How to Manage a Remote Team

Make your internal communication run like clockwork

Yesterday I gave a talk about “How to Manage a Remote Team” at RemoteCon, the first remote conference in Europe on the topic of remote work. (That’s a lot of remote!)

I was very proud to present alongside expert speakers like Jason Fried of Basecamp, David Darmanin of Hotjar and Darren Murph of Gitlab. And the session Q&A was lead by Veronica Fresneau of EU-Startups.

Lots of people have asked for the slides already, so I decided to make the full talk and slides available here on the blog in a readable format.

I’ll go into how we work together remotely at Salesflare, with a special focus on how to communicate internally to make everything run like clockwork.

Enjoy!


I’m Jeroen Corthout, co-founder of Salesflare.

At Salesflare, we build a more human CRM. It’s actually easy to use, it doesn’t require all the data input you’re used to in CRMs, and it helps you to do a better job with your customers as well. In the past, I’ve been working in different roles, within corporates, an agency and some startup projects. Usually working on communication issues.

Salesflare serves thousands of small and medium sized companies around the world, but primarily throughout North America and Europe.

This means that prior to COVID-19, we were already fully remote with our customers. And we had more than 5 years of experience working this way.

Switching to remote selling? Read how to sell remotely like a pro.

What we had never done however, was going remote with our team itself.

We have always strongly believed in the advantages of being together in the same room: interacting as a real team and as a group of friends in a more intimate way, being next to each other to more easily discuss things, sharing things informally with ease. We believed that being one team in one room gave us an advantage in terms of speed and efficiency.

It’s only after we were forced into a remote setting that we understood how dysfunctional our communication had been by relying on these assumptions.

And I don’t mean it was horrible: every company I worked for in the past most certainly did worse.

But as Salesflare, a company that prides itself on clear and comprehensive communication both externally and internally, we certainly did have some serious issues to fix.

Over the last 3 months we have been working hard on improving our internal communication to work together more effectively, and I’m happy to share with you what is working for us, so that maybe I can inspire you to improve your internal communication as well.

I’ll share what systems, tools, and processes we use to work together as one tight knit team, even though we are all working remotely from different rooms in different buildings right now.

Over the next 10 minutes, you’ll learn from me:

  1. How we maximize the ROI from investing time in meetings
  2. How we keep information flowing through the team
  3. How our setup looks in terms of communication platforms

1. How we maximize the ROI from investing time in meetings

As we’re extremely focused on building value for customers at Salesflare, and as we do a lot of that building as a team and with a good amount of thinking and planning, this means that we spend quite some time together in meetings.

Improving on our processes in the past often meant adding extra meetings to discuss and plan things even better, which meant that after a while we ended up spending a lot of our time in these meetings doing that instead of actually building value.

Also the efficiency of the meetings started suffering:

  • Meetings started going way over time to make sure we didn’t need another one
  • People started losing focus in the meetings, which seriously hurt the efficiency
  • Discussions would often get stuck for too long on a few key points
  • We would forget what exactly we decided and why, which meant we’d come back on things unnecessarily
  • We’d lose touch of how others felt about the discussion, which meant circling around conclusions and coming back to them too often
  • We’d lose a lot of time in meetings looking at and thinking about things we could have looked at and thought about beforehand, without losing everyone’s time

Here’s the rules we follow now to avoid this:

  1. We separate different types of discussions (for instance strategic vs. operational) in different meetings, to make sure that we don’t get too stuck on either of these levels. We for instance have sprint meetings and sprint prep meetings, feature meetings and feature planning meetings, and growth meetings and growth ideas meetings.
  2. Most meetings have an agenda which defines what will be discussed in and needs to be prepared for that meeting. For our feature meetings (in which we scope out features completely in a series of meetings) for instance, we have a fixed structure for the agenda and prep for each meeting.
  3. We don’t go into meetings without thinking about things beforehand. We each prepare the meeting in an individual document and share this preparation at least a day before. That way everyone can already read the prep and add some first comments to get the discussion moving already.
  4. We try to limit most meetings (like feature meetings) to 3 people max. We found that if we do meetings with more people, only 3 people actively participate and the rest start falling asleep.
  5. We always turn on video and keep everyone’s faces on the screen during the discussion. The expressions of our team mates are important to know how they feel about what’s being discussed. And we know when they’re losing attention.
  6. Next to this, we open a document in Google Docs with a set structure (a shared document that is different from the individual prep documents). It’s where we take note of every decision we make. Even if we decide not to do a certain thing, we write it down. That way the whole decision process is tracked for those not in the meeting and for later. One person is responsible for taking notes, the rest can follow this live on their screen and suggest corrections.
  7. If the discussion gets stuck, we immediately park the discussion point in a list of questions. This can be in a separate list at the top, or within the structure of the document highlighted with a certain color.
  8. We limit meetings to 2 hours. Extending meetings beyond this point hurts the attention levels and stops being productive.
  9. At the 30 minute mark, we give a first reminder to start wrapping up. At the 15 minute mark we start wrapping up. This means that we write out the announcements of the meeting and plan the next meeting if it is necessary.
  10. The announcements of the meeting are a short summary of the conclusions and status of the meeting for everyone who wasn’t involved. These announcements are posted in Slack so the whole team stays up to date in an easy way, even without reading the full meeting document.
  11. After and between meetings, the discussions can continue in the meeting document. This happens in comment threads. The document owner (the person who was responsible for typing up the discussions) keeps following up on these discussions and is responsible for working towards conclusions.

This is what we’re doing currently, but we keep working on how we attack meetings to make sure that we spend our time with maximum efficiency. Our ability to create a lot of value in these meetings in little time is what makes us competitive towards bigger players with more resources, so it’s extremely important to us.

If you only implement some of these rules, you’ll immediately find that your meeting time is much more well spent than it was before, and your productivity will soar.


2. How we keep information flowing through the team

Like I said at the start, we used to believe that sitting in the same room would naturally make communication flow.

As our team grew, even before going remote with our team and internal communication, we started to understand through many small mishaps that this is not how things work. Step by step we have been making many small changes to make sure that information flows through the team effortlessly, without us even needing to think about it.

I vividly remember working in a big corporate and even in an agency, often not knowing what the person sitting next to me would do the whole day, let alone the other people in the company.

Information was very poorly shared, which meant that it was way more difficult to function as an effective team towards customers, or even to feel part of a team that was trying to make things happen together.

At Salesflare, we try our best to achieve the opposite. Here’s some of the things we do to make this happen:

  • On the most basic level, we organize stand up meetings every morning. In the office we used to do this live as soon as everyone had arrived. In a remote setting, we started typing it up in Slack. We list what we’ve done the previous day and what we’ll do that day. This is good for many reasons: 1. Everyone knows what everyone else is working on 2. You take a moment to reflect on the previous day 3. And you also need to consciously plan your day. Only best practices!
  • To make sure we keep sharpening the saw, learn from our mistakes, and improve our processes (like everything we’re discussing here) we organize team meetings every 2 weeks on Friday afternoon. We list what went wrong in the past 2 weeks and what went well. For the negatives, we discuss solutions. For the positives, we extract learnings. And after this we demo our metrics and what we’ve been working on in the past 2 weeks.
  • On an individual level, we also take some time every month to sharpen the saw. This means my co-founder and I will take time to have a one-on-one with everyone in the team. I meet with those in the business team, he meets with those in the product team. Every quarter we switch to mix things up and keep an open culture.
  • Discussions are publicly accessible as much as possible: in public Slack channels, Google documents, in discussion on Github issues, … More about that when we talk about the communication platforms.
  • Like I said previously, we make sure that everyone stays up to date as much as possible by sharing announcements after meetings. This means that at the end of each meeting we intentionally ask ourselves the question “what should the rest of the team know about what we discussed here?” and information that should be shared is shared, so it doesn’t stay hidden by accident.
  • It’s not just about the meetings. We stimulate an open and transparent culture also outside the meetings. Everyone is encouraged to speak up when things are not working. Everyone moves things forward and can use their brains and speak their minds, instead of just my co-founder and I. This is really essential to making things work. A book I really enjoyed about this is “Radical Candor” by Kim Scott.
More about the book on Goodreads!

All this enables a team that thinks and works as one to achieve its goals, instead of working as a series of unaligned individuals.

Especially when working remotely, it is of huge importance to keep sharing information even more intently than you would normally, as everybody is hiding in their own rooms and information doesn’t get shared “by accident”.


3. How our setup looks in terms of communication platforms

A lot of people like to jump to this part, as it’s a lot of fun to figure this out: what communication platforms shall we use? Should we use Slack or something else? Where do we keep track of this and that?

As much fun and exciting as it is, I kept it for last here, because the platforms are just enablers for what you’re trying to achieve.

And it also means we kept the juicy stuff for last of course and we get to end on a high note!

Here’s the platforms we use to keep our internal communication organized and flowing:

  • Slack: we share announcements and updates here, have quick discussions in threads, and it’s also the central place where we can keep track of new changes in Google Docs & Github, etc.
  • Google Docs: like I said, that’s where we keep the preparation and results of discussions and continue some of those discussion in between (in comment threads on the document); it’s the best place for any discussion that requires deeper thought (vs. the quick discussions in Slack)
  • Zoom: we use Zoom for most of our video meetings, as it’s quite stable and easily allows us to use it next to Google Docs
  • Discord: we recently added Discord to the mix too for making it easier to talk to each other (with audio only); we can, for example, discuss development incidents in a quicker way, or hang out on a shared Discord channel while working, just like in the office
  • Intercom: our customer communications go through Intercom and we can add internal notes there, mention each other, assign each other, etc.; this makes it easy to address customers as a team
  • Salesflare: while Intercom is used more for support reasons, we use Salesflare for everything that is sales or like sales: larger prospects, integration partners, solution partners, content partners, podcast guests, investors, … all follow up and communication around this happens in Salesflare with automated data, centralized email threads, meetings, internal notes with mentions, email tracking, etc.
  • Github: our discussions around bugs, improvements and feature requests happen in Github; that way it stays closely linked to the code, and it hooks up with Intercom too

This stack works really well for us and we’ve got it all integrated with each other, for a large part through Zapier, which makes our communication flow seamlessly and largely automatically through the company.

Communication platforms are a huge enabler for making the processes work that I discussed earlier, especially when everything goes remote.


Conclusion

It really all comes together if you:

  1. Make sure meeting time is spent in the most efficient way
  2. Keep information flowing through and in between meetings
  3. Implement the right communication platforms to make this as easy as possible

This is how we organize these things at Salesflare, but of course, this is just as inspiration and everything works a little differently in every company.

So please fire off your questions (they’re welcome in the comments now!) and I’m happy to think along with you on how to make sure you can organize your internal communication in the best possible way, so your remote startup team can run like clockwork.


Don’t hesitate! If you have any questions, hit me up in the comments or send a message to the team on the chat.

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