Remote Work

Business operations for supporting remote teams

by Karen Amundson | July 29, 2020

Everything has changed. The way our kids get their education. The way we eat at restaurants. The way we travel. The way we work. Here’s the thing though—it’s not all bad. At the risk of coming off a bit too glass-half-full, companies are turning to remote work, which opens up new opportunities for all—opportunities that Apiary Digital has been honing for the past 5 years. 

During this time, we’ve uncovered major gaps in how companies utilize talent and technology. Not to mention, underlying assumptions shaping the culture of work that do a disservice to many teams. It’s not about how to do what you did before, but remote. Nor is it a stack of tools and tips to help you work remotely. It’s a completely new opportunity to rethink how you do business, and how you can better-align talent with business and human needs. 

Throughout this series, we’ll be sharing the ingredients for our secret sauce—for aligning fully remote teams chock-full of top talent to drive extraordinary business performance.

Let’s recap this series so far. We’ve introduced a new way of thinking about establishing remote organizations, building around the unique benefits of remote work instead of trying to 1-to-1 replace office life virtually. We’ve replaced outdated assumptions about hiring with the premise of treating talent as the customer. That is, viewing employment as a service which is foundational to attracting top talent and aligning individual needs to business needs. And to do this, you need the right talent. There are different characteristics to filter for when hiring remote talent

This post will cover the operational infrastructure and approach needed to reap the benefits of Structurally Flexible Teams, and maximizing the value you get from top talent.

Put people first

People are at the heart of every organisation—even more so with a remote business. Advice like, “make sure to say hi to people” may sound silly, but it’s easy to forget when you’re not in the same office. Say hello and introduce yourself whenever you encounter or interact with someone new. If you welcome a new person onto your team, make sure to introduce them to others. If you are on a video call and notice someone new that you’ve never met, introduce yourself. 

It’s easy to overlook simple connections like saying “hi” in a remote work environment because people won’t have many happenstance ways of meeting others. Make a proactive and conscious effort to ensure people are introduced to one another. At Apiary, we introduce new consultants in our #watercooler Slack channel and ask them to share a little about themselves. This often sparks interesting side conversations and helps people build personal connections.

Ensure onboarding is smooth sailing

The first step to ensuring a new-hire is successful involves a bit of matchmaking between projects and individual skillsets. Once someone is hired and matched to a project, a key indicator of their success within the remote organization is how well their onboarding process goes.

At Apiary, we’ve got a well-documented onboarding process which includes: 

  • A comprehensive welcome email with step-by-step onboarding instructions
  • Invitations to email, Slack, and our time entry/project management system
  • Immediate access to our internal resource library
  • An 11-step onboarding process they are instructed to work through and systematically check off within the first 2-3 business days of being hired

Once a new-hire has completed the onboarding checklist, they’re invited to attend a new consultant onboarding session—ideally with other recent new-hires to give them a chance to bond with the other newbies. This session gives them further insight into our vision and values, how we work with clients, how to get the most value from being part of the Collective, and more. Throughout the onboarding process, we ask for feedback on how things can be improved because what makes sense to one person may be confusing to another. 

Document SOPs early and often

Document all standard operating procedures (SOPs)—early and often! In a traditional office environment, you might be able to get away with allowing nuances of your systems living with the one brilliant subject matter expert that can answer all the questions. But with a remote business, you have to build solid processes, habits, and continually updated documentation. Everyone needs to know where to find a given piece of documentation and how to update it.  

To build good documentation:

  1. Identify replicable processes (especially those that require collaboration).
  2. Build an outline of typical steps, including project management tools, task list templates, and links to other supporting documents needed to execute on each step. Ensure you’re keeping in mind who the “customer” is in each step, and think from the customer’s perspective when creating the documentation.
  3. Have someone else test out the documentation and provide feedback. Address the feedback, then make it accessible to everyone!

Ensure everyone has the access they need

Speaking of access… everyone on a remote team must have the access they need to documentation, tools, accounts, data, and project status, or it can be a huge productivity killer. If you have people working at different times of day, the last thing you want is to lose a day of work because someone was missing something important.

Establish standard conventions and systems for storing and accessing information, and then maintain strong habits of keeping information accessible and transparent. You want people talking and collaborating on important topics, not disrupting each other’s productivity to ask for silly information that should be easy to access independently. Teams who fail to maintain access to information will get trapped in the 24/7 remote work life, and if someone gets sick or goes on vacation, it will be difficult to to keep moving things forward. 

Design for transferability and redundancy

When we say “transferability” what we mean is that you want to ensure multiple people on the team can pick up a given process or task. When you have big projects and peak-season workloads, you can quickly plug in extra hands. Individuals then have the flexibility to go on vacation, take offline time, or take care of sick kids while the rest of the team moves the business forward. Let’s stop pretending anyone can be “on” all the time. A lot of companies are designed around the premise that people will always be at 100%, which they just aren’t. So instead, plan around the reality that you need contingency plans to keep moving the business forward even if not everyone is 100% all the time. This was important before COVID, but it’s even more critical now.

Although it adds some up-front costs, at Apiary, we see a big value-add to building a bit of redundancy into our business, where multiple people are cross-trained, looped in, and able to cover for each other. Especially during COVID, we’ve beefed up coverage plans. Every client project has an emergency coverage back-up plan. If someone had to suddenly take time off to care for a sick family member, for example, we have thought through ahead of time who could jump in to take over their work, and gathered critical links and information that person would need to step in, plus, seeded project relationships that would facilitate an unplanned transition. If we need to, we can keep driving business forward even if one project team member needs to tap out for a bit—this makes it easier for people to take planned vacations, too!

Managing remote team operations isn’t just procedural in nature, it’s also cultural. You can’t have people believing that their entire value to the organization is that they’re the only person who can do X. Otherwise, they’ll hold back information to ensure the importance of their position. Instead, show people their value to the organization is in their ability to make good decisions in-line with company values, in their ability to be flexible and considerate, and to produce results. 

There are multiple facets to the operational infrastructure behind successful, Structurally Flexible Teams. In the next post, we’ll be covering the tech stack needed to support remote work.

A huge thank you to Apiary Marketing & Operations Manager Holly Hilton who provided subject matter expertise for this article.