Master Class Course

How to build a location independent team

Taught by Alvaro Oliveira of Toptal
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Communication: Process Over Tools
How To Encourage Team Bonding Remotely
How To Hold Effective Remote Meetings
How To Onboard Remote Employees
How To Focus And Be Productive Remotely
How To Manage Different Time Zones
Managing Vacations With A Remote Team
How To Hire Proven Professionals
The Importance Of Trusting Your Team
Alvaro Oliveira

Alvaro Oliveira


Alvaro Oliveira is the Former VP of Talent Operations at Toptal, an exclusive network of the top freelance software developers and designers in the world.


Full Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hi, my name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy. We’re recording this course right here at the Mixergy office. It’s a beautiful place. You should actually come visit me sometime. I’d love to see you.

The thing that you’ll notice when you do come visit me is that as much as I love this place – great reception, great kitchen area and great place for us to drink scotch together if you come here and meet me in person – the thing you’ll notice is nobody who works at Mixergy, nobody who works at my company comes to the office. They prefer to work from their homes, from coffee shops. I had one guy who worked from someplace in Asia. I don’t even know where he is.

If that’s the way they work best, if that’s the way they’re more productive, then I encourage it. You might have noticed the same thing happen at your company and in your world. People don’t want to work in a confined environment. They don’t want to work in an office. They often do their best work remotely.

The challenge with that is that how do you keep an eye on what people are doing? How do you create a bond and a team so that they all feel like they’re working together and actually do work together towards the same goal in helping the company grow? How do you do it right?

Well, that’s what I wanted to learn and that’s what I know a lot of people who are watching this want to learn. To do that, I invited Alvaro Oliveira. He works with Toptal. Toptal is a company that helps anyone hire top developers, designers and other professionals and internally, they have a team of hundreds of people who all work remotely, so they’ve made this work.

And when I say made this work, I mean they’ve got tons of clients, tens of millions of dollars in sales. They’re really a growing, thriving company. They’re not just playing around with remote work. They’re really building a solid group of people. They have thousands of developers that all work with them that they then place out at their clients’ companies. He is the guy to learn from this because he has been building this. He has been using this and he has a successful company that does this.

So that’s what we’re going to learn today – how to build a remote team that can build your company really strong and big. Let’s get started.

Because you agreed to come here to the office and talk and teach about how to manage remote teams, last night I and a few people on the Mixergy team took you out to dinner. We started to geek out about the software we use for communication. One guy likes Slack. Another person might like HipChat and so on and we’re talking about how cool all these integrations are for these tools and we asked you, “What do you guys at Toptal use to communicate?” Do you remember what you said?

Alvaro: Yeah, Skype.

Andrew: Just Skype.

Alvaro: Just Skype.

Andrew: Text-based Skype.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: How many people would be in a Skype group?

Alvaro: We have groups going up to about 35 people or more.

Andrew: Okay. And when I asked you why, you said process over tools. What do you mean by that?

Alvaro: So it’s really important to come up with the process to run your team first and then you start trying out tools that can adapt to that process and slowly evolve to finding the perfect tool for you.

Andrew: Why don’t we take a look at how that actually works? I think better when I see examples. One of the things that you guys do at Toptal is you match developers with the companies that need to hire a developer and you’ve got a matching team, you’ve got a sales team that talks to the customers, you’ve got this whole group of people. Is that one of the processes that you’ve first laid out and then you found software for?

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: So how did you lay that out? Walk me through it.

Alvaro: As we were smaller and we were just creating this process and learning how to do it, we quickly saw a pattern after like the tenth client or whatever. So, as we understood the pattern, we started to apply that pattern on simpler tools that we had available for us.

Andrew: You’re talking about you looked for a pattern for how to connect people?

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: And then what was that pattern that you discovered?

Alvaro: So, our pattern is let’s say I’m a matcher and I just had a call with a client. So, my pattern is going to be right after the call, I’m going to go into our network of developers and I’m going to see okay, who fits best for what this client needs. Then the next day, I’m going to be following up. Okay, the developers I pinged yesterday get back to me. The next day, I’m going to see can I find other developers that I might have missed on the first day.

Andrew: Gotcha. You’re watching that this is the best way that the matchers work. You’re writing it down, probably Google Docs, I know you guys. Then you say, “Now let’s look for software that makes this easy.”

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: Okay. And the first software that you found for it was – do you remember what it was?

Alvaro: Asana.

Andrew: Or Asana, as we call it.

Alvaro: Asana, yeah.

Andrew: And you were using Asana even though you guys have developers on your team.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: You have access to developers that you can hire and you were just using Asana. How long did you go with Asana?

Alvaro: We used Asana for a little bit under a year.

Andrew: Okay. And then you told me that you built your own. Basically there’s tons of project management software. You guys at that point decided, “We’re going to build our own project management software.” Why did you decide to do it there?

Alvaro: Because then you can do something that’s really tailored for what you need. You can get the most out of it. This is what we’ve done. By building it ourselves, it really focuses on what we do and guides us through it in a workflow.

Andrew: Sorry to interrupt, but there was something specific that you wanted that Asana didn’t do.

Alvaro: So, Asana is very reactive. It doesn’t guide you through it. You’ve got to create the task yourself, you’ve got to complete the task. By building it ourselves, we were able to create a workflow that sort of happens and completes just as we take actions. So, as I have a call with a client and I accept a job, he knows that I’ve completed that task. I don’t have to manually go in and complete that.

Andrew: I see. Okay. All right. So, what I’m getting from you is we have a team here at Mixergy that puts together courses like the one that you and I are doing. I first would lay it out on paper, say “This is my ideal.” If we have a process that finds the ideal person,” actually starts with the problem, finds the ideal problem that our audience has, then the ideal person to teach, then the ideal location, I lay the whole thing out and then I say, “What software out there exists to do this thing?” And if it’s as simple as Skype, then I use Skype. If it’s as simple as Asana, I use Asana. We start working with that and then only if we need to develop something else do we go into something else.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: You’re also saying go with the simplest tool possible. You do not go for Slack just because everyone else is. If Skype is on everyone’s desktop and it’s easy, that’s what you’re going for.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: So, that’s one of the first things we want to do.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: All right. I had the founder of Toptal over to my house over for dinner once. The guy is very serious. He told me about how he cares about every freaking pixel on the site. And when everyone else was just kind of hanging out at the table, I can see he was still very serious thinking about work, getting a sense of who’s at the table. Still, you guys as a team, hundreds of people have something called a fun room.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: What’s the fun room?

Alvaro: It’s essentially a chat group on Skype that we keep open. Whenever we see something that’s just fun and if you were in an office setting and you would share with somebody next to you, you just share there and have a laugh about it together.

Andrew: Like what? What goes in the fun room?

Alvaro: A little bit of everything. Sometimes we see memes online. You might see . . .

Andrew: If I see somebody slipping and falling in a fun .gif, I would put that into the fun room.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: I’ve actually been watching my videos, I very rarely smile. I take this stuff really seriously. I greeted you today, asked you for coffee and I said, “The conversation is done. Let’s get into business.” And I got so serious, I think I scared Ben, who’s shooting here. Why do I need a freaking fun room? I want to come to work to be serious. You guys go to work to be serious. Your founder is a very serious guy. You’re a serious guy. Why the hell do you need a place where people are going to put .gifs?

Alvaro: For bonding your team together. Even though you’re not sharing the same space, you are working together with those people every single day. So, by sharing things you find fun with others, it’s a great bonding mechanism. So, you’re going to get closer to your teammates by sharing things that you find fun.

Andrew: And you feel like you know the people who might be in Eastern Europe. You don’t even know what country they are. You feel you know them better because they shared some meme.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: You do?

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: All right. So we need some kind of fun room. It doesn’t have to be Skype, of course. It could be anything. It just has to be a fun room, anything goes, except nothing like not safe for work, I imagine.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: So you guys still go to that place. One of the challenges with having an external team is people kind of get forgotten. I actually had somebody on our team who had a medical issue. I had no idea. I hate to admit it. You talk about that, that unless you have some structure in place, you can go at Toptal and other companies can go for two weeks without talking to a person, right?

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: How does that happen? Actually, I know how that happens because we work on our stuff. There’s no crisis, so there’s no reason for us to talk with the other person. We actually don’t have a fun room, so I don’t see that someone didn’t put memes in there. How do we avoid it? How do we avoid the situation where someone goes for a few weeks, we don’t chat, we don’t check in with them and I don’t know they had a medical issue or they had some other crisis?

Alvaro: So you come up with regular team check in meetings. So, those are meetings you’re going to have at a specific time set every week or whatever period works for you. We recommend at least once a week, you get your team together, check in with everybody, make sure everything is going fine and hear feedback from others. So they might bring challenges that you don’t even know about that you will learn during that meeting and you’re going to be able to solve it together.

Andrew: So what’s the structure for one of these meetings? I don’t want to waste my time on another meeting. I also know that the people who are working remotely don’t like to have a set time on their calendar. They want to wake up and work when they want to work. They don’t want to have to call somebody at a certain time. So how do you make that meeting so useful and so organized that it’s actually worth people’s time to show up there even if they happen to be on the other side of the globe?

Alvaro: So we do have a running agenda for every meeting. So it’s a collaborative agenda that anybody can, during their week, add items to that agenda. So, I’m going about my day, maybe it’s two days prior to the meeting. Something happens and I’m like, “I’ve got to bring this up with the team.” I add it to my agenda.

Then at the time of the meeting, whoever is running that meeting is going to see my topic and they’re going to bring it up. I’m going to be able to discuss that and I’m going to feel like I’m part of it. So, it’s not a meeting where I just listen to somebody talking. I participate and we fix things as a group.

Andrew: And it’s just a Google Doc, I imagine, that you share.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: So, Google Doc, anyone can add to it, everyone has to show up to the meeting and you go through whatever is on the Google Doc. You also have something else that just lets you check in with people, see anything going on in their lives?

Alvaro: Sorry. What do you mean?

Andrew: Beyond what’s on the agenda, do you also start by saying, “Does anyone have anything going on in their lives?” Basically what I’m getting at is if I have an agenda, we’re going to go through the agenda and I’m not going to find out that somebody is feeling sick or somebody has got a parent that’s dying, right? How do I find that out in these calls?

Alvaro: So . . .

Andrew: Obviously if it’s a super personal thing, people aren’t going to tell everyone. They might want to tell me directly.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: But there are some things that are important that are going on.

Alvaro: So, we sort of have a laugh about it internally nowadays, but every meeting ends with questions, comments or concerns. This is a pattern that we’ve developed over the years. So, this is how you open the meeting up for somebody to bring something up and discuss that might not be in the agenda. Personal things usually the structure of the teams, they’re going to go after the team lead and they’re going to talk about it and not necessarily open up in a meeting.

Andrew: Okay. Do you have a process for doing that?

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: One on ones or anything?

Alvaro: Yeah. We function based on our calendars. It’s really important to have a way, like if somebody wants to talk to me, they can go into my calendar and book a meeting with me.

Andrew: They can go onto your board calendar and just say, “I want to talk.”

Alvaro: Yes. And then if it is a person problem they’re having and they want to discuss one on one, they can do just that.

Andrew: I see. So, you’re getting to talk to everyone as a group and they also have an opportunity to talk to you individually. One of the other things that you do is . . . now I’m very aware that I don’t smile. I keep saying, “I have to smile more. I have to smile more.” Even Russian oligarchs sometimes, like very serious people, will smile in some photos. You also keep structured information on the people on your team.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: What do you mean by that?

Alvaro: So, we have an internal site, if you will, that has like who each individual member is, which team they’re a part of, who they report to, who reports to them. We don’t necessarily mind about structure too much. We operate sort of flat. But still it’s good to know because if you’re a distributed company and especially as you grow, somebody might send you an email and you’re like, who is this person?

Andrew: Ah, so there’s always like a directory where you can find out.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: I’ll tell you a secret. Yesterday at lunch, Ben was telling me about how he has two brothers – Ben who’s recording this – and a sister. And then later on when I went into the bathroom, I went into my address book on the phone, before I went into the bathroom, and I just wrote down, “Two brothers, one sister. One brother is out of the country.” I wrote that down so I’d remember it. Do you guys do anything like that so you go beyond who reports to whom? Is there anything like that that you can give me as a tip?

Alvaro: So, we do record their usual location. A lot of people on our team are traveling all the time so they don’t have like home, if you will. But those, you just sort of know that because you work together so often. This is like why having the weekly meetings is so important. You really know people on your team.

Andrew: Okay, because you’re talking to them.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: All right. And the meetings, maybe we’ll talk about that later. Well, we’ll talk about the structure later. I want to get into one other thing in this section. That’s emergency contact. What do you do for that?

Alvaro: So, it’s really important for people to know how to get ahold of you if they can through the normal channels. So, if somebody’s ringing me on Skype, that can’t get ahold of me.

Andrew: Now it hit me what you’re talking about even though we went through the notes. I had the exact situation. I decided at some point a few years ago I’m not going to put my phone by my bed. I don’t want to be distracted. I want to read my Kindle. I want to go to sleep and I don’t want the phone to be my kryptonite that keeps waking me up and keeps me doing extra stuff.

So I put it in the kitchen. Great. My life was so good. Our website went down. The developers who were in charge of managing the site called me and said, “Andrew, there’s this issue. We need your help with it.” I wasn’t picking up the freaking thing because it’s in the other room. That’s when we realized they should have my wife’s phone number. She keeps the phone by the bed.

So that’s what you’re talking about. There needs to be some way in case there’s some emergency for reaching them. All right. That makes sense. So I’ve learned a lot in this section, largely to smile a little bit more.

So you told me a lot that if you have a distributed team, everyone working remotely, meetings are critical.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: How often do you think a team should meet? Once a week?

Alvaro: Once a week.

Andrew: Once a week.

Alvaro: At least, yes.

Andrew: I noticed more and more people are meeting by text messaging. Not obviously the text message on the phone, but they’re using something like Slack to chat and that becomes the weekly meeting. What do you think of that?

Alvaro: I think that is not a good idea.

Andrew: No.

Alvaro: Text doesn’t convey how you’re feeling as well as voice does. Text also allows you to be multi-tasking. So, if you want to get the most out of the meeting, you’ve got to make sure everybody’s focused. So, you have an agenda, you want to go over debt, you want to be focused, you want to get it done period. If you’re doing that over text, people are going to be taking a lot of time to get back to you because now they’re texting with somebody else while you wait for an answer, so it’s just going to ruin the flow.

Andrew: Okay. So, voice you also don’t like. You don’t want us all to get on a big conference call. Why do you want video?

Alvaro: Video is again the thing that sort of protects everybody from multitasking. That’s a thing everybody wants to do. You’re there in the meeting and Skype is like, “New message, new message.” You’re like, “Ah . . .” But if you have video on, it brings back this thing where, “They can see me, so if I’m typing and doing something else, they’ll notice, so I’ll pay attention.”

Andrew: Yeah. It is kind of weird that way. Sometimes even when my camera is on this computer and my work that I’m doing for the call is on this computer, I can feel that people think that I’m not really doing my work. So, I’ll either move the webcam over to this computer or I’ll move the notes over to that computer just so everyone knows I’m here, I’m fully engaged. So, that’s the reason. You want us all to be fully there, fully paying attention and video holds us accountable.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: Okay. The other thing that you say . . . actually, what else is there? We talked about the agenda, a weekly meeting that has an agenda that anyone can add to ahead of time. What else is important for these meetings?

Alvaro: Be in a place where you can really be part of a remote meeting. Have a really good Internet connection. That goes from having a decent router all the way to having the Internet bandwidth for it. Don’t be in a noisy place. You don’t ever want to be in a meeting where you’re creating a lot of background noise because software will just block what someone else is talking because of your noise.

And be fast on the mute button. If you’re not speaking, mute yourself. There are some noises you cannot control. So, maybe your dog is going to bark. If you’re on mute, that’s fine. But if you’re not, you might be disrupting a meeting because your dog just barked.

Andrew: You know what? The find a quiet place where you’re focused and have Internet is a really good one for me to keep in mind. Sometimes I get so excited . . . it is fun to work remotely. I have this great office I love working from here. Everything is taken care of, from my breakfast to my lunch, to coffee. But sometimes I just like to go and work from Napa with my computer in a beautiful environment or go work out here in an active environment.

If I have phone calls, I think, “Great, life is so good that I don’t have to be in the office. I’ll just take my calls from here.” I’ve been that jerk. I’ve been the person who has background noise, bad Internet, dropout and you’re right, if I have those meetings, I have to just find a quiet place and suck it up and not be in the most beautiful or active place and just be fully present.

For software, you guys used to use Skype.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: Skype is good. Everyone’s got it on their computer. Depending on how Microsoft feels that day, it’s either free or a small cost to get multiple people on video. But you don’t use it anymore or you’re using it less. What are you using instead and why?

Alvaro: We’re now moving to Zoom just because of how better Zoom works for different environments and video. Skype is also peer to peer. So, it always relies on having one person with a really strong Internet connection. So, the one that starts the call, if their connection is not good enough, it’s going to be a miserable call for everybody.

Andrew: Okay.

Alvaro: And that person can’t also leave. So, if for whatever reason they’ve got to leave, they would drop everybody else. Zoom is more of a conference room-type of environment where you start a meeting, everybody joins and if somebody has to leave, it doesn’t drop everybody else. It also is a client server environment. So, there’s no weak link in one connection. If one person has bad connection, it’s going to affect them, not everybody else.

Andrew: Yeah. We don’t want to get too deep into software, but this a really critical point. A lot of big meetings happen on Skype because it’s easy and everyone assumes they’re going to meet on Skype because when we do a one on one, we call on Skype.

But you’re right, if we have five people on Skype and one person drops out, the whole conversation has to stop to try to figure out, “How do I get this person back on Skype with everyone?” versus Zoom or we use GoToMeeting or GoToWebinar, it’s just straightforward. If you drop off, you know the number. You know the link. You know how to reconnect. If for some reason you can’t connect via video because your Internet happened to have gone out, you can call in and you know that you’re fine to connect.

There’s one other benefit that I like about these meeting softwares. A lot of them will tell you who’s making the noise. So, if you’re the organizer, you just mute them a ton, right?

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: All right. So, weekly meeting, clear space, good software, get everybody on the same page at least once a week.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: When we’ve talked in private, one of the things that you told me that’s important for remote teams is really good onboarding. I have to tell you, I invested in a local team. They had this whole onboarding system. Even though everyone’s in the same office in a room smaller than our conference room, they have like this handwritten note that they give everyone about the mission. They have this doc with what they do. They have this experience where they take them out for drinks. They do onboarding.

What’s so different about remote teams? Why do remote teams have to do onboarding more? What’s the difference for remote teams versus non-remote teams?

Alvaro: It’s really important that they understand the tools that this remote team uses to get whatever process they have figured out done. So, as an example, you might get somebody from a big company joining your remote team and they’re going to send you a Word document over email. Somebody’s going to edit that and save it and add underline view one to the name of the file and email it back. Six months from now, I can guarantee you are not going to know which is the latest, which is the right version, who did what. You’re going to be lost.

Andrew: Right. In your company, you guys use Google Docs to avoid that?

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: If somebody doesn’t come from a Google Docs world, they come from a Microsoft Word world, they think they’re doing the right thing. They’re sending you an updated doc with a version number at the end, so they’ve been smart. It’s not necessarily bad, though I think it is. It’s different from your company and you want to tell people that up front.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: What’s your process? What’s your onboarding?

Alvaro: So, we have a boot camp process that we take whoever joins the company through all of our processes and all of our tools and we also open it up for some of them to get like special training tools if they don’t feel comfortable with it, so somebody that came from a heavy Microsoft Office base learn more about Google Docs and how to leverage it properly.

Andrew: And you will teach them about Google Docs and how to use it and your system for using it.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: Okay. You’re like the longest person at the company other than the founders, right? You were at Toptal when it was just like a handful of people and you kept building it up. You were doing onboarding. When you were doing onboarding for just a few new people, what was your process? I want to know when it’s simpler than hundreds of employees, what it’s like.

Alvaro: So, one thing that’s really effective is allowing others to shadow you while you’re doing the task. So, if you’re really small, big chance is that whoever you just hired is going to take up something you were doing before. So, you just do it with them looking over your shoulders as you do it and they learn from that.

Andrew: How do you do that? I had someone come and work with me at the office here, literally she sat right next to me while I worked and she could see how I did it. That makes sense. When you’re doing remote, how do you have that shadow experience?

Alvaro: You just share your screen and if you’re having a call with a client or a developer, they’re going to be on that same call. They’re going to be a fly on the wall just listening in and then as that call ends, you call them back, share your screen, they see your follow up process for that call and all that is involved in it.

Andrew: What software do you use for that?

Alvaro: Skype.

Andrew: You just use Skype.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: So, they’re listening in one Skype while you’re having a phone call with someone else.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: I see. All right. What else goes into onboarding? So, it’s shadowing so they see the person they’re going to replace or do work that’s similar to them. There is software understanding, like here’s all the software we use. Here’s how we use it. If you need detailed explanation of Google Drive or Google Docs or some random software we use, we walk you through it. What else goes into onboarding?

Alvaro: It’s also good to have documentation that people can refer back to. When you’re onboarding to almost any company, you’re just getting a lot of information all at the same time.

Andrew: Okay.

Alvaro: If there is documentation about it, you’re going to feel good because your mind is quickly going to understand okay, there’s an index somewhere that I can go to and it will quickly get back.

Andrew: Just one file, is that what you do, one Google Doc with all this information?

Alvaro: We actually leverage Google Sites for that.

Andrew: Why?

Alvaro: It’s a thing that a lot of people don’t even use.

Andrew: I don’t.

Alvaro: But it’s a wiki format. It’s really good. Google Sites has one address that people can go to. It’s very easy, like if you are on your Gmail, just click on apps and Sites is right there.

Andrew: Okay.

Alvaro: While Docs, they’re good for collaboration, but you can get lost quickly as well because they’re just a bunch of files with no folder structure or anything like that.

Andrew: I see. So, with sites, you’re just creating an internal site and if someone sees a mistake it’s easy to edit?

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: I see. I have to use that. We use Google Docs for that. I’ve seen people use Quip for it too.

Alvaro: We just use Sites. A lot of times the page inside our Google Sites structure might be a link to a Google Doc, but you know how to get there quickly because you go to the site, you go to the right area and then you get to the Google Doc.

Andrew: The Sites location shows you how we do things and the Docs are just Docs.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: Last night at dinner, I was asking you about your relationship with your wife and you said, “I work from home. She’s working from home all the time. We have this room in our house that’s our office.” Is that what you recommend, that everyone on the team have a quiet room in their house where they work?

Alvaro: I don’t think there’s a silver bullet answer to that. I think you’ve got to understand what works for you on the task you’re trying to do. Sometimes you do have a task that does require focus. Having a room for that is really good. Sometimes you have a task that doesn’t require too much brain power and maybe going to a coffee shop with a lot of noise around you gives that edge to somehow focus and do that brainless task.

Andrew: Give me an example. What do you do at your home office and what do you do at the coffee shop?

Alvaro: So when I’m coming up with analytics for my team and how things are operating and just creating the dashboard, I like to be in a focused space.

Andrew: Creating the dashboard meaning putting together the tool that’s going to pull in all the data you need. There you want to be in a focused space?

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: Meaning which one?

Alvaro: I want to be at my office. Everything is quiet. No noise, no distraction, I can really think about it. When I’m looking at the numbers – and it sounds a little bit counterintuitive, but that’s how it works for me – I like to be in a noisy place because somehow the noise fades into the background and then I focus on understanding what the numbers mean and coming up with actions based on what I just figured out.

Andrew: I didn’t realize it, but I do the same thing, not necessarily for those reasons, but I go to my office where I have two big screen monitors, two computers lots of space and that’s where I might work on the usual stuff that’s easy to do in day to day. The stuff that I want to hide from, like writing or going through other people’s writing and giving them feedback, where it’s tempting for me to get distracted and go get more coffee here or go do something else, that’s where I take my laptop and I go to the coffee shop and do. There I can’t escape it. I’m just here with a laptop that just lets me write. I see what you’re talking about.

So, you’re saying don’t impose one place, but do encourage people to find the right place for the task that they’re doing.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: That goes for us as the people who are managing the team and for the people who are on our team.

Alvaro: Exactly.

Andrew: All right. Easy peasy. Do you guys at Toptal have sales 24 hours a day?

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: So if there’s somebody in China who needs to hire a developer and they want to talk to a salesperson, they can do it at their time zone right away.

Alvaro: They could. Yes.

Andrew: Australia similarly, San Francisco – that’s one of the advantages of having a remote team.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: People are all working at their time zones and that means that if they’re all working at different time zones, they can service different time zones.

Alvaro: Correct.

Andrew: How do you keep a team organized when everyone is working at a different time zone? When we’re talking about a weekly meeting, for example, you’ve got someone who might be in Australia, someone else who might be in Europe, someone else who’s here in San Francisco, someone who’s in New York, Brazil. How do you say, “Here’s the one time that we’re all getting up and getting this call together?”

Alvaro: It’s really hard to find one time, but somebody has to sacrifice a little bit, so you’re going to have to weigh how many people are going to be affected by the choice in a negative way? So, we do have a few team members back in Australia, so yeah, sometimes they do have calls at 2:00 a.m. their time because that’s what works for the rest of the world.

Andrew: And they all have to get up for 2:00 for that meeting.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: Your weekly meeting you showed me on your calendar, if I was part of the Toptal team here in San Francisco, I’d have to be up at what time for that?

Alvaro: 5:00 a.m.

Andrew: 5:00 a.m.?

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: So you have people doing video at 5:00 a.m. from their homes because they probably aren’t at the office at that point or a coffee shop.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: That’s totally fine.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: That’s just the way life is. Do you have one time zone that basically becomes the time zone that everyone needs to be around?

Alvaro: We have naturally started working around the Eastern time zone because it works well for the European team members and of course for the US team members and South America, so it’s a good time zone overall.

Andrew: Okay. Is that something you recommend, that if I have a team – and I do have a team where everyone’s in the US but at different time zones – should I just pick Pacific time zone because that’s where I am and make things easier for everyone?

Alvaro: It is good to set one. If Pacific is the best for you, I don’t know. It depends on what they’re sending your team in detail. But picking one that’s usually the one everybody usually talks about is good. A very specific rule that needs to be said is if you’re talking for a meeting with anybody, always talk about the time zone you’re suggesting. Don’t ever forget that.

Andrew: I used to assume because I was in California and the person who I met was in California and the person who I met was in California and I’m inviting them to do an interview that I could just assume that he’s in California and say, “Can I interview you at 11:00 a.m.?” I remember one time, the guy invited me to this big company event in California. I invited him to 11:00 a.m. to do an interview. He calls me up at I guess it must have been 8:00 my time and said, “Where are you in the world?” He was in New York. I was totally off.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: So always talk about time zones when you’re telling people. You can’t just send a time. Maybe pick one time zone for the whole company that that becomes the de facto time we’re all thinking of and sometimes people just have to suffer.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: All right. Fair enough.

Let’s talk about vacations. If people can work anywhere, then even when they’re on vacations, they tend to do some work. You actually had some experience with a matcher at your company. What does a matcher do, by the way, at Toptal?

Alvaro: A matcher is the person that is going to be talking to a client and they’re sending exactly what they need from a technical perspective and finding the right candidate for that job for the client.

Andrew: I see. So we’ve used Toptal when we needed to hire a WordPress developer, it was a matcher we were talking to in saying, “Here’s how we work. This is what we need,” and then that person went and found us the right person.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: Okay. So, you had a matcher who went on vacation.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: Okay. And?

Alvaro: They went on vacation. So, they said, “I’m not taking any new client calls, however I’m going to keep doing every other task following up with current clients, finding developers for a client that I spoke to last week.” So, by the end of it, they were like, “I didn’t really take vacations. I kept working, I just didn’t get a lot of new work, but I was still at my job during my vacation period.”

Andrew: I see. And when someone is working remotely, it’s easy to fall into that trap because as long as your computer is around or phone is around, you actually have the ability to do work and you tend to do work versus someone who’s working in an office and they know physically, “I’m out of the office. I’m not connected to work, so I shouldn’t be doing work.”

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: So we need to instill that in our team. If you’re taking vacation, pass the work on to somebody else.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: So pass the work on to someone else is really important. What about taking vacations? What’s your policy at Toptal for vacations?

Alvaro: So we have an unlimited vacation policy.

Andrew: Okay.

Alvaro: So, people can take as much time as they want whenever they need.

Andrew: That’s an official policy.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: I actually don’t even have a vacation policy at Mixergy. I just kind of feel like, “It will work itself out.” Unlimited seems like it basically means the same thing except if you have an unlimited policy, one of the things I’ve been reading is people don’t feel comfortable actually using it, right? So, they know it’s unlimited and then why don’t they take vacation?

Alvaro: Because they might feel bad, like if you do go and take a month off and the other person on your team only took a week, they’re like, “Hmm, my vacation was way bigger than this other person.” So, what we’re doing to sort of fix that is we have an informal policy on a few specific teams on times and vacation periods that do make sense for that team and what they are doing.

Andrew: Okay. And then you actually will keep track of when people will take vacations using something other than that calendar you told me about?

Alvaro: No.

Andrew: It’s just that calendar.

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: So, you have no way of knowing if someone didn’t take a vacation, push them out the door and tell them go do it.

Alvaro: Yes. Usually the team leads, they know. So, the team is really connected all the time. So, we would know.

Andrew: All right. So make sure people actually do take vacations. They kind of think that life could be a vacation because they’re working remotely, but that’s not really disconnect so that you can be fresh. I also like vacations because it forces other people on the team to learn other people’s jobs so that there’s no one person who becomes indispensable.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: And then once they’re away, make sure they’re fully disconnected.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: This one seems easy, but in reality it’s not. You can’t stand to lose somebody for a little bit and so you hang on to them. They leave and they do some work and you feel appreciative, but we have to stay disciplined, you’re saying.

Alvaro: It actually helps you also prepare for tough times you might not be expecting. So, if you’re well prepared for people on your team to be on vacations, you’re well prepared for an emergency to happen.

Andrew: What do you mean?

Alvaro: You’re going to have the right team size that can still function even if somebody’s on vacation. That means that if somebody unfortunately has an accident and they’re not able to work, your team can still function. Vacation is a good way to force that happening.

Andrew: Yeah. I know what you’re talking about. That’s something big for me too. If someone doesn’t leave, then they’re really creating this potential disaster for the company if they ever have to leave, whether they’re moving to another job or like you said, there’s an emergency.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: When you’ve got a remote team, you’ve told me, “Andrew, make sure you hire proven professionals.” What’s the difference? Anybody who’s running a company wants the right people, proven professionals are important. Why is it more important when you’ve got a remote team?

Alvaro: On the remote team, oversight is going to be reduced compared to your office space. You want to have a professional person that will be self-driven. So, they’re going to motivate themselves to get the job done.

Andrew: Okay.

Alvaro: When they’re remote, that might not happen naturally as it does in an office environment where they’re just looking, “Oh, my coworker is working. Let me go and work now.”

Andrew: Yeah.

Alvaro: It’s easy for them to get distracted. “Oh, I’m at home, I’m just going to turn on the TV and watch a show.”

Andrew: Right. And if they’re not professionals, if they’re not proven, then they’re much more likely to fall into the trap of just wasting time at home by themselves.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: And if they are professionals, they might be like that guy, Dror, you were telling me about. What happened with Dror?

Alvaro: So I had maybe two conversations with Dror about a big project that I wanted to do internally about a course for our internal developers and what not.

Andrew: What was the course?

Alvaro: We wanted to do a course on ReactJS, a technology that is in high demand. We had a lot of developers that were looking to learn it and therefore have more jobs open for them. So, I spoke about it with Dror and I sort of got back to business and forgot about it. Then yesterday, Dror sends me a link like, “Hey, Alvaro, it’s live.” I’m like, “What?” So, he just did it.

Andrew: That’s what you’re looking for. If you’re working with a remote team, you need that kind of person, otherwise they’re just going to disappear from you.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: How do you find . . . maybe that’s a topic for another time, but that’s what you’re looking for. Actually, you know what? Let’s just touch on that. When you say someone who’s a proven professional, what do you mean? How do I identify when I’m looking to hire someone whether they’re like Dror and they can be counted on to follow through without any oversight or whether they’re like the typical person who doesn’t have oversight, doesn’t have accountability who’s not going to produce? How can you tell? What’s one indicator?

Alvaro: Just the little things. Let’s say you’re trying to hire somebody, you’re going to schedule the first interview.

Andrew: Yeah.

Alvaro: You don’t babysit them to make sure everything is fine. You just send a meeting invite. You set the time, the date and Skype maybe if that’s what you’re going to use and that’s it. And then you show up on time and you check, “Is that person on time? Is the connection quality of that person okay? Is there a lot of background noise?”

Andrew: Okay. Do you also give them a project to do and disappear and see if they actually follow through?

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: So, if I wanted to find someone like Dror, I would give them a project, not nag them to finish it, just see if they got it done on their own. If they have the self-motivation to do it, they’re going to do it.

Alvaro: And a big thing is not giving a full blown complete project. You want to give a project that is missing a few pieces. Then you’re going to be able to see okay, is the person I’m trying to hire the type that’s going to get back to me and ask questions if they have it? Are they going to fill the gap by themselves or are they just going to be quiet and when the deadline comes, they’re going to be, “Oh, I didn’t finish it up, because you did not hand off a complete project”?

Andrew: That’s a good idea. Cool. Make sure to hire proven professionals if you’re going to be working with a remote team, critical here.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: So, we’ve talked about a lot of different topics here, right?

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: Hold meetings, hire proven professionals, talk about process over software – there’s a lot going on here. I want to focus in on the one thing that if someone’s watched this whole program, learned from everything you said, if there’s one thing that’s really important for them to focus on and get started with, what would that be? What’s the one takeaway?

Alvaro: Trust your team.

Andrew: Trust your team?

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: Okay.

Alvaro: So, you’ve worked with them on hiring them properly. You’ve created processes for them. Now you’ve got to trust that that they are going to do it and not try to micromanage every second and action that they take as they’re doing their jobs.

Andrew: Okay. And then when you say trust your team, that kind of makes me feel like, “All right, walk away. Dror is going to handle it. Everything is going to be fine. I’ll get my video done.”

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: But that’s not what you mean. That’s kind of abdicating, right? Trust them and then check in at the end? How do I not micromanage and still manage?

Alvaro: You do have your meetings in your process, right? So, you are checking in. You do have a time where you’re talking to that person and saying, “Hey, how’s everything going?”

Andrew: Okay.

Alvaro: Then you’ve got to trust Dror in the example that everything is going fine, otherwise he would bring it up in the meeting.

Andrew: Okay.

Alvaro: You also have the process for Dror to even if the meeting is too far along, Dror knows how to get your time if he needs you.

Andrew: Okay. Why is this so important? What do most people do?

Alvaro: What do you mean? Sorry.

Andrew: Most people, do they micromanage in situations like this? If they have a remote team, do they start to really over-smother someone?

Alvaro: Yes.

Andrew: They do?

Alvaro: Some people demand that whoever is on the other end works using GoToMeeting so they can literally see every single mouse click and how they’re doing things.

Andrew: I see. Right. You’ve just now hired someone to do an important part of our business. You’re also paying them. You don’t have any visibility and I see. That really could challenge your trust. You should be saying you’ve setup all the processes, trust the person, let them follow through. Of course if they don’t, then you can have the conversation about whether they should be there or not.

Alvaro: Yeah.

Andrew: All right. This was really helpful. Thanks for being here.

Alvaro: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

Andrew: Cool.

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