How to build relationships in a remote team?

A distributed organization, with a flat structure, based on trust and mutual relationships… How to manage a team working remotely? Why can integration have a key impact on achieving goals? We talked about this topic with Jan Zborowski, a SoftwareMill partner, in an episode of the Talent Story podcast.

SoftwareMill – forerunners of remote working

SoftwareMill has been hiring its employees exclusively remotely since 2009. The company sells software and brings together top programmers. The team consists of more than 80 people and is spread all over Poland and beyond – the team also includes people doing their work from the Canary Islands, for example. A sizable portion of SoftwareMill are passionate travellers, (especially in winter, when the weather in Poland is not spoiling us!) and work from various locations as part of the workation. SoftwareMill co-founder Jan Zborowski appeared on our Talent Story podcast and talked about how to manage a distributed structure and what is important in building relationships when working remotely.

Tools to help manage a remote team

Nowadays, companies working remotely have a number of tools at their disposal to facilitate their daily work and communication and allow them to effectively manage teams and projects. When SoftwareMill started, access to programs that would facilitate remote work was not so common. In the beginning, the company used Skype. Over time, as technological development took a step forward, the SoftwareMill team moved communications to Slack. Currently, the company uses several different tools depending on its current preferences. For example Zoom, Confluence, Google, and Teamspeak. A detailed comparison of tools that facilitate remote work can be found here.

It is also extremely important to select equipment and create the right conditions for working from home. SoftwareMill shares its advice on this topic in a blog post: How to set up a home office – tips from a distributed team.

What challenges go along with managing a distributed organization?

In this type of organization, trust is extremely important. Management doesn’t check every activity of team members, doesn’t “look over their shoulders,” but lets everyone work at their own pace. The most important thing is to stay in touch with others and get the desired goals. Jan Zborowski summed it up as follows:

”When building a remote company and remote teams, the basis is to ensure that there is a good environment for communication, tools for knowledge sharing, as well as for the ongoing exchange of information on what is currently happening in the project.”

Read more about communication in SoftwareMill’s fully remote team, the tools they use, and best practices developed over the past years in a blog post.

SoftwareMill is far from a micromanagement model in which management controls the team and exerts pressure to achieve goals at all costs. Instead, the company relies on a very good flow of information to make everyone’s job easier. They have hundreds of channels on Slack at their disposal, where anyone can find the content they need. In a distributed organization, you don’t have to limit yourself to just the people who are in the office, and employee chat is about more than just work. It discusses topics related to interests and hobbies. This gives everyone the opportunity to get close to each other, even people from other departments who don’t have the opportunity to work together on a project every day. You can read about how SoftwareMill’s structure has changed over the years and what it looks like now on their blog.

What is the role of the leader in all this?

A leader is not for distributing tasks. As Jan Zborowski summarized in the interview:

”We view a leader as a person who emerges from a group. It is a person who is particularly interested in an area and wants to get involved in working on it.”’

Leadership emergence is done from the bottom up. There is no complicated recruitment process, everything comes naturally. Employees thus motivate each other to develop. Proof of this can be seen in the creation of a machine learning subsidiary(ReasonField Lab), which was 100% founded by an employee who took an interest in the subject. “Our engineers are praised by customers for their commitment and proactivity,” adds Zborowski. You can read more about what their software development process looks like here.

What about grassroots initiatives? How do they affect development?

Working in a team is not difficult if it consists of motivated and charismatic individuals. This can be seen in detail by looking at the aforementioned daughter company, as we learn from Jan Zborowski. Many factors influence the development of employees in an organization. One of them is constant access to information, even seemingly taboo subjects. Employees want to know every step of the company’s management, so it makes sense to give them access to all company activities. We are talking about decisions made, plans and investments. Transparency encourages others to participate in the life of the company. Disclosing the amount of compensation for work is another step worth considering. This nips in the bud unnecessary talk and conjecture that introduces an unpleasant atmosphere.

Managing a remote team – challenges and how to deal with them

”The main challenge of running a remote company is relationship building or team integration. Many people think that when you work remotely it automatically excludes any kind of meetings. We, as a company, have monthly physical meetings.” – Jan Zborowski

Work is not just the regular performance of duties. Of course, everyone is committed to achieving their goals, but they should not focus solely on that. Too much focus on work can lead to job burnout. Online team management planning should therefore also take into account integration issues. At SoftwareMill, once a month all employees are invited to one of the cities in Poland, so everyone can work and talk with each other.

Integration also involves costs that many companies do not consider. This is an error. As Jan Zborowski says, building relationships is a business development tool that absolutely must not be overlooked. Integration should take place regularly, not just on holidays. Not to be lip service – here you will read about all the integration and development initiatives that happened at SoftwareMill last year.

What is the advantage of remote work over stationary work?

Much depends on the industry, but in the case of SoftwareMill, remote work is extremely convenient and allows engineers to manage their time flexibly. The organization works mainly with foreign companies, so necessarily, there is no need for live meetings at the headquarters in Poland. Not having an office generates savings, which the company invests in team development and monthly team-building meetings. In addition, working remotely gives you access to a wider talent pool. The IT industry has an ongoing shortage of specialists, so it’s a good idea to look for them everywhere, not just within one location.

With a full focus on integration, the company has a close relationship with each other. Whether they are HR, administrative or programming engineers. Working remotely in a well-prepared environment allows integration on various levels, including those unrelated to your duties.

Recruitment and onboarding in remote teams

We already know what working in a remote team looks like, so let’s take a look at the recruitment process. How does the HR department handle the search for new employees? What about the onboarding process?

It is important to present your company well on your website. Accurately describe the culture of the organization and share information about what the work is like. To this end, SoftwareMill has developed a Handbook for new employees. At SoftwareMill, such materials are prepared by people who implement projects on a daily basis and know the subject “inside out”. The company relies on knowledge sharing, which it wants to show from the first moments of cooperation. Managing the recruitment process at SoftwareMill also involves:

  • Engagement – during interviews, the candidate gets to know more than just the recruiter and management. He also has the opportunity to talk to those responsible for implementing the projects.
  • support – each new person has their own Buddy (mentor, guardian) for a period of 3 months.
  • Courtesy – no one will ever be left alone. The job should not be stressful, so newcomers have access to a dedicated chat room for ”freshmen,” where they can find all the tips.

SoftwareMill is not going the way of fruit Thursdays. Instead, it focuses on competence development and integration. Employees can take part in certification training or soft skills management courses.

Read also: Wondering what crowdstaffing is in recruitment? Here’s where you’ll find out!

Anna Jaskowska

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