15 Key Lessons I Learnt Building a Motivated and Efficient Remote-Working Team

When people first stumble into the world of remote workers, they get excited: “You mean I can outsource my Christmas shopping to a VA in the Philippines for $2.50/hour?”

That excitement usually lasts until the point where all the Christmas presents turn up in the wrong size, the article writer clearly demonstrates their lack of comprehension of the English language, their WordPress website editor vanishes without a trace, and their reports come back so far from what they expected that they have to spend more time fixing them up than they would have spent doing them in the first place.

The reality of building an online, remote-working team is that if you want one close to being motivated, efficient, and delivering work within spitting distance of what you originally intended, there’s FAR more to it than throwing a hastily written job ad on a Filipino job board, signing up your first applicant, and sipping margarita’s by the pool.

I know this because I’ve made every mistake possible when hiring, training, and building my remote working team. I’ve written job ads that have left me sifting through thousands of applications with no way of immediately telling which ones are real and which ones are spam, I’ve trusted what people said in interviews rather than finding creative ways to test them, I’ve assumed my team members will optimise their roles and find ways to be more productive, I’ve assumed they’ll be able to deliver the exact quality I want without investing in training, and so much more.

It’s only now, after 5 years of trying, I’m at a level where I can comfortably leave my 22 staff for a month’s paternity leave and they’ll grow the business by 35% (true story) in that month.

There are more elements you need to juggle to do this successfully than I could ever put into one blog post, but here are the 14 most critical elements that have helped me do this successfully:

Lesson 1. Hire when there’s a clear ROI

The first question people ask is: “Who should I hire first? Should I start with a virtual assistant or an article writer or an outreach team member or…?”

The simple answer is: Hire whoever is going to give you a clear return on investment (ROI).

Don’t hire a VA because your friend who runs an SEO agency has three or a guy you met on a forum has nine article writers working for him. Hire whoever is going to give you a return on investment. And it’s the concept of ROI that’s important here.

Why? Well, for starters, it’s the way successful people think. But more importantly, it’s because that’s the way you scale your business as fast as you can.

Think about this:

If you’ve got one report that needs processing every month that currently takes you 3 hours to do, should you hire a VA to do it? To be able to answer that, you have to work out what the return on investment’s going to be.

What does completing that report yourself currently cost you? 3 hours of your time.

What benefits do you get out of completing that report? Let’s just assume that you’re new to online businesses and completing that report every week gives you a chance to thoroughly analyse what’s happening in your business and develop a more thorough understanding of how your business is functioning.

So right now, you’re spending 3 hours of your time getting a deeper and more insightful understanding of how your business operates.

What will outsourcing this role cost you? First of all, let’s assume your report is at a level where it’s recording all the stats you need, and it doesn’t need any serious adjustments. You’re going to need to create detailed training material for whoever you hire and there definitely won’t be an ROI if you have to recreate the training material every time you change the spreadsheet.

Ok, so assuming your report is reasonably comprehensive, the costs to you to outsource this role will be:

  • Time spent creating the job description (2 hours)
  • Time spent filter job applications (2 hours)
  • Time spent interview candidates (2 hours)
  • Time spent creating training materials (4 hours)
  • Time spent training your team member (6 hours)
  • Time spent giving feedback to your team member about performance, issues, challenges, etc… (1 hour per month)
  • Money for wages ($3/hour for 4 hours per month = $12)
  • Time spent updating the report and updating the training materials (2 hours per month)

What will the benefits be from outsourcing this report? You won’t have to spend 3 hours per month doing the report. Also, as long as you hired the right person, you’ll also have someone on staff you can call on to perform other tasks for you.

Is there a return on investment? Only you can decide, and it depends on what you want to do in the future.

  • Are you going to increase the frequency of your reporting?
  • Are you going to have more tasks this team member can do in the future?
  • Could you be spending those 3 hours doing something that will provide you far more benefit than your reporting?
  • Would you benefit from going through the process of hiring and training a staff member?

As you can see, there are so many things to take into account it’s impossible for someone to tell you whether or not you need to hire a staff member, so you just need to keep constantly evaluating the situation and pull the trigger when the time is right for you.

One more thing to keep in mind, it usually takes about 2 – 4 weeks to find, hire, train and get a new staff member up to the productivity level you want so make sure you start the hiring process a month before you think you’ll need someone.

My general rule is that as soon as a team member gets up to more than 80% of their capacity, I start the hiring process for someone to take the pressure off.

Lesson 2. Optimize your systems first

There’s no point in hiring someone for a role when you haven’t optimised the system that person is going to be using.

First of all, you’re going to be throwing money away because they’re going to be operating inefficiently. They’re going to be performing unnecessary steps or contacting the wrong people or recording irrelevant stats; all which result in them being less cost-efficient than they could be.

“But won’t they optimise the systems once they start?” Oh, I’m sorry. Did you expect your $2.50/hour VA to also be a business systems optimisation expert as well as knowing their way around WordPress? If you clearly specified that in the job ad then yes, they might be. But if they’re anything like any other VA who’s willing to work for $2.50/hour, then there’s very little chance they’ll be streamlining your business for you.

The other reason you need to optimise your systems first is if you don’t, not only are you going to have to recreate your training materials every time you update your processes, but your new hire is going to have to go back over their previous work when you do.

For example: If you’ve got a Virtual Assistant (VA) building WordPress websites for you, it’s critical that you know exactly how you want those sites built and have clear and easy-to-follow instructions on how to set them up the way you want them BEFORE you hire someone.

If you don’t, you’re not only going to have to constantly rewrite your training materials and constantly retrain your VA every time you make an update, but they’re also going to have to go back and change all the work they’ve already completed.

Optimising your systems will allow you to avoid wasting money on unnecessary steps, retraining staff, and getting previous work redone.

Lesson 3. Without documentation, you will have no consistency

Optimising your systems first is an important step, but your team member isn’t going to stick with that system without clear and concise process manuals.

There’s a very good chance your team member has performed the task you’ve hired them for with another company that did it completely differently to how you want it done. And if they’re any good, they probably spent a while doing it; meaning it’s deeply ingrained into their unconscious.

If you don’t give them clear and easy-to-follow documentation, they’re going to fall back into their old habits within a month. Sure, you can spend hours training them and clearly articulate what you want them to do, but unless they have a written manual or video guide they can refer to, they’re going to forget/lose concentration and go back to their old way. That’s life. That’s how people work.

To make sure you get consistent quality across your entire team, create clear and easy-to-follow documentation before you hire your first staff member.

Lesson 4. Skills are important, but you can’t teach attitude

Getting a team member with the skills you need is important.

  • If you need someone to fix your website, they need to know how to fix a website
  • If you need someone to do email outreach, they need to know how to do email outreach
  • If you need someone to write an article, they need to know how to string words together in a way that delivers value

But, and this is a very important ‘but’, skills can be learnt. You teach someone how to write. You can teach someone how to use Excel. You can teach someone how to use WordPress. The one thing you can’t teach is a positive, proactive attitude.

A person’s willingness to learn, to push themselves, to be proactive, to go above and beyond what’s asked, to turn up on time, and to ask questions when they don’t understand is far more critical to their performance as an employee than their knowledge of MySQL.

  • What’s the point of hiring someone who knows how to fix your website if they never turn up for the job?
  • What’s the point in building your email outreach team if they sit around watching Netflix all day?
  • What’s the point in getting an article writer if they don’t clarify confusing instructions and end up delivering an unusable article on an irrelevant topic?

Hiring a staff member with the right skills is important, but if they don’t have the attitude necessary to deliver results, what’s the point in having them? They’re simply going to suck time and money from your business without delivering the kind of results your business needs to thrive and I’m pretty sure you don’t want that.

When you’re hiring staff, make sure you know the attitude and personality characteristics you want your team members to have and factor those into your hiring process.

Lesson 5. Create job ads that allow you to pre-screen applicants

One thing you find when you post your first job ad on OnlineJobs.ph or Upwork.com (my preferred hiring sites) is you’ll get flooded with applications. It’s not uncommon to get 30/50/70 applications for some of the more common roles (article writer, VA, data entry, WordPress coder, etc…).

To avoid wasting your time sifting through all those applications, include details in the job description that allow you to pre-screen applicants (My favourite is to bury a request in the middle of the description that says: “Please include the word “BAZOOKA” at the top of your application”).

This will allow you to immediately see if someone has read your entire job ad and can follow simple instructions without wasting time going through the entire application.

Putting job-specific instructions into the ad will also save you a bunch of time. It’ll allow you to check an applicant’s ability without having to contact them and also separate those who really want the job from those who’re simply spam blasting people. Try things like:

  • If you’re looking for an article editor, ask them to proofread your job description
  • If you’re looking for a research assistant, ask them to do some quick research (What is the middle name of the 19th president of the United States?)
  • If you’re looking for a website designer, ask them to point out the one design element they’d change on your current website
  • If you’re looking for an article writer, ask them to write a descriptive paragraph detailing their favourite experience working online

Doing this will allow you to filter out as many potential applicants as possible before going onto the interview rounds.

Lesson 6. Test applicants in interviews

Anyone can talk about how clearly they can write or how punctual they are, but that doesn’t mean they’re telling the truth. Talk is cheap; actions are what counts.

To cut through the stories and lies, build tests into your interview process that allow your potential employees to prove they have the skills, attitude, and personality characteristics you’re looking for.

  • If you’re looking for someone who’s technologically savvy, tell them you’re going to conduct the interview on an obscure communications platform 10 minutes before the interview starts
  • If you’re looking for someone who’s a fast typer and clear communicator, interview them through chat rather than by voice
  • If you’re looking for someone who’s comfortable asking questions, give them unclear instructions on when the interview will start and wait for them to clarify the situation
  • If you’re looking for someone who can take feedback well, give them criticism in the interview and watch how they deal with it
  • If you’re looking for someone who’s punctual, give them an obscure interview time (11:48am) and ask them to call you at that time
  • If you’re looking for someone who’s great with research, ask them to find four different tools you could use to conduct the interview and ask them to give you the pro’s and con’s of all of them

Don’t ask them about their skills and attitude, get them to prove it to you. If you ask them and they lie, you’re the fool for giving them the opportunity to lie in the first place.

Lesson 7. Hire slow, fire fast

Hiring a staff member is a BIG investment. It’s going to take 6/10/14/20 of your precious work hours to hire and train them and it typically takes an experienced person a month (of paid wages) to learn your systems, processes, methods, and company culture. On top of this, if you fire them after a month, it’ll be another month before your new hire is up to speed and your project will be two months behind schedule. That’s assuming they turn out to be a good fit…

Spend a lot of time crafting the job description and screening applicants to make sure you get the right fit for the position. Don’t rush this; don’t take shortcuts. You might get lucky and stumble onto the right applicant, but more often than not, you’ll be throwing time and money down the drain.

If you’re not sure who’s the best fit, hire 3/4/5 people for the same role on a time or activity limited trial and evaluate their performance. It doesn’t take much longer to train three people than it does to train one person (because you can train them all simultaneously) so the additional cost is minimal and the potential rewards high.

If you run a trial with numerous people and don’t find the perfect applicant, don’t be afraid to hire none of them and go back to the applications again. Hiring the wrong person will cost you more than spending an additional week testing new applicants.

It’s also critical that if you work out that someone’s not a good fit, get rid of them. Having the wrong person hanging around will not only cost you money, but also drain your time and team morale. If they either can’t do the job, don’t have the right attitude, or aren’t a good fit with the rest of your team, fire them and find someone who fits well.

Lesson 8. Invest in Training

The time you spend training your new team members is an investment. The more thorough you are, the more precise you are, the more detailed you are, the less time you’ll have to spend cleaning up mistakes down the track.

It’s FAR easier to spend an extra 15 minutes answering questions now, than four hours cleaning up the mistakes that occurred because your training materials were inadequate.

Spend the time necessary with your staff to get the results you want and you’ll save yourself time in the future.

Lesson 9. Quality doesn’t maintain itself

Just because you’ve spent twenty hours training your new hire and they’ve completed the task flawlessly half a dozen times, it doesn’t mean they’re going to do it the exact way you want them to for the rest of their life. Sure, it’d be great if life worked like that, but it doesn’t.

If you want consistent results, you have to put a quality-assurance process in place. You have to follow up with your team and ensure that everything’s being done the way you want to be done and to the level you expect it to be done.

Not only will this allow you to spot any mistakes that are being made before they’ve been going on too long, but it also means your team will be conscious of the fact that checks are being done and more likely to make sure they’re doing things properly.

Lesson 10. Statistics don’t lie

While having a remote working team has many positives, one of the limitations is it’s impossible to tell if you team is doing delivering the results you want them to. You’re not in the same office, you’re not overhearing their conversations, and you’re not able to casually walk past their workstations to see them hammering away at their tasks.

This means you need another way to ensure your team is doing what they’re asked to do. While there are various tools that can be used to track your team’s tasks and activity (like Hubstaff or WorkSnaps), my personal preference is to identify performance-based metrics for each role and track those. These task and activity trackers only tell you what your staff is doing, not how well they’re doing it. And if they’re doing something exceptionally well and out-performing the rest of the team, what does it matter what they do with their time?

For example: The metric we use to track my outreach team’s performance is how much it costs us per link they acquire. This is simple to work out: their total wages for the week divided by the amount of links they landed. If the number is in the target range, what does it matter if they’re on Facebook or watching movies while they’re doing it? Who am I to tell them how to perform at their peak level?

“But they could be performing better!” Yeah, they could. And to incentivise them to perform better, we pay bonuses for exceeding their targets. Once again, who am I to tell them what they can do with their time. They’re hired to produce results, not to conform to some arbitrary rules I’ve created because I want to dictate how they live their lives.

Our outreach manager is assessed on the average cost/link of her entire team. Our guest post writers are assessed on their cost per published word. Our editor is assessed on the writing team’s publishing rate. Our viral content team will be tracked on the number of links they acquire. Everyone’s performance is tracked, and the data is shared publically, so everyone is incentivised to work hard.

So, make sure you’re tracking your team’s performance, so you have an eagle eye over your entire team.

Lesson 11. More Important than Money

I’ll be the first to admit it – I don’t pay my staff very well. No-one looks at their paycheck at the end of the week and says “I’m rich!” But you know what they do say every week? “I love working at this company.”

I have a motivated team of dedicated, hard-working employees who’re paid wages that are illegal in my country. And not because they’re from some third-world or developing nation, they’re mostly US based. The reason they love working for me is that I know a secret: There are some things more important than money.

Lack of money is a demotivator, but that doesn’t mean paying someone more than they need to survive and thrive will make them motivated to go above and beyond. The reason our team performs at a level that I know other companies aren’t seeing (we have insider stats to back this up) is because we give them what they really want.

Each team member feels valued as part of our team and supported to be great; we have an open and clear communication policy that lets everyone know exactly what’s going on and makes everyone feel part of the group; and most importantly, we give them the freedom to work when they want to. We don’t dictate when they start, when they finish, or how long they work for. As long as they get their job done each week, they can do it when it suits them.

These three things — significance, support, and freedom — mean we can pay our team less than the industry average and have our employees raving about us to anyone who’ll listen.

Lesson 12. The Best Employees Are…

Over the course of the last five years, I’ve interviewed, hired, and worked with hundreds of employees and potential employees. In that time, I’ve found a consistent trend as to who are the best employees. And without a doubt, it’s new mums.

New mums are the best employees because you can get highly-skilled staff at a fraction of what their typical skill set would justify. They need a huge degree of flexibility in their work schedule and for that, they’re willing to take a big pay cut. You get highly skilled staff who’re professional and hard-working, and they get a job they can do at 3 am when they’re awake breastfeeding their new child.

On top of this, due to the instability in their lives with their new living arrangements, they’re also incredibly loyal. They need consistency and stability and are happy to stick with those who give them the flexibility they need.

So, looking for loyal, highly-skilled, cheap staff? Start with new mums.

NOTE: I’ve never specified I want a new mum on a job ad but through the interview process, if I have two equal applicants and one is a new mum, I’ll take her.

NOTE: Don’t be afraid of hiring pregnant women. I’ve had staff members give birth while working for me and the longest anyone has taken off is a month, and that was a woman who gave birth to twins as her first children. Just make sure you talk to them about their plans for returning to work and have a plan setup for when they do give birth.

Lesson 13. Monkey See; Monkey Do

As the leader of your team, your team members will look to your actions to determine the right way to act. While they’ll listen to your words to understand what they should be doing, a more significant portion of their actions will be determined by the actions you take.

  • If you send sloppy, poorly thought-out emails with grammatical errors, then your team will send sloppy, poorly thought-out emails with grammatical errors
  • If you’re rude and condescending to your team, then they’ll be rude and condescending to each other
  • If you don’t turn up to meetings on time, then they won’t turn up to meetings on time
  • If you pay late, then they’ll deliver work late

This happens because your actions tell your team what’s important and what’s not important. You’re the leader, and they look to you to lead them. If you want them to act a certain way, then you need to act that way.

You can’t pay your team late and expect them to deliver work on time because you’ve clearly demonstrated that you don’t care whether or not things are done on time. You can’t ignore their emails and then get angry when they don’t respond to yours because you’ve clearly demonstrated that you don’t care about when people respond to emails.

You can train your team to behave in any way you want, but you need to live those values every day.

Lesson 14. Culture is created by actions, not slogans

On top of needing to live the values you want your team to take, you also need to consider the message you send through the way you respond to certain situations. You can create any company culture you want, but you need to make sure you’re fostering it.

This is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and implementing with my team and one you need to consider carefully as well.

Think about this:

  • If you tell your team you value open and honest feedback, but you yell at them every time they give you feedback, what message does that send?
  • If you tell your team that you value innovation and new ideas yet ridicule your team when they come up with new suggestions, what message does that send?
  • If you tell your team that you value optimising your systems and processes yet ignore their suggestions for improvements, what message does that send?

Not only do you have to live your company values, but you also have to foster those values in your team by thinking carefully about the messages you send through how you respond to your team. If you don’t, you’re likely to end up with a company culture that doesn’t match what you want.

Lesson 15. Task competency does not equate to management ability

Just because someone can do a task well, doesn’t mean they can manage others doing the task. This might seem obvious when you logically consider it, but there’s a very good chance you won’t implement it in your business unless you’re conscious of it.

In the heat of a hectic business environment, when you decide you need a manager, the simple and obvious thing is to simply promote whoever is the best at the specific task that needs managing. But just because they can write an article well or are the best outreach team member you have, it doesn’t mean they can manage people.

A good manager needs to be able to:

  • Train and educate new staff
  • Writer detailed and specific process manuals
  • Identify why a team member is underperforming
  • Make team members feel welcome and appreciated
  • Effectively manage resources
  • Create a productive work environment

On top of that, they need to:

  • Be motivated
  • Have integrity
  • Live your company values and culture
  • Have excellent communication skills
  • Be adept at conflict resolution
  • Be supportive
  • Be forward thinking

And so on. There’s so much more to effective management than task competency, and you need to create an effective company, you need to make sure your managers are well suited to the position.

TL;DR

Building a motivated, efficient, remote-working team isn’t simple or straightforward. It’s a complex meeting-point of moving parts you need to keep in mind that all contribute to the success of your team.

The 15 most critical of those are:

  1. Hire when there’s a clear ROI
  2. Optimise your systems first
  3. Without documentation, you will have no consistency
  4. Skills are important, but you can’t teach attitude
  5. Create job ads that allow you to prescreen applicants
  6. Test applicants in interviews
  7. Hire slow, fire fast
  8. Invest in training
  9. Quality doesn’t maintain itself
  10. Stats don’t lie
  11. Support, significance, and freedom are more important than money
  12. New mums make excellent employees
  13. Monkey see; monkey do
  14. Culture is created by actions, not slogans
  15. Task competency does not equate to management ability

Take these on board and start building your motivated, efficient remote-working team today.

March 20, 2019

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