How to Lead a Remote Startup in 2022

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Tired of zooming? This is not something for me. Video conferencing is good for me. On weekends, I can spend hours in role-playing games, interacting with NPCs (non-playable characters) and exchanging equipment and weapons with my teammates is pretty much all the social interaction I need. Real people, in the same room? I can take it or leave it. Running a remote business fits my personality well.

A lot of people are not like that. They need real contact with humans. And this can be a challenge if you are looking to grow your computer without the hassle and expense of renting an office.

When I started my public relations agency, I had an intuition that going completely away was the way to go. It wasn’t like I was trying to get ahead of my time (about six months before Covid-19 arrived) or trying to change office culture. I thought it would be a low cost way to run a business. Cut above, full stop.

It worked … a little. But there were some complications and I learned a few things along the way about the operation of a totally remote company (including not being so stubborn about making it totally remote).

Related: Open your digital doors: communication and remote work

Technology can only allow remote work if your people use it wisely

During the summer 2020 pandemic, a UK study found that productivity had fallen by 20% among remote workers. The main culprit? User error. When workers could not control the technology, they felt nervous.

I remember one particular contractor who couldn’t understand the software. Not just one app, but all of them. I understand that ignorance with modern tools is a challenge, but this person took only five weeks to register a password management application that was quite critical to our operations and security. That was not a good thing.

There was a regular cadence of disorganization: “Where’s the agenda?” and “Where is Google’s document for this meeting?” But I remained patient. I understood that this was the first time the person was using a particular tool, so I asked to share screens. The renter couldn’t figure out how to share a screen, even after several video meetings where we guided them through the steps. Frustration arose on both sides. This person was only used to a more traditional way of working, in the office.

In retrospect, he should have recognized the signs earlier, in the interview stage. Once you know what’s coming, you can turn it down (i.e., not hire the person) or just make sure your training includes the time spent mastering the tools of the trade. On the other hand, you also want to make sure that the employee understands that there will be consequences for not joining the technology used by the rest of the team. It’s part of the job. Give them the support they need to be productive, and then trust them, but make sure they are productive.

Related: How employees can crush work from a distance and how employers can help them

He misses the subtle art of body language

In video meetings, physical signals may be lost. And when Zoom communicates with customers, this can have serious consequences.

Recently, I wanted to frankly draw attention to what seemed to be the main problem with one customer: too many cooks in the kitchen. They had three or four specialists on their team looking at certain content where I thought a junior person would be able to handle it. So we scheduled a call to resolve it, face to face via Zoom. My attempt at diplomacy and effective client management was counterproductive, and after the call, I had to spend extra time figuring out how it had put us in even deeper trouble.

Finding a common ground or just making a genuine compliment at first can help build some credibility that can save you when you take a wrong step. Finally, if you’re on a video call, be strict with yourself so you don’t get distracted. Checking a teammate’s comment on Slack or clicking on a spreadsheet tab in the middle of a conversation means you’re not looking at the other person. It’s basically the same as sending text messages while driving. The distraction of a moment can be a killer.

Related: Distance work is here to stay: are you ready for the new way of life?

Find out how your people like to work (and do it)

Will any of my employees benefit from being in a guest room and capturing visual cues or physical interactions? Absolutely, some would. Beyond efficiency, many find that they are only given energy to be with other people. That’s what being an extrovert is all about, and there’s no shortage of extroverts in public relations. My intuition is that marketing people, in particular, need more face-to-face interaction than your average software engineer to fit a piece of code on the screen all day long.

My current group of associates expressed a desire to meet once a week. We do this, in a shared office space, every Friday. It’s a bit of an extra cost and if it was just me, I would see it as an extravagance. But it’s not just me. The meeting allows these “aha” moments around the proverbial water cooler and helps keep morale high, at least for this group. What I do know is that morale wins wars and keeps people on your team.

Borrowing a thought from Elon Musk: Businesses are just a collection of people united by a common purpose. So find these exceptional people, find these motivated people, and give them the tools and training they need to succeed. This eliminates frustration and manages expectations right from the start. Echo your common purpose and you will all be able to do amazing things. Hire slowly, shoot fast and do meaningful work. At a distance, or not.

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