by Mary Ellen Slayter
In the past year, my content marketing agency has grown from a solo shop to a staff of nine. On any given day, I won’t see any of them – not my editorial director, who lives in Washington, D.C.; not my office manager, who lives just a few miles away from me in Baton Rouge; and definitely not the Air Force wife who runs PR and social (she’s moved three times since she came on staff). I wouldn’t even know where to send her a holiday card at this point.
But this hasn’t hurt the growth of our business.
I built Rep Capital from the ground up to function as a fully decentralized business. Even after we moved into a physical office in a startup incubator on the LSU campus, we maintained that model. It’s a decision that has helped us attract and retain amazing people — no matter where they live — and effectively serve a rapidly growing international client base.
Interested in trying this for your business, but not sure how to make it happen? Here are a few of my favorite pieces of advice for other business owners looking to build a strong decentralized team without driving themselves crazy.
1. Outsource HR administration
I’m free to hire people in any state I like because we outsource all HR admin tasks to a competent outside firm. HR Solutions handles all our workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, employment taxes, payroll, benefits, etc. I pay a single invoice each month, and I never worry about the other things.
2. Hire carefully
Not all workers are well suited for this style of work. I’ve been managing remote teams for most of my career, and I’ve definitely noticed a few common traits among those that are happiest and most productive in this arrangement. Look for people who are highly self-motivated, assertive at communicating their needs, and comfortable figuring things out on their own. While strong introverts often get excited at the prospect of working at home, in my experience they also tend to struggle the most with feeling isolated.
3. Schedule intense bouts of facetime
Just because we work remotely doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy each other’s company. We get our fix via regular client visits, attending conferences together, and twice-a-year strategy retreats in interesting places. This is far cheaper than maintaining office space in a centralized location, and we’re always happy to see each other.
4. Embrace the cloud
All of the systems we use to communicate are cloud-based. Google apps runs our email and document management, Salesforce tracks our deals, Basecamp manages our projects and Freshbooks has us covered on accounting. If we can get online, we can work. This was a priority for me, living on the Gulf Coast — when hurricanes loom, all I have to do is grab my laptop and head inland.
5. Treat onboarding like it’s your job
At many small businesses, onboarding is a haphazard affair. A new worker shows up. Someone shows them how their email works. If they have questions, they can tap a colleague on the shoulder. We don’t have the option to be so informal. For us, onboarding is a project with tangible to-dos, all scheduled in Basecamp. As we grow, we’re creating templates for different positions. Nothing is left to chance.
Managing remote workers definitely comes with challenges, but if you learn to do it well, the advantages far outstrip the initial hassle.
What are some of your favorite tips for managing dispersed teams?
Mary Ellen Slayter is managing director of Reputation Capital. Before launching a content marketing firm in her home state of Louisiana, she spent more than 10 years working as a traditional journalist, primarily at The Washington Post, where she authored the Career Track column and worked as an editor in the business news department, and at e-mail newsletter publisher SmartBrief.