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Remote Control for startups in the “new normal”: Lessons from those who have succeeded at working with remote teams


Do we need to live where we work? Or can we work where we live? These are the questions that so many employees are pondering in the midst of the greatest workplace revolution of our generation.

Some of the largest tech companies have called it early. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey said all employees have been given the option to work remotely, forever.

In even the most traditional companies and cultures, resistance has fallen by the wayside as businesses are forced to adapt.

For many businesses remote working has been just another day at the office, particularly those founded on technical expertise who had taken the leap before C-19.

Microsoft Australia encouraged its employees to work remotely from home, promising to continue to refine and expand the practice of remote teams.

Others are seeing the advantages in a C-19 induced epiphany.

Car Next Door have put a call out for similar sized startups to share their office in a move that will save them 60% on their monthly rent, whist also giving them an opportunity to share ideas with other startups.

The benefits of a startup community are well understood and innovation hubs like Stone & Chalk are ideally positioned to provide a community of support to startups, as well as economical and flexible office space.

For other tech businesses, the home office is the only workplace available. In the US companies such as Automattic and GitLab operate successfully with every single employee in remote teams, based at home.

For some companies the “new normal” is not so new and may not be welcomed

In 1989 management academic Peter Drucker said that the days of commuting to an office were nearing the end.

Since then companies have jumped on the “telecommuting” bandwagon but in many cases this was to be short lived.

In 2009, 40% of IBM’s 386,000 strong workforce worked remotely in 173 countries but when its profit fell off a cliff, thousands were summonsed back to the office.

Yahoo, Reddit and Bank of America also hastily retreated from attempts to allow greater remote working, and when a senior Google executive was asked how many people work remotely, he famously said, “as few as possible”.

With putting greens, climbing walls, sleeping pods and abundant food on offer around the clock it would appear Google aims to give people few reasons to ever leave the office.

Same, same but very different

There is reason to think that things could be different this time for those who have tried yet failed to make remote working a success. Up until now it was a choice. Now it is a necessity.

Companies have been forced to put the technology, systems and processes in place for all workers and we are now in the midst of a global recession where all costs are under the microscope.

Remote working can be a weapon in the war for talent across the time zones

Startups now have a unique opportunity to build workplaces for the long term. For those startups that get remote working right, there is significant upside to the business, alongside the lifestyle benefits to employees.

Access to a larger pool of talent and greater diversity may be reason enough.

A startup with a remote workforce has the opportunity to follow the sun and provide round the clock support.

One of our own portfolio companies, Jetabroad has remote teams in New Zealand, Sydney and Perth enabling it to capitalise on time differences to service the global market.

Leaders in this area have been successful as they have committed fully

Businesses that have committed wholeheartedly have been very successful and some are now sharing their learnings.

US tech platform Zapier has been working 100% remotely since it was founded in 2011 and in its remote workplace teachings suggests that there are a number preconditions for success.

As a business with 300 people in 20 remote locations, Zapier was founded by three people working on different schedules who became a remote team by necessity.

Zapier says that team, tools and processes are the fundamental ingredients for a successful remote working business.

The team must be capable of executing in a remote environment. They must be self-starters who can execute based on a direction and guidance, rather than on a task-by-task basis.

Qualities such as trustworthiness are not negotiable.

Physical distance can distort the normal pace of conversations and a delay in replying to messages can hide emotional reactions that would ordinarily accompany comments in a face-to-face conversation, so the right communication tools ensure that everyone stays on the same page.

Whether it’s Microsoft Teams, Trello, Zoom, Google Docs, Slack or a purpose-built internal communication forum, effective remote teams need a place to surface for important conversations and share work, ideas and progress.

For Zapier the final piece of the puzzle are processes that provides structure and direction for getting things done.

In an early stage business this might be a feedback loop, regular meeting rhythms, mentoring and face to face contact even if this is an occasional offsite or team building session.

Regular video calls are a better vehicle for establishing rapport and creating empathy than either emails or voice calls.

Miscommunication and misunderstanding are an inevitable consequence of remote working that can be minimised by employing the right team as well as deploying the right tools and processes.

But remote working must be a deliberate and well thought out model that, like all aspects of startup life, is a process of refinement and iteration to land on the most effective way of working. And this doesn’t happen by accident.

Benjamin Chong is a partner at venture capital firm Right Click Capital, investors in high- growth technology startups.

Remote Control for startups in the “new normal”: Succeeding with remote teams