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How we run a productive remote team at Asian Efficiency

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Thanh Pham working from pool

One of the interesting aspects of the way we work at Asian Efficiency is that we are 100% remote. That means we don’t have a physical office and that everyone works from “home.” That could be a home office, a coffee shop or even the beach. That’s one of the many perks of working at Asian Efficiency — you can live and work from anywhere. Working as a remote team is fantastic and it has many advantages, but it also comes with different problems and challenges.

Over the last three years, we’ve run into many challenges with productively running remote teams, and today I’d like to share how we do it. Over the next couple of months, you’ll be seeing more posts from me on how we work productively as a team (on top of the regular personal productivity stuff from me).

To kick things off, I’ll share the three most important pieces of a productive remote team. This is the foundation you’ll need if you want to have a team of people who all live in different countries and time zones.

The Foundation of Productive Remote Teams

To have an efficient remote team, you need a strong foundation of:

  1. The right people
  2. The right technology
  3. Alignment

You would think every team would need this, and that’s absolutely true. But we’ve found that for remote teams, these three components are more important than anything else.

1. The Right People

The Asian Efficiency team working together

Let me start with an ugly truth: working from home is not for everybody.

I know people envy me whenever I tell them I work from home. If I got a penny every time I heard, “Oh man, I would love to do that,” I’d be retired already. It sounds awesome to be able to just roll out of bed and then work whenever you want from home.

And it is, but there are also many downsides people aren’t telling you:

It gets lonely

Working from home means you don’t have co-workers anymore that you can chat with. There’s no more water cooler talks or seeing your friends at work.

There are a lot of days when you’re just working alone, all isolated from the outside world. As a single guy, I’ve had times where I didn’t leave my apartment for six days in a row and didn’t talk to anybody “in the real world.” Obviously that’s an extreme case, but it shows you that it can get really lonely. Not everyone can handle that.

If you know that you need people around you and you’re (really) extroverted, working from home is probably not right for you. No matter how much you talk to people on Skype or FaceTime, it will never replace real human interaction. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have extroverted people on the team. We do have them, but they know that they’ll need to get their social fix from outside the team.

That’s why we actively screen people for this. You need to have people on the team who can deal with this. Luckily there are plenty of solutions for those who need people around — like working in a co-working space and encouraging team members to seek out social hobbies where they can get their “social fix.”

Communication skills become more important

When it comes to written communication, there can be no ambiguity. The margin for error is almost zero. In face-to-face meetings, you can easily crack jokes and convey emotions, but that’s all gone online. There’s no place for sarcasm or vague sentences. Everything you write has to be clear. I’ll expand on this another time, but for now just know that you need to be able to write and communicate clearly.

That’s also one thing we look for when we want to hire someone. How clear are their emails? Do they contain typos? Can they simplify complex ideas in written format?

If they pass all these criteria, then they’re a good candidate to work remotely.

You need more discipline

Working from home makes the line between personal and work time very blurry. You often don’t know when you’re “switched on” or “switched off.” When you have so much flexibility, it gets easy to go to extremes: you either work too much or you don’t work enough. When you have unmotivated people, they tend to work fewer hours when they have so much flexibility. On the other end of the spectrum, when you have motivated people they tend to work more hours.

You might take a Tuesday afternoon off and think you can make up for it on another day.

Can you?

That requires discipline. I’d say most people don’t have this discipline. That’s why we always look for this trait in people, and I highly encourage you to figure this out for people you want on your team.

The challenge then becomes making sure everyone is getting enough downtime to stay productive week after week. That’s why I have to remind people to stop working on weekends and to take vacations. It’s a “good” problem we have at Asian Efficiency.

Wherever you fall on the spectrum, working from home still requires more discipline than when you work in an office. At least when you show up at the office, you know you need to do stuff and “be productive.” At home that line is blurry.

2. The Right Apps and Tools

macbook

Okay, so now that you know what traits are good to have for remote workers, let’s talk about tech stuff. From my own experience, when it comes to remote teams, they have to rely more on technology to get things done. Your tech infrastructure plays a much bigger role than in traditional office teams.

Due to the nature of remote teams, a lot of communication is done through typing (instant messengers, emails, text messages), and you need to be able to have everyone online at the same time (which can be a huge challenge when you have people in over six time zones). That requires a lot of tech solutions to work that you wouldn’t need when you have everyone in an office.

When we first started, there wasn’t a lot of information on how to run remote teams and which software to use. Through lots of research and experimentation, we’ve found a solution that works well for us. Our main criteria for the tools were:

  • They had to have a reputable company behind them with active development. We don’t want to wake up one day to find out that the tools are discontinued due to bankruptcy of the company.
  • The ability to integrate other apps and services is very important. When you use lots of separate tools and services that can’t communicate together, you end up with inefficiencies and lots of separate systems that slow processes down.

With those two criteria in mind, we eventually bought into Atlassian as our foundation. Their apps and services meet both criteria. We use HipChat (instant messenger), Confluence (enterprise wiki) and JIRA (collaboration platform).

The other company we bought into is Google through their Google Apps. We use their Gmail app, calendar sync and office suite (Google Docs and Sheets).

The other app we use is LastPass for managing passwords. Even though I’m a big fan of 1Password and still use it, it can’t scale to teams. That’s where LastPass comes in. It allows you to share logins without revealing the actual passwords with team members and people outside Asian Efficiency, which is a big selling point. The other is that managing accounts and access levels from an admin perspective is really convenient, too.

Another fact we learned along the way is that your calendar skills need to be in the top 20%. In order to keep everyone up-to-date and showing up on time to the right meetings, everyone needs to have their calendar synced up and be above intermediate at using a calendar. To sync everyone, you must have a reliable calendar syncing service (we use Google’s) and apps (Busycal and Fantastical). I cannot stress this enough. If just one person is out of sync or doesn’t know how to use a calendar, it’ll slow down the rest of the team.

There are a bunch of other apps and services we use, too, but the last one I want to mention is Zapier. Some of you might be familiar with IFTTT; think of Zapier as the business version of it. Thanks to our above criteria, we can link a lot of apps and services together through Zapier. The biggest one is HipChat, which we’ve turned into a mission control center. That’s because Zapier hooks together lots of popular apps and services as well as HipChat.

For example, anytime someone leaves a comment on the blog, one of our HipChat rooms gets updated and we can respond quickly. When someone emails a support question, our Customer Service room gets notified of it and we handle all tickets within 24 hours. Zapier can also send daily and weekly reminders to people on HipChat, which we find really useful for certain tasks and processes.

So having the right technology foundation is really important for remote teams. It took us a lot of time and experimentation to figure out the right mix, but hopefully this has given you a leg up.

3. Getting Everyone Aligned and Working Together

AE team jumping on the beach

The third point that I want to highlight is how important alignment is for remote teams. Due to the nature of remote teams, it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re working towards and where you’re heading as a team.

In an office you can see what your peers are working on and feel the energy and excitement on the progress you’re making. Just being around people keeps you on top of what’s going on and what everyone’s top priorities are.

That’s all gone in a distributed team. When you have someone in Los Angeles, Sydney and Bangkok all working on their own little things, you get out of sync and you’ll make very slow progress. That’s why it’s crucial from a management point of view to keep everyone in sync at all times and to make it easy for people to find the information they need at the times they need it.

That’s because each friction point makes it exponentially harder for people get things done. When you can’t find the right piece of information and the only other person who knows where it is is asleep on the other side of the world, you can imagine how much things get slowed down. When you have multiple friction points, then things just come to a halt and nothing gets done efficiently.

That’s why having both the right technology and a high skill level from everyone on the team is so important. Everyone needs to have a certain level of skills and be in sync with others to do their best work.

The toughest lesson we learned, though, is this: the hardest part of running a remote team is making sure everyone is rowing in the right direction.

Sure, finding the right people is hard. Having the right tech solutions is a tough project, too. However, having everyone aligned and rowing in the right direction is actually much, much harder.

I could write a five-part series on how we do this, but here’s the gist of it:

  1. Have a set of core values and mission that everyone buys into.
  2. The visionary repeats himself a lot. A lot, a lot.
  3. Have standard operating procedures (SOP) for how we do certain tasks and processes.
  4. Conduct lots of training sessions to keep everyone up-to-date on the newest tech solutions.
  5. Have a predictable rhythm of when people are expected to showcase their work and come on meetings.

Want More?

This is the first time we’ve shared how we work at Asian Efficiency and how we work as a team. Is that something you’d like to see more of on the blog? Let us know in the comments below. If there are enough votes, we’ll continue to publish more on team productivity.

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13 Comments

Posted by Stefania  | December 10, 2017 at 3:15PM | Reply

Hello – I run an online marketing agency, and I would love to hear more about this. I am just myself now, but am onboarding remote people in the next few months. If you work with contractors, do you have them in on your team building activities as well? Or, in some of them?

Posted by Cong  | November 6, 2015 at 1:47AM | Reply

I am currently working on my small business and for months I was looking for a guide like this. I would be very interested in a in depth course or training how to replicate this in my business.

Posted by Jeremy Bonney  | September 18, 2015 at 10:53AM | Reply

Really surprised you don’t use Slack. I’ve never tried HipChat though… have you ever tried Slack?

Posted by Thanh Pham  | September 18, 2015 at 11:28AM

Never tried Slack because Hipchat is so awesome ;-)

Posted by Arman Assadi  | September 15, 2015 at 6:58PM | Reply

Nicely done, Thanh! Really enjoyed this one and was curious on your take the moment I read the headline. Hope all is well my man! :)

Posted by Justus  | September 14, 2015 at 3:56AM | Reply

Interesting. Especially the part about ‘it’s get lonely ‘. My personal solution is playing a lot of tennis. It’s good for your health and for the necessary social interaction. As an owner of a small business I am very interested in these articles. Thanks.

Posted by Ines  | September 4, 2015 at 2:12PM | Reply

These are super interesting, please keep writing them!

Posted by Bob Connex  | August 20, 2015 at 7:23PM | Reply

How often do you get your remote team together, face to face? Once a year? Every six months? I’ve found that if you can do that early and regularly, you can build teamwork, relationships, and trust faster and better than relying simply on the tech.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | August 21, 2015 at 3:02PM

We usually meet twice a year face-to-face. I agree – the more you do it, the more efficient everyone gets.

Posted by Grace  | August 11, 2015 at 8:24AM | Reply

Do you still use OmniFocus for personal things? If so, how did you integrate it with Atlassian? I am looking for such tool for my small team, but I can’t find something they like. I didn’t give Atlassian a try, so that’s why I ask :)

Posted by Thanh Pham  | August 11, 2015 at 3:11PM

I still use OF for my personal needs but I don’t have it integrated with Atlassian – they are completely separate. I’ve tried but haven’t found a good solution. Keeping the separate seems easier to manage.

For teams, I recommend either Asana or Teamwork.

Posted by Constantin  | August 8, 2015 at 5:29PM | Reply

i would love to see more posts like this.

Posted by ife  | August 6, 2015 at 5:03PM | Reply

please more of this, and please educate us more on how you use HipChat (instant messenger), Confluence (enterprise wiki) and JIRA (collaboration platform).

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