More Than Just Laptops and Internet Access: How to Make the Most of a Remote Workforce
An Interview with Katie LaSeur, COO
The Creative Fold is a team of project managers, graphic designers, product designers, and manufacturing experts scattered across the U.S. Our remote team helps clients produce products, launch websites, create brand materials, play test game ideas, and more!
One of our project managers interviewed Katie LaSeur, the COO of the Creative Fold, about what it’s like to manage a remote team. She maintains that effectively working remotely requires more than just a laptop and internet access. There’s a lot to it! she says.
Elisabeth: Is it much different managing people remotely compared to in-person?
Katie: With the right corporate culture and standards in place it’s not that different. The biggest difference is the leadership mentality and setting expectations from the get go. It’s not like a regular office on a snow day where everyone works from home on the couch in pajamas with a cup of coffee, though that sounds nice, doesn’t it! It’s maximum effectiveness day in and day out. As far as managing projects and people, it’s actually very similar to when I was in a physical office. And I don’t know, maybe my work style just lends itself to working remotely. That could be the case...
For some people, managing a remote team might require a big shift. You can’t be a micromanager. You have to trust your employees and let them set their own goals. They have to execute projects themselves. It’s not for hand holding. You need self-motivated, independent workers with a strong work ethic.
Elisabeth: What’s important when thinking about a remote workforce?
Katie: The most important things are company culture, effective online tools, high standards, and clear expectations. You need the right leadership attitude and you need buy-in. You need the right systems and you need to follow them. You need office requirements for remote workers like a door that closes or at least a dedicated workspace. You need the right type of employee in the right position with the right personality type, the right skills, and the right work ethic.
Elisabeth: How do you check in with your team? And how often? What does that process look like?
Katie: I have a 30-minute or one hour video conference check in with each team member either weekly or bi-weekly, depending on their project workload. I let them lead the way on updates then ask any questions I have. It’s mostly a status update to remove any roadblocks. Even if we’re not physically face-to-face, the video face time is important. I ask team members to have their video on, not just audio. It’s important to see each other, even if someone’s hair or makeup isn’t done. I just read an article talking about how people uncomfortable with their hair should wear a hat, so everyone on video chat started to wear funny hats. We haven’t gone that far but we sometimes don’t wash our hair! Of course, it’s different for internal meetings vs. client meetings. For client meetings, our team always looks professional and put together.
Elisabeth: How do you brainstorm ideas remotely? What does that process look like?
Katie: For quick feedback or spitballing ideas we use an online chat platform to share comments and images. We have both public team channels for group chat and private messaging. We also have scheduled video conference brainstorm sessions. We established a corporate culture of keeping these channels pretty work focused, so they’re not flooded with memes and other chatter. It’s important to follow up on these ideas routinely to stay proactive.
Elisabeth: How do you set expectations for your team?
Katie: We have a robust on-boarding process with training on everything from file storage to workflow process to submitting receipts for reimbursements to expectations for working while away from the office. It requires upfront conversations. Whether at a home office or traveling somewhere else, we need to make sure our team is set up to be productive. Just checking emails on a phone isn’t the same as working.
Elisabeth: What about goal-specific expectations about performance?
Katie: We have tools for project and task management with timelines and goals to meet deliverables. Individual project managers are expected to set their own timelines. That’s part of our corporate culture - there’s a benefit of the doubt that people are getting their projects done. It’s part of a top-down leadership mentality to trust our employees.
Elisabeth: How do you recreate water cooler-like moments? Is it all strictly business?
Katie: Um.. Jodi? Hah! Our CEO Jodi is really good at this sort of thing. Waiting for people to join meetings is a great time to catch up on non-work updates, like we just did. We also have private messaging in our chat tools so people can talk with each other individually. There is less water cooler chat with a remote workforce, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Sometimes water cooler chat can be distracting, like when you’re afraid to go into the kitchen to get a glass of water because it will take you 20 minutes! We try to strike a balance. We want to know each other and be friendly. We take time in our chat channel to celebrate company wins like a new client, welcome new team members like Brian, and share individual achievements like Alicia getting a PMP certification. At the start of video conferences we’ll ask about Kelly’s recent trip to New York Toy Fair, Jodi’s time in London, Kristin’s recent trip, Hayley’s move, and Elisabeth’s experience at the Iowa Caucus. It’s about morale boosting and staying connected.
Elisabeth: Do you have team members you’ve never met in real life? Is that weird?
Katie: I’ve actually met almost everybody! I’ve met all of the team members on our website and some of our contractors, but that’s sort of by chance from many of us sharing a toy and game industry background. But I would hire somebody without meeting them if I had a good conversation on video chat and felt they were right for the job.
Working with people I haven’t met isn’t weird. It’s different because you can’t play a board game (and I love playing games!) or share a lunch, but as long as you can see the other person’s facial expressions and reactions you get a sense of being with that person. Once you get used to video conferencing, you don’t even think about the fact that the person is so far away.
Elisabeth: How do you share company goals with the team? Do you do full team meetings?
Katie: Yes, we try for quarterly full company meetings via video conference. We usually discuss potential new clients, new business ideas, current projects, team goals, successes, and failures. We talk about how to learn from our missteps. If possible, we try to get some team members together in our hubs in Northern Virginia, Chicago, and Colorado Springs.
Elisabeth: What is much harder to do with a remote workforce than anticipated?
Katie: So, a lot of the time we’re working on making a physical product. If we were in a normal office, we could just hand product samples and 3D print tests across our desks. But we can’t do that! We have to rely heavily on video conferencing and screen sharing. It’s worked so far! We plan for high shipping costs because it’s the best way to share things with our team quickly.
It can be challenging to maintain a corporate culture of teamwork. That’s why it’s important to have systems and guidelines for working together so we’re not siloed. We have a company policy that if you’re working, your chat needs to be on. We encourage the team to communicate about their projects. People have a tendency to think what they’re working on isn’t interesting or that everyone else already knows about it. This isn’t the case! Jodi, our CEO, especially stresses this by asking everyone to share what they’re working on in meetings.
Elisabeth: What are one or two huge benefits to the remote workforce?
Katie: The biggest benefit, by far, is access to a broader workforce and access to different people. I live in a small town, Fredericksburg, but I can hire people living in Illinois, Colorado, California, New York, wherever because we don’t have borders. That allows us to have really talented people with especially niche experience that would be difficult to find in any one particular place. It’s amazing.
It’s also a perk for a lot of people to work remotely. It gives them a lot of flexibility. As a small business, it’s a benefit that makes us more competitive especially against bigger companies that are slower to evolve and haven’t moved to this setup. It gives us a leg up! We also don’t have the expense of renting a large office for everyone. We don’t have to deal with employee parking, office drama, that sort of thing.
Elisabeth: What systems/applications are your go-tos/couldn’t live without?
Katie: Gusto!! It’s tricky to hire people all over the country, since most small businesses are just registered in one state. So we use Gusto for payroll to make sure HR is done properly. It makes it so easy to set up in multiple states by managing all the paperwork. Using the right tools is pretty critical to a remote workforce.
We use about 10 different online tools. There are multiple project management tools available like monday.com but also todoist.com and basecamp.com and others. That selection depends a lot on your company situation. But in general, you need a good system for video conferencing, chat, payroll, project management, and file storage.
Every company is different and every situation is different. I wouldn’t want to say all of our tools are the best ones and everyone should use them. It depends on your situation. You want the best tool for the purpose. The right tool for the job. There are pros and cons to each.
"Overall, I think the tools are only as good as how they’ve been set up and the system you have for using them."
Elisabeth: Do you have any advice for others considering a remote workforce?
Katie: Can you extend the benefit of the doubt to your employees? Can you buy into what it’s going to take to set up your tools properly? If so, then consider a remote workforce. It’s going to take time and a financial investment to get it right. You don’t want to do the setup slapdash and throw up your hands saying, “Why isn’t this working!?”
The company leadership has to embrace the system, the tools, and the process. They have to see the full implementation through and enforce the policies that are set up. It takes time to get your team on board and convince them that using the system will make it easier. It also depends on the type of work you do. Some jobs just can’t be done remotely. But many of them can!
Are you interested in accelerating your remote workforce? We can help.
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