Setting up a self organising remote team or office

For most of us, it is already challenging enough to manage one team in one location. Having multiple remote teams or offices creates complications, but also creates opportunity. Growth and internationalisation brings bliss, but very often also leads to problems and challenges that are there to overcome. Mostly, these challenges will revolve around these topics:

  • Communication
  • Performance
  • Company culture

While not all topics might be relevant for you now, most of them will be a talking point, felt tension or issue at some point. In itself, setting up and having one or more remote teams can already stretch the capabilities of your organisation and the humans within. Does self organisation make this more difficult? In most cases the answer is no. I’ve had the opportunity to experience setting up a remote office in a Holacractic environment from 2016 to 2019 for Springest and learning how to deal with the above mentioned topics, in combination with self organisation.

Getting remote communication started

Remote teams and communication are always a difficult combination. Although there are many tools available these days to make your life easy, it’s never really easy. Combine this with self organisation (and in my concrete example Holacracy) and it very quickly becomes even more complex.

When I moved to Berlin from Amsterdam to Berlin, I had to find a place to work as soon as possible. After a week of sitting in cool cafes, I quickly realised that although it might at first seem amazing, it really is not. Working remotely in a cafe makes meeting and calls difficult (background noise) and video calls with clients or colleagues awkward (why are there people walking around).

Renting a whole office for one person didn’t make sense, but to increase clarity and my availability for colleagues and clients, I had to find a set space quickly. A pro tip is to just ask other companies if you can stay with them for a while. By doing so, you’ll learn so much about a new city, how people work, plus it makes your life easy. I quickly found a desk at WeFox, who were so generous to take me in and soon I continued to work like I had been doing in Amsterdam.

Tools and (self organising) challenges

The communication with our HQ went mainly through tools like Asana, Slack, Zoom and Sputr (our internal whiteboard). The main difference being that real life communication was non-existent. This meant that I missed context and updates sometimes, that other colleagues at our HQ would get during brief real life talks or just by hearing some mention something during lunch. Nevertheless, I could still compensate for that gap by my knowledge of the product and knowing how to navigate within the company and the roles with the company by heart.

The first real challenges started with our first hires in Berlin. Besides learning how to work within our company, with our tools and communication standards, they had to learn how to practise Holacracy. I would argue that Holacracy has actually made it easier to optimise communication between the remote office and the HQ, because of the great clarity in roles and accountabilities that Holacracy gives. 

For learning how to use the tools we used as a company, we started to focus more on onboarding. The onboarding project for new employees became more detailed and hires would get the ‘newbee’ role, in which they would learn the ins and outs of working with our ways and tools. Part of the onboarding project would be to sign up for internal training sessions, where they would (remote) learn how to use tools and our rules of engagement and also connect with the colleagues in Amsterdam.

Onboard all the people

This meant we had to add accountabilities to roles (or to create new roles) to be accountable for giving those training sessions that the new employees needed so badly. It also meant that we used Holacracy to improve communication and make the remote life much easier.

Next to that, we created the onboarding role, so new hires would know where to go with their questions. That role would also organise an onboarding week at the HQ — so everyone would get to know each other, to decrease the barrier to ask someone for help, feedback or just to request something. In Germany, I held that role, so I would always be present to make sure our employees would progress in their onboarding. I believe that having someone in your remote office, physically, to be the ‘go to person’ is very important. Worries and concerns are not easily expressed through Slack.
Even more so, we would start to write down and build out our ‘rules of engagement’. Internally as well as externally, clear expectations would increase clear communication. Those rules would help us to know how often we should check certain tools, or how long employees can expect an answer to take. How to act in certain situations and to understand which tool can best be used for what communication.

Trust from your HQ

From the HQ, the worries must have been real too: does the remote office work well? Do employees use the same ways of working? Is everyone working? How to make sure that communication flows freely and more importantly, that everyone uses all the tools and information available? Looking back I believe that having a trusted person in the remote office (me in this case), is important and helpful to reduce the worries that might rise in the HQ. I’ve never heard anyone complain or ask these questions, but I also always tried to over communicate.

That last seems to be crucial: communication. So if you’re thinking about starting a remote team that can self organise, be aware of trust and communication as this is the only way to make this work in the long run.

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