There was a time where working remotely was rare and unconventional. Obviously, that’s not the case right now, and it likely never will be again.

With many teams being forced into WFH mode in response to a global pandemic, research by Gallup in early April showed that the percentage of Americans working remotely doubled in less than a month’s time. Three in five employees said they’d like to continue doing so after public restrictions are lifted.

The current climate is only accelerating a trend that was already on the rise. A study released last year by Owl Labs found that 62% of U.S. workers were doing their jobs remotely at least part of the time. In the survey, remote workers reported higher levels of happiness in their careers, citing better work-life balance, increased productivity and focus, less stress, and lack of a commute. Now, scores of employees are experiencing these benefits for the first time.

In creative fields like marketing and design, where talent is at such a premium, it’s all the more critical to be open and flexible with this paradigm. Not only will employee preferences and expectations look different on the other side of our current situation, but a remote culture also vastly increases recruiting potential. The ideal fit for your team might live across the country, or the world, but distance no longer needs to be a detriment.

Julia McCoy manages an entire staff of remote writers for her content production business, Express Writers. In nearly a decade of dealing with distributed teams, she has learned from plenty of successes and setbacks. Julia was kind enough to share insights from her experiences for other marketing and design leaders seeking to master remote team management.

Knock down communication and collaboration barriers

When you’re managing your remote team, what are some of the techniques that you use to foster a culture of connectedness and collaboration?

I’ve been running Express Writers for nine years now. And what I’ve found is that it really comes down to getting the right people. That’s where you have to start. For us, that often means people who have experience working from home, in a remote environment, and people that really love what they do. Having a passion for the work, that’s critical, but so is some level of familiarity and comfort with working totally independently.

As I look back, I realize that a lot of the people I thought I could trust have let me down. Others have become cogs in the machine that helped us grow, and we’ve been able to rely on them. The thing is, it’s really hard to know people. It can take years to have someone that you can put in a managerial position and trust them with your entire team. That was hard for us. Missing on even one hire who doesn’t align with your culture, your company, what you do … that one person can be what brings down the entire culture. And that’s what we’ve learned. So doing everything you can to find those ideal fits is crucial.

Once you get the right people hired, how do you smoothly integrate them with the rest of your team and avoid the communication gaps that can often emerge in a remote setting?

In the years spent running my business, what I’ve learned with communication is that if there’s a gap, bad things happen quickly. But in this day and age, it’s amazing how many apps we have that solve that problem, and they’re often perfect for a remote team. 

Our team used to have a lot of meetings. But I find that if you have an app set up that everyone is actively using, you can get all the answers you need to push that day forward, grow your revenue, and be sure your teammates are getting what they need. We like to occasionally have video calls, because it’s nice to see faces. But we don’t do that very often. 

So it’s all about finding an app that works for keeping your team in constant contact. But that’s just one example. There are so many ways to communicate. There’s almost no excuse not to, with all these awesome apps we have today.

There are so many ways to communicate. There’s almost no excuse not to, with all these awesome apps we have today.

Working remotely expands your talent pool and potential immensely 

Most people are aware of the potential downsides of a remote or distributed team — namely, the distance and the inability to have that easy face-to-face contact. In your experience, are there overlooked benefits or advantages to running a team that might be geographically distributed?

This is a great question. So many people have said to me, “Well, Julia, why don’t you open an office?” And I’ve looked into it. There was actually a time where we tried going local here in Austin. We were working in a co-working space looking to buy a more permanent space. But what we’ve learned through the years is that geographical limits can really restrict the talent that you are able to access. When you remove that barrier and go fully remote, which we’ve done, you can access talent all over the world.

For example, we found an amazing content strategist in Kenya. We’ve found tech copywriters in Toronto, and our content manager is in Utah. We have team members who are nomads from the Philippines and now living in France. If we had to have a centralized office, we would never be able to access that kind of talent. So that’s the big benefit. 

Once you remove that barrier of, “Okay, I have to be at a location,” your hiring field opens up immensely. And the flip side to that is that some of those people, especially in other countries, it’s hard for them to find work. So when you give them a position, it can really result in a lot of loyalty and affinity toward your company. 

Set clear expectations internally and externally

With someone who might be in another state, maybe even on another continent, how do you go about setting expectations and deadlines in a way that is clear and decisive, and isn’t going to get lost in the translation of distance?

We have a front-end and a back-end approach here when it comes to setting expectations and being clear on deadlines. On the front end, we try to be very clear about what we can and can’t do while interacting with clients, before we actually sell our services. And then on the back end, we take every step to be sure we can deliver on that and uphold our word. 

So if there’s a project coming our way — say, an eBook with design — where the client asks, can you get this done by Monday? We’re like, probably not, even if we charged you double, because quality content doesn’t happen like that. So we try to set really clear expectations on what we can and can’t do for clients. And I didn’t really start doing that until the third or fourth year. That has eliminated so many headaches. 

Once you’ve shored up that external side, you do have to take a really aggressive approach to deadlines internally. We don’t tolerate people going MIA on us and dropping the ball. And I hate to say it, but in a remote setting that is very frequent; you will get people that are ready to go, and then when the deadline comes, where are they? It’s undeniably a lot easier to be accountable if you’re showing up to an office. So we have an aggressive stance there. We don’t tolerate that. The whole team knows it. And the people that are performing really appreciate it because they know that it safeguards their paycheck. 

You do have to take a really aggressive approach to deadlines internally. We don’t tolerate people going MIA on us and dropping the ball.

A future founded on freedom and trust

Creative freedom really ties back to autonomy, which is something we talk about often. But as a manager of remote teams, how do you balance that independent autonomy with providing the direction and accountability needed to keep the business on track?

I love the word autonomy, because that really fits with where we’re headed as a team, and how we approach hiring remote people. Something I really try to abide by, especially if hiring for a leadership role, is that they have to be fully autonomous beforehand. And when you find that, it’s a dream come true because you can trust them, you can give them high-level tasks that you wouldn’t trust with just anyone, and you know that they will get it done. So that’s my rule of thumb: the manager of one.

As remote teams continue to gain prominence in the decade ahead, what do you envision as the biggest keys to team productivity for marketers and creatives in these kinds of setups?

I think that it comes down to two areas. First, the future really depends on nailing down the basics. You want people to be comfortable and healthy. I really try to understand what team members need to do their best work. So we offer advice and guidance on creating a really great work setup at home. You might need two screens. You might need an ergonomic mouse or a split keyboard. Not straining your back, drinking water …  These are the basics we’ve known for years, but believe me, it is still so easy to overlook them. 

And the second part is solidifying trust across distances. On our end, we see that people are ready to trust us more than ever, even though we’ve never shaken their hand. We have clients putting down big sums of money, and we haven’t ever met in person. But that’s the way of the future. The trust factor is something we’re always applying because we’re all humans. 

Set clear expectations, provide freedom when it’s earned, and keep emphasizing the basics. When you do these things, you can build strong trust no matter the distance. 

Set clear expectations, provide freedom when it’s earned, and always keep emphasizing the basics. When you do these things, you can build strong trust no matter the distance. 

Take Control, Remotely

The future of work is remote. This is true to some extent for almost every field and discipline, but especially for creatives. Julia is among the pioneers leading this charge, and we appreciate the opportunity to learn from her journey. (If you like what she has to say, you might also consider taking a look at her newly published memoir, Woman Rising.)

Ready to take control of your remote team and help it reach the next level? Find seven easy-to-implement habits that drive success for modern distributed creative teams in our practical guide: The 7 Habits of Highly Productive Marketing and Design Teams.