What I Learned From Managing an International Remote Team

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By Charlotte Dillon

Nils Vinje Manages International Remote Teams

Guest post by Nils Vinje of Glide Consulting. A version of this post appeared on the Glide blog.

Let me start with the good part: when I managed a team of customer success managers in San Francisco, we were really successful. We worked together seamlessly.

We met often to talk about long-term strategy and problems that were coming up, we chatted over lunch about how things were going, and when someone had a question, they came and knocked on my door.

So when I moved into managing a distributed team of CSMs, I applied the same communication strategy: always be available. It didn’t matter that my coworkers were in Tokyo and London instead of down the hall—I would be the same resource I was before.

Now for the bad part: it didn’t work. Simply put, “always be available” isn’t a system.

It took some time to hammer out, but I learned that remote teams need to be much more systematic, document everything, and communicate constantly. Our international team eventually ramped up to become one of the most productive teams I’ve ever worked with, time differences aside. Along the way, I learned that international remote teams can actually be more efficient than co-located ones, as long as they adhere to these processes.

Get Rid of Meetings

Meetings were a bad habit, a relic from when I was operating a co-located team. I was getting up at weird hours, and so was my team. We scheduled international meetings via Skype, which sometimes meant our Korea team took meetings at all hours of the night. I responded to questions from team members as soon as possible, which meant I was at the beck-and-call of my phone, even when I had other stuff on my plate.

They felt like a chore to schedule and were often really inefficient once we actually got underway. Voices cut in and out, someone’s kid was distracting them, or there was a delay in the sound. It looked a little like this:

Meetings have the potential to be efficient and productive. But if you have them all the time, and you’re constantly jumping on calls with people in Bangkok, you’ll never finish your own work. As Jason Fried, co-founder of Basecamp and author of Remote: Office Not Required writes:

Meetings should be great–they’re opportunities for a group of people sitting together around a table to directly communicate. That should be a good thing. And it is, but only if treated as a rare delicacy.

Not to mention, there’s nothing like seeing a big stretch of blank space on your calendar. Think of everything you can get done with all that time to yourself!

Move Your Meetings to Text

Here’s how you can start making meetings feel less like a chore and more like, as Fried says, “a rare delicacy”: ruthlessly cancel them. Most of your meetings can be moved into an asynchronous, text-based platform. It doesn’t matter if it’s via email, Slack, or some other communication tool. If it can be done via text, it should be.

There are a lot of benefits to doing this, including:

  • Providing you with a record of everything. Not only will you have the minutes of all your notes, you’ll have the actual meeting to go back to in case anything needs clarification.
  • Forcing you to think about what’s important. Writing requires one extra step, and makes you think before you speak: “do I really need to bug my co-worker about something, or would it be disruptive?”
  • Making managers more thoughtful and effective with their communication strategies, since writing requires more clarity of thought than speaking.

Process Is Everything in International Remote Teams

In an international remote team, your processes need to be practically a science. There’s little room for error since a time zone difference means that a mistake could take a full 24-hour cycle to correct.

That’s why Des Traynor from Intercom has his team treat their internal documents like code. It’s accessible to everybody, it’s adhered to rigorously, and above all, it’s open source.

Every member of the team can open and edit them if they think something will work better. When done properly, they build a framework for your workflow that’s constantly iterated and improved.

Remote teams are all about sticking to processes. When there’s a new one in place, it can really shake things up. And when a new process doesn’t make sense, it can be particularly bad for remote CSMs. When you’re co-located, you can easily tell when something isn’t working, and you can easily voice it to your team. When you’re distributed, it’s harder to recognize the problem and speak up.

If something isn’t working out for your team member in Korea, they should be able to say so and provide an alternative—so long as they communicate it well, and everyone confirms it.

Always Get a Receipt

In his “10 bullets” video on how to run an art studio, artist Tom Sachs offers workers one tip that applies to just about everything in life: always demand confirmation.

The same applies to process changes. If you don’t get confirmation, you should assume it never happened. We’re bombarded with information all the time. Some of it sticks, some of it doesn’t.

“Without a receipt, your actions can not be proved. Without a receipt, you don’t exist.” Tom Sachs

At Glide, Trello is our weapon of choice for this. We make a card with everyone’s name on it. Not only does everyone have to read the card, they have to tick off that they’ve read it. That way, we receive visual confirmation that everyone has read the entire change, understands it, and is ready to implement it. It also means that people actually adhere to the modified process—they’ve signed on to it, so now they’re beholden to it.

Keep Everyone in the Loop

In a distributed team, it’s dangerously easy to keep people out of the loop.

When I took over as lead for a remote team, I discovered that the London group had been doing something really different. We were serving an analytics company, but while our product was primarily code-based, the London office had offered customers a “services” option—essentially, consulting. It came as a huge surprise because it simply wasn’t what our company did. It wasn’t in the CSM job description.

But no one had any idea—we weren’t kept in the loop.

Because no one told them it was a bad idea, they kept doing it. And it really bit us in the end, since when the guys running the consulting service left, no one knew how to take over their job. We were at risk of losing all their clients since we weren’t prepared to fill the roles they’d carved out for themselves.

That’s why you need transparency across the board. Whether it’s a process change, a new hire or someone in the San Francisco office is going on vacation, everyone should know—the repercussions might be bigger than you think.

How OPEN DNS Communicates like Crazy

As Chris Doell, VP of Customer Success at Open DNS told us, the best way to keep everyone in the loop is to over-communicate. The one potential problem with this system, however, is information overload. When you send a ton of information, the important stuff can get lost. It’s hard to find the signal through the noise.

That’s why it’s so important to systematize communication.

At Open DNS, that system is a team newsletter—a weekly roundup of the most important stuff communicated via chats, emails, and meetings. They make sure it’s not a last-minute, throwaway project, and have an admin spend a couple hours on it.

Theirs usually includes:

  • Important changes that have been made to workflow or customer list
  • Feedback from customers
  • Congratulatory shout-outs

They also send it at the same time every week so team members can expect and rely on the newsletter system.

If you don’t systematize where information is going to and coming from, people won’t know where to look. Was that new schedule buried in a Slack conversation? Or an email that they accidentally deleted? Whether you choose to communicate in weekly memos ala Google Snippets, Trello, iDoneThis, or Slack responses, consistency is key.

“What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness”

My co-founder Alex has been working with his remote assistant Julie for a number of years now. She’s worked from Bali, Dubai, and Seattle, but their workflow remains the same. Their relationship has remained constant throughout her travels because of their reliance on over-communication.

As Julie likes to say, “What happens in vagueness stays in vagueness.” If anything, it’s made working together even easier, since they have so much documentation to go back and search through.

alexjulie international remote teams
That’s why having a remote team can be better than a co-located one. A lot of the problems that afflict remote teams are just exaggerated versions of the ones you see in an office. Sure, an in-person meeting is better than a virtual one. But you’ll still wind up with a couple of people only paying attention to 10% of what you’re saying.

Being remote forces you to be more explicit. You have to create systems. You have to adhere to processes. You have to over-communicate. Here’s the real kicker: this would actually all benefit co-located teams, too.

Remote teams, when done right, actually have an advantage over co-located teams. Good documentation and communication gives team leads a ton of data and insight into how the team is doing. You can easily tell what’s working, what’s not working, and how you can improve. If you implement these systems, you’ll wind up with a remote team that crushes it from every time zone.

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