Lydia Kothmeier, VP of Operations at enterprise CMS Storyblok, discusses the various growing pains you’ll experience when scaling a remote business and how to do it.

Your business has grown. What once was a small startup of five people has expanded to a team of 235, and with that comes a whole host of new considerations. New processes, job responsibilities or technology investment usually, to name a few. Indeed, growth may be great but it can bring a lot of ‘growing pains’ which must be managed carefully or you could run the risk of throwing your business way off its trajectory.

Of course, though, tackling the various growing pains you might experience when scaling your business may not be as simple as it once was. Over the last three years, the world of work has radically changed. Many businesses have adopted a hybrid or flexible working model. Digital nomadism has taken off and many businesses have people across several different countries, continents and time zones.

So why is this significant? In the absence of in-person working, employers can no longer afford to rely on the physical cues afforded by the office to gauge how employees – especially new ones – are faring. Without water cooler chats and lunches out, it becomes even more important to find new ways to bring colleagues together and maintain good morale. The same too goes for the onboarding process without the traditional office tour and run-through.

So, if your business is experiencing a significant growth spurt and scaling up on a remote basis, what is the best approach?

Storyblok is unique in that it has operated on a completely remote basis since starting out in 2017, and now occupies a team of 230+ people in 45+ countries. Drawing on the lessons learnt during this experience, there are a number of measures I would recommend every business should take when it comes to growing a remote team:

Start with your recruitment process

Whether you’re just getting going with scaling or you already have a core team assembled, the first step is reviewing your recruitment process. The characteristics that make an individual able to thrive in a fully remote environment can be very different to an in-office worker. Particular value needs to be applied to candidates who show an ability to work independently and are self-motivated. This may sound obvious, but actually identifying these attributes can require modifying how you recruit. For example, increasing the number of rounds of interviews to include more chats with different team members or managers, creating new tasks that can showcase independent problem solving and closer scrutiny of their personality type versus their existing work experience. The onboarding process can also provide an additional layer of protection to ensure you’ve selected the right person for the job and the company culture.

In Storyblok’s case, we have a rigorous one to three-month-long onboarding that includes a ‘buddy system’, peer meetings, a library of company content to read and learn and a few written tasks. New team members aren’t pushed to perform from day one, instead, they are encouraged to ask as many questions as possible as they familiarise themselves with their job and the organization.  At the end of it we can be certain that a new team member has learnt the basics, has the skills for their position, met the relevant team and also has the temperament that means they will be happy in their remote role.

Build the right technological and operational structure 

Getting the right people will count for nothing if you don’t have the right structure in place to support them. Technology can do a lot of the heavy lifting. Task and project management software, as well as communication platforms like Slack and Google, are the minimum you should have. Collaboration platforms that mimic the creative process of ‘blue sky thinking’ meetings are also essential. Group messaging platforms can enable more informal chats and games should also be considered. The important thing to remember is that you need to plan your tech infrastructure for where you want your startup to be in the future. It is much easier to have all the systems in place you will need with a small team – even if it seems like overkill – than quickly trying to adopt them as you’re rapidly hiring. Putting the tech in place from day one also has the virtue of creating a culture of using it in a certain way, which will increase efficiency and productivity. Many of us have experienced the pain of being at a mature company which adopts a new tech platform – training is like pulling teeth and many people grumble that there was ‘nothing wrong with the old way’.

Care for your team with a hands-on approach 

The next step is the procedures that will underpin how your company functions and your team is cared for. There isn’t a one size fits all approach, however, there are some basic principles that should apply across the board. At Storyblok we have instituted a mixture of touch points both formal and informal to ensure nobody feels isolated. There are regular all-hands catch-ups, department team catch-ups, regular inter-team informal chats, social events, collaboration sessions and much more. Of course, you don’t want people stuck in Zoom calls all day, so careful monitoring of how many meetings people have is important. Reviewing recurring meetings and asking yourself – What is the wished outcome and what is the purpose of the meeting, will help you to identify not needed calls. If they would like to get away from their home office to create more of a divide between work and their private life, we also offer coworking spaces.

The most critical factor is ensuring a good balance between focus time where people can work and alignment meetings. Besides that, every team manager should regularly check in with their team members. Not only does this disrupt people’s days it also can be a slippery slope where individuals can fall through the cracks and become isolated.

Documentation and clear communication are key 

Hand-in-hand with this steady rhythm of team touchpoints is the nurturing of your team on an individual basis. In-office environments have the advantage of creating more informal chance chats between individuals at different levels. Not only can this more easily help decision-makers spot talent, but it also serves as a way for work-related problems to be solved. Recreating this in a virtual environment requires a more rigorous and systematic approach from managers. We have found that diligent documentation and clear expectation and goal setting during reviews are essential. Managers have to log everything and act it as a priority.

Documenting processes, learnings and projects ensures that vital information isn’t trapped in one persons head and potential problems aren’t siloed. Indeed it is important that all team members are able to hear and learn about what is going on across the business. This means committing to consistent and transparent communication.

Because popping by a desk to discuss a decision further isn’t possible – it’s essential to ensure that as much context and information is given as possible. Leaders and managers should openly explain their decisions and be open to challenges.

We also encourage all team leaders to have a virtual open-door policy. This is a critical factor in creating an open environment where everyone feels heard and can share their feelings. Providing perks such as an individual development fund that can be used for language classes, and additional training allows the staff to grow within their career and stay with Storyblok..

In short, whatever operational structure you adopt, the key is to stick to it diligently. This will be the testbed from which your company culture develops. It will be the framework that will enable smooth scaling. However, remember, it’s unlikely you’ll get everything right on the first go. That’s why actually listening to your team, and new members, and taking on board their feedback is vitally important. Adhering to your structure does not mean being inflexible. If the systems you’ve created stifle productivity or make people unhappy – you need to adapt. Creating a supportive structure does not mean micromanaging people, it means enabling people. If you prioritise creating a team you can trust, you will not need to monitor their every action. When it comes to remote working, we’re all essentially at the beginning of this new trend – there is still plenty to learn.