Building culture and collaboration in remote teams

Work for Impact founder and CEO, Geoff Hucker, has been leading remote teams successfully for more than 15 years—first with his nonprofit Beyond the Orphanage and now, at Work for Impact

The team at Work for Impact is a fully remote, dispersed team based across North America, Europe, Asia and Oceania. 

So, how does Geoff ensure we are all collaborative, motivated and engaged? In this interview, Geoff shares his thoughts on building culture and collaboration in remote teams. 

Geoff, you’ve been leading remote teams successfully for more than 15 years – what’s your secret?

I think finding the right person, or people, who share your values and share the organisation’s values is very important. So spending the time finding the right people, and when you find the right person, start small with them – give them small jobs just to see if they really fit in.

There are enormous advantages working remotely and it’s not for everybody – there are some unique challenges so seeing if the person really fits in with the organisation and the culture and they really understand what your vision is, that’s important. And then making sure they’re set up to work remotely. It’s not for everyone – some people prefer an office or a hybrid model.

What’s the best thing about leading a remote team? 

It’s seeing people live their lives in the way they want to live them, and seeing them work the way they want to work – that we’re not dictating to them how they want to work. For me, as long as the work gets done it doesn’t really matter if you work late at night or early morning, if you need to take your kids to school or if you take a day off or go for a surf (editor’s note: Geoff is an avid and skilled surfer!). I find it incredibly rewarding seeing people living their lives alongside their work.

Having access to remote talent and not having geography as a boundary is also a real positive of remote teams – it’s a real equal playing field – having access to global talent really helps your organisation because you’re not limited by geographical location. 

What have been the key challenges leading a remote team and how have you been able to overcome them?

Initially the biggest challenge was access to technology. So 15 years ago the cloud was not what it is today and the tools aren’t what they are now. As the years have gone on, running a remote team has become much easier and more efficient.

It’s really hard to bring a team together to collaborate to ensure everyone’s working in sync – it takes effort. Communication is a key part of that – and making sure the team has the tools and taking the time to work together as a team to solve problems, to communicate as a group – really nurturing the culture is definitely important. 

And what about cross time zones? Has that been a challenge or is it more of a positive having teams spread across time zones?

Initially I found it a challenge but I really learnt to see it as a positive. I’ll give you an example – at Work for Impact our developers are in Poland so they work during their day (and during the night where I am in Hong Kong) so we have this 24-hour work cycle so it works really well. As long as you have the collaboration tools it will work – we do have some time together, and we have a daily stand up too. So if you’re very conscious about workflows and if you’ve got a very synced structure in the way that you work it can absolutely work really well. 

The same goes with teams other than development too – so social media and customer service, you can potentially have someone “on” around the clock which is helpful especially if your customers or online audiences are also around the globe. There doesn’t have to be long response times or people working the night-shift. 

How do you manage to stay on top of company culture, employee engagement and group productivity?

Collaboration and communication are both really important. Understanding and working towards the organizational goals and making time to ensure you’re spending it together. Personally I have fortnightly 1:1 meetings with all the team, we have a full, global team meeting once a month on Zoom and individual teams and project teams also meet regularly. 

Making sure the team is able to communicate easily is the key too. As a team, we are in pretty constant communication via Slack and we have channels that are ‘watercooler’ conversations where the team can share memes, jokes, interesting articles and have general banter which really helps culture and engagement. We also have a #WinWednesday Slack channel where we share our hump-day wins, which is a great way to encourage each other and celebrate our achievements.  

Our team also uses Jira, Confluence and Miro to be able to communicate and collaborate effectively.

What is the culture like at Work for Impact? 

It’s insane! Probably one of the things I’m most proud of is the culture of the team: seeing the engagement of how everyone works together towards our common goal. They really believe in our mission and they really want to do good things for the world. For me it’s hugely motivating seeing the way the team works, seeing how smart they are and seeing the way they work together to solve problems – even though they’re on completely different continents and time zones. Any challenges we have we talk about together and find a solution together. 

What sort of qualities do you look for when you’re looking to hire talent? 

I really look for someone who shares the values of the organization – someone who really wants to make a difference. I mean, we’ve all got to pay the rent or the mortgage – the school fees or whatever it may be – but there’s more to spending all our lives working… making a positive change as well as making a living is a very empowering thing. 

What are your top pieces of advice for organizations that want to scale with a remote team?

  • Really think about it and plan what it looks like – what are your goals?
  • Think about the time zones that are important to your organization and its outputs – when do you need your team working?
  • Spend a lot of time interviewing candidates to make sure you get the right people who share your values.
  • Communicate really effectively – encourage your team to be creative, don’t micromanage them, let them make mistakes, but also really lift them up and encourage them! 

Any final thoughts?

Having managed remote teams for such a long time, I really see the value of remote teams on so many levels. The access to talent, the environmental benefits, the social benefits – providing opportunities to people regardless of their geographic location, race or religion or sexual orientation – it’s just a real level playing field.

I think this way of working is the future. Maybe not totally remote – it could be a hybrid situation with shared office space or co-working spaces for part of the time – and maybe it’s not even the same for every person on your team.

Let your team work how they want to work, from where they want to work and look at the work that gets done – I mean, that’s what really matters. 

Do you want to know more?

Connect with Geoff on LinkedIn.