Feb 20, 2020
Tips on running a successful remote-first business
The advent of the internet and development of security protocols enabling sensitive data such as credit card information to be safely transmitted across the web, opened up the opportunity for retail companies to start their Virtual retailing (online stores). When one thinks of a remote-first business, the retail type is what often springs to mind and is the most common remote business found.
However, non-retail industries are also embracing the remote-first business model, and we see more and more existing companies change over. Many start-ups are electing to go the remote-first business route from the get-go. Some companies only virtualize part of their operations, for example, call center employees who work from home. Yet, the company still has and maintains a brick and mortar presence as in the case of IBM.
We chose to run NETSTOCK as an all-remote business and have operated this way since we started up in 2009. All our employees in multiple geographic locations work from their homes and collaborate on numerous joint projects and activities. This allows the continuity of customer support across all these different time zones. Additionally, the product that we develop, sell, and support is a cloud solution and, as such, does not require physical implementation. Everything is done online, including staff and customer onboarding and training. Our customers are allocated a customer account manager, who has regular online meetings with them to ensure their business objectives and goals are continually met.
The remote-first business model comes with its set of challenges, but if you are aware of these, you can prepare and manage them accordingly. Forewarned is forearmed. So, if you are changing your model or opening a remote-first start-up, here are some helpful tips that we have learned over our years of running a remote-first business.
Leadership and organizational culture
Your leaders need to establish a culture that values teamwork, communication, and learning. They are the "glue," more so than in any traditional business, and must set the scene, tone, and pace for the business. They must set expectations and live by them. With staff scattered around the globe, leadership needs to make a conscientious effort to encourage collaborations and communication. They also need to ensure that the vision for the business is shared with all employees with 100% transparency. An adaptive, technologically advanced, and non-hierarchical company is more likely to succeed with remote teams than a highly structured, control-oriented organization.
Your leadership team should hold regular face-to-face strategic sessions and include selected staff from the various divisions. Video calls are great to use as a medium for daily or weekly contact. However, there is still nothing more productive than sitting around a table for a few days to brainstorm ideas, align, and get on the same page with the company vision. A good time to have a workshop session is at the end of a year, so you can reflect on the past year and discuss and flesh out plans and activities for the upcoming year. Another session should be held mid-year, if possible, to ensure the ship is still going in the right direction.
Leadership needs to promote and encourage face-to-face meetings for all their staff within their various territories to meet up for a social gathering from time to time, to connect and celebrate successes. It is beneficial to do these face-to-face meetings every month. When your company grows, you can get together for an annual worldwide conference and connect all your global teams.
Internal versus outsourced functions
Initially, you may not want to employ permanent positions for all roles in the business. For example, you may choose to outsource your payroll as it doesn't warrant a full-time employee. Web and graphics design may be another outsourced function. It's only the critical functions that you want to keep in-house, and identifying what these functions are will depend on your type of business. There are gazillions of companies offering outsourced services, so be careful. Make sure you conduct thorough research and preferably get a word of mouth recommendation — don't just sign up with the first ad that pops up on Google search.
Contrary to common belief, employees in a remote-first business are usually more productive when working from home as they don't have the commuting time or distractions that an office environment brings. They can work anytime, day or night, and if they are driven and motivated, you will get a lot more from them than an 8 - 5 office employee. Remote-first business employees are happier as they have a better work/life balance - they may take a 2-hour lunch, but then they may also have started their day at 5 am.
Selecting the right people to work in a remote-first business is most probably your most significant risk and concern. Not everyone is cut out to work in a remote-first company. Some individuals need face-to-face interaction and the stability of an office work environment. Without this structure and a co-located setting, some people can't function.
When recruiting new staff, we found that one of the interview rounds should be around culture fit. In this interview, you can determine if the candidate will be suitable for remote work.
As your interviews are conducted online, it's even more challenging to assess a person's character. If you don't have the time or the means to conduct thorough research on a candidate, rather pay the recruitment fee and let an agency do it. They are experienced, know what to look out for, and have the systems in place to conduct more rigorous research. Although this will cost a placement fee, it's well worth it, and there is the agency's guarantee in place, so if you have a failed placement, they usually find a replacement at no charge.
Besides the skill sets that you are looking for, there are certain personality traits that are needed to work in a remote-first environment. Employees need to be content working mainly in isolation, and they need to be self-motivated and self-disciplined.
The three months probation period that most countries have in place in their letters of employment has never been more critical than in a remote-first business. When onboarding a new staff member the following factors should apply:
- The company's procedures, processes, goals, and objectives must be clear and delivered either through an onboarding video or a call with HR. Often spending the first week physically with a co-worker has excellent benefits. So strive to do that if possible.
- The company structure and introductions to the various virtual teams, and an understanding of their job function relevant to these teams need to be shared.
- Measurable KPIs agreed on upfront.
- Weekly feedback and monitoring of KPIs.
- Bi-directional, honest feedback must follow these weekly meetings. We like to critique in private and praise in public.
- If there is a gap in knowledge, this must be plugged quickly with the relevant training or workshops.
- Mentoring from a senior team member is essential to get the recruit on-boarded quickly
Employee performance and transitioning
Because staff performance is purely outcome-based, any dead wood will become evident very quickly in a remote-first business compared to a traditional business model. In conventional models, employees can hide behind other team members and almost get "absorbed" into the business, where their lack of performance can take a while to show. Some employees may struggle to transition to a remote-first model, and although you can see they are hard-working and amped, they may need a bit of hand-holding and guidance from you.
The subject of performance potential is a topic all on its own. Without going into too much detail, leadership needs to identify their employee's performance potential and work together with employees to map out their career path.
Start by identifying where on the performance potential matrix your staff fit. Analyze their potential and plot their path accordingly. Also consider that some people, i.e., your "workhorse" employees, may be happy to remain a "workhorse" and don't want or need to become a "star." All companies need "workhorses” so don't try and push them out into the "star" position. Not all employees can be "stars." Also, remember that "stars" (generally speaking) are challenging to hold on to. They usually require a lot of continued praise, encouragement, and added incentives and bonuses, or they will jump to the next best thing. So although it's great to have lots of "shining stars" that will undoubtedly do a lot for your business, your "workhorses" are more reliable, steadfast, and loyal. If you have "problem children" and "deadwood," you need to decide whether you can counsel and mentor them out of these areas or consider exiting them from the business.
Collaboration between employees and customers in a remote business can not happen without technology. Identify what technology you need and look for solutions, preferably that integrate - avoid operating in silos. And, of course - all technology you select has to be cloud-based. Here are our recommendations.
- Virtual meetings: Zoom. Great for larger meeting rooms where you can share screens and record sessions. It's essential to get everyone on these meetings to use their webcams so that others can interpret body language and facial expressions
- Instant messaging: Slack. Set up with well-thought-out channels. Be sure to keep members on-topic in the channels and make sure everyone adheres to online etiquette
- Document sharing and collaboration: G Suite. It's essential to have "one version" of a document online where everyone can work on the same document, as opposed to emailing different versions of MS Office documents around. Make use of Team Drives to manage permissions easily
- CRM: Salesforce. An online CRM system is essential so employees can access all your customer information in one place. Make use of the workflow capabilities to manage and record work on all customers.
- Project management: Asana. Teams can collaborate on projects, and progress and milestones can be easily measured. We even use Asana for meeting agendas, to make sure we stay on-topic and record discussion points and tasks for follow-up meetings.
- Customer help desk: Freshdesk and Intercom. It's vital that interactions with customers and users happen in a well-defined fashion. These tools also record all conversations, which is an excellent way to on-board new customer-facing staff. Intercom allows real-time communication, which our customers love. Freshdesk is used for bigger support tickets, which can take hours or days to resolve.
- Accounts and billing: Netsuite. You'll need a cloud ERP system to run your remote business. Make sure your ERP and your CRM systems can integrate seamlessly.
Manage the remote-first business stigma
Even though a company like NETSTOCK has been operating in this fashion for more than ten years, there is still the stigma that because you are a remote-first business, you are not a "real" business and may not be around for a long time. Some companies are conservative and worry about buying services or products from a company that doesn't have a physical location. Be honest with your customers and potential customers, share with them your vision and goals for the business, and offer references and testimonials from existing customers. Educate new customers about your standards for excellence and the processes and technology you employ to achieve success.
With today's technology and a growing acceptance of mobile and remote offices, a lot of services businesses are choosing this model over traditional brick and mortar. Aside from the cost-saving in terms of rent, utilities, insurance, etc. think about the reduction in your carbon footprint just from a commuting perspective alone. On a larger scale, if remote-first businesses became the new norm, imagine what a "green" difference this would make to our world.
We have found that the remote-first model brings a much higher level of employee engagement and happiness. Our staff turnover is very low as our employees value the work/life balance, and they tend to put in even more effort than a regular 8 to 5 employee. By having an open and transparent culture we find that we are most probably even more connected with our staff than a traditional business. If you are considering a remote-first business model, the tips we have provided here will hold you in good stead and get you on your way to running a successful remote-first business.
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Written by Barry Kukkuk
Barry comes from a systems architect and application development background. He started his career as the co-founder and chief developer for Icon Retail Management, a full-fledged retail management system that integrated with mainstream ERP. Barry later conceptualized and developed Inventory Optimiza for Barloworld Logistics and provided technical support for the application. It was here where Barry’s passion for Inventory Management solutions began and the industry where he would later return. Barry went on to start his own business in 2008, where he was an avid user of cloud-based apps and would only use online solutions for his business. In 2010 Barry began his journey with NETSTOCK. His enthusiasm for Inventory Management and his strong belief in “all things Cloud” collided, and we saw the release of the Inventory Management solution - NETSTOCK. Barry is the CTO at NETSTOCK, where he is responsible for all customer-facing technologies and systems that keep thousands of NETSTOCK customer instances working correctly.