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Tackling Project Challenges with Remote Teams

One of the many reasons I chose to work at Reaction Commerce was their commitment to building a remote-first company. Remote work is important to me for a multitude of reasons; including, but not limited to, accessibility, inclusion and cultural diversity. Unfortunately, with its many pros come a number of cons, such as replicating in-person experiences and camaraderie from a distance.

Recently, I took on the project of refreshing our company values. The truth of the matter is, the values we wrote years ago felt hidden and a bit stale. Although we didn't necessarily disagree with the old values, it was evident to us a change could positively impact our company. We wanted to use new values as a springboard to create a stronger sense of internal community and provide clarity on what's truly important to us.

I have previously been involved in similar work, but almost immediately I realized that with a fully distributed team, this project would be different. Almost 100% of the values/culture based work I have conducted previously has been in-person. Even when working at organizations with some remote workers, they would be flown in to participate. The thing about People Ops work is it's often not seen as 'mission critical'. So, without the luxury of in-person sessions to ensure participation, how would I 'make' people participate? I would be relying solely on influence to get folks bought-in (daunting, to say the least!).

The good news is, we internally launched our values last week with 100% participation (21 employees) and positive feedback on outcomes! Wahoo!

In the spirit of Openness (spoiler: one of our new values!), I thought sharing a few learnings from managing a fully distributed values project may be helpful to others.

Learnings:

  • Share the 'why' - No one wants to participate in a project if they don't understand why it's happening. Let people know what led to the project and desired outcomes. Everyone is busy, so don't expect employees will voluntarily participate without context.
  • Assume you don't understand the current state - No matter your title, as a single person, it's impossible to fully understand a situation on your own. Gathering data and information from others is critical to getting the full picture. Doing a quick survey or simply asking folks their opinions is a great first step to any project. You can't get to desired outcomes without knowing where you are starting from. (For example - we learned that almost no one knew our old values, but everyone felt connected to them....a head scratcher!!)
  • Put in the work for feedback - Gathering feedback is often the most challenging part of a project because, frankly, most people don't want to do it. The best advice I have is to assume responsibility for feedback collection and anticipate the time commitment.

A few ways I've learned to overcome hurdles in gathering remote feedback are:

  • Give multiple channels for feedback - Not everyone likes to and/or is comfortable giving feedback the same way, so open the options.
    • Individually: Some people hate sharing feedback with an audience, and that's okay! Let folks know they can DM you, email or set up a 1:1 Zoom session (video calls).
    • Small Groups: On projects with a large number of participants I often create smaller group Slack channels and/or have small group Zoom sessions for less overwhelming conversations. I've found many folks who are on the quieter side are often more willing to share once they see others sharing and feel the space is safe. Establishing agreements, like 'what is said in this group stays in this group' is key!
    • Company Wide: Some people love showing their work to others, and this includes feedback. Find a way to open up feedback, I suggest in a written format, that is viewable by all and can be commented on.
  • Don't fight the feedback - When people give you feedback, they are trusting you with their opinions. If you receive feedback you disagree with or are confused by, ask clarifying questions, but do not battle for correctness. Feedback is a way to hear people and ask more questions to ensure you understand their viewpoint, not win an argument.
  • Incorporate feedback - Prove to people that their feedback matters by incorporating it into next steps and outcomes. Effective distributed teams are built on trust, which includes trusting that you won't waste peoples time by requesting feedback that disappears into a black hole.
  • Over-communicate - My honest advice is to 'err on the side of being annoying'. But seriously, keep people up to date about project. Share timelines, let them know how many people have given feedback so far, be explicit about the type of feedback you are requesting and celebrate the completion of the project. When you do not have co-location as a tool, you have to send 'friendly reminders'.....A LOT.
  • Make it fun - Let's face it, projects can be boring, especially if they take multiple stages and weeks to complete. It's your job as the owner of the project to get folks engaged. Depending on the project this can include adding gifs to a presentation, making time for light hearted small talk at the beginning of a brainstorming session or creating an emoji for the project to keep it top of mind on slack. Be creative and be open to iterating on the fun. Don't be ashamed if you flop on humor a time or two!

Achieving participation and engagement in a remote project can be difficult, but I strongly encourage you to take on the task! Use the advice above, no matter how unnatural it may feel, to lay the foundation for future projects. It won't be perfect on the first try, but by experimenting you'll get Clarity through Iteration (spoiler: another new value!!) and be a well oiled remote project machine in no time!

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