Managing a Virtual Team Across 5 Time Zones

Globe-PictureIt’s 7 a.m. in Montana and I’ve just rolled out of bed.  After pouring some coffee, I check-in on my team in Asana.

Our programmer in India is wrapping up his day, and just pushed a new set of changes to the website.  Our Content & Community manager, Laura – who’s two hours ahead on the East Coast and an early riser – has been hard at work for hours.

Our team members in the Philippines are an hour into their night shift to help run U.S.-based eCommerce operations.  And given it’s 6:00am in Los Angeles, I’m guessing our accountant is fast asleep.

It’s pretty cool to realize your team is distributed across the globe. But trying to streamline collaboration and finish complex projects while working across five different times zones can get dicey.

After having made every mistake in the book, here are the virtual team management techniques I use to keep things operating smoothly.

The Tools

Asana – Team Collaboration Software

Asana is the hub of our entire company.  It’s where I assign projects, communicate about ongoing tasks and where we store our process library. It’s even where I record blog posts ideas and books I want to read. EVERYTHING lives in Asana.

One of the best things about Asana is that it’s focused 100% on our team.   I can log-in knowing I’ll be faced with updates and requests solely from my team focused on achieving goals we’ve set internally.  Compare that to email where you’re fielding requests from the entire world, many unsolicited.  That’s why I check Asana first thing each day, but usually push off email until later in the afternoon.

I love Asana, but there are lots of other software choices like Basecamp, Trello or Teamwork.  What’s important is having a sacred sandbox for your team.

Google Docs

For any type of document or spreadsheet collaboration, we’ll use Google Docs.  We leverage it primarily for writing and maintaining the dozens of process documents we use to manage and run our business.

Zendesk and Helpscout

Helpdesks allow us to track customer requests, easily hand-off tasks to others and review the way team members are reply to customers.

Traditionally, we’ve used Zendesk for our eCommerce business but we recently implemented Helpscout for eCommerceFuel and are really liking its cleaner and less corporate approach.

Jing

I record a lot of screencasts to dictate to my team and/or illustrate a process.  Jing lets me record a screencast and quickly share it without the hassle of firing up a program like Camtastia, rendering a video, uploading it, etc.  It’s lightweight, fast, and easy.

LastPass

Without Lastpass, securely managing access to hundreds of logins across numerous team members would be a nightmare.  Luckily, Lastpass makes that easy.  Great for personal use, and even better for managing passwords across a distributed team.

 

Systems and Documentations

Smaller-Pen

I’m finally getting the hang of this whole systems thing, but I sure botched it starting out.

What do all successful, scalable businesses have in common?  They’re process driven and well documented.  Without clearly defined processes, it’s nearly impossible for a business to meaningfully grow beyond the founder without chaos ensuing.

The benefits of a systems-based business are twice as important with virtual teams where there’s less transparency with what team members are doing on a daily basis.

Having systems allows you to deliver consistent results, get work off of your plate, easily bring on new team members and bring order to the chaos that is small business.  If you haven’t read Work the System or The E-Myth Revisited, they cover the topic of processes implementation extensively and are a must-read for every entrepreneur.

I’ll use the term SOP – which stands for Standard Operating Procedure – going forward to refer to a document that outlines a business process.  Currently, we have close to one hundred SOPs outlining how to do everything from refund orders to update our websites.

I’m finally getting the hang of this whole systems thing, but I sure botched it starting out.  My first shot at creating a system-driven business was riddled with missteps, including trying to write all the documentation myself, creating SOPs for every situation under the sun and not integrating SOPs into our task management system (Asana).

After an initial failed first effort, I regrouped and made the following changes which have helped tremendously with implementing a process-driven culture:

Empower Your Team to Create Processes

If you try to write every process in your business, you’ll go crazy.  I know, because I tried.  Instead, leverage your team to help you create your SOPs.  You’ll still want to review and tweak them, but having them do the heavy lifting is tremendously helpful.

I’ll often record myself completing a process with a Jing screencast and have a team member create the new written SOP based on the video.  This saves a tremendous amount of time, as well as my sanity.

Create Processes ONLY for Commonly Recurring Tasks

Nothing is more depressing – or wasteful – than writing 20 SOPs that never get used.  So make sure to invest writing time only for tasks that recur regularly and are clearly definable.  For more ambiguous or non-frequent tasks, create a mission statement and core business values and empower your team solve problems using those as guidelines.

For example, our eCommerceFuel manifesto lays out our three core values:  Quality, Fierce Independence and a Sense of Community.  It also contains our mission:  To build the web’s best community for experienced, independent eCommerce merchants.  For dealing with non-documented problems, I ask team members to make the best decision they can using our core values and mission statement as a guide.

Integrates SOPs into Your Task Management System

We’ve managed to arrange a beautiful marriage between Asana and Google Docs that works beautifully for our SOPs.

We now store our documentation library in Asana, creating a task for each SOP and attaching the corresponding Google Doc to it.  This way, it’s incredibly easy to assign and transfer responsibilities for different tasks to people.  The task shows up in their normal “to-do” list, and the SOP is right there alongside for reference.

It also make collaboration and discussion on creating and updating SOPs really easy, as well as preserving a history of edits to our processes through Asana’s comment history.  You can get a sense of how it actually looks in the video below:

 

 

Keep Your Documentation Current

Making sure you have a good system for keeping SOPs current is crucial.  But it also needs to be low friction so that you actually DO it.  The only thing worse than no documentation is outdated, useless documentation.

Our team members are expected to maintain accurate and current SOPs for any process they’re responsible for.  For any major changes, I’ll be notified and will use Google Docs’ “View Revision History” changes to quickly identify and approve changes.  This is much easier for me than making changes myself, and helps keep processes current.

Done Correctly, It’s Still a Big Commitment

Our second approach at integrating documentation and systems is going much more smoothly after making these changes, but creating and maintaining a systems focused company is a major investment.

Possibly the biggest hurdle is getting yourself to follow the systems and guidelines you setup.  If you don’t show leadership in the area, how can you expect your team members to follow through?  Also, you need to have realistic expectations.  Your well thought out systems won’t be followed perfectly 100% of the time, and you’ll need to gently remind team members for a while to get them onboard and hold them accountable.

It’s by no means perfect or easy.  But if you’re willing to commit to it, investing in systems will dramatically increase your virtual team’s effectiveness and the quality of your output in the long run.

Examples of SOPs We’re Currently Using

For a sense of what our documentation looks like, you can view some of the actual SOPs we’ve created and use daily below.  If you’re interested in setting up a similar system with Asana + Google Docs, these should be especially helpful:

 

Managing Team Members – In House vs. Contractors

Team-Members-Smaller

Large companies have the luxury of having dedicated employees for individual roles – accounting, HR, sales, etc.  But most independent merchants won’t be able to swing that from a budget or payroll perspective.

Instead, I’ll hire in-house team member based on two need sets:  (1) I always want a trusted “point” / manager person for each company and (2) I don’t want to outsource any of our core competencies, particularly customer service and writing.

Once that team structure is in place, I’ll do my best to use contractors for the rest of my virtual team building.  Currently, we use contractors for our accounting, graphic design, programming, podcast production and more while keeping our customer service, eCommerce operations, writing and community management in-house.

Invest in Training

Hiring is just the start of getting work off your plate.  If you want your new team members to succeed, you have to invest in training them.

Depending on the position, either myself or one of my company team leaders will spend anywhere from 2-4 months minimum training new in-house hires.  If you’ve been good with your documentation and SOPs, this process should be easier – but you’ll definitely need to invest heavily in any new hire.

Regular Check-Ins

With virtual teams, it can be easy to grow disconnected and lose a sense of rapport – especially after that initial training period.  So I do my best to check-in with team members on a regular basis.

Depending on the position and where they’re at, it could be as frequent as a daily phone call meeting or as infrequent as pinging someone via Skype once or twice a week to see how they’re doing.  Both go a long way to maintain a sense of connection, and also to keep the lines of communication open.

Regular Reviews

For my company team leaders, we’ll sit down quarterly to discuss their performance and make plans for the next three months.

One thing I’ve learned is the importance of having a very clearly defined job description and expectations document (thanks Dad!).  Without one, you have no way to fairly evaluate your team member and they can’t be sure exactly what you expect of them.

Without a detailed written job description, you have no way to fairly evaluate a team member.

With a very clearly defined job description, it’s easy to see where a team members has been killing it, and where they need work.  I try to use a standardized evaluation sheet each quarter, so the team member will know exactly what areas we’ll be discussing.

Reviewing Goals – Business AND Personal

I ask my team leads to create and share their three month, year and five year goals with me.  Each quarter, we review and update them accordingly.  I think it’s important to ask about personal – as well as business goals – so that you know what’s important to your team members, and how you can potentially help them achieve big wins in their own life.

Understand Your Team’s Perspective

I also have team members fill out a “What’s Important” questionnaire when they first start so I can best understand what’s valuable to them, and what they really appreciate in a working environment.  Specifically, it asks:

  1. What’s really important to you in our working relationship?
  2. What drives you crazy from a management perspective?
  3. What kind of work do you like doing the most?
  4. What kind of work do most dislike?
  5. What are you most excited to learn more about / projects you’d be excited to be assigned?

I’ll do my best to re-read this regularly to make sure they’re in a position where they’re most effective within the company.  And, of course, that I’m not doing anything that is secretly driving them insane.

Treat People Well

It seems like it goes without saying, but so many companies treat their employees terribly and then are surprised when they have high turnover and struggle to get traction.

Compensate your team well, take an interest in their development and personal goals and, above all, show appreciation when they do a good job.  More than just about anything (including money), being appreciated is incredibly powerful.  Make sure to notice and give credit when your team members excel.

Apart from being the right thing to do, treating your team members well will pay massive dividends for you in the future.

How Are You Managing Your Team?

I’d love to hear how you’re managing your team, whether it’s a local employee, a single VA or a team of 50 spread across six continents!  Let me know in the comments below.  As always, I’m also happy to answer any questions.

Photo credit to Chris Blakeley and the Smithsonian.

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Comments

  1. Carlos says:

    Hello Andrew,

    Great post as usual. I didn’t know about Jing and I will give it a try
    Also, very good advices I’ll practice in my 12 guys team and check how it works

    Regards,
    Carlos

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks Carlos! A team of 12, huh? Sounds like you’ve got your work cut out for you. ;-)

      Appreciate you reading!

  2. Nick says:

    Great post Andrew!

    For someone just starting a new e-commerce business, would you recommend diving right in to all this team management stuff or would you wait until you have a better idea of required daily tasks and processes?

    Thanks!

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks! And good question.

      If you’re just starting out, I’d give yourself a ramp-up period to learn the best processes for each task as there will inevitably be some changing / reconfiguring. For us, we’ll do something once or twice to get a sense of what’s involved, how we should tweak it, before writing a SOP. There’s no point in writing a SOP while trying to figure out a new system and/or learn it at the same time.

      Once you’ve got something solid down, then document it – and make sure tweak and improve as necessary going down the line.

      But once you’re a few months in and feeling good, then I’d start documenting your processes and/or have your team members start documenting agreed upon ones.

      Good luck!

  3. David Corner says:

    Excellent post Andrew and using it to create my own framework and moving from how I have created/managed SOPs and projects in the past in my CRM to Asana.

    As a result of your original post in the forum area started mapping out how to use Asana and this post helped me answer some unanswered questions.

    I originally created teams based on functional areas (i.e. customer support, development, etc) and created a project for procedures (as tasks) underneath each one of them relevant only for each respective function.

    I see it might be a better solution to do it your way and organize all the SOPs under a top level group (i.e. company)

    One limitation I see is that as far as I can tell there is no way of preventing anybody from marking a SOP (i.e. as task) as complete (it disappearing) or from simply creating a new SOP on the fly.

    Also curious to know how you organize your files in Google Docs? Do you create a new folder for each project / group?

  4. David says:

    Found the answer to my question in the very docs you provided -:)

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks, David – appreciated! And glad you found it. ;-)

      For the clarity of others reading, you do have to make sure you team understands they can’t check some tasks off, or they’ll disappear. That’s covered in detail in the “Asana Working Rules” doc (see link in article above) so we try to get the team on the same page with that.

  5. Kate Hiscox says:

    We have a team of 20+ across the same range of time zones but we work on CST. I don’t think we would be nearly as effective without that commitment from everyone. We scrum twice a day, sprint planning once a week (about to go to bi weekly sprints) and a bi weekly retrospective on what is working, what we can improve etc.

    Hip chat for constant communication, video chat (Fuze) for scrums, Asana, Jira, Confluence.. And unbelievable organization otherwise while you might save money, you’ll give it back in productivity. Finally, try to apply agile to every area of your business, not just dev.

    All of the above applies, no matter the size of your team and in my experience, its better to start as you mean to go on. Put those building blocks in place early and you’ll be glad you did later.

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks for weighing in Kate, interesting to hear how you guys do it. Commitment is huge. Without having everyone buy-in to our central Asana system, things wouldn’t work as well. I’m not perfect yet, but it’s a lot better than the old days of an email free for all.

  6. Ashley says:

    Hi Andrew,
    Thanks for sharing. This post came very handy as I have been struggling with keeping up. Especially I have been skeptical to go out of USA for web development graphic desighn etc. but after reading this post I am more encouraged to do so. As I will LOVE to cut cost and maximize profit by all means. Any recommendation for graphic designer and web developer in India?
    Thank you in advance.

  7. Will says:

    Andrew,

    Great in-depth blog post – thanks for writing and sharing it. Looks like the work paid off!

    Will

  8. Fred Merlo says:

    Hi Andrew,

    great post, lots of useful info and looking to implement. We are considering hiring a programmer/webmaster to carry out all the needed functions with regard to our website (building it, linking to auto-responders etc) all the usual stuff thats techie. Can you recommend where we might find someone to do all that for us?

    Thanks in advance,

    Fred

  9. Thank you for the post, Andrew.
    I couldn’t have come at a better time. I have been trying to wrap my head around SOPs for a while now and have a VA helping me.
    We are already in Asana, so your video and processes are really helpful.
    You inspired me to head back into Asana to figure out more stuff, and I wonder why you have your SOP in Google Docs and not templated out in Asana – like this: https://asana.com/guide/learn/projects/duplicating
    I looks to me like it would make sense to keep everything under one roof.
    /Anders

    • Andrew says:

      Hey Anders! Nice to see your comment. We chatted / met at DCBKK, right? Want to make sure I’m thinking of the same Anders. ;-)

      Good question on Asana templates. Considered it, but it’s much harder to review changes to templates like that vs. Google Docs which makes it very easy to track. So ultimately we went with Google Docs, but being able to duplicate checklists each time is pretty cool.

  10. Lenny says:

    LOVE what you shared here! Thanks for sharing.

    I am curious, how you guys share resources from the web, maybe build an internal knowledge base for continuos education. Got any of that?

    Thanks again

  11. Logan Cubby says:

    It’s an amazing work, in our company there is a problem with telework. Your advice will help us very.

  12. Paul says:

    Hi Andrew,
    I recently discovered your blog site and find all your posts of very high quality with relevant content.

    I am my self launching an ecommerce site this week and already have 2 freelancers helping out on stuff that I don’t really want to deal with. I started a few weeks before discovering your blog and already had a basic setup on Trello.

    I can see on your video that Asana has features that could be useful in Trello, like the overall calendar view!

    But what I really like with trello is that I can create a Board for specific tasks, e.g: “Sourcing New Products” is one board and I create a sequential list within this board to achieve the task. Different team members can be assigned at every step of the list, from “Product research” till the card reaches the final list: “Done!” And the beauty of it is that every board is an SOP that is constantly evolving and being used without missing a step.

    So far, I’m loving it as it’s not cluttered with too many things, but I’m also at the very early stage so will see what happens on the long run.
    If you are a more visual and don’t like too many details type of person, Trello works great. I tried kanban tool, similar to Trello but already too many clicking for my liking… Hope it helps others reading the posts as well.

    Thanks for sharing Andrew, great blog!
    Paul

  13. Becky says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for this is excellent post and the many informative comments.

    I’m working on a planned startup business that will be marketing proprietary CPG products online globally.

    I’m in the process of researching the systems and software that we would need to allow us to function as a small, core team of employee’s supported by a wider network of independent contractors. – Ideally I would like to adopt a matrix organisational structure, with operations organised by operational functional and geographic market area.

    I’m just wondering if anyone has any experience with using either ‘Huddle’ or ‘Teamwork’ as an alternative to ‘Asana’ and what you thought of them? Also does anyone use a balanced score card dashboard, such as ‘Spiderstrategies’ or similar to help keep all business activities focused on the strategic goals?

    Also these solutions rely upon the fact that the business has sourced a team of contractors who complete the ongoing or repeating tasks that are already established as business SOP’s. What happens when you need to bring in a contractor to complete an ad hoc assignment? Does anyone have any experience of using Elance’s ‘Talent Cloud’ to manage both recurring contractors AND ad hoc tasks?

    Finally, does anyone have a complete set of SOP’s or KPI’s for an international e-commerce business that we could BUY and use as a template for our own startup e-commerce business? (selling proprietary CPG products online to a global market) I’m thinking things like SEO, PPC, CRM, social media rules, running drop shipping & affiliate scheme’s, outsourced fulfilment, competitor tracking Etc, Etc basically the operational framework required as a foundations for a full, turnkey, e-commerce business?

    I’d appreciate anyones views on any of the above, many thanks for your time.

    Becky x

  14. Mike Ziarko says:

    GRRRR I mean Andrew, sorry lol

  15. Alexis Grant says:

    GREAT post, Andrew. Thanks for sharing in such detail! I run a virtual team of 10, and we use FLOW for task management: http://metalab.go2cloud.org/SF2G. I’m always shocked when it’s not listed with the popular team management tools, because it’s so darn good! Love your tip for checking your team management tool in the AM *before* email.

    Keep up the great work,
    @alexisgrant

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