How to Manage a Remote Team

By Wade Foster - Last updated March 18, 2020 -

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Many companies—Zapier included—are successful as 100% remote teams. Yet it's still not a common company structure and, unfortunately, information about how to set up remote work so that you and your team can be successful is still scarce. We want to share what we've learned so far.

Zapier has always run as a remote team. We've grown from three founders to over 300 people working remotely in 28 countries. We've gotten a lot of questions about how we make it work, so this chapter will explain that.

Our Journey

From day one, Zapier has always been a distributed team. Even though my co-founders, Bryan and Mike, and I lived in the same city, we had different schedules and were bootstrapping Zapier on the side of our day jobs and school. We worked on Zapier in every spare moment we each had, but those moments didn't magically line up at the same time where we could work in the same room, so, by necessity, we became a remote team.

In June of 2012, we were accepted into Y Combinator and moved into a shared apartment in Mountain View, California. The next three months were the only period in our company's history where everyone has been in the same city at the same time.

In August of 2012, Mike moved back to Missouri while his girlfriend (now wife) was graduating law school, and in October of 2012, we started hiring. And since we were already a distributed team, it made sense to keep moving that way since we could hire people we knew were awesome but just didn't live in the places we lived.

Our first hire was Micah Bennett, Zapier's head of support, who lives in Chicago (and is still a core part of our team). Between October 2012 and July 2014, we added eight more people to the team, with members living in Missouri, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Tennessee. And then we had our first international hires in August 2014, with writer Matthew Guay based in Bangkok, Thailand and full-stack engineer Rob Golding in Nottingham, UK.

Over the years, we've learned a few things about building and managing remote teams. Our story—and the stories of other remote companies—proves that it's possible to scale even when you're fully remote. Whether you're a small team or a large one, if you want to dip your toes into remote work, consider this your crash course.

Distributed team management: 3 ingredients for a successful remote work setup

It's highly unlikely you could pluck any random set of people, at any random moment in history, dispersed around the globe, put them together, and expect them to build something amazing.

We've found there are three important ingredients to making remote work successful: team, tools, and process.

Team

By far, the most important ingredient is the team. Not everyone can work well in a remote environment. Not everyone can manage a remote team (though I suspect with a bit of time and learning, a lot of managers could figure out how to make it work). Therefore, it's important to assemble a team that's capable of executing in a remote environment. Here's what has made the best remote workers for us:

1. Hire doers

Doers will get stuff done even if they are working from a secluded island. You don't have to give doers tasks to know that something will get done. You'll still have to provide direction and guidance around the most important things to be executed, but in the absence of that, a doer will make something happen. One of Zapier's core values is "default to action"—teammates who embody that value get work done.

2. Hire people you can trust

Remote work stops working when you can't trust the person on the other end of the line. If you continually find yourself worrying what someone is doing, then you are spending brain cycles focusing on something other than the product or customers. Trust is key.

3. Trust the people you hire

The flip side of this is you also need to exhibit trust with the people you hire. As a manager, you need to learn to manage by expectations rather than by "butts in seat," so make sure you can show trust in those you hire.

4. Hire people who can write

In a co-located office, a lot of information is shared in person. In a remote situation, almost everything is shared via written communication. Communication is one of the most important parts of a remote team. Therefore, good writers are critical to a team's success.

5. Hire people who are ok without a social workplace

Socializing is important on a remote team, but the truth is that remote workplaces are usually less social than co-located ones. People on remote teams need to be ok with that and have their own social support system. And the best remote workers will thrive in this type of environment. That said, as you grow you might find multiple people in cities and some in-person social environments will emerge. For example, we currently have several people in Austin and Portland who routinely meet in person for co-working and other social events.

Software/tools

In a co-located facility, you can always round up the team for an all-hands meeting to steer everyone on track. In a remote team, you'll need the right tools to make sure everyone stays on the same page and can continue to execute without a physical person standing next to them.

Here are some tools we've found handy as a rapidly growing team. While the exact tools aren't super important, you likely will need a tool in certain categories like group chat and video conferencing to make remote successful. These tools have changed quite a bit over the years.

1. Slack

Chilling in Slack

Slack is our virtual office. If you're in Slack, then you're at work. A group chat room like Slack is also great at creating camaraderie.

Depending on your team size, you'll want to make use of channels in Slack as well. At a certain size, it can start to get noisy, so it makes sense to section off rooms into things like "water cooler", "engineering", "marketing", etc. I would hold off on this as long as possible, though, when you're a small team.

At around 10 people, we started creating multiple channels. We now have about a thousand. (Yep.) Active ones include functional channels like #marketing, #support, and #hacking, along with project-specific channels like #team-content, and social channels like #fun-cooking. Prepending Slack channels with words like "fun-" or "feed-" help organize and communicate to new teammates what can quickly become an unruly list of channels in Slack.

2. Async

Zapier Using Async

Async is an internal tool we built. It's sort of like a blog meets Reddit. This is the place where we surface important conversations that might get lost in the fast-paced Slack. It replaces internal email and acts as a great archive for anyone on the team to reference old discussions and keep up with company updates. Slack is where we talk about work, while Async is where we share work with the rest of the team.

3. GitHub

We use issues and pull requests for specific purposes at Zapier. Much like how GitHub uses GitHub to build GitHub, we use GitHub to build Zapier. GitHub houses all code-related project management. Pull requests are how we ship features, while issues are reserved for bugs only. Feature requests and planning happen in Trello, a planning doc, or another tool like Airtable.

4. 1Password

Since we have logins to hundreds of services—those we use as a company or integrate with as part of our service, it's helpful for anyone who walks into the company to be able to access any of them without having to fire off an instant message or wait for an email reply. With 1Password, any teammate can log in to any of the services we use or integrate with without having to know the login credentials.

5. Coda

We're major G Suite people, and we use Quip for internal documentation, but we've recently moved toward Coda. Designed to combine documents, spreadsheets, and app features like Kanban boards and mini databases, Coda's main focus is on detailed documents. You make one document and share that with your team.

Coda's documents are so powerful, though, that a single document can store all of your team's ideas—it serves as a project management tool in many ways. You can add extra sections (this would be pages in another document or notebook app) to each document, organize them into folders, and build out a library from one shared document.

7. Zoom

We've tried a bunch of video conferencing tools over the years, from Google Hangouts and Skype to GoToMeeting. As we've grown, we've found Zoom to be the most reliable and clear for large group video calls. We have a weekly all-hands meeting in Zoom that's essential for putting faces behind the names of our many teammates and gives us all a chance to just hang out for a bit as a company, virtually.

8. HelloSign

Every now and then, you and your employees might need to sign something. Spare yourself the hassle of printing out the document, signing it, scanning it back onto your machine, and sharing the document with the next person that signs and instead just use HelloSign. It'll make your head hurt a lot less.

9. Help Scout

Everyone at Zapier has a weekly customer support shift, because we believe this "all hands support" enhances our customers' experience and our own product understanding—we experience Zapier the product as our customers do. Help Scout is the tool we use to support our customers day in and day out. Its reporting features help us find ways we can be more efficient in our ticket responses, tags help us categorize conversations, and integrations (of course) with other apps make sure we can keep on top of support requests in our favorite communication tools.

Processes

The third ingredient in a powerful remote team is process. I know most people don't like to think about process, and process might feel boring and rigid. But if you think of process as "how we work," it starts to feel more powerful.

Good processes let you get work done in the absence of all else. It provides structure and direction for getting things done.

That doesn't mean processes should be rigid, unchanging, or pointless, though. Process, at a small company, is more about providing a feedback loop so that you can measure progress for both the company and the people in the company.

Here are a few of the processes we use to run Zapier. Or as I like to call them: How We Work.

1. Everyone does support

The customer is our lifeblood. We strive every day to solve our customers' problems and help make their job just a little bit easier. When everyone on the team does support, everyone gets to hear the voice of the customer.

Also, the people who build the product also end up supporting the product. If a customer is angry about a bug, then the person who introduced said bug is going to hear about it and fix it right away.

2. A culture of shipping

As we've grown, maintaining a culture of shipping has been crucial. The best way we've found to do this is to keep product teams small. To keep the focus on shipping, we divide up into small teams—usually 3 to 8 people with differing skill sets. The base roles are an engineer, a product manager, and a designer (we call it EPD).

These teams have a singular mission: for example, improve onboarding. They then have full autonomy to set their own roadmap to make this happen. With that autonomy, they also hold responsibility for the success of their initiatives. This works well, since small teams can move and ship fast and also appreciate the autonomy and responsibility for their own projects.

3. Weekly hangouts

Every Thursday morning or afternoon (rotating every week to accommodate people in different time zones), we get together for lightning talks, demos, and/or interviews. With over 300 people in seven major departments and even more smaller teams, it's hard to see everyone on a weekly basis. These hangouts are a chance to say "hi!" to folks you may not normally see.

These hangouts are also a good chance to learn something new. Each week, someone inside the team does a lightning talk or demo on something interesting. We've had folks share their latest project, new teammates share fun facts about themselves and their backgrounds, and leadership members conduct well-being workshops through these hangouts.

Many teams do these weekly meetings as all-hands meetings. In a remote team that's across many time zones, this becomes an exclusionary event. As a result, this meeting becomes more about camaraderie and showing off the work of the company. We record these so folks who can't attend are able to catch up. But we're careful to avoid core strategic topics which typically are discussed in Slack, Async, or a Zoom call that can make sure to incorporate all the relevant teammates for that decision.

4. Pair buddies

As we've grown, it can be harder to know all your teammates. One easy way to mitigate that is to have folks on the team get paired up with one other teammate or two at random each week for a short pair call. We use Donut in Slack for this to chat about life, work, or whatever random thing seems interesting. Sometimes cool new product features come out of these, other times it's just good fun. Regardless, it helps everyone better know their teammates.

5. Weekly 1:1s

In every job I ever had (even co-located ones), there wasn't enough feedback between me and my supervisor. So at Zapier, we set up a recurring weekly event with each team member I manage, where we both jump on Zoom to chat about how work is going. These 1:1s follow roughly the format outlined by the Manager Tool's podcast.

We use a feedback tool called Small Improvements to run our 1:1 sessions.

In the past, I did 1:1s with everyone. However, around 15 people, this got to be too hard to keep up with everyone on a meaningful level. At 15, I split my focus on the support and marketing team while Bryan and Mike focused on the engineering and product teams respectively. As we've scaled, we've built a more traditional management structure. So I have people in roles that report to me, including CTO, CPO, CFO, CMO, Platform Lead, VP of Support, and VP of Engineering. These people all have teams that report to them as well. This more formal hierarchy has helped keep everyone on the team feel more engaged with the company because they have a manager that can help make sure to align their own career interests with the strategic goals of the company.

6. A culture of accountability

People often ask "how do you know if employees are actually working?" Any easy way we know is with Friday updates. Each Friday, every person on the team posts an update to Async about what they shipped that week and what they are working on for the next week.

This makes it easy to keep in the loop on projects and also holds everyone at Zapier accountable to everyone else to do their part.

7. Building culture in person

The Zapier team in New Orleans

In-person interaction is valuable for any team. There is definitely something unique that happens when teammates can work on something in person—tap someone on the shoulder and point to your screen to go over something, or share downtime with fun games and casual banter. So we strive to bring the team together two times a year somewhere cool, from Vancouver to Minneapolis to New Orleans.

In addition to the all-company get-togethers, departments hold their own retreats, and small groups of us might get together on an ad hoc basis throughout the year to coordinate the start of a major project or feature. Usually this is just one person jumping on a flight to visit another person or, if more than a couple of staff members live in close proximity (we have many teammates in Austin and Portland, for example), they'll have impromptu co-working sessions.

If this seems expensive, that's because it is. But the great part is that you'll likely have the money to cover this plus more since you don't have to pay for a central office that everyone is working in.

8. Automate anything that can be automated

The core of Zapier is automation. There are a couple reasons why we automate things. One, it allows us to keep the team size small since we don't need people on staff to perform repetitious, mundane, and boring tasks. Two, it lets teammates focus on high-impact work nearly all of the time, rather than figuring out less impactful things, like the proper deploy commands. Our philosophy is: If you're going to do something two or more times, automate it so you can eliminate busywork and do more meaningful work. We believe these so strongly that one of the Zapier core values is "Don't be a robot, build the robot."


Hopefully, this chapter's insights into how one team manages a remote team inspires you. Don't take this as a universal truth, though. One of the beauties of a remote team is that because remote work feels like an experiment, everything else feels like it can be more experimental too. So go ahead and experiment! The biggest wins aren't usually found in a post on the internet, but in what you discover on your own. And if you have tips, tricks, or best practices of your own, we'd love to hear them, too—we're @zapier on Twitter.

Next, learn how to hire a remote team in Chapter 2

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