May 20, 2021
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6 minute

How can startups nail remote working while building a new team

Venture Building

What do most startup origin stories have in common? 

Most of them involve two or three founders hashing out the early version of their company while holed up in their garage or parked in a coffee shop.

The co-founders of Edmonton-based startup Jobber, Sam Pillar and Forrest Zeisler, had a circuit of coffee shops they’d work in when they founded their company in 2011.

Tobias Lutke and Scott Lake built Shopify (then a snowboard company called Snowdevil) by working in coffee shops around Ottawa

At the core of startup mythology is the idea of people coming together, being passionate about a shared vision, and energetically making that vision a reality. 

Of course, there’s a huge roadblock for startup founders who are interested in replicating this: COVID-19. Social distancing measures mean it’s temporarily a social faux pas to cram a bunch of excited people into an office and work closely together. In some places, it isn’t even legal. 

Companies now need to work remotely, leading founders to worry, “Can my early-stage startup thrive in a remote work environment?”

Do founders have cause to be concerned? Yes. Working in a shared physical space makes it easier to: 

  • Become passionate about a shared vision
  • Make on-the-fly decisions and pivot when needed
  • Generate shared energy to fuel performance
  • Understand every area of the business
  • Contribute to and benefit from a positive company culture 
  • Eliminate friction points while collaborating
  • Prevent small miscommunications from turning into major mishaps

At the same time, remote working offers benefits, too, and the acceleration of work-from-home trends means that desirable candidates will gravitate towards jobs that offer flexibility. One study found that one out of three Canadians would quit their job if they were forced to return to the office on a full-time basis. Meanwhile, over 60% of employees say they would only consider roles that offer remote or flexible work if they had to change jobs.

Does this mean that collaborative, in-person environments are a thing of the past? No. Note that most of these employees specify flexible working as an option, not just remote work. The future of work isn’t remote. It’ll be hybrid – split between going into the office and working from home. 

Why? People tend to like having a designated work environment and a place to collaborate with other professionals. They just don’t want to be forced to come in on days they could work from home or stress over going to a doctor’s appointment at 2:30 in the afternoon. In fact, 58% of office workers say they want a hybrid work arrangement, where they can pick and choose which days they work from the office and which days they work from home. 

As one leader in workplace transformation explained, the physical office “is evolving from a place where we sit and do work to a space for collaboration, where we can bring people together to solve a specific problem and brainstorm new ideas.”

A hybrid work environment is valuable for startup founders, because it eliminates the downsides of fully-remote or fully-in-person work without reducing any of the upsides. Long commutes and inflexible schedules negatively impact employee satisfaction, and this has an impact on how much effort employees put into their jobs. According to Gartner, satisfied employees report that they’re 52% more to use high discretionary effort and they’re 69% more likely to be one of the company’s top performers. 

At the same time, too much flexibility can make it difficult to initiate new projects, form strong team bonds, co-operate more effectively, resolve conflicts, and have regular touchpoints with managers about long-term goals as opposed to short-term tasks. In other words, it’s harder to keep that “social glue” that holds people together and that is critical to an early-stage startup’s success. 

A hybrid work environment offers an answer to this. Employees enjoy the flexibility of working from home when needed. The overall business reaps the rewards of employees who’ve built a strong company culture, professional relationships, and an understanding of the company’s vision and goals. 

How can startups enjoy rapid growth in a remote work environment in the meantime?

In the meantime, most startups have no choice but to work in a remote environment. Does this mean collaboration and innovation has to go on pause? Not at all. Rather, you’ll need to put more energy into ensuring collaboration, clear communication, and conflict resolution as a remote team. 

As we prepare to once again collaborate and communicate in person post-pandemic, we have an opportunity now to take the good and bad of remote work, and design smarter processes to build the future of work together. 

Plus, this investment in implementing remote working best practices will pay dividends when you make the transition into a hybrid work environment. One that encourages being together in an office, especially in those early startup days, but also embraces greater flexibility. 

Create a communication protocol

What’s your collaboration tech suite? Are you using Slack for instant messaging, Google Suite for collaboration, and Asana for project management? These tools are great, but they can further complicate communication if there isn’t a clear protocol for which tool someone would use in a given situation. 

Put together a communication protocol that outlines: 

  • Which communication channel to use for a given situation (e.g. Slack for urgent matters or sharing links vs. email for more complex communications)
  • How you signal your availability to the team (e.g. updating your status when you’re doing focused work and won’t be available via Slack)
  • Any best practices for scheduling meetings (e.g. specifying off-limit times such as Fridays after 2pm)
  • What’s meeting best practice to avoid wasting your team’s time (e.g. distributing an agenda and materials that should be reviewed beforehand)

Standardize processes and document workflows

Cut out confusion and unnecessary rework by standardizing processes and documenting workflows. If something doesn’t require strategic or creative thinking and there’s a standard way to do it, document it so your team can easily execute it without wasting time. This applies to:

  • Accessing and navigating a portal
  • Preparing a specific type of presentation
  • Using a proprietary application
  • Aligning a document to brand guidelines

These are all irritating tasks that take up time when an employee has to keep emailing the one person in the office who knows how to do it. They prevent your employees from working on the things that matter: solving problems, identifying new opportunities to grow the business, and interacting with customers. 

These processes can be documented in the form of: 

  • Checklists: Provide a step-by-step breakdown of how to complete a specific task so that no important steps are missed
  • Videos: Use tools like Loom to record yourself completing a certain task with narration.  
  • Guides: Prepare detailed guides with screenshots, instructions, and detailed steps. This is especially helpful for showing new employees how to use a specific application.  

Develop a standardized onboarding process

Great employee onboarding can boost employee retention by over 80 percent. Unfortunately, most “onboarding” experiences are more like one-day orientation sessions. In reality, a proper onboarding experience is a months-long process that helps new employees become acclimated to their new work environment. Companies with effective onboarding:

  • Announce the new arrival to the wider team
  • Book one-on-one meetings with key employees that the new hire will be working with
  • Articulate clear goals for the first 30, 60, and 90 days 
  • Provide information about the role’s growth potential 

To do this, you’ll need to:

  • Document the end-to-end onboarding process
  • Determine who’s responsible for overseeing the onboarding process (e.g. HR or direct managers)
  • Ensure it’s easy for employees to find information about pay benefits and other perks since your early-stage startup likely won’t have a human resources information system (HRIS). 

Record meetings and build a company library of useful recordings

Get into the habit of recording meetings. This creates a library of information about the company that new employees can look through when they need an understanding of how effective project meetings are run or client calls conducted. This’ll also help keep your remote workers in different time zones stay in the loop and aligned to your company culture without requiring them to wake up and join a call at 4 in the morning. 

Adjusting to the new ‘world of work’

Very soon, we’ll be back in the office, collaborating with our colleagues and feeling the rush of working as a team to accomplish an ambitious goal. But remember that work environments and norms continue to evolve and change. As your company grows, you’ll need to figure out how to match employee expectations to your business’ needs in order to attract and retain talent. It’s 100% possible to build thriving companies in a hybrid work environment, so long as employers take the steps to create clear processes, provide communication protocols, and set clear expectations around expectations and deliverables.

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