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How to manage a team without ever meeting them in person

by Jackson B

By Aleks Kudic, CTO at business finance marketplace, Funding Options

On Monday 16th March 2020, I walked through the doors of Funding Options HQ as the new CTO. 24 hours later on St Patrick’s Day I was working from home, having only met a fifth of my 18-strong team, with no peers to raise a pint of Guinness with. To call it a strange start to a new role would be an understatement, but little did I or anyone else know what the rest of the year would have in store over the months that followed.

For people worldwide, this was unknown territory we’d all collectively entered. But, as a member of the C-Suite at a fast-growth company especially, it was hard to build relationships solely relying on video conferencing. Here’s what I’ve learnt from the experience over the past 10 months.

Meet and greet

Working in an office presents an organic opportunity to bump into colleagues in the kitchen when making a drink or getting in the lift at the same time, whatever it may be, it’s natural and effortless. Working remotely, you need to be so much more proactive in staying connected to people and ensuring that you’re demonstrating the right amount of support and management, which in and of itself can be time-consuming.

Scheduling one-to-one calls with members of the team has been my strategy throughout to get to know people, any concerns they may have and where they are. But oftentimes, the calls aren’t actually work-related, it’s more of a social check-in to see how they’re doing and what’s going on in their lives. This is a tough time for everyone, so these types of calls are a really healthy and valuable thing to do – the extra effort to connect is so worth it, whether that’s through Zoom, Slack or even an old-fashioned phone call, which can be a useful way to break free from screens.

Bedding in

In a business this size, it would ordinarily take around a month or so to settle in as CTO but, aside from doing it remotely, the other wrinkle was that I wasn’t succeeding anyone in the role, it was brand new, so there was no handover.

We have a very ambitious board of directors driving the agenda, so I spent a lot of time figuring out what’s important and aligned myself with the objectives at speed, which was key. This paved the way for motivating the team and created a foundation for us to build on.

Collaboration needs communication

There are businesses that are entirely remote like GitLab but that’s a day one setup – they don’t need people to come into an office. But when you’re at the ideation stage of a project, face to face contact would be the go-to for growth businesses and it just isn’t possible. Facebook and Amazon, of course, have their own remote setups and in-house tools for problems such as this but startups and scaleups don’t have those kinds of cash reserves. However, software such as Figma and Miro, which facilitate collaborative product design, are really useful additions to consider for the technology stack. So, while you may not be in a room with a whiteboard, these types of tools can recreate that feeling when working remotely.

Managing by context is essential, and that means sharing the agenda and objectives. Our team is relatively young, so that in itself presents an additional complexity. If you’re an experienced leader then it’s very easy to make assumptions while you’re working remotely that things will get done in a certain way. However, it’s worth over-investing at the beginning and handholding people across the journey at least the first couple of times.

Hiring from afar

Traditional recruitment takes a lot of time out of your day and doing so remotely is no different – it’s very easy to get disillusioned with it. The talent manager and I have gotten really structured with the process to incorporate a series of stages and over the home-working period we’ve hired ten people, six of which started this year.

Take time to consider if you really need people working on the doorstep of your premises right now and in the future. This time allowed us to recruit in Belgrade, Serbia – renowned for its maths and computer science skills – and we’ve brought in a handful of people in six weeks, all without a brand presence, which was a big achievement. Give it a go and you could surprise yourself.

Staying focused

Truthfully, I don’t think I’ve found the right balance to my day – I’ve worked more than I ever have before. But spending time with my kids and helping out is one way I ensure a break from work, which is a good thing. Going for a run or walk in the morning is also a nice way to blow away the cobwebs before getting started on the day ahead too.

Over the months, operating on this basis has got a little better, but in honesty it’s still tough. To know how people truly feel is hard, but as the team gets larger it’s essential to try and keep them focused and motivated on the endgame.  My recommendation for organisations is to be open with staff, have regular meetings and communicate clearly, which is really refreshing at a time like this. Having to endure another lockdown, an open and unrestricted forum at work can be a breath of fresh air to keep people going

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