4 min

How we built a productive remote team — without losing our marbles

Four USB cables on top of white paper.
Written by
Edafe Onerhime
Published on
December 20, 2016

How did we build a successful and productive team when we don’t all work from the same office space?

It started with three simple steps.

Hello, I’m Edafe Onerhime. I’m a data geek and co-director at a digital co-operative startup: Open Data Services. We’re based in the UK with a global reach. Our clients include the World Bank, Macc, the Omidyar Network, Open Contracting Partnership, 360Giving, and many more.

Since we launched in March 2015, we’ve grown from four founders to eleven technologists with a passion for the power of data to make change possible.

So how did we do it?

Step 1: Hire the right people…

Q: You wouldn’t hire just anyone to baby sit, so what do you look for in a potential sitter?

Responsible adult? High on your list is someone you can trust.

Smart & creative? Someone who can spot problems and solve it without hand holding but knows when a problem needs others.

Right mindset? Not everyone can or wants to cope with kids, so you’ll need someone who is realistic about what baby-sitting takes and their ability to cope with high energy kids.

It’s no different for remote working — trust is key, if you can’t trust remote workers to get on with it, remote working is a kinda a non-starter. Next, being able to spot problems, think creatively about solving them but also pull others in is necessary. Never struggle on alone! Finally, you need to know if working remotely is going to work for you. Not everyone enjoys a busy office environment but some people thrive in one.

Which leads us to the right environment…

Step 2: put them in the right environment…

Q: Have you ever brought home some supermarket herbs that didn’t thrive?

Like herbs, some people thrive in a certain environments or sometimes a mix of environments. So a busy office space a couple of times a week may be too much for some, while it’s nirvana for others.

The environment is more than just where you sit. How you solve problems is a big part of the environment or culture and can really affect your productivity, especially if you don’t work face to face.

Here’s our not-so-secret secret sauce: Be adult about dealing with problems and don’t let things fester. Healthy group dynamics are at the heart of successful remote working and we all work at making it work.

With that in mind, do mind the micromanaging – this goes back to trust and productivity. Focus on what people are producing not on ensuring you wring 8 hours out of them. True, folks can spend all day not working but that happens with on-site work too.

And on that note, let’s talks about the right tools.

Step 3: and give them the right tools

Q: Have you ever watched a hands-on professional at work?

Carpenters, mechanics, artists — watching them work is a treat. They make everything they do look seamless and easy. Part of that is down to years of perfecting their practice and the other is using the right tools.

As a startup, one of our key activities is developing and keeping good processes alive around the important things we do: handling documents, managing our work, health & safety and so on.

Building a good toolkit and keeping your tools well maintained is necessary for remote working. Find what works well for your team, mix it up, but don’t go mad. Think of it as a series of small improvements once you have the basics in place. Eating the elephant means taking small bites at the problem and understanding that this is a continuous effort for everyone.

Having the right tools in place is one way to remove barriers to productivity once you’ve hired the right people and put them in the right environment.

Does it end there? Oh no, there’s more! Finding out if remote working works for your situation can mean:

  1. Encouraging co-working and good working spaces — remote work needn’t be at home.
  2. Having clear leadership — be a good scrum master by removing barriers and having clarity about who does what.
  3. Taking care of staff wellbeing — making sure folks have a good work life balance and are able to manage stress.
  4. Building the team — that can mean face to face meetings and bonding so everyone works well together the rest of the time.

We built a productive remote team and we work at keeping our team productive and happy. Does this mean we don’t have to consider all the things you’d normally need to build a great team? Definitely not, no matter where they sit.

For remote working however, these three steps meant we built a productive remote team, without losing our marbles.

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