed by the accountability model which comprise:

  • Quarterly strategy meetings;
  • Monthly management meetings; and
  • Weekly huddles.

Given that sometimes our team are in different time zones and working on different projects, it can be tough to coordinate meetings even just for our weekly huddle. We had to get creative on how we would touch base with our staff to ensure everyone is aligned and able to execute their goals.

Here are the tools we use to manage this:

Slack – the pillar of communication (tool)

Slack is the pillar of internal communication in our business. Basically it is a modern team communication tool that consolidates and simplifies day to day communication. It makes past conversations discoverable with search and is very intuitive with sharing information and knowledge.

Slack has done wonders in eliminating internal email and is evolving to be a workflow function of our business with the use of bots and integrations to our other apps. An example of this is that we’ve integrated our Sales CRM (Base) into Slack so the team are notified when we close new deals.

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As a distributed team we need to communicate regularly, and Slack has been the tool that works for us. I know some organisations use HipChat or Hangouts. They’re same, same but different.

Jell – the pillar of accountability

Jell was introduced to us via the wonderful Steph Hinds from Growthwise. It was the tool we’d been searching for.

Jell is an app that provides a central place for team members to share daily plans, accomplishments, challenges and long-term goals. It basically became the software platform to aid the ‘daily huddle’, but for distributed teams.

Jell integrates into Slack and pushes through everyone’s goals and achievement for the week which keeps us all in the loop of what’s going on and adding some social accountability.

Jell is the bomb.

Worklife – the pillar of effective meetings

Everyone hates meetings, right? Worklife aims to make meetings effective by automating agendas. The app syncs with Google calendar, which prompts our team to review agendas before any meetings so we can hit the ground running.

Tasks can be directly populated into Trello or Asana for any actionable items for your team members so everyone can stay focused on achieving their objectives.

What’s also cool is the bot integration. Every morning the bot integration into Slack gives me a daily summary of the meeting and events I have on for that day and prompts me to prepare for them.

Appear.in

There are a ton of video conferencing tools. We used to Skype until it kept crashing. Appear.in is a seamless way to jump on video calls with team members, clients and prospects.

Conclusion

Working in a distributed environment requires some adjustments from management to empower their staff with an additional layer of authority and trust. It is a balancing act for me personally (it’s the accountant in me) to fight the urge to over manage people and their expectations.

The foundations to building an accountable team in a distributed environment is to hire people that you trust, and trust the people that you hire.

The unexpected by-product of this model is team empowerment. Expectations are set and progress is measured based on outcomes, not processes. If executed well, your team have respect for you and the system, they identify with their KPIs and they get stuff done.

You may find they enjoy coming into the office as well…

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If you have embarked on a distributed environment working model in your organisation I’d love to hear what tools and strategies you have implemented. A lot of this has been built on trial and error and knowledge from others. We are always keen to improve.