Management Skills

How to manage remote employees: A hands-on guide from fully-remote companies

15 min read

How fully-remote companies like Hotjar, GitLab, InVision and Zapier hire and manage remote employees.

Oftentimes, remote managers are not equipped to manage their employees because information on this topic is either too scarce or too vague, making us think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach when there isn’t.

To help you distinguish signal from noise, let’s look at companies who’ve been fully remote from day one and what we can learn from them: 

Lesson #1: Hire the right people – Hotjar Case Study

If you hire the right people, you’ll never have to worry about whether or not they’re working.

Simple, right? Not at all. On average, companies screen out 70% of remote work applications before they get reviewed by the manager.

When it comes to hiring remote workers, the applicant pool is much bigger considering that geography is no longer a restriction. But opening up the floodgates still doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be free from “bad apples”. I’m talking about remote work enthusiasts who are down for the perks and overall lifestyle, yet won’t put in the work for it.

Hotjar, a behavior analytics tool that went from 60,000 beta signups to $11 million in ARR in just 3 years, has picked a top-notch team by devising a solid five-step hiring process:

Hotjar's 5-step hiring process

Stage 1 – Review the candidates

The first stage consists of a carefully crafted survey, where the main goal is to screen out the majority of the applications. As harsh as it may sound, the premise behind it is quite sound: minimize the recruiting pool to remain only with the most promising candidates.

Because of this, the survey is riddled with quick, but also tricky questions that require a more in-depth answer than a simple “yes” or “no”. These are questions like: 

  •  Can you talk us through why customer support is so important for a company like Hotjar?
  • What does Customer Success mean to you?

These questions don’t necessarily test the candidates’ proficiency in a tool, but rather their way of thinking and knowledge. For a taste of Hotjar’s potential interview questions, check them on Glassdoor.

Stage 2 – Candidates submit a video

At this stage, candidates are asked to submit a video of themselves in which they answer five questions. The goal here is to see whether or not they pass the “Meet on Sunday” test, i.e. if they’re “cool enough” to hang out with on a Sunday in the office, alone.

Don’t worry, there are also more structured questions in place to check if candidates are honest with expressing themselves and their work. Even simple ones like, “If you could do anything on a Monday morning, what would you do?”, speak about what kind of skills someone brings to the table, as well as how capable they are at articulating themselves. Two qualities that are essential for Hotjar’s fully-remote culture.

Stage 3 – Interview

You’d think that it’s finally time for the interview, right? Yes and no. At this point, Hotjar is still checking for red flags: people who have big egos and minimize a culture of collaboration, those who are generally hard to work with.

This is still an interview though, so job-related scenarios are still considered. Yet the focus is on getting to know candidates on a personal level and whether their past answers are consistent. This hints at self-awareness, which means applicants have the ability to apply themselves to a standard and stick with it.

Stage 4 – Task assignment

Once the interview stage is complete, finalists take part in a paid, multi-day task assignment —called “performance recruitment”—that’s broken down into three parts:

  • System thinking – Every remote work candidate has to look at the current system, map it out, then propose improvements for it. The assignment is given with the intention that it’s out of the interviewee’s area of expertise. For example, a customer support rep might be tasked to look at the invoicing system, to see if they can understand the full picture and how processes feed into each other.
  • Concrete task – Finalists are also given 2 weeks to complete a concrete task from Hotjar’s roadmap, which tends to be too flimsy in detecting a candidate’s critical thinking as they’re not grounded in reality. During the task, conversations move away from audio and video to chat, in order to evaluate how well remote work candidates give and receive feedback. On top of that, people at Hotjar are a bit harsher in their remarks to test a candidate’s tolerance for criticism as well.
  • Presentation – Candidates present their results in front of Hotjar’s CEO and team. They’re first asked to grade their work, this is meant to measure their level of self-awareness. After the presentation, Hotjar team members rate the candidate on the quality of the delivered assignment, presentation and overall communication throughout the hiring process.

Stage 5 – Offer

Right before an offer, David Darmanin, Founder and CEO of Hotjar sets up a call with the candidate and the hiring manager to conduct a “desperation test”. To put it in his own words:

“My key focus is to find out if the team was so desperate to fill this role that they lowered their guard somewhere. Typically I don’t have that anxiety, so I’m able to spot if it’s been happening. I’m also really evaluating, at the highest level, whether there is a culture fit with this candidate.”

-David Darmanin, Founder and CEO of Hotjar

Tying it all in, the hiring process is quite lengthy, taking 4-6 weeks for the remote candidates who make it all the way through. But in the end, it scopes out the “bad apples”, while getting to know the future remote employees on a deeper personal and professional level.

Lesson #2: Forget targets, implement OKRs – GitLab Case Study

Remote work is dynamic by default, which means that things that hold true in an office won’t apply here. The same goes for rigid targets. You can’t just impose a hard-to-reach one, say a 40% revenue increase, and expect everyone to follow suit without proper guidelines. This is where OKRs come in.

What are OKRs?

During his time at Intel, Andy Grove pioneered OKRs, which stand for “objectives and key results”. They consist of: 

  • An objective: a clearly defined goal that you want to reach 
  • Key results: ways to measure whether you’ve reached the goal or not

They’re also more potent than SMART goals, which focus too much on the individual rather than the team’s performance.

Gitlab, the world’s largest fully-remote employer, has nailed an accurate OKR system to manage remote employees located in more than 65 countries. Let’s walk through why their system is so good: 

OKRs have a clear format

To start with, GitLab defines a clear format for their OKRs. Each objective should have between 1-3 key results, while each key result should be tied to an outcome. Something like this:

Objective

Increase monthly sales qualified leads (SQLs) by 20%, from 100 per month to 120 by the end of Q1. 

Key results

  1. Increase monthly marketing qualified leads (MQLs) by 30% by the end of the quarter, from 200 to 260. 
  2. Run one bottom-funnel webinar per month to drive pipeline.
  3. Hire a demand-generation marketer to fill in lead generation gaps.

Objectives are numbered for ease of reference and quarterly-based to align outcomes with the financial quarters. The roles of the directly responsible individuals are listed out as well.  

GitLab defines owners and levels of ownership

The direct responsible individuals (DRIs) mentioned before refer to the people held accountable for these objectives. They can be a manager, team lead, or executive, whose main job is to make decisions. DRIs should be empowered, and the best way to do that is not to ask for explanations. GitLab puts it best

“It is important to understand that DRIs do not owe anyone an explanation for their decisions. If you force a DRI to explain too much, you’ll create incentives to ship projects under the radar. The fear of falling into a perpetual loop of explaining can derail a DRI, and cause people to defer rather than working with a bias for action.”

-GitLab’s view on DRIs

At GitLab, DRIs are chosen based on the difficulty of the objectives and their skillset, which breeds in return five levels of ownership:

  • Executive OKRs
  • Division OKRs
  • Department OKRs
  • Sector OKRs
  • Team OKRs

For simplicity reasons, there are no individual OKRs, except in the case of one-person departments. The advantage of this breakdown is that all company objectives can fit on 3 pages, long enough to be detailed yet short enough to be actionable. By all means, this is no small feat, given GitLab’s 1100+ remote employees spread across the world.

GitLab reports on and scores progress

With a workforce of these proportions, reporting has to be as efficient as possible. Every 10th day of the month, back-to-back meetings start where DRIs report their progress on OKRs. These can either be:

  • On track: The DRI is confident they can achieve the goal
  • Needs attention: The DRI raises a few red flags to be further addressed
  • At risk: The DRI has their own suspicions that the goal will fail, urgent action is required

GitLab also monitors OKRs once the quarter is over to heed the lessons. That’s why every objective is scored against a percentage (“done” or 30% “completed”) and comes with a comment subsection on whether they’ve been positive, negative, or worth trying again (new initiatives, for example, can’t be measured in quarterly batches).

Be careful though when you set your own OKRs. They should be ambitious, yet achievable. If you hit 100% completion on a regular basis, your goals were not ambitious enough. If you hit below, say 50%, they were likely not achievable in the first place.

Lesson #3: Communicate asynchronously – InVision case study

According to an HBR study, traditional office workers spend 80% of the day checking emails, attending meetings, or chatting with their colleagues. Statistics like this can easily make you jump to the wrong conclusion that remote employees are slacking off. When in reality, there’s a bigger problem hiding in plain sight: Your team relies too much on real-time communication.

Tech has inadvertently tricked us into thinking that being connected translates into being productive. Hence, we strive to stay available at all costs, even if this means sacrificing the quality of our own work and well-being. 

The solution? Asynchronous (async) communication; Communication that doesn’t require an immediate reply.

InVision, the leading digital product design platform, offers great lessons on how their 1000+ remote employees spread across 31 countries communicate async.

How to make asynchronous communication work for your team

Allow remote employees to work in their time zones

Despite using Slack, which can be a bit overwhelming at times, InVision’s remote employees are encouraged to leave and reply to messages in their own time zones. This brings a few advantages on both sides.

On one hand, every team member can deliberately plan their day, as opposed to having distractions run them. They can block time to attend more formal meetings while tending sudden emergencies, like taking their child to the doctor, without letting their absence affect others. On the other hand, remote managers can expand their candidate pool outside of one particular timezone. 

Enable employees to focus on deep work

Without having to constantly be in the loop, InVision’s remote employees snooze notifications on purpose when dealing with brain-stimulating tasks, like coding, writing, or design. This keeps interruptions at bay, granting them the much-needed space to flesh out ideas. When they’re ready, they can turn on notifications again to address messages more thoughtfully, in a single batch.

Build better bonds  with structured channels

When it comes to remote work, remote workers see loneliness as their biggest struggle.

The 2020 State of Remote Work – Buffer

To tackle this, people at InVision have multiple Slack channels with specific purposes.

Apart from the company-wide announcements channel and the dozens of interest-based ones (including #doggo-lovers), every team has their own private channel to catch up with what’s going on in their lives.

My favorite by far is the #house-swaps-invbnb channel, where team members from around the world can literally swap places with one another. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work with a view of Mount Fuji? Now might be the time to swap places with your colleague in Japan for a week or two. 

So remember, async communication should be the norm. But real-time communication is necessary too. Let’s see exactly when.

Lesson #4: Make one-on-ones a habit – Zapier case study

Async communication aside, the best way to build rapport among remote employees is via meetings – be they team-based or one-on-ones.

Team meetings are broad in scope, providing guidelines, status updates, or news that concern the whole team. One-on-ones are more specific, focusing on an individual, their challenges, concerns, growth and performance.

While the first ones are somewhat prescriptive and have a similar agenda week-over-week, the same doesn’t hold true for one-on-ones. That’s because remote managers need to host separate sessions with each team member, prepare different topics in advance, and ultimately be skilled enough as a coach to give the right advice, in the right context.

Zapier, the famous automation tool, is a fully-remote company that manages employees across 15+ different time zones. They host one-on-ones religiously and have a few wisdom nuggets to share.

Host weekly one-on-ones

Oftentimes, we don’t get enough feedback for the work that we do. That’s how Zapier’s CEO, Wade Foster, felt in all his past jobs. To become an example, he set up weekly one-on-ones, at first with every employee in the company. As soon as the company scaled over 15 people, he extended this practice to his C-level executives, followed by team leaders.

Although this hierarchy might seem far from a flat one, it ensures every remote employee has their voice heard by someone who can steer them in the right direction – their manager.

Follow the 10/10/10 model (if it works for you)

One-on-ones can be scary. You might be wondering what topics to cover, in which order, how much time to devote to each of them, and so on. Folks at Zapier take inspiration from the Manager’s Tool podcast when it comes to choosing the topics to cover.

However, their format takes after the 10/10/10 model: 10 minutes for the employee to go over their points, 10 minutes for the manager to go over theirs, and another 10 minutes to touch upon “the future”, a.k.a. the next steps to take after the meeting is over.

Keep in mind that, although this works for Zapier, it may not work for you and your direct reports. Try it out and see if it’s something that prompts meaningful conversations. If not, explore other methods when it comes to sharing ownership of the meeting agenda

Dig deeper

As a remote manager, how do you know if a one-on-one has been successful? In a Soapbox interview with James Carr, he was asked: “How do you know if you’ve had a successful one-on-one?” His response was: 

“Whenever I feel like we have solved a really difficult problem. I also see the most successful one-on-ones as the ones where we really delved into a difficult conversation.

For example, I had a really outstanding direct kind of a drop off in performance. We really dug into it (and talked for practically an hour) and discovered the root of his difficulties were due to not feeling “safe” after releasing a change that led to a major outage.

I was able to really address this and highlight that all of our most outstanding engineers have done work that led to a major outage, and the important lesson to focus on is what we learn from the issues and how to prevent them. It makes us much stronger engineers in the long run!”

-James Carr, Infrastructure Engineering Lead at Zapier

No matter the cause, difficult conversations are a great opportunity to clarify expectations, build trust and keep the team on track. 

Bonus! Company retreats

Once or twice a year, fully-remote companies with deep pockets bring the global team together to reinforce their company values, either through team-building activities or strategy workshops.

Some activities include:

  • Icebreaker games
  • Company-wide trivia
  • Building out a memory wall
  • QuizBreaker (a weekly company-wide quiz) 

If you don’t have the budget in place to bring the whole team together into one physical environment, the activities mentioned above can certainly be done remotely.  

Wrapping up

As you work to find a rhythm that works best for managing your direct team or company, continue to learn from other companies who have made the transition to being fully-remote a successful one. To get started, you can check out other fully-remote companies, aside from the ones mentioned in this article, including Buffer, Automattic, or Toptal, to see how they do it.


andrei-marcel headshot

Andrei-Marcel Țiț – Product Marketing at Paymo, a work management tool that bundles task management, resource management, native time tracking, and invoicing to help SMBs work better, together.