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Chris Bennett
Jul 28 2020

Managing Remote Teams - Advice From Experts

Long-term working from home may well become a reality as employers struggle to make their workplaces safe. For those who manage teams, teams that haven’t traditionally operated remotely before, this can be a bit of a difficult period. How do you engage with your team while distributed? How do I make sure they’re okay without being there in person? 

We spoke to a few leaders who have managed distributed teams now and in the past to discuss everything from recruiting the right people to looking after their emotional well-being.

Mite Mitreski, Director of Engineering at Klarna

Mite Mitreski is the Director of Engineering at Klarna. A passionate speaker and leader, Mite is currently leading an engineering team of 80, with a wider product team of close to 100.

Klarna, although not traditionally a remote company, moved quickly to transform their working practices in a matter of days. No small feat considering the sum 3000 individuals Klarna employs. Mite, who directly manages many in the engineering team, now operates the same team remote with a mix of on-site work with the Klarna office space still being open.

“It was very quick, like within a week, I think everything was normal. And two, three weeks down the line, things began to fit in and feel natural. Now, we are back to full speed and I would say some things are even functioning better.”

 

Engagement is Key


For Mite, one of the most important aspects of managing a team remotely is maintaining a high level of engagement. Despite being in an industry that can work remotely rather seamlessly, Klarna as a company was not built with remote-first work in mind. So while the engineering team could still work with continuous development, certain adjustments were needed. 

“We work that little bit harder on communication channels. This includes the basics on slack, making sure we’re spelling out exactly what we’re doing, going all the way to all-hands meetings at a domain level. We also make sure that we have enough space for people to actually contact and reach out. It can get a bit meeting heavy with people not all in the office.”

 

Don’t be Afraid to Overcommunicate

Without the non-verbal cues that come from one-to-one conversation, communication can leave a lot to be desired. Lag between digital conversations, or good old fashioned text chat, assuming that people have gotten the message can often leave you exposed to situations that could have easily been avoided with a little bit of ‘over-communication.’

“You’d be surprised how much a standard company relies on ‘coffee conversation’ to clear up objectives. That's not happening today. So you need to make sure that actually that communication flows in a better way.”

Despite this, a grey zone in communication quickly appears with many companies confusing ‘clear’ communication with ‘concise’ communication. They try in vain to standardise communication, restricting certain chat to certain channels when employees naturally will gravitate towards the channels they’re most comfortable with or find the easiest to operate. Rather than trying to force his team down a certain path, Mite and Klarna opt for a wider spread of channels with the message being the item standardised.

“Several channels means there are several chances for them to get the information in specific detail if there is a quite a lot of information coming in.”


 

Karl Litterfeldt - CTO at Zensum

Karl Litterfeldt is the CTO at private loan broker Zensum. Coming from an engineering background, Karl is someone who enjoys both new technology and challenges. Fintech is where he’s finding the best of both worlds.

“Once a particular scientific domain makes a large enough footprint within economics, then suddenly people will give their attention more to it and be more impressed.”

Zensum, who pride themselves on impeccable customer service and customer experience, have around 160 to 200 people and moved quickly on preparing for COVID before government regulations came in. This sense of responsibility to both staff and customers has enabled them to move quickly, but hasn’t come without challenges. 

“We had to take the entire company's infrastructure and move it into the next phase which enabled remote working. Crucially, we did this early enough to get through the early wave of feedback and build a system everyone was happy with before the first major wave.” 

For Karl, one of the main drivers of this success was the solid foundation of remote work they’ve built in the dev team over the past few years. With a distributed, global development team, they’ve been able to set the precedent for distributed communication.

“And the interesting observation here that I've made is that if anything, we find that our performance has improved in the dev team rather than decreased.”
 

Working with Sensitive Customer Data while Remote

The way that financial institutions had set themselves up traditionally was at odds with the remote working reality. Zensum, being one of those institutions that deals with sensitive customer data on a daily basis, needed to think long and hard about their processes and how they secure data that is now working in a mobile situation. 

“Let's make the analogy of having money. Money has value. You want to keep that physical currency safe, right? So you build Fort Knox, you have steel bars and lead walls, and it's atomic explosion proof. But then comes the situation when you want to transfer your currency. All your walls and all your lead concrete won't save you when in transit. That's a stationary situation where you now have a mobile situation.” 

With the customer putting trust in Zensum to keep that data safe and keep that data to ourselves and only use it as the customer allows us to, Zensum needed to look into securing the edges of their network.

“The work computers and cell phones that the customer service representatives would have at their home weren’t secure enough so we actually shipped the office computers we made modifications to out to the customer service representatives and they could only access data via that computer over a secure VPN.”

This mammoth task was underpinned by the performance of Karl’s remote technical teams who operated from home without disruption. 

 

Recruitment is Key

Although being highly subjective and down to individual management style, there are some key takeaways Karl has taken from his years managing remote teams. The first of which being recruitment, who you bring in and what type of people you look for. 

“Who you recruit and how you do this becomes a very important aspect into having a team that you can trust. Trust here being a key factor and trust goes in both ways. Just because you trust the team doesn't mean that the team trusts you. And if the team doesn't trust management, that is an exceptionally big problem.”

 

Clearly Define Your Company Vision

For those that aren't classically used to work remotely such as customer service executives, this transition will be more difficult because the skills they posses are largely at odds with the isolation home working brings. They have a very social life, they come into work, they communicate greatly with their peers. And they need to do this to grow. But how do you facilitate this while working remotely? 

“Every company should exist with a vision, a vision to change some thing that they think is not right to improve something that's not been improved upon enough. And and with that vision comes pride. And with pride comes motivation and with motivation comes performance. So, looking at what we did for four years, we've fostered a very strong culture and very transparent understanding of what we're trying to do.” 

Classically, money has always been the focus in the Brokering industry. Zensum are actively trying to bring customers to the forefront with them coming to the conclusion that the best way to establish this across the company is to simply write it down.

“So we created a value platform that we wrote down, and we shared with everyone. So this is what we believe that The company stands for and I was surprised actually because every single person in the company took this value platform as a matter of course.”

Driving the companies strong moral compass, especially in a sector such as brokering, infused their employees with a sense of pride, which Karl attributes to their success in keeping their remote teams engaged. 

“If you go to work and you feel pride about what you do, and what bigger organism you're part of. That breeds motivation and motivation is a fantastic way to keep employee happiness high and overall health high because I believe there's a strong correlation between happiness and health.”


Chris Bennett

Nordic Business Manager

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