Future of Work

Webinar: How to Build and Manage a Thriving International Remote Team

Remote work offers many amazing benefits, but it cal also mean some challenges, especially for bigger international teams. In our webinar series “Future of HR”, we asked two experts who know all about this topic from their day-to-day experience: Gavin Stanley, Director of Talent at Shopify, and Nadia Vatalidis, Director of People at Remote. Gavin and his team recently managed a huge transformation when Shopify decided to go remote, and Nadia worked at remote pioneer GitLab before her current role, where she helped scale the remote company from 75 to 1,300 employees.

Onboarding Experience in Remote Companies

Our first topic to discuss is managing the employee experience, from onboarding to keeping teams engaged long-term. Nadia is happy to share some advice on how to create a great onboarding experience. “For me, onboarding starts the day someone accepts an offer. Because our handbook at Remote is public, a lot of people already have a really good idea of what’s coming before they join, and that’s a great opportunity to set them up for success. We also do a group call with everyone who’s going to join at the same time, so they can start building relationships. When they actually start working, we make sure they can find everything they need at any time. In a classic working environment, there’s a lot of handholding during the onboarding process. But in an international remote team, we need to make sure people can find information even when their colleagues are sleeping. That’s why we put a lot of emphasis on documentation.”

Gavin agrees with Nadia’s points, and tells us about the transition of the onboarding structure they made at Shopify. “When you switch to a remote strategy, you have to start at the beginning of the onboarding journey and decide how you can do it now that everything is fully remote. It’s important that you really design for remote and not just try to adapt your in-office approach by pushing it into Zoom calls.”

Remote Teams and Employee Engagement

He also shares with us some insights about keeping employees engaged on a day-to-day basis: “We try to find ways to organize the unplanned encounters you normally have at an office. We have bots on Slack that match us with people we haven’t met before for a coffee date. We also have different channels you can join based on your interests. On a more structured level, we schedule time slots to grab a meal with the team, which could be breakfast, lunch or dinner, depending on your time zones. Video cocktail classes can be a nice idea, but please be mindful of the fact that it could be 8 a.m. for some team members.”

Nadia agrees that you have to intentionally create several routes for social interaction. She tells us, “We do regular game events, where we make sure to have different times, so there’s a good option for every time zone. At the end of our weekly all-hands meeting, we do a funny little breakout session, where three to four people are matched and get a fun question they can chat about. You can also do that within your smaller team meetings and start them with an icebreaker question.”

Upskilling and Growing in Distributed Teams

It can be challenging for many remote companies to manage upskilling and growing of their employees, because managers can have a hard time identifying people who want to change. For Nadia, regular one-on-ones are a crucial element to help with that. She says, “This probably won’t work for very big companies, but if you still have a good ratio of managers and direct reports, for example seven to ten per manager, we believe in doing weekly one-on-ones. They should always start with checking in on how someone is doing, which gives you the chance to find out whether they are happy or not. And I also think you should add regular feedback to these one-on-ones, or set regular dates for check-ins about career development.”

Gavin adds, “It’s really important to be purposeful to carve out time for conversations about development and growth. I also try to give developmental feedback right in the moment, for example right after a presentation or meeting. Either by praising something or by pointing out moments that were not ideal and giving advice on how to do it differently. Of course that’s easier to do in an office, but if you’re purposeful, you can also do that within a short call. That shows people they are seen and invested in.”

International Companies and Cultural Understanding

For many international remote teams, cultural understanding can be an issue. Gavin tells us, “It’s such a joy to work in an international environment, but there a some challenges, and there’s the need to be a little more proactive in learning about others and listening to make the most of that. As an individual, you can do some research, and read books like “The Culture Map”. But the most important thing is listening, and asking a lot of questions.”

Nadia: “I think it’s really important to do trainings around unconscious bias, it’s an ongoing journey. I like reminding people that we are all very different. When we do trainings on these topics, we have to be careful they are not very American or very European, but universal. And if you’re not sure about something, just ask. It’s totally okay to say, “I don’t know how to address this topic, or how to pronounce your name. Can you tell me what you prefer?” That makes it easier for both sides than if you start making assumptions.”

After both speakers have answered several questions from the audience, Gavin finishes the insightful webinar with a final piece of advice: “Listen and experiment. Listen to your team, what’s working for them and what isn’t. Experiment and you will find what works for your company, your values, your people.”

Learn more about our Future of HR webinar series and watch the replay of the event.


Foto-Dunja-Rühl

About the author

Dunja Rühl is a writer and content marketer specializing in Future of Work topics. She has worked in a content marketing agency and a software start-up before becoming a full-time freelancer. Whenever she's not typing away on her keyboard or researching exciting new topics she enjoys travelling, reading or yoga.

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