The Way We Work

By: Andrea Bailey Willits

A distributed core workforce is changing how we think of work culture. Say goodbye to water cooler chats and 5:00 p.m. quitting times, and hello to Skype conversations, meeting Webinars, and time zone differences. But in this new working world, how do you maintain a healthy work culture in your remote team — even across international lines?

We asked oDesk experts Mike Barnett, director of Customer Service, and Ron Aquino, senior manager of Marketplace Trust and Safety and Risk Operations, how they do it every day:

Step #1: Communicate

Each morning, Barnett says a Skype conversation begins with his 50 contractors around the globe.

“Communication plays a key role in healthy work culture,” Mike says. “There is a Skype chat going on constantly. If our reps aren’t sure [about something], they can ask their peers or team leaders to answer issues that come up.”


Step #2: Debrief

Aquino debriefs his 45 remote contractors on new projects and defines any unfamiliar corporate lingo. That way, his remote team feels included and knows what’s going on in the company.

“If there’s a project with a weird acronym, we don’t assume they know what we’re talking about,” he says. “If I bring up a project, someone will say, ‘I’m not aware of what that is—can you go into detail?’ Over-communicate. Don’t assume anything.”

Step #3: Take Questions

Aquino listens to and fields any questions his remote workers may have, promoting what he calls “a culture of asking questions.”

“The importance is amplified when you have remote contractors from different countries,” he says. “I’ve communicated to all our reps that I expect a lot of questions or there’s a chance they’re missing something.”

Feedback and suggestions are also welcome, allowing remote workers a voice in the company.

“I try to reward people who bring up issues,” Aquino says. “It’s having an open door and listening to all concerns. If contractors know you’ll listen, they’re more likely to engage.”

Step #4: Review Work

Both Aquino and Barnett review remote workers’ progress to see how they’re meeting measurable goals and expectations.

“What we ask for is progress, priorities and problems. Let us know what you’ve done this week; let us know if you have problems,” Aquino says.

Mike Barnett, oDesk

Barnett says proper management would prevent most of the disputes between an employer and a contractor that land on his desk.

“We provide all the tools to help,” he says. “Even locally, you’re not going to look at somebody’s computer six times an hour, but that’s available to you within oDesk. When employers end up in a dispute with a contractor, it’s odd how few looked at the contractor’s work diary. They could have seen there were problems much earlier.”

Step #5: Think “Team”

Barnett and Aquino follow the oDesk policy of including remote workers live in any team meetings, training classes and company meetings that day. Mike has seen how attending meetings and learning about company goals really brings remote workers onto the team.

“Each quarter we have a meeting where we get everyone on the phone line and talk about goals for next quarter until the end of the year. We’ve even had the CEO join our call to talk about oDesk goals. Our reps really feel like they’re a part of the company.”

Step #6: Reinforce Values

Though meetings help instill company values, Barnett looks for opportunities to reinforce those values and the code of conduct contractors agreed to when hired.

“If a rep can’t do their shift, we expect them to find a replacement or communicate with a team leader. We expect them to be professional, follow our own internal policies and be role models in the marketplace.”

And because contractors do all their work within the oDesk application, Aquino says company values tend to stick:

“We hire all our contractors from our own marketplace and pay them through our system, so they get to see the value of what our tool does.”

Step #7: Offer Advancement

Ron Aquino, oDesk

One thing some employers forget to do, Barnett says, is regularly encourage remote workers’ advancement on a company career path.

“We offer a career path within Customer Service,” he says. “Everyone started off as a junior rep or trainee and worked their way up through a published and available career path we have. That makes them feel there’s a long-term commitment. Our attrition rate is incredible: Out of a team of 50 people, last year we only lost one person.”

Step #8: Self-Evaluate

At the end of the day, Aquino says what matters most is his performance as a manager. Did he have the right priorities, the right attitude?

“You have to view remote contactors as a core part of your team,” Aquino says. “If you’re not taking them seriously, you’re at a disadvantage. If you manage them correctly, you can absolutely get the same level of contribution, efficiency, and quality as if they shared your physical location.”

Have you picked up any tried and true steps for managing and setting the tone for your remote team? Please share them in the comments below.