Practical advice for building productive virtual teams

by Staff Writer

Remote work or trendy office space? Which is better for culture and productivity? As companies compete to find and retain the best talent, everyone today wants to know whether virtual teams can actually be successful.

But 10up, a digital agency on a mission to make the internet better, seems to have found the formula for success. They’re a 150-person globally distributed team who continues to grow through their unique, customer-centric business model.

How do they do it? We connected with Director of Client Delivery, drummer, and Batman enthusiast Mike Bal to learn more.

Tell us about 10up and how the agency is structured

The company's split up into what we call Groups, and there's one of us over each of the Groups. Groups are usually about 30 to 40 people from all different disciplines, and they’re broken up into smaller Pods. Pods are smaller teams — between seven to nine — led by a Team Lead, and each Group is usually 3 to 4 Pods.

Company wide, we're at about 150 people total now, all working remotely. Today I talked to people from Brazil, India, Italy, Ukraine, the U.K., and all across the U.S. Everybody's all over the place, which is awesome.

How did 10up become a fully virtual team?

Jake Goldman founded the company that way. He had the idea that you can find the best people anywhere, and they can do the work from anywhere as long as you figure out how to keep that communication channel open.

Was the decision more about talent, or was it an intentional culture decision?

A big part of it is talent. Jake expects a lot from all of us, and he built the company with high expectations in mind. So, we look for people who not not only fit the culture, but people who are at the top of their game, doing really interesting things, coming up with new ideas, and who can solve problems in interesting ways.

The culture piece is definitely something we focused on for a long time. Not just whether you know how to work remotely, but are you happy working remotely? Are you comfortable asking people to hop on a Zoom call, instead of just trying to type everything through Slack, and can you balance that with everything else?

Personally, my first job was social media management and marketing, where we would go into a room and sit next to each other, put in our headphones, and just work, without acknowledging or even talking to each other. We were using Skype with people who were sitting on the other side of the room. I thought, "I don't need to be here to do this." It just made sense to work remotely.

How would you describe 10up's culture?

It’s excellence with fun on top. If it was an ice cream sundae, the ice cream is the excellence piece of it, and then the fun is all the crazy toppings you want, like whipped cream and sprinkles and gummy bears and stuff.

We joke around a lot. We use emojis at a ridiculous volume. At our Summit every year, there's a lot of musicians, so we actually put a band together and play after our awards ceremony. You can't be around our team for very long without smiling.

Bonding with virtual colleagues through music

We tell people to be serious, be focused, and do great work. And when you're with the team, be engaged, have fun, and build each other up.

How do you communicate where you are during the day?

We use Slack, but don't go into a high level of detail. We say hi when we're online. If you're going to step out for more than an hour or so, you probably just put your status away and say, "Hey, I'm going to grab lunch with a friend. I might be out for a while. Will be back for my call at three," or something like that.

We try to operate in a way where we're not dealing with a lot of urgent things all the time. So it's not a big deal if someone steps out for a little bit. If you're not able to get to your computer, check-in periodically from your phone, but that's just if you're gone during the normal work day.

Across time zones, we try to make sure everybody has some overlap but some projects don't work well across time zones. If we have a client in Sweden, we can't put people on the west coast on that project because it's such a big time difference.

Ultimately, everybody trusts each other to get the job done right. We're going to do great work. We're going to make sure the project's moving at the right pace. It doesn't really matter if it gets done at 8 a.m. or 5 p.m. or if it gets done at 11 p.m., as long as people are on the same page. It just comes down to setting expectations.

What tips do you share with new hires who haven't worked remotely before? What’s the etiquette?

We have some general guidelines. One of them being, just over-communicate everything, because when you're out of sight, you can be out of mind.

It's easy to lose sight of what you're doing if you're working in a vacuum, as we call it. You may have completed three major pieces of work, but nobody's heard from you in the last four hours, and nobody knows that necessarily. Whereas, if you chime in every now and then on Slack, people know what you’re doing.

An engineer might say, "I finished this task. It's in code review. I'm moving on to these other three. That's my plan for the day," and then you know what they're after from a PM side. You can say, "Hey, I've got two more calls, then I'm going to hop in on this, and I'll have input for you." Little notes like that help people know where your focus is and makes a huge difference in terms of transparency across the team.

Another guideline is knowing the difference between the tools and how to use them. What's right for Slack versus what's right for email versus what needs to go into a video call. One of our rules is, if a comment thread on one of the project tools goes longer than two or three comments, it's probably time to hop on a video call, because you're just not getting where you need to go.

How can virtual teams overcome the lack of nonverbal cues in team communication?

You need to have a different level of emotional intelligence for working remotely. You need to pick up on facial cues and body language and tone of voice from video calls because you aren’t in the same room.

You can tell if you're sitting next to somebody if they're uncomfortable. But communicating on a video call, you think, "how long was that pause? That was a really long pause. We need to do something about this." Or, "Hey, his tone just shifted from pretty happy to a really long sigh. Get ready, it's going to be intense," kind of thing.

You learn to read all those nonverbal cues that you can't actually feel in person and be ready and jump into it, which is a skill you build and get used to.

I think the general rule for our virtual teams is if multiple people need to hear it, set up a call and talk about it or write it down in a place where everyone can see it.

How do you measure trust on your team? How do you hold people accountable?

It doesn't actually come up all that often. Most people are nervous about working from home. They appreciate the opportunity to work on these types of projects. They're very aware we're tracking time, too, so they know how much time they're putting in. Honestly, I spend more time telling people to work less than I do telling them to work more.

I might say, "Hey you had a long week last week. Don't worry about hitting hours this week," or "Don't worry about getting this thing done. It can go into next week. It's not a big deal." They don't always listen to me, but I try to tell them to work less anyway and stress less.

We're all adults. You're at a job. Your job is to get stuff done. You shouldn't have to be told to get stuff done. Usually, that's a personality trait that gets filtered out early on. I don't think we’ve hired anybody that I’ve ever had to ask, "Did you do work this week or did you just chill on the couch?" You filter for that early on.

How do you approach building relationships on a virtual team?

We usually give our new hires an onboarding buddy — someone in their discipline but not on their projects or on their team — so they have somebody safe to talk to that's not necessarily going to judge them if they ask a silly question or something.

You get your Pod, and the idea is that you're working at least half the time with your Pod. So you get your project syncs with those people, but each pod also meets once or twice a week just to talk to each other about what's going on, whether it's with the company or with each other personally.

Teams have done tours of each other's offices. They'll come up with a theme each week, like, "How did you get into this business?" or "What's your favorite ice cream flavor?" We also do trivia and fun stuff like that so the team gets to know each other.

And then, obviously, through client onsites and our 10up Summit, you build good relationships with people because you get face time, and for some people it makes a world of difference.

We often hear things like, "Man, I didn't know how I was going to feel about working remote, and I thought it might be kind of lonely. But I'm talking to so many people all day long that I feel like I'm never alone. By the end of the day, I feel like I need to decompress and relax a little bit and have some time by myself, which is weird, because I've been at my house alone all day."

Tell us about the annual 10up Summit

10up has always done an Annual Summit, to my knowledge. The first time, I think six of them drove up to San Francisco that year. My first Summit was in Boulder. Then we did Atlanta, then Puerto Rico, and this year we did Jackson.

The arrival day is for socializing, and then we have two days of a conference type environment where we talk about the company vision for next year, project wins and challenges we've overcome. Then we do our awards ceremony and the band performance.

Engaging team members at 10up company conference

The next two days are dedicated for Pods to go out and do fun things. In Puerto Rico, we went surfing, snorkeling, and hiking in the rainforest. This year we did a lot of hiking, barbecue, s'mores around the fire, and white water rafting.

So, you get that professional time to talk about your discipline and to talk about the work we're doing, to talk to people who you don't always see, and then you get that close time with your teams to just bond.

What advice would you offer other teams who are thinking of transitioning to virtual work?

This is probably scary advice for a lot of teams, but trying to be half remote and half in-office tends to be very difficult, because you miss out on conversations that people are having in person. Out of sight, out of mind is a real thing. It’s very different when a large portion of the team is working remote or it’s a completely virtual team, where everybody has the same expectation for communication and alignment.

So, you have to be intentional about that and think through how to make it work, and then regularly check-in and see how it's working. How is that person who's remote feeling? How are the people in the office feeling about the person who's remote? What's the perception of what's getting done versus what's actually getting done? Can we roll this out on a bigger scale? You need to put a lot of thought into it.

If there’s something big to tackle with multiple people who need buy-in, sometimes you just need to be in person with them and work through it for a couple days. We've done that for building internal tools, for leadership meetups and planning, and even for smaller projects that just need the team to get together for a bit and solve a problem.

Onboarding is really important, too. A lot of new people are impressed with our orientation. I’ve heard, "This is the most structured thing I've ever gone through. Thank you for taking time to do that, it helps a lot. You've given me a lot of context." When people start a new job here, we try to make sure they're happy. People are finding good projects for them, and they get a good challenge.

Does having a fully distributed team negatively impact productivity or communication?

It actually ends up being the opposite most of the time. People feel guilty working from home. Many times, the default reaction is, "Oh man, I went upstairs and talked to my family, and shoot, I've been away from the computer too long," and it's only been five minutes. Whereas, if you're in an office, and you're in that space, you can walk around and talk to three people and grab a drink or do whatever and 15 or 20 minutes go by pretty quickly.

So we tell people that 40 hours is a really long week, if not the longest week you've had, compared to 40 hours anywhere else, because we're logging time where fingers are on the keyboard. We're in heavy discussions constantly, and the day goes by fast.

We probably get more done than sitting in an office where people are around. I know I do. But then, it goes back to the culture and the personality fit, and whether or not you like working from home or not.

You just need to be aware of yourself and aware of your team, even if they aren’t sitting right next to you.

Editor’s note: A version of this interview originally appeared on the 10,000ft blog. In 2019, Smartsheet acquired 10,000ft to enhance resource management capabilities for Smartsheet customers.