When Teams Go Remote: Tips on Scaling in a Distributed Environment

By: Steven Berman

Long before COVID-19 reared its ugly head, there was already a massive shift towards distributed workforces, and it only seems to have been accelerated by the need to remain socially distant. As we gain momentum in fighting this terrible virus, and companies look to reopen their headquarters, there is a sentiment that this shift to a remote workforce is here to stay. Last quarter our Managing Partner, Tim Gordon, wrote a fascinating piece on how companies were starting to react to this rapidly changing landscape. This sparked my curiosity about the tangible approaches companies have been taking in an effort to attract talented employees and keep their current ones engaged and happy. Over the past few weeks, I’ve sat down (virtually of course!) with leaders at six different digital health companies – Cohere Health, ConcertHealth, Eden Health, Stellar Health, Virta Health, and Wellth -to get their take, soup to nuts, on hiring and maintaining culture in this new environment.

The themes that emerged closely mirrored those we reflected on last quarter: Interviewing & Hiring, Onboarding & Training, and Establishing & Maintaining Company Culture. While some of these insights might seem obvious, the leaders I spoke with emphasized that it’s often the most obvious things that you need to ensure don’t slip through the cracks while trying to scale and run a business during such a strenuous time.

Interviewing & Hiring

In speaking with Eden Health’s leadership team, they made it clear to me that Eden’s brand and company culture reputation was established before candidates ever connected with their team. As a result, the interview process starts long before the Eden Health team first chats with a prospective employee. In order to get out in front of all this, Eden proactively established their presence on “Built in NYC.” They explained that a strong brand not only attracts potential candidates, but also helps the advocates in your network easily soft-introduce your company to people they think would be interesting candidates or clients.

In a virtual hiring process, it can be difficult to spend time getting a feel for a candidate’s fit with your company culture. Therefore, sourcing people from your network becomes a more sure-fire way to ensure that they align with your mission. In particular, Cohere Health emphasized how they’ve been leveraging their network more than ever during these times. When it comes to the actual interviewing, having a consistent process with outlined criteria will allow every candidate to have the same opportunity and equal chance at being selected for the role. Virta Health has found that the easiest way to achieve a uniform virtual interviewing process is to write down the criteria you’re going to evaluate candidates on as soon as you decide to open the role. Get granular! These are not just the top three of four objectives this hire will have to accomplish, make sure you dive into the nitty-gritty as well. While this seems table-stakes, it’s an easy step that is often overlooked!

Upon first glance, you might expect limited benefits from a purely virtual interview process. However, all the company leaders I spoke with found it to be a more crisp way of interacting with candidates. They described how virtual hiring eliminates the lag time between meetings to coordinate calendars, allowing for more touch points in a shorter timeframe. These extra touch points are valuable, as they give more members of your team an opportunity to interact with a potential hire and vice versa.

The way both the candidate and hiring company follow up post-interviews is a great way to gauge and show interest. Wellth stressed something that seems obvious but is overlooked more than you would expect. Handcrafted thank you notes versus boilerplate emails can give you insight as to how a candidate operates, and their attention to detail. The Wellth leaders also emphasized the importance of companies sending sincere follow-ups to candidates. This can help to reinforce the importance of the role they’re filling, creating a sense of purpose for candidates and helping to keep them engaged throughout the interview process.

Cohere Health also spoke about how it’s imperative to recognize the level of seniority you’re hiring for and tailor your virtual interview process accordingly. Recent graduates who have not yet had the opportunity to go through a couple of interview cycles will require a different process than more senior executives. It’s important to keep this in mind when developing a hiring process for a specific role.

Onboarding & Training

Once you’ve come to an agreement and hired someone for your team, you need to make a deliberate effort from day one to empower the new employee and set him or her up for success. At Stellar Health, this process starts with ensuring there are clear expectations of what short-term and long-term success looks like from the outset. A common theme with all the companies I spoke with was how having open lines of communication directly correlated with a higher probability of a new hire working out. How do you work towards open lines of communication? One of the oft-mentioned tips that came up was that companies must reinforce the importance of asking questions early and often. The leadership team must also set a good example by asking questions themselves and being transparent, especially during open company forums and town hall meetings.

In remote settings where there are no coincidental “water-cooler” run-ins, happy hours, or non-work related social interactions between teammates, companies must find new ways to generate interactions between new employees and their coworkers. Stellar Health sets up virtual coffee meetings for new employees with a range of co-workers across different departments as part of the onboarding process.

The relationship between a manager and their direct report is even more important in a remote work setting. It is imperative that the time managers spend with their team members be structured, with an established cadence for communication and not simply ad-hoc. One way that Stellar Health has had success establishing this structure, even before Covid, was by creating bi-weekly meetings for managers and all the folks on their team individually. However, it is important that the time carved out in these meetings is not just used to catch up, but also to share bi-directional feedback and gauge how both parties are tracking against their onboarding, training, and ongoing goals.

Establishing & Maintaining Company Culture

The goal of creating a great culture remains largely unchanged no matter what type of office (or lack thereof) environment you have. Culture is the driving force that unites people to work towards seemingly unachievable goals; it’s the fabric that allows for accretive ecosystems where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Lost in the fray of not working day-in and day-out in an office are the personal bonds you build with your teammates. While you’re all aligned with the common goal of scaling a successful business, people need to feel personally empowered to work to the best of their ability. Being remote, it is critical that leaders build environments where people feel comfortable showing their personality and creating personal bonds within the organization. These bonds don’t all have to be work-related, in fact they shouldn’t be! Establishing personal rapport often comes as a result of discovering that people share something in common outside of what they do for a living. ConcertHealth offered a useful example of an uncomplicated activity that creates bonds while working virtually. Every week on Slack, they conduct a company-wide small activity aimed at offering insight into their colleague’s lives. One person starts the chain each week. In a recent week, the starting employee asked a colleague to send a picture of their home office to the team and tag another colleague to do the same. Another week they asked people to share a small thing they have appreciated in their lives. These small activities humanize teammates to each other, allowing people to be recognized for things outside the context of work.

This doesn’t mean leaders should ignore their employees’ workplace achievements though. After all, everyone joined your company for a specific purpose, especially in healthcare – to tackle big problems. Anyone who has worked in an office environment can likely recall the buzz generated internally from closing a big contract or finally hitting a stretch goal. There are small actions you can take to make people feel appreciated and united. For instance, we at Aequitas recently celebrated our 6th birthday and all of us received the same cake delivered on the same day (our birthday!). Eating that cake together, even virtually, oddly made me feel more connected to the team. A program Eden Health has used to create a connected and inclusive team environment is carving out time during all-hands meetings for employees to be highlighted in a “missions moments segment.” In these segments, employees share why they joined a health-tech company. Allowing people to tell personal stories brings the team closer together, highlighting the uniqueness and the similarities among their peers.

While working remotely certainly has its challenges, there are different ways it can be advantageous. The common themes that shone throughout all the conversations I had are easy to talk about, yet hard to implement and maintain. Effective processes don’t differ much, regardless of whether you’re building a centrally located or fully distributed team. The big difference comes with how little room for error there is as companies grow their remote workforces, requiring leadership to develop clearly defined goals and be deliberate in the actions they take towards achieving them, no matter how basic they may seem. Lines of communication must remain wide-open, and an inquisitive culture must be fostered, where everyone feels empowered to speak up and ask questions early and often. Only time will tell if this shift in office dynamics will catch on permanently, however the principals discussed remain true across any environment.