People ask us all the time, “where are you guys located?” My typical response: “everywhere”.
We’re a 100% remote organization. That means our team gets to live in cool places like San Francisco, Boulder, Burlington, New York City, and Malta. It also means we have to manage a 9-hour time difference and ensure good work gets done.
With more and more companies shifting to remote work and studies looking into their effectiveness, there’s clearly widespread interest in the shifting landscape of our workforce. How do we organize people to defend meaningful work instead of the four walls of a building?
How to make remote offices thrive on a day-to-day basis?
I’ll leave it to our office manager, Kyle Bella, to catalog some of the principles, attitudes and digital tools that make Open mHealth successful as a multi-city, multi-country digital healthcare non-profit spread-out over 6,638 miles. He’ll also explain ways these tools can be adopted by any company right now to increase efficiency.
At Open mHealth, our core team consists of people with widely different backgrounds and skills who in another lifetime would never have worked together. But now they do.
What we all share is a passion for improving healthcare. We capitalize on this passion to motivate our everyday work.
However, to really thrive in a remote work environment, passion isn’t enough. If we’re not communicating as a team, projects will fall by the wayside, and everything will ultimately dissolve at some point. Since we are juggling many concurrent projects, these open lines of communication are particularly important.
But what, exactly, constitutes “open lines of communication” for us?
We hold daily standups to stay on the same page. Though we’re not literally standing up, these quick 10-15 minute digital huddles let each team member know each everyone is working on, and allows for David to ask follow up questions.
We record our weekly successes, failures, and ambitions in a single, running document. Beyond daily check-ins, we have a weekly report document that provides a more complete snapshot of the week. We also use it to track major analytics across our site and social platforms.
We have monthly 1-on-1’s with our ED. Every month I help schedule internal meetings with David (our Executive Director) to do a more in-depth check-in to not only dive into what worked and didn’t work the month prior, but to come up strategies and solutions to improve the what hasn’t been working.
Other as needed meetings are scheduled when we’re working through particularly challenging projects like our data visualization library.
We also set a block of time when most team members are online for 3 to 4 hours following the standup. This allows us to follow up on standup questions and unblock any issues that need resolution. Outside of this time, the team is available for instant messaging on Slack (which will be discussed more in the following section).
We schedule a yearly retreat to talk strategy and hangout as a team. We held out last week long retreat in San Francisco to discuss our major objectives in 2015. But we also found the time to relax and eat, which helped us all connect on a more personal level.
Put A Digital Toolbox in Your Hands
In order to make these interactions possible, we rely on a whole host of tools (and I use a host of others to complete other operations-related tasks). Some of them are tried and true (like Google) while others have unexpectedly entered into our repertoire (like Slack, Doodle, or Trello).
Google Apps is #1 in our world. It’s true — without Google Apps, we’d probably not be where we are today. It’s our mail client, my scheduling tool, a document repository, a collaborative platform to work on website copy and blog posts, create biz dev related spreadsheets, and our preferred internal, and of course Google Hangouts for meetings. No other company offers these many features for such a good value (at $5 per user per month).
We clear out our inboxes with Slack. Slack is an instant messaging tool that has fast become one of our most essential internal communication tools. It’s our digital water cooler. Instead of cluttering our inboxes with communications about projects, social media, and scheduling, we turn to Slack to make things happen. They also allow you to favorite important documents or text, set up channels for specific discussions and (this is the fun part) you can create custom emoji to use.
Living and breathing through our Trello boards. For those unfamiliar, Trello is a project management tool that allows you to create different boards. With different cards, columns, customized color coding, the ability to automatically copy and paste emails, set due dates, and tag team members, it’s proved useful as an agile product management tool for large scale and long duration projects like Linq. But we’ve also used it to manage marketing, our Summit, and our publicly shared roadmap.
(One of our team members can has even earned the nickname Katie “Trello” McCardy (a play on McCurdy) for her excellent use of the platform.)
One of my biggest challenges is scheduling. I’ll be honest: it’s not easy trying to schedule across nine hours of time zones, particularly when there are multiple parties involved.
If you have to schedule posts for external and internal groups, I would suggest solidifying 2-3 time slots internally before sending out an email to outside parties. When you’re scheduling for large groups (like 8 or more), you’ll easily get buried in an email string and have to answer questions about time zones, etc. This is where Doodle comes in handy.
Doodle is useful because it creates a shareable link that visually shows all of these different scheduling windows. Days can be listed consequently (or not) and spread across multiple weeks. Time zones can be changed by the recipient so there is no confusion, and they can leave comments if they have partial availability.
You’re probably wondering: what happens if you don’t have a printer? How can I sign important documents and share them with multiple parties? We use RightSignature and would recommend it to others. Though we do have a physical coworking space in New York City, 95-98% of all communications are digital.
If you’ve been puzzled on which CRM platforms to use, we recommend Streak (free) and HubSpot, both of which we’ve used extensively, including for our most recent Summit where 120 people were involved.
Every Company Can Adopt These Principles
This post isn’t meant to say that a remote workforce is the best idea for all companies. Some companies need a centralized workspace to design physical products. But in cases where your product or services are digital, a distributed system has its advantages. (And certainly any challenges can be overcome in easily actionable ways, as I showed earlier.)
What are the advantages of a distributed workforce?
There is flexibility that comes with working remotely. In my case, I can wake up groggy at 7:30 AM, walk 25 feet to the coffee maker, and in 30 minutes, I’ll be have a hot cup of coffee running through my system, ready to work. No packed subway commute or paralyzing traffic. No work uniform. If I have a doctor’s appointment during the day, I can come home later and get online to schedule meetings or draft the next blog post. It’s no longer a 9 to 5 world as Dolly Parton sang in 1980.
We communicate more effectively and efficiently. Why? Because we have to. One of the risks of digital communication are misunderstandings, whether it’s because you can’t determine tone or it’s harder to walk over to the next cubicle. We communicate all day, every day so there isn’t much of an opportunity for misinterpretation. We also expect each team member to proactively update us throughout their work process rather than having to nudge them for information. This proactive communication allows us to get more done and be clear about what everyone is expecting.
Our networks are larger and richer. We live and work in more cities. As a result, we’re connecting to more Meetup groups, clinical experts working on digital health, toolmakers creating wearable devices, and other other hospital systems. This is a net positive because we can bring our work to more people, developing certain concrete solutions than might be impossible in a limited geographic area.
The best in the world means you have to go where the best is at. When hiring a talented team, we’ve learned that skill trumps geography. We found our best CTO talent in Malta, and his contributions to the team have helped us achieve things that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.
I’m not saying scrap your physical office tomorrow. Instead, think about ways that these principles can be applied to your workforce today and share your thoughts on these possible applications.
If you already work remotely, feel free to answer the question, “What tools are you using on a daily basis that we haven’t mentioned?” If you have a great remote work success story, share it below.