Plunging into the startup world takes courage, especially when you’re straying from the traditional path of clocking in and out at the office to work entirely at home, because a lot more responsibility will inevitably fall on your shoulders. Thanks to technology, work environments have become more flexible and customizable than ever before, and remote work is on the rise. Laid-back as it seems, working remotely requires careful planning and constant communication to succeed. In this most recent Office Hours, we’re honored to have Bryan Helmig, Co-founder and CTO of Zapier, with us to share his success stories in managing a highly distributed team.
When doing the same tasks every day, many of us long to automate some of our workflow. In response to constant calls for help, Zapier came alive in 2011, with the mission to help users automate the most tedious parts of their day-to-day jobs. Zapier hopes its users can create a greater impact and reach a higher level of productivity with less work.
Bryan and his two co-founders, Mike and Wade, have worked remotely since the beginning of Zapier. Without a permanent office, they worked wherever and whenever they could. As Zapier was expanding and moving into the hiring process, the people they most wanted to hire scattered all across the States. Remote working came up as a way to keep the best talents. As long as the applicant fits into the overall company culture and can contribute effectively to Zapier’s growth, their location is of little importance in today’s connected world. Today, Zapier’s team is composed of 64 people across 9 countries, and continues to grow.
Although remote work is booming, there are some factors founders should take into account before jumping on the bandwagon. Unlike in a conventional office, you can’t simply tap on someone’s shoulder when you need their attention. How do you keep your employees motivated and make sure everyone’s on track? How do you run team meetings effectively when your employees are spread across the globe? Are you prepared to cope with time differences? These are all issues that need thoughtful planning to prevent drawbacks and give remote workers the edge.
Keeping everyone motivated and passionate about their tasks boosts productivity and, of course, makes all parties happier. Unlike traditional offices, you won’t see your employees in person every day. A remote worker wakes up every day inches away from their office, with only virtual connections to their colleagues. You can’t give a simple word of encouragement or enjoy a quick chat with the colleague sitting next to you, so, as an employer, how can you motivate remote team members?
First, during the hiring process, try to identify the applicants that have really used your product before, love the idea, and are passionate about what you are doing. With a chance to impact a product they love, their motivation will come naturally. There’s no question that employees are more productive when they’re inspired, so start by choosing to work with only those that are really fond of your product!
Second, open communication encourages an efficient and productive team. Make sure everyone is staying engaged with their projects, and always give them room to improve and contribute to the company. Empower your employees to take ownership of their projects so they feel connected to the finished product. Doing so really helps employees become more actively engaged in their work and feel a sense of achievement when seeing the outcome.
Making sure everyone’s on track is crucial to keeping everyone motivated. By incorporating a few key strategies, you can boost your employees’ productivity. Communication serve a major role in accomplishing this. Zapier uses Slack, an effective communication tool. Adding channels for separate projects also encourages group communication and engagement amongst the team. Another way to ensure that everyone is on the same page is with weekly virtual meetings. They provide a visual space for engagement around the room. You can also use Trello boards to visualize task breakdowns and get a clear image of what your colleagues are working on.
Zapier is unique in that they build their own tools. For instance, Zapier built a customized internal blog for team members post a weekly update in the hopes of increasing communication within the team.
Remote meetings have a tendency to be unproductive due to lack of awareness, faulty software, tuned-out participants, or just being hard to schedule thanks to time differences.
To ease the pain of virtual meetings, Zapier records every meeting through Wistia. If team members are occupied, they can always jump in the meetings at any time or watch them afterwards.
Timezones can be tricky, but, with planning, they can also work to your advantage. To keep things running smoothly, sync your clocks, but keep tasks asynchronous: queue multiple assignments in your pipeline so things keep moving even if one of them hits a roadblock.
“The sun never sets on Zapier,” says Bryan.
When there’s always someone awake and working, you can sleep soundly without having to jump up to be on-call support. With employees in a variety of timezones, you can offer 24/7 customer support without forcing anyone into a graveyard shift.
With customer service and support being crucial, Zapier uses Help Scout daily. Thanks to customer profiles by Help Scout, conversation history and information about the customers are just a click away, allowing Zapier to gain a better understanding of their users and meet individual needs.
Everyone wants to hire the best talent around the world. How does Zapier choose the right people to hire through virtual interviews? Bryan walked us through their hiring process.
Remote work appeals to many people, because you get a stable income plus the freedom to work whenever and wherever you want. However, as beneficial as remote work can be, not everyone will like it or work successfully in a remote work environment. There’s no one looking over your shoulder, prompting you to get work done. Without in-person feedback, you might feel isolated or unmotivated. So, if an applicant says they are fascinated by the idea of remote work but don’t provide other reasons, you might want to think twice about hiring them.
An efficient communicator:
You’re not there to watch your employees execute projects in person, and without body language cues, verbal articulation becomes extra important. Active communication with your team is a must, so choose someone who can get their point across efficiently via email or text.
An independent and autonomous worker:
With remote workers, it’s impossible to constantly supervise to keep them on track. Someone proactive and self-motivated can get work completed without constant reminders.
The second step is to arrange a job fit interview, to make sure that the applicant is a good match for the company. Some of Bryan’s favorite “back pocket questions” include:
Tell me about some projects you’ve sought out on your own instead of being assigned to. What are you an expert at?
Tell me something cool that I probably don’t know about.
These questions give good insight into the candidate’s motivation and how well they express their ideas.
This step takes slightly longer, about two hours, and is where the talented applicants will shine. The questions are organized from simplest to most complex. This way, everyone will start out confidently, then the best candidates can stand out on the more complicated questions.
To make sure your evaluation is correct, it is helpful to find references to back up your impression of an applicant. Anyone who has gone through the hiring process before knows that gathering official recommendations for candidates can be frustrating and time-consuming. Zapier uses SkillSurvey, a software that overhauls the process by helping recruiters gather background information through data-driven decisions.
Finally, when you’ve gone through the evaluation process and found a suitable candidate, you can send them an offer!
Everyone has been on the other side and knows how awful it is to wait forever for a response, only to conclude that your application has ended up in a bureaucratic black hole. To spare applicants of this torture, Zapier makes sure everyone gets a reply within seven days, regardless of the result.
As a non-technical founder, Bryan advises founders working with remote engineers to emphasize mutual communication. Be explicit with your needs. Provide a broad goal as well as a specific outline, but give them room to suggest and implement their own plans. This is why you need to hire engineers who are independent and trustworthy.
For Zapier’s engineering team, developers will join project teams on an as-needed basis. To keep things running smoothly, have a clear picture of upcoming projects and the resources you will need beforehand. In the early stages of startups, you’ll need back-end developers to build heavy infrastructure. As you scale, you will want more front-end developers. Have a well thought-out plan and select suitable engineers for each stage. Zapier’s engineering team finds GitHub useful to host code and manage projects.
In terms of hiring freelance developers, Bryan recommends setting up documentation beforehand. This way freelancers can refer to documentation instead of interrupting coworkers with questions — everything is kept consistent and well organized. Another essential key is active communication. Since everything is shared via virtual communication, to keep everyone in the loop, encourage regular internal communication to boost efficiency and prevent mistakes from miscommunication. Unless the positions you’re looking for are easy to pick up quickly, without structured documentation and open communication, it would be hard to be productive before the contract ends.
Zapier also has a great remote guide, with more recommended tools and how-to advices.
One of the biggest hesitations employers have about hiring remote workers is the fear that they’re less productive than their office-bound peers. Indeed, there are certain challenges for managing teams remotely. To overcome them, you’ll need a well thought-out structure before you jump into remote working. Be sure to dedicate plenty of time and effort to setting up strong communication networks and easy access to step-by-step guidelines to avoid potential setbacks.
As for the benefits, you get to select the best talent from around the world. By giving your employees the freedom to design their own work environment, you can cut out the distractions happening in offices and let them focus on their work.
Whether it’s remote or office-centered work, choose what’s best for your business. If you’re determined to build a remote team, take note of Bryan’s advice and suggestions. Over time, you’ll accumulate your own set of guiding principles and a rhythm that will work for your business and your team.
Have you worked in a remote and virtual team? Let us know your thoughts below!