How to Manage a Remote Business by Markus Ahlstrand
Remote work is an increasingly popular buzzword, but how do you put theory into practice and successfully manage remote work in your business?
Markus Ahlstrand, co-founder of podcasting platform Acast, has three and a half years of experience managing remote employees across the globe. In his talk in Gran Canaria as part of Remote Talks organized by Quaderno, he shared his hands-on insights on remote work, from benefits and challenges to processes and tools.
Remote Work: the Basics
As with any work relationship, remote work needs to balance the interests of the two parties involved: the employee and the company.
Employees want to be happy. Remote work increases their happiness by allowing them to work from a place that they enjoy, e.g. somewhere sunny and close to the ocean.
The company, on the other hand, is interested in lowering costs and increasing productivity through remote work.
Both company and employees benefit from increased motivation and shorter commutes.
Key Factors for Remote Work
Motivation is a crucial requirement for remote work to make sense. Employees lacking motivation will be prone to procrastinating, putting both them and their employer at a disadvantage.
Remote work requires a considerable degree of autonomy. Remote workers need to be able to self-manage as micromanaging them is not feasible.
This in turn means that they need a goal, or general direction, to work towards. In other words, they need a purpose.
Markus recommends the book and TED talk “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us”, by David Pink.
A shorter commute beneficial sounds like a trite no-brainer, but the details are actually far more complex.
On the surface, a shorter commute saves time, resulting in more hours available for work and/or leisure. This increases employee happiness and productivity.
On a less obvious level, shorter commutes increase focus through its effect, or rather lack thereof, on willpower. Commutes are draining, and willpower is like a muscle: Overusing it makes you tired and lose focus. If you use up all your willpower on something like a commute, you won’t have any left for your professional tasks.
Long commutes also negatively impact health: A Swedish study has shown that a 45-minute commute results in a 40% higher risk for divorce. Commuting also placed at the very bottom of the list in another study ranking people’s most favorite and least favorite activities. There are also correlations with obesity, neck pain and sleeplessness.
Control over Interruptions
Regular offices are full of “M & Ms”, meetings and managers. Workdays there are spiked with a plethora of interruptions, and long stretches of undisturbed time are extremely rare. A study indicates that individuals take 23 minutes following each interruption to re-focus on the task they are working on. The average time span between interruptions in a typical office is 3 minutes and 5 seconds.
Increasingly popular open-plan office spaces actually further interruptions and thus diminish people’s opportunities to focus even more. Co-working spaces, or even coffee shops, are often a better option as they provide a welcome level of background noise, but yield fewer interruptions.
Remote work is a major advantage when it comes to focusing. Remote workers have control over interruptions to their workday: They can avoid unwanted interruptions and focus more intensely on their tasks, and are also able to schedule desirable interruptions such as coffee breaks.
Markus recommends the book “Remote: Office Not Required”, by 37 signals co-founder Jason Fried.
Among the most significant benefits of remote work is the flexibility it provides for employees and employers alike.
Remote employees can choose when and where they want to work. This allows them to adapt their working hours to their biorhythm and general needs and preferences, resulting in a happier, more productive workforce for their employer.
As a company, offering remote work as an attractive benefit provides a competitive advantage over other employers looking for talent. Hiring remotely also gives companies access to a much larger pool of talent: A Stockholm-based company, for instance, might hire a developer living in a small village in the North of Sweden, or on Gran Canaria, or even in Bali.
Personal needs may also play a significant role in employees preferring remote over office-based work. If their partner or family moves to a different location, e.g. to pursue an academic degree, remote workers can just move with them, thus avoiding major disruptions to their personal life.
Markus recommends the book “The Seven-Day Weekend”, by Ricardo Semler.
Challenges of Remote Work
While it has a number of sizeable benefits, remote work can also present some unique challenges.
The most significant of them relates to communication: Due to the absence of opportunities for ad-hoc conversations, remote work requires far more structure when it comes to communication. This means additional effort for the company.
The popular phrase “culture is in the walls” is not applicable to remote work. Culture cannot emerge organically and needs to be fostered much more actively.
Along the same lines, onboarding remote employees is a much more complex task than onboarding on-site workers.
Remote work is a great option for some people and fields, but it is not for everyone. Individuals have different preferences, and some tasks or departments may require steadier working hours and more face-to-face contact. Contrary to popular belief, remote workers also usually end up working more than office-based employees, so actively preventing overworking can be key.
Acast has implemented a number of processes to make remote work as feasible and productive as possible for both the company and its employees. Here are the most important ones:
Defining Common Goals
Common goals help align everyone’s activities throughout the company and enable self-management: Team members working towards previously defined common goals do not need to be micromanaged.
Workflows are asynchronous: They are set down in writing, making them easy to follow and transparent for everyone. This reduces the need for meetings to align and adjust.
Employees work based on results, not static working hours. What matters to the company are the results they produce, not the time they require to achieve them.
Acast organizes a big, 3-day team meeting once a year, the so-called “Acast Summit”. The entire team travels to an attractive and fun location such as an island off the coast of Sweden. The main goal of all Acast Summits is to build and foster culture.
Twice-yearly, company-wide Roadmap Meetings help align departments and set common goals. The attendees discuss product features and evolution, and the company’s general way forward for the coming six months.
At Acast, all weekly meetings happen on Mondays are full of meetings, freeing up all remaining days of the week.
These personal meetings happen at least twice a year but can be more frequent at employees’ request. Supervisors discuss personal goals with each employee and give them feedback. Example: The CTO meets with each developer.
Hack Days are very casual, culture-oriented events on the last Thursday of every month. Participants can work on anything they are interested in and present their results in a demo at the end of the event. Hack Days have produced great results so far, e.g. recommendations feature for the app that received excellent media feedback.
Further processes include Daily Standup summaries, as well as Code Review for developers. Acast is still working on implementing additional processes such as open source, a feedback flow, and a virtual watercooler.
Acast uses several tools to manage the remote aspect of their team. However, as Markus was eager to stress, any tool is only as good as the use you make of it. In order for people to benefit from a tool, they need to be committed to using it.
Acast’s company chat is on Slack, which is searchable and offers a variety of interesting integrations. Video conferencing is currently done via Google Hangouts, but Markus and his team are on the lookout for a better solution. It's also worth looking into how to start a conference call in order to make the best first impression.
The team uses Screenhero for screensharing, which offers individual mouse pointers for each participant, among other features.
Acast also uses Sneek.io as a virtual office, Idonethis as an asynchronous Standup e.g. for end-of-day updates, and Trello as a Kanban tool.
Remote work may be the ideal solution for some parts of your company, while others may benefit from a more traditional, office-based approach including more static working hours. Defining the right processes can be crucial to make remote work a success for your business and your people, and good tools can assist in implementing them. The most important thing to remember is that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to remote work: Analyze your company’s and your employees’ unique needs and try to find an approach that works for your individual situation.
About Markus Ahlstrand
Markus Ahlstrand was the co-founder of Swedish startup Acast, a curated platform for podcasts that connects listeners, podcast creators, and advertisers as a fully integrated one-stop shop.
Markus describes himself as a “digital settler” and travels with his wife and two children. The family stays in each place for an extended period of time, to allow for appropriate schooling, among other factors.
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