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Alexa Scordato

The future of work is digital. By 2020, the IT industry is projected to grow by 50 percent. And it’s increasingly clear that local talent will not be sufficient to power this rapid growth. US colleges graduated 23,000 students with a Bachelor’s degree or higher in computer sciences in 2013 — less than half of today’s demand for workers.

As the need for technical talent grows, companies are expanding their talent search beyond their zip code. Statistics show more than two thirds of all companies choose to hire remote employees, targeting the 53% of software engineers who rank remote work as their top priority when job searching. From digital nomads proliferating the technical workforce to startups and multinationals looking to scale worldwide, companies need to embrace a globally distributed workforce to remain competitive. That’s why companies like Automattic are closing physical office spaces and moving their headquarters online.

At a recent event in New York City, some of the tech industry’s most progressive leaders spoke about scaling and building distributed teams. Here are the primary takeaways.

Focus on workplace tools and etiquette.

Define your “communication stack.” From email to Loom, Slack, and Zoom, there’s a growing list of vendors that companies can choose — that is the easy part, though. Codifying the boundaries or systems around how employees use the tools is much more challenging.

In general, ask yourself the following questions when thinking about designing for remote or distributed communication:

  • What tools are we going to use?
  • What channels are better for synchronous vs. asynchronous work?
  • What are the rules of etiquette around each channel?
  • Must employees enable webcams during all video conference calls?
  • When do we use real-time Slack threads or cc a group on email?
  • How do we document our culture around communication and incorporate it into our new hire onboarding?

Automatticians, makers of WordPress.com, put extra emphasis on audio quality. For CEO Matt Mullenweg, his pet peeve is when everyone mutes on a call. “I want to hear uproarious laughing or someone thinking out loud and their ‘hmm’. It makes you feel like you’re together.” Mullenweg cares about sound so much he actually ensures everyone is equipped with a USB headset he’s tried and vetted. He recommends a Sennheiser model that runs for about $45.

Advocate for accountability.

Skeptics and naysayers of remote work might easily jump to the conclusion that not being in an office translates to an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. For both managers and employees, there has to be a shared understanding of both availability and accountability when it comes to working in different physical spaces and combating time zones.

For employees working remotely, either as managers or individual contributors, it’s helpful to discuss the following:

  • What are your expectations around working hours and when we overlap?
  • How can we set a cadence for group or team calls that account for different time zones?
  • To what extent can we lean on asynchronous communication in order to keep people informed in the absence of live meetings?
  • How can we create both formal and informal touchpoints to collaborate, but also socialize and build relationships?

Invest in the remote experience and build in quality facetime.

Companies that are completely remote like Invision and Automattic can take different approaches when designing a typical workday. The Invision team, which has 650 employees in 25 countries, is anchored around an east coast work day.  In contrast, Automattic has 750 employees working in 65 countries with coverage around the clock. Their norms around work hours are different, but they share the following: hiring strategies that account for scaling a remote workforce and an investment in quality facetime.

When hiring and scaling a remote team, create a set of norms that account for the following:

  • When is a typical workday for employees? How much overlap can we realistically expect given distribution of employees across time zones?
  • What qualities are we screening for in hiring process that might predict someone’s ability to thrive in a distributed team? Are we hiring managers who have done this before?

Alexa Scordato is Andela’s Vice President of Marketing. Check out her blog or follow her on Twitter @alexa.

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