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Grow your Remote Team with this Advice from CTO, Russ Greenspan

June 1, 2020
Linzi Nield
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Building remote teams is a unique process for organizations and teams alike.

Today, companies previously known for being HQ-centric are taking the leap to remote at-scale – just look at Facebook, which recently predicted that half of its workforce will be remote by 2030.

Though at first the journey to becoming remote may be based on short-term needs or factors outside of a company’s control, it’s key to quickly put in place structure and intentional thinking around remote best practices in order to thrive for the long term. 

Terminal partner PresenceLearning, a leader in online special education services such as speech and occupational therapy, is an example of how to build intentional process into the journey toward remote.

In its early days, the Presence team was centralized in San Francisco, taking advantage of local talent and the benefits of in-person collaboration. But as the company grew in size and geographic reach, there was a need to reach beyond the limits of San Francisco talent pools. Today, the company has a unique remote setup, with teams across the US and an engineering team based in Guadalajara, Mexico. 

We sat down with PresenceLearning CTO Russ Greenspan to hear what he’s learned about managing teams internationally – and how companies of any structure and industry can make the shift.


While growing a distributed team, consider looking abroad for remote talent

As PresenceLearning’s team began expanding remotely to New York City, and Salt Lake City, Utah, the value of recruiting locally in San Francisco began to weaken. 

Instead, the team assessed a handful of U.S. and international markets that could meet their criteria for new engineering talent. Their top criteria included high technical skills, compatible time zones to EST and PST, and more affordable rates than San Francisco’s talent market. 

Russ shares, “At this point we had remote systems and procedures in place so that people could work asynchronously and communicate effectively. And so it was a no brainer to me to look internationally.”

Ultimately, they landed on recruiting in Guadalajara, Mexico, which matched all of these needs. “We initially thought we wanted senior-level talent,” said Russ, “but we ended up finding more mid-level candidates with good communication skills, well-rounded backgrounds, and experience with our stack (Python + Angular), and they’ve been a perfect compliment to our internal team.”

By the time the engineering team expanded into Mexico, the company had already mastered some essential remote practices and systems among its US distributed teams that ensured tight collaboration and communication, regardless of location.

(To learn more about finding great talent, read more here.)

Learn to decipher when to use asynchronous vs. synchronous communication 

When teams become remote, there’s also a large spike in online communication volume and frequency on channels such as Slack. Russ highlighted that at the root of successful remote communication and collaboration is learning how to use these channels—and when not to. For example, knowing when to go from an asynchronous tool such as Slack, to moving the conversation to a synchronous channel, such as Zoom.

“We do our daily standup via Slack, and use channels and threads to keep conversations organized,” says Russ. “But it’s important to watch for the moment when an async conversation has run its course and there isn’t clear alignment, and to call a quick huddle.” 

But how do you determine the right moment to move a Slack conversation elsewhere? 

Russ points to a few key signals: when consensus on the subject is not quickly clicking into place, and also when there is significant back-and-forth on a topic where it seems that people are not understanding each other. In these moments, a quick check in phone call or “Zoom standup” can make all the difference.

As a leader of a remote team, Russ emphasizes that it’s critical for leaders to consistently keep a pulse on these asynchronous channels and know when it’s time to step in and facilitate better communication among team members. “Engineers can be a bit meeting averse, so it’s important for leaders to interject quick effective meetings where necessary,” says Russ.

Always treat remote and non-remote employees equally 

For a distributed company, it is an imperative to treat remote and non-remote employees equally across all aspects of work and communication. 

Russ emphasized a few ways of ensuring this, such as making sure virtual meetings do not favor in-person employees over remote employees in terms of meeting structure and tools, having leadership prioritize consistent 1-1 check ins with remote employees, and implementing communication best practices, such as shared meeting notes for all huddles, which all lend to making remote interactions productive and healthy.

Russ says, “I think the most important thing is to not draw a distinction between someone who’s remote and someone who’s not. If you do, what you end up with is a contractor model where you’re throwing something over the wall and you’re waiting to get it back, or you have a team that doesn’t feel an equal part of the overall company.”

Additional ways to foster remote and local employee equal treatment are through creating online learning experiences, conferences, and events that unite the whole company around a shared focus and value. If you’re looking for some creative ideas for virtual team events, check out this list of remote team building activities

For a deeper dive into remote management, check out Terminal’s 2020 Remote Teams Playbook for Engineering Leaders.

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