What 20 Years as a Remote Organization Has Taught Us About Managing Remote Teams

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SOURCE: https://hbr.org/2017/02/what-20-years-as-a-remote-organization-has-taught-us-about-managing-remote-teams

In his 1974 interview with ABC News, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke painted a picture of how computers would change our way of life by the year 2001. One of his many extraordinarily accurate predictions: “Any businessman, any executive, could live almost anywhere on Earth and still do his business through a device like this.”

Now, this prediction about remote working has not only come to life; it’s proved to be more beneficial than the traditional office model for some companies. The advisory firm we work for is one such company. Since its inception, in 1995, ghSMART has been a firm with a completely remote team. More than 80% of our work is done by teams of consultants and staff who operate out of their home offices. It’s working for us: ghSMART has seen more than 97% client satisfaction in the past decade, 93% team retention, and greater than 20% annual growth. Our journey of more than 20 years has led to a lot of success and has taught us some valuable lessons for how to make remote arrangements work:

Hire the right people. Having remote team members requires that we hire people who can deliver technically while working independently. At the same time, the fact that we do not have to maintain physical offices leaves us room to pay higher wages than others and attract top talent. By spending up to 42 hours researching and interviewing a given candidate, we take great care to ensure that we find and hire the right people. We don’t stop at interviewing and choosing good candidates; we give them detailed insight into the company’s finances, strategy, individual consultant performance, and implications on compensation so they can make a fully informed decision about whether to join us. We have learned that both we and our talented candidates make the best decisions when we provide each other with a large amount of good information.

Focus on outcomes. After spending as much effort as we do in bringing the right people into the firm, it only makes sense to set them free. The first and most important step in doing this is to set expectations. We tell our new teammates exactly what outcomes matter to us, and reward them for achieving and exceeding those outcomes. We do this through a scorecard that we give to consultants and staff members for their individual roles. As a leadership team, we strive to maintain consistency in the outcomes for each role so everyone knows exactly where the bar is and that it is not going to change unexpectedly. Once clear, consistent outcomes are set, management conversations shift from exercises in delegation to problem-solving sessions. Less micromanagement leads to more choice, decision making, freedom, and accountability at the individual level.

Help employees choose, and be responsible for, their own adventure. By determining the right floor and not restricting the ceiling, and by paying for value (once they exceed their outcome, consultants are paid a commission proportional to the additional work they deliver), we put the choice of how hard to work in a consultant’s hands. Our team members have the freedom to, say, take their child to a doctor’s appointment in the middle of the week while doing leadership coaching work with a CEO. Each consultant is free to choose the type of work they want to do, whom to do it with, and when to do it. We provide all our teammates with the information on what work their colleagues have done, and plan to do in the near future, so they can pick and choose where they want to serve.

Outside of client work, we allow teammates to invest in other areas, and even provide them resources when required. For instance, we often announce an innovation budget and invite applications to pilot ideas. As a result, our teammates voluntarily design new practice areas, conduct cutting-edge leadership research, and write books. We’ve noticed that our team members adopt a strong sense of commitment to the responsibilities they take on and do not abandon them when the going gets tough. They feel true ownership. Our leadership team ensures that this balance between choice and commitment, and the value of owning the outcome, is a respected, celebrated cultural attribute.

Centralize thoughtfully. We focus on letting our team members be the “CEOs” of their professional lives, but we have learned over time that not every aspect of choice adds value. For example, we previously enabled consultants to choose their own health care plan providers, and even set up their home office the way they wanted, but have since moved to a company plan and standard IT package to launch our team. This makes their lives easier without taking away the choices that truly matter. While there are more instances of such centralization, our leadership team maintains a very high bar for such decisions because too much control can erode mutual trust.

Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of a new world of remote work has largely come to pass. In a 2014 survey of business leaders at the Global Leadership Summit, almost 60% of leaders said that more than half of their workforce would be remote by 2020. Every year we learn more about the benefits of remote work, including increased productivity and the ability to attract Millennial workers. We have lived the benefits of a remote model: Our two-decade commitment to individual freedom and accountability has helped us turn our “remoteness,” which some might imagine would be a disadvantage, into a critical lever of our success. We encourage you to experiment with outcome-based, decentralized models as you seek to get the most out of your remote teams. We may have landed on a model that works only in our case, but we suspect that it can work for you, too.


Randy Street is the Managing Partner of ghSMART. He co-authored Who: The A Method for Hiring and Power Score: Your Formula for Leadership Success. He was formerly an executive at EzGov and a strategy consultant with Bain and Company.


Dina Wang is a leadership consultant at ghSMART. She formerly worked at McKinsey & Company and was a fellow at the Forum for Growth and Innovation at Harvard Business School.

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