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It’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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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, almost like a smaller version of an employee handbook. 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:
- Asana Overview & Working Rules (Click to view)
- Process for Creating a New SOP (Click to view)
- Process for Updating a SOP (Click to view)
- Checking for SPAM Comments on the Blog (Click to view)
- The eCommerceFuel Manifesto (Click to view)
Managing Team Members – In House vs. Contractors
(Looking to make your next big hire? Post your job to the eCommerceFuel Job Board. It’s where today’s talented eCommerce managers, marketers and top-notch service reps turn when they want to work with compelling companies.)
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.
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.
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:
- What’s really important to you in our working relationship?
- What drives you crazy from a management perspective?
- What kind of work do you like doing the most?
- What kind of work do most dislike?
- 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.