Tech companies, often clustered in high-cost urban areas, are increasingly taking advantage of technology that unlocks a national (and global) talent pool. This is great news for employees and job seekers, who now have top companies competing for their talents even though they may live thousands of miles away from headquarters.
For companies hoping to take advantage of this, building out a remote team means taking steps to bridge the technology gap to make sure these new employees are productive, successful and happy.
Technology gap? Sounds basic. A webcam here, a Slack channel there. But it really isn’t. Every company has countless processes, meetings and cultural traditions, from from monthly all-hands to organic drive-by interactions. The companies that are most successful at building and retaining a remote workforce are the ones who can extend these interactions into the digital realm.
At Happie, the majority of our employees are located at our Cambridge office, but we added over a dozen remote team members during 2018. For us, making sure everybody could see and hear was a top priority.
Easy right? Not so fast..
Step #1: Getting the Right Tech Stack
Getting the tech stack right is the foundational piece that you must nail down to have a successful remote operation. In an office setting, you are bound to each other by technology and proximity.
Internet goes down? Have a question that’s quicker to ask in person? No worries—the coworker you’re trying to reach is only footsteps away. With a remote team, you lose the advantage of proximity, meaning it’s critical that you have the right tech stack to enable all of your business processes.
For us, most of this was as simple as extending (and modifying) our existing tools to our new far-flung friends. Here’s what our collaboration toolstack looked like at the beginning:
- Gmail: Email
- Google Docs: Document Management and Sharing
- Slack: Short-Form + Group Communication
- Hubspot: CRM and Marketing Automation
- Google Meet: Video Conferencing
- Nextiva: VoIP
- Hellosign: Secure Document Sharing
Since much of our communication already existed in the cloud, much of the work to get our distributed team going involved tweaking our existing tech stack.
Get Everyone on Google Meet
One good habit we developed is including a meeting link for all meetings. Not only does it make it easy to pull in a remote team member, but it also helps save time when someone who normally works onsite can’t be there in person.
Circulate Meeting Notes
This is good practice even if you don’t have a remote team, but we make sure to designate someone to circulate a meeting summary with action items to everyone involved. This provides another digital touch point that keeps the whole team involved.
Use Slack Channels Correctly
Like most companies, we have a #general channel that includes the whole team. While this is a great all-purpose tool when we were all under one roof, we added a #cambridgeoffice channel, as well as dedicated channels for each of the distributed teams. This way, these teams can build chemistry without having to sift through HQ-specific messages (“leftover cookies in the kitchen!”).
These modifications got us 80% of the way there with about 20% of the work. Taking these steps alone delivers a passable experience for everyone involved. Sure you can get work done, but it’s not a great experience.
To take that leap, we realized we needed to up our game in the face-to-face interaction department. Since we are a startup, we take a scrappy approach to everything we do. Many of the tools we put to use were lying around the office, but we found that we ended up needing to invest in several items to make this a success.
Step #2: Take Stock of Your Meetings, and How People Interact
Soon after building our distributed team, we learned that casting our large meetings (5+ people) via Google Meet resulted in a suboptimal experience for everyone–especially remote people. People couldn’t hear, remote team members couldn’t keep track of whiteboard discussions. It was a mess!
We could have saved ourselves these initial headaches by taking stock of each type of meeting you want to have, and either finding or purchasing the toys to make it happen. When we went through this exercise, we found that there were three major buckets.
- 1x1 Meetings/Small Team Meetings
- Conference Room Meetings
- All Hands
The 1x1 setup was easiest to pull off using our existing tech stack. Once everyone got into the practice of adding Google Meet link for every meeting, our team was taking calls at their desk using their headsets and phones. The beauty of this approach is that you can have a well-run small meeting with everyone in the same office.
For our conference room, we wanted to improve on the phone bridge/TV setup that was already in place. In general, sound quality is much better when using computer audio–one of the things that makes the headset approach so great—but in larger meetings, that advantage is nullified by the fact that most people use their computers default mic/speakers, which is terrible for picking up sound in a large conference room.
Go back to 1995 where you belong
Instead of suffering through this, or relying on an old-fashioned phone bridge, we purchased a Google Hangouts Meet hardware set. It’s one of the more expensive pieces of hardware we purchased, and despite a few software bugs with the camera, was the right setup for us. Now, anyone that needs to use the room books it using Google Calendar, and can walk into the room and kick off a meeting–with crystal clear audio and video.
This is more like it...
Last, we had tackle the challenge of the all-hands meeting…
Step #3: Solve the All-Hands Problem
At Happie, we have two types: weekly standups and monthly all-hands. If you’ve ever worked at a midsized or smaller company, you’ve definitely had a routine similar to this.
The former is an informal huddle where each functional leader gives an update from their team. The latter is a monthly meeting, where we review results from the prior month and goals for the upcoming one. Instead of standing in a circle, we would typically gather around a projector screen set against our back wall.
In real life, this is easy to execute. Gather everyone, plug a computer in and start talking. When incorporating remote folks, it becomes exponentially harder to recreate this experience. Here are a few of the lessons we learned along the way
Lesson #1: Don’t Use a Laptop/Webcam. Just don’t.
For the same reasons you shouldn’t open up a laptop in a meeting and expect your remote teammate to hear/see you via the machine camera/mic, it’s even more true in an all-hands format. It sucks. For everybody involved. Don’t do it. Trust me.
Lesson #2: Get the Software and Hardware That Fits Your Needs
Initially, we used Google Meet for all company-wide meetings. And why not? We already bought it! Why would we purchase a redundant tool?
This thinking is common, and it’s absolutely correct IF you get the desired experience for all involved. In our case, we became frustrated that Google Meet would only show one remote person’s face at at time, as opposed to displaying everyone in a grid setting. While this wasn’t a big deal when someone was doing a live demo or a Powerpoint presentation, it really held us back for our weekly stand-ups and all Q&A sessions.
We ended up investing in a Zoom Room, which at ~$600/year, was well worth the investment in seeing our colleagues’ faces at any time.
Can’t put a price on this...
Lesson #3: Build a Home for Your Meetings, and Configure Accordingly
Constructing an AV setup can be complicated and fraught with failure points. Why recreate the wheel every week? We moved our standups and all-hands from the main floor of the office to a corner area which served as our “hangout and work” zone. It now doubles as our meeting area.
From a gear standpoint, we put together a top-quality meeting rig for around $2000. Since we had committed to running out of Zoom Rooms, we required some heavier-duty equipment, so you may be able to build something similar for even less money. Here’s the gear we settled on:
- Laptop: IBM Thinkpad E580
- TV: Hisense 55” Flatscreen
- Stand: AVF AV Cart
- Tablet: Samsung Galaxy S3 Tablet
- Webcam: Logitech C922 ProStream Webcam
- Mic: MXL AC-404-Z
When running a Zoom Room, the tablet acts as a master remote, giving the operator full control over the meeting. The laptop runs the software, and is a single purpose machine (nobody moves that laptop).
We initially used the built-in mic in the webcam, but found that we couldn’t pick up sound from the back of the room, so we purchased the (Zoom-recommended) MXL mic.
For our monthly all-hands, we can wheel in an extra screen, and have the presenter join the meeting, mirror their machine, and be able to see their notes as they speak.
For our weekly standup, its as simple as gathering around the monitor, logging in, and saying hello to our colleagues joining us from thousands of miles away!
Lesson #4: Test, Diagnose, Improve
This is the most important step—by far. Even a simple-looking AV arrangement involves multiple people and computers, with an assortment of screens, microphones and speakers. We’ve all been in a meeting where a screeching feedback sound causes a fire drill for the first few minutes. Earplugs are for punk rock shows, not monthly all-hands.
We’ve had several bumps along the way to getting our remote meetings nailed down. Here are a few that we’ve encountered (some of these may be familiar to you):
Problem #1: “I can’t hear! Is your mic on?”
Diagnosis: A microphone that may work for people a foot away may not pick up sounds in the back of the room, especially if your bandwidth is strained and there’s crosstalk.
Solution: Get a better mic. And test it. During the day. With people around. Do your best to recreate the real-life conditions you expect your system to perform in. It’s a little annoying to do mic checks with people around, but you’ll be glad you did.
Problem #2: “Why does this presentation look so tiny on the screen?”
Diagnosis: We had a meeting where we switched machines at the last second, and the configurations were not correct for the presentation rig. This caused a delay in starting the meeting while we set everything else up.
Solution: Have a dry run, and make sure you ask the right questions. Who will be presenting the slides? Will you leave presentation mode at any time? Will there be any whiteboard sessions that require moving the camera? Google Slides may be similar to Powerpoint, but they’re different enough that you’ll want to test on the right one.
Problem #3: “Why did the screen go blank”
Diagnosis: This one sucked. We had a company-wide all hands, and things started off great, but the presenter’s laptop went blank. It was out of battery power. Some quick thinking got our meeting back on track, but it required a lot of unplugging and moving of wires, which adversely impacted the viewing experience for our distributed team.
Solution: Make sure you go into every meeting with a plan and a backup plan. Provide your presenters with a small checklist of to-do’s before starting, including disabling notifications, making sure there’s enough battery life to make it through. To protect yourself, you should always have a plugged-in machine while presenting, and a backup machine with slides ready to go if needed.
Building a great AV setup is the foundation of integrating your remote team into your company, but underestimate the work it’ll take to create a great experience at your own peril.
It’s also worth pointing out that creating a great meeting experience is a necessary step to building a great remote team, but not a sufficient one. Much of what makes Happie great to work at is the people that work here, the organic interactions that spark innovation and the culture we work hard to reinforce every day.
With the right technology in place, nothing will hold us back from extending this to our entire team, regardless of where they sit, in 2019.