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Remotely there:
How to lead distributed teams to success?

As there’s no tech talent settlement like Silicon Valley in Europe, successfully leading distributed teams is a vital condition for many of the continent’s startups. Tech companies Mapillary and Iris.ai share how they build and manage remote teams to avoid issues with trust, communication, and mental health.

© Riikka Kuivanen

“It is very easy to neglect the distributed people when times are tough.”

Victor Botev

Co-Founder and CTO of Iris.ai

Expect to learn:

  • How Mapillary and Iris.ai made remote work their competitive advantage, not a burden?
  • How fully remote teams organize their day-to-day structures?
  • What are the best practices for enforcing values, culture, and trust when there’s no shared physical space?
  • What kind of people thrives in distributed teams?
  • What about loneliness – is our future being virtually employed and socially sacked?

 

To build a successful tech company in Europe, you need to hire the best talent out there – not just the best in your sight. This is what both Mapillary and Iris.ai knew would either make or break there business. Both companies started out with distributed teams from the beginning, but for slightly different reasons.

Mapillary is a street-level imagery platform scaling and automating mapping, currently employing 65 people across eight time zones. For them, the remote structure was a necessity more than policy, as all of the founding team members live in different locations. Being distributed has since proven to be a vital condition to Mapillary’s success, as it lets the company choose candidates from a global hiring pool, says Sandra Uddbäck, Mapillary’s VP of Data Acquisition.

“We wouldn’t have been able to build such a stellar team and such great technology if we only hired in one location,” Sandra says. “This sort of talent isn’t in one place, it’s all over the world.”

Iris.ai, an AI-powered ‘science assistant’ helping R&D increase productivity, could’ve managed with only one location in the beginning, as all four founders sat around the same table. However, they made a strategic decision to start building a remote team from early on. The aim was to be as attractive as possible to global talent to be able to compete with big tech giants – especially crucial in the fields of AI and machine learning.

“It’s much easier to set up a remote team from the beginning than to shift towards distributed work later, so it’s easier for the smaller companies,” says Victor Botev, Iris.ai’s Co-Founder and CTO.

Victor knew that the teams had to be crafted carefully. In his previous position, he has seen how building distributed teams can easily result in a weird, off dynamic.

“In my previous company, there was one big team in one location and two small groups of people in others. That created a bit of a disadvantage – an unfair treatment of those who were away.”

Victor recommends that if a team is only partially distributed, it has to be well balanced in terms of distribution. It’s also crucial to pay extra attention to inclusive communication and treating everyone equally.

“It is very easy to neglect the distributed people when times are tough,” he warns.

 

Force open communication – even when it feels awkward

One obvious challenge that remote teams tend to struggle with is keeping communication flowing and open. At Mapillary, this is tackled with a policy that feels pretty awkward to most new team members: All of the company’s communication is done online and on open Slack channels. Direct messages are only for strictly personal matters. Open online communication means that decision-making at Mapillary can move at a fast speed.

The culture of openness also goes beyond work-related matters. Due to time zone differences, it is common for Mapillary employees to get to know their colleagues’ partners and kids through their frequent cameos in the background of video calls and meetings. The company also has a Status channel on Slack where the ‘Mapillarians’ post when they’re coming and going to replace the missing casual banter by the office coffee machine.

“You’ll see all kinds of stuff in there, including things like heading to the hairdresser, picking up the kids, and the kid is sick, working intermittently today. This fosters an open and personal culture where people feel that they can share things that are going on in their lives,” Sandra Uddbäck says.

At Iris.ai, internal communication policies are designed to encourage flat hierarchy, everyone’s involvement, and a culture where people aren’t afraid to ask questions on digital channels. This is done for example by clearly communicating C-level decisions and sharing updates from the founding team. Newcomers are also especially encouraged to ask questions online, as they can’t do it in a ‘normal way’.

The goal is for every employee to develop a deep understanding of what is going on – not only amongst their own artifacts but the company process as a whole. 

“People must feel that they are taken into account and that their opinion matters. Whenever a decision is made, it’s just a weighted average from everyone’s opinions,” Victor Botev explains.

Victor believes the culture of daring to ask translates into an inclusive culture, where one identifies with the company and the decisions made. 

Don’t skimp on the meetings that are the hardest to organize

At Mapillary, a weekly company-wide weekly video chat is the backbone of everyone’s work. Even though it’s a little hard to arrange, it’s a priority.

“The meeting starts at 15.00 CET, which means that the people on the US West Coast wake up to join the call at 06.00 their time. That’s 01.00 in Melbourne, where our Strategic Partnerships Manager is located, so he typically catches up on a recorded version later,” Sandra says. “It’s a bit of a puzzle and requires everyone to be flexible.”

At Iris.ai, teams communicate with one another several times a day in different formats. Besides having daily syncs for tech, business, and high-level management, there’s a weekly business-tech sync where the team discusses things concerning Iris.ai customers, checks that the whole team is on the same page, and prioritizes the right stuff. 

All-hands meetings, where everyone gets to present what they’ve been up to in the last two weeks and what’s on their table for the next two, happen every second Friday. Tech-business roadmap meetings take place on alternate weeks.

 

Engage everyone in fighting trust issues

Both Sandra and Victor emphasize that managing a remote team means having to consciously work towards achieving trust and togetherness. In a shared office, these things tend to happen without us even noticing. But how do you build that trust in the absence of a shared physical social reality?

Besides open communication and celebratory channels on Slack, Mapillary relies on the power of real-life meetings. Twice a year, the whole team meets at a week-long offsite somewhere in the world.

“We do workshops, look back on the past six months, and align on the priorities for the next two quarters. In-between offsites we have company-wide townhalls where we dive into big projects that the company is currently working on,” Sandra tells.

Encouraging questions is another trust-building exercise that is also done at Mapillary, where no one tells anyone else what to do.

“The flipside of that is that it’s important for everyone to feel safe when it comes to asking questions and asking for advice.”

That’s where open communication comes into play.

“Everyone sees everyone else asking questions, which underpins the idea that there’s no such thing as a stupid question,” Sandra says.

From day one and the very first employee at Iris.ai, the founding team has promised to share all the information with everyone, tells Victor Botev.

“It’s not like we pull our employees in on each and every discussion. But if they’re willing to participate, they should be able to have all the information transparently available. Which, I think, results in the fact that the employees themselves feel that we trust them with everything to do with the company.” 

 

Working alone requires excellent social skills

For most people, work isn’t just about getting the work done. It’s also the social structure we spend the most time in. And when you work remotely, you’re missing out on a lot of spontaneous banter at the home office. Nuances in messages can be hard to read on Slack. Emojis don’t compensate for real smirks. It is easy to get tone-deaf when deciphering.

“It’s not always easy, you do get lonely,” Sandra admits. 

It’s fair to say that the success of a distributed team is 10% technology and 90% of hiring the right people. When hiring, it’s best to look for people with strong social skills – even if they’ll work alone behind their laptops. Remote work is best suited for people who can catch digital social cues well. It’s also important they can take care of their social needs themselves to avoid the loneliness that comes with the work setting. 

When recruiting, Mapillary not only looks for talent but also openness to doing things differently.

“Being in a distributed team means that you’re able to do flexible work hours, but it also means that both the employer and the employee need to be flexible and have high levels of trust in each other,” Sandra claims.

It’s fair to say they know how to handle their talent: “In the six years since Mapillary was set up, only four people have left.

The rise of co-working places presents an opportunity for purely distributed teams. 

“It’s a special situation to be in,” says Valentin Stauber, Research Engineer at Iris.ai.

When he first joined Iris.ai, he acknowledged the risks of social isolation and loneliness of working remotely. He solves the problem by getting a desk in an office space of another AI company in his hometown Vienna.

“They do sort of similar stuff, but it’s different enough, so it’s not a competition. So I get to talk to people, I have daily contacts, people who work on similar things.”

You might be coding alone, but you can be bowling together

At best, fully remote teams present a huge opportunity for companies with high levels of social integrity and individualism. The laptop-as-an-office-model gives teams the freedom to work wherever they are most productive and happy. No more hours spent commuting, no more unnecessary micromanagement, and sneer comments about your long lunch breaks. Less organizational politics and useless disturbance. 

On the other hand, physical workspace has for long been the stage of our daily lives. One’s colleagues are often the ones you turn to when the going at home gets rough. Workplace is not only an identity and a status symbol, but a physical triumph of how far you’ve gone: started from the bottom, now you’re at the corner office. 

When the company address becomes permanently poste restante, is the feeling of having a social community robbed from us for good? Are we socially out of a job?

The value of face-to-face connections should never be underestimated, but many real-life social behaviors can be successfully mimicked in virtual settings. Mapillary employees, for example, enjoy celebrating successes in team-wide Slack parties and have channels such as Family, Wellness, and Movie Buffs where people chat away everything not related to work whatsoever.

While Slack plays a big role in the Iris.ai’s weekly organization, the company tries to creatively use all the digital tools available in order to make sure that the team members don’t only rely on textual communication when chatting to one another. Besides working together through G-Suite and hosting virtual tea breaks in Hangouts, the team gets together for StarCraft game nights. 

What was once seen as a waste of company time, is now a vital aspect of keeping the team together. Social bonds are created when you’re busy doing something else; trust is formed through inside jokes and informal, spontaneous breaks and interactions in the office. Fully remote companies need to actively invent and promote these social processes within their employees.

Creating new, groundbreaking things together also requires a certain amount of slacking, idleness, and a social dimension where random encounters can take place. This is the reason why close physical proximity is important for the startup ecosystem. In the future, holograms and other digital enhancements may compensate for this need to some extent. 

Until then? Actively promote a culture of virtual togetherness as a company goal, not a byproduct of working together. Chat with your colleagues much more than is needed. Host company retreats whenever possible. More slacking, less sulking on Slack. 

And, last but not least, throw in a few emojis.

 

Eero Vaara, Professor of Organization and Management from Aalto University, was interviewed for this article about the future of remote work. Eero’s research focuses on organizational and strategic change, such as mergers, acquisitions, and distributed working environments.