Building a global, distributed team

Lessons from social networking experts SWOOP Analytics



Social enterprise networks — online tools that enable teams to connect and work together seamlessly — are taking off. Australian firm SWOOP Analytics are specialists in helping organisations to get the most from their social networks, through implementing them effectively and capturing deeper insights.

Headquartered in Australia, SWOOP Analytics has a truly global team, working across multiple time-zones. James Tyer, Director of Growth and Customer Success at SWOOP Analytics, shared his experience of building remote teams with us, distilling some key ideas about what works — and what doesn’t.

Hi James. What’s a typical day like for you — do you work remotely?

I’m based from home, currently in the UK, and I work remotely within a wider global team. So, I might be interacting with the tech team in Australia, and the marketing team in Seattle. Our headquarters are in Australia, which is around 10 hours ahead of me (it changes a bit depending on daylight savings), so that’s a pretty big time-zone difference. That does mean I sometimes need to work outside of standard office hours. For example, I take part in a Monday meeting that’s actually 9-10pm in my timezone.

As a company, we’re fully social online — we use the tools that we help organisations with, such as Yammer and Workplace. We really prefer these kind of solutions to tools like Slack, for example, as it’s much easier to keep track of conversations and key ideas.

Around once a week I go to London for meetings, often at a customer’s offices, or we use a meeting space at the office of another Australian company that has a base in London.

SWOOP’s James Tyer hosting a discussion on social networking.

Is this your first remote role? Was being able to work remotely a key factor in taking the job?

I previously worked for a small company in Canada, where I spent half the week working at home — so I could really focus — and the other half working in the office, when I scheduled all my face-to-face meetings. That worked well. I then worked for the US firm Kelloggs in a fully remote role. They took me on because I had the specific skills they were looking for, but it was tricky because I worked remotely, and that was a bit unusual for them, so the organisation as a whole was not really set up to support remote working. They had teams in different locations, but they were all office-based within those locations.

When the role with SWOOP Analytics came up, working from home was great for me. I was based in the UK by then, and really didn’t want to commute to London each day. Long commutes are such a waste of time. If your employer paid you for the time you spent travelling to work and back, remote working would really take off!

It’s not just about avoiding the commute — I also really enjoy working from home. When I started the job, my daughter was only four months old, and being based at home meant I could play with her when I took a break, which was great.

What’s your work set-up like? What helps you to stay focused and productive?

I have a very good laptop, and really good IT support. Both of these things are so important. When you’re remote, you rely on the technology — it has to work well. I’m pretty much paperless now, all my documents are online. I also have really good headphones and use bluetooth — which means I can be on video calls, doing demos and so on, and can still walk around, without feeling tethered to my desk. I also personally like to work with background music — I like the Focus@Will app which helps you find background music to boost your productivity.

For me, I find coworking spaces tend to be too busy and noisy, which I find distracting. I prefer a quieter space to work in.

Your colleagues are spread over multiple time-zones — how do you manage that?

We’re a global team, so we deal with some really big time-zone differences — we’re spread between Australia, Europe and the US. But because everyone in the team is so used to remote working and working in a global team, it’s not really a big deal for us.

In fact, having colleagues in various time zones can work for you. For example, I have a few hours each day in the afternoon before the US team comes online, when I might be the only one awake and working — but that really suits me, as the afternoon isn’t really my most productive time of day! When I was based in Vancouver, I tended to work from 5am to 2pm so I overlapped more with colleagues in other timezones, which suited me well as I avoided that afternoon dip. I then feel really productive again in the evenings, and that’s when Australia is back online.

We do have emergency contact numbers as well, so we could reach the CEO in Australia, for example, if we really needed to. As the team grows, it would be great to have a technical team in each timezone, but that’s something to work towards. 

You really have to prioritise communicating with remote team members, and make time for that, or people can start to feel disconnected. 

With your colleagues working remotely, do you still feel part of a team? And if so, what has helped create that feeling?

I do feel fully part of a team. We’re a relatively small team, which makes things easier, and we also make good use of some great tools — including video, and enterprise social networking tools. We’re a very transparent organisation, and of course it helps that we really know what it takes to build an effective remote workforce — after all, we advise other companies on this.

I think the key, when you work remotely, is having both autonomy and good support. Autonomy is important — I believe people work best when they are able to work in a way that suits them, and are trusted to do that. But you also need good support structures in place to make sure there’s regular, effective communication. A previous employer of mine would sometimes cancel catch-ups at the last minute, but when you work remotely, those contacts are your life-line — you do have to prioritise communicating with remote team members, and make time for that, or people can start to feel disconnected.

The enterprise social networking tools we have now — things like Yammer and Workplace — really do make all the difference. We can use them to connect instantly with team members, ask questions and get answers, and feel like we are all part of the same thing. Video calls are also really important — being able to see each other makes a difference. Most of us are used to using social tools and video chat — things like Facebook and Skype — to keep in touch with friends and family, so it just seems like less of a leap to use these for work too.

I think it can be harder for really big companies to keep people connected, as there’s just not the bandwidth to have huge team calls, for example. Plus there may be a very different work culture, with people used to working in silos — for example, senior management might even be based on a different floor.

Managers need to focus on tracking output, not hours spent at a desk. That’s easy to say, but it does mean you need to communicate and be clear about what those outputs should look like.

I do think it’s a bit of a myth that you can’t get to know people when you work remotely. When I started out at Kelloggs, I spent a couple of months talking with different teams, so I probably ended up knowing more people throughout the organisation than lots of my colleagues who were based in one office — I was talking with a sales team in New Zealand, and an IT team in Russia, and so on. It’s totally possible to work in a large office and not know your colleagues any better than someone who is working remotely. I would sometimes fly in to the central office at Kelloggs for a week of meetings etc, and colleagues would have no idea that I actually worked remotely — they just assumed I worked in a different part of the building.

If you haven’t met someone in person, there are still ways to really get to know them. For example, at Kelloggs, I’d take time to talk with colleagues, and I’d try to find out about them as a person — their hobbies, what they enjoyed about their day and so on.

I also think it’s important that employers don’t just leave it to remote team members to do the work of creating a team feeling. There’s a concept of ‘psychological safety’, of creating a workplace where people feel they can be open and share ideas. That’s something that managers need to take a lead on. Employers also need to be aware that communication problems are also amplified in remote teams — if you’re out there on your own, without regular contact and feedback, you’re basically working in silence.

And it’s not just about staying in regular contact. The quality of communication needs to be good too. It needs to be clear, of course. But you also need to be really active, rather than passive — that it, both sides need to check they’ve been understood, and take action to resolve issues as they crop up.

Organisations also need to invest in bringing people together. Having a remote team saves on office costs — so employers can invest resources in getting people together. For example, invite people who work remotely to the office party, and pay for their hotel and flight so they can take part. That creates opportunities for people to meet in person, and also lets the remote staff know they’re valued members of the team.

Is building trust an issue for remote teams? How do you build trust when you’re not all working in the same place?

People say, how can you trust someone when you can’t oversee them in an office setting — but I’d prefer to turn that on its head and ask, Why did you hire someone if you don’t trust them?

In one previous job, I was the manager of a small team — they were all based in the office, and I was the one working remotely. We still built a good, trusting relationship. I think the key is consistency — do what you say you’ll do. If you have a standup meeting planned, stick to it if you possibly can. And be as responsive as possible, too. Of course, it’s OK to say, ‘something has come up, but I’ll be free again in two hours, let’s talk then’. But trust is built up by those little things, by being consistent and responsive to people over time.

Managers of remote teams also need to make sure they focus on tracking output, not hours spent at a desk. That’s easy to say, but it does mean you really need to communicate and be clear about what those outputs should look like. If you’re managing remote staff, you need to have those discussions so that team members understand what their goals are and what they’re being asked to deliver. After that, the onus can be on them to keep track and to demonstrate what they’re doing to meet those goals.

People say, how can you trust someone when you can’t oversee them in an office setting — but I’d prefer to turn that on its head and ask, Why did you hire someone if you don’t trust them?

What do you personally like (or dislike) about remote working? What has been the impact on your working life?

I love being able to focus when I work from home — I’m much more in control of the distractions around me. And of course I really love not commuting! It saves me several hours each day, as well as around £5,000 each year — I have that time and money available for other things than just travelling to work and back. Plus it’s often less expensive to live, if you are able to choose to be based outside of a major city.

I also love being able to work flexibly, with some control over my working hours. For example, I can choose to not work while my kids are having dinner, and then work again later in the evening.

The only thing I don’t like is not being able to meet up with people to talk in person, as it’s nice to do that sometimes.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about remote teams?

I think if an organisation wants to build a productive remote team, or to incorporate remote-working effectively, it’s important for the leadership to model the behaviours you want to see. So ideally, senior leaders should also work remotely for at least one-two days each week, so they have a real sense of what it’s like.

Thank you to James Tyer, Director of Growth and Customer Success at SWOOP Analytics, for sharing these insights into what it takes to work well within a global, flexible team.

Find out more about SWOOP Analytics and see current remote vacancies here.


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