Luis Magalhaes of ThinkRemote: “Train them to ask questions early and often”

Tell your team to ask any questions that come to mind when you assign them a task. And while they are doing a task. And it’s OK if they still have questions after doing the job, but ideally, you want them to frontload the questions. We are living in a new world in which offices […]

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Tell your team to ask any questions that come to mind when you assign them a task. And while they are doing a task. And it’s OK if they still have questions after doing the job, but ideally, you want them to frontload the questions.


We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Luís Magalhães.

Luis Magalhães is the founder and editor-in-chief at ThinkRemote. He writes and records daily videos about how to build and manage remote teams, and how to be great at remote work. He is also the host of the DistantJob Podcast, where he talks to world-class remote leaders, learning their strategies and tactics.

He‘s been managing editorial teams remotely for the past 20 years.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Well, I suppose I started with video games. Back in the late 90s’, I started writing about video games for the first Portuguese gaming blog. Then as IGN and Eurogamer started poaching our senior staff for their Portuguese counterparts, I eventually found myself at the publication’s helm. I was in med school at the time, so there was a limit to how much I could do to grow the business, but I was also in love with the concept of online media, so I kept things moving as much as I could. That resulted in a few firsts, including the first Portuguese gaming podcast.

Fast forward a few years, and after some experience dealing with people with handicaps and disabilities (my fiancée at the time suffered from multiple sclerosis and her brother had become a paraplegic in a bike accident), I realized that my clinical specialty didn’t help me and didn’t tip the scales.

A choice encounter with Sharon Koifman, the founder of DistantJob, made me realize that if we could make remote work mainstream, that would be a gamechanger for all the disabled people who are, in one way or another, prevented from crafting their best careers.

At this point, I had years of experience with online media in the gaming industry. The natural progression was clear: I needed to use the power of online media to bring Remote Work to the mainstream. We started a project that would evangelize remote to leaders all over the world. And then COVID hit, and I realized it was time for the endgame.

That endgame is ThinkRemote.com, the first independent publication that’s all about remote work.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

People often congratulate me — it happened just yesterday — about how diverse my podcast guests and the people I hire to work on my teams are. I never take any credit for it; in fact, I go to pains to say that I don’t think about it like that. I select the people whom I talk to and whom I work with very selfishly: I choose them because I find them interesting.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

So I’m paraphrasing here, but in his memoir “On Writing,” which is one of the books I most recommend to aspiring writers, Stephen King writes something to the effect of “If you want to be a writer, you need to read relentlessly every day.”

This impressed upon me the idea of trying my best to align my work with my interests. If you aren’t able to be a consumer in your field, you won’t succeed. You can’t be a great cook if you don’t enjoy eating. You can’t be a great writer if you need to force yourself to read. You won’t be a great engineer if you don’t build stuff for fun.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve had many mentors over the years, but more and more, I think people disregard the importance of family, so let me take a shot at that.

My mother chose to let go of a career in law to stay home and care for her children. My dad worked long hours into the night, often missing dinner, so he could afford to educate his children.

I remember that when I was just a little kid and wanted to spend my time reading comic books, my mother would give me a 500 escudos bill ( about 2 dollars) for each “real book” I read. It trained me to value learning stuff. I remember her being by my side, helping me review for school exams. If I did reasonably well, I’d get some extra spending cash.

Every now and then, I get a co-worker or manager praising my intellect. I work hard to dismiss those compliments. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all on my parents.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of not having a team physically together?

To me, remote always felt optimal, even before I knew what remote was. Back in the early 90s’, the internet let me communicate and build relationships with people from all over the world, and I collaborated with them on several projects.

Sure, I wanted to meet these people to hang out (and I did meet many of them), but our office was always the IRC, bulletin board, ICQ, or MS messenger.

We came together despite the distance and made things work because we wanted to do it baldly. In contrast, whenever I worked at an office (or clinic), it was evident that most people were there because they needed to. They needed to have a job, and that was the job that was available near them.

When you are remote, it’s very easy to understand who is coming to play and who is just there for a paycheck. So you can immediately embrace the former and get rid of the latter.

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?

When the people on your team aren’t all in the same space, it’s really easy to dehumanize them. What I mean by this is that if you don’t check yourself, you’ll think of them as apps, as digital entities that are there to provide a specific service or accomplish a specific task, and when they fail to do so quickly and on-demand, you’ll find yourself fuming at them much as you would to an unresponsive browser window or crashing iOS app. It’s easy to forget that on the other side of the screen, there’s a real person facing their own challenges and annoyances.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ?

  1. Hire strong communicators, fire weak communicators

Quality of communication doesn’t matter if you’re communicating with someone who doesn’t care to listen. Most teams fail not because of the specific communication strategy but because individual members are weak communicators. Hire strong communicators, and you’re 80% of the way there.

Actively judge people based on their internet connection and audio-visual setup. If you work remotely, these are the tools of the trade. You wouldn’t want to work with a surgeon that doesn’t wear gloves and a mask, so why would you go easy on someone whose connection breaks up constantly and whose video feed makes them look like the Cigar man from X-Files?

On top of that, ask people questions about how they learned their trade. Ask about mentors, about favorite courses and books. Get a sense of how excited they are about their field and your niche. Their eyes should have sparks in them! If they aren’t life-long learners and aren’t enthusiastic about the business, they won’t take feedback well, and their chief motivation will be a paycheck.

Nothing wrong with working hard for money — I’ve done it myself — but doing your work well requires engagement. In an office setting, the fact that you are there automatically engages you. You’re at the office; you might as well do your best! But when you have a remote job, you have freedom. If you have freedom, you need discipline to get things done. Discipline, in turn, can only be maintained through engagement. Engagement happens when you are excited about your work and growth.

So interview as many people as it takes until you find strong communicators that are passionate about their growth and your business!

Finally, look at how they write! Most of the application process should be in written form, and that’s great because most of their remote work communication will, too. Be excited about people who use clean, clear, concise language and be unforgiving to anyone who can’t express their ideas in that way.

2. Set expectations in written form

As part of the onboarding process, anyone who joins my team gets a document to read. That document is called the “team agreement,” and it’s the team’s instruction manual. Everything about how we work is there: what everyone’s job is, how you are supposed to report what you did or what you are doing, how you are supposed to deliver your work, what cadence of communication we expect you to adopt, what you can expect from feedback 1-on-1 calls… This is a living document that is updated as often as the team updates their processes, and the idea is that if you read it, very little should come as a surprise to you about our modus operandi.

3. Train them to ask questions early and often

Tell your team to ask any questions that come to mind when you assign them a task. And while they are doing a task. And it’s OK if they still have questions after doing the job, but ideally, you want them to frontload the questions.

The idea is that if someone waits to ask you a question, maybe the time zone difference between you two will drag the response time. So they might spend several hours waiting for an answer to be productive. If they front load as many questions as possible, you can remove potential blockers earlier in the process.

4. Try to meet a couple of times every year.

So throughout the interview, I’ve been pressing the point that I genuinely believe that being in the same office is entirely unnecessary for success and productivity at work. If anything, it’s detrimental. That’s not to say that hanging out with your team isn’t necessary. It just isn’t essential to do every day.

The main challenge to remote work is when you start thinking of people as apps or characters in a video game. The best remedy for this is to meet them in person. Not every day of the week, neither once nor twice every week. One or twice A YEAR is enough. Get together, talk about work and life and life, work, have a nice drink or meal, and do something together. I’ve done this with everyone with whom I’ve ever achieved anything meaningful, from the people from the gaming community to the board of my current business, and let me tell you — the afterglow of a couple of days together having fun & talking about interesting problems together lasts for 6–12 months.

5. Be clear and concise with your language.

Because I’m a cheater, I know you will ask me about feedback later in the interview, so I’m going to leave it as a teaser for now… Just know this: most people are very sloppy in their writing, even brilliant and successful people. They write something with a lot of blanks, and they let their mind fill in the blanks. This essentially boils down to expecting the people who read their words also to be able to read their minds. Again, this is very common: I’ve been aware of it and trying to avoid it for years, but it still happens to me, sometimes. So whenever you write something, double and triple-check to make sure every bit of relevant information exists within the sentence, in an explicit, not implicit, way.

Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?

I’m afraid I can’t be of much help here. My company has been remote by design since its inception. Pandemic was business as usual for us — sure, there was the added stress of worrying about our friends and families, but nothing changed as far as work was concerned.

Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

None. The more I work remotely, the more I think that video meeting tools like Zoom bring 80% of the worst things about the office and only 20% of the good stuff. I like having drinks over Zoom with my friends at the end of the workday. But to do actual work, it feels more and more a waste of time when it’s so much easier and efficient for us to brain-dump into a chat or shared document.

Now obviously, there are tons of project management tools out there to organize a team’s tasks and workflows better, but I wouldn’t tie that to “replicating the office experience.” I think in-office teams would greatly benefit from adopting any of them, too.

People like to talk as if the office is some sort of divine mind-melding experience. We are all just consciousnesses trapped inside of fleshy bags; now that technology has mostly removed the latency from long-distance communication, there’s not that much difference in our interactions over 1 meter or one ocean.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

I wouldn’t waste time designing such a tool, to be honest. People focus on tools because tools are easy, but it is just a cheap trick to avoid the real problem — building a team and culture that excels.

I’ve solved some of the most thorny interpersonal team issues in my career over text chat on World of Warcraft. I know a couple of guys that built their entire business and developed a fully functioning piece of software just communicating through there.

Hire better, manage better, lead better. Pick the tool with minimal overhead that you and your team enjoy using.

My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?

If you are talking about optimizing productivity and creativity, distraction carries a high cost. So the appeal of a tool where you can do everything is that it minimizes the distraction inherent in switching apps or screens. I don’t think having such a tool is essential. One example comes to mind: Basecamp. I could work entirely on Basecamp and be happy, and I have suggested as much to my team on several occasions. But many of them don’t feel comfortable letting go of Slack (Basecamp’s chat functionality feels lesser to them) and video calls. So, fine. As I said in my previous answer, it’s about what works best for the team, not about your ideal scenario.

The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?

I’m less and less bullish about video, as I’ve said before. Still, I can’t help but be excited about Project Starline from Google. Their combination of real-time body scanning and state-of-the-art 3D screens promises to bring people to life in your living room. I’m curious about what that will feel like.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

Not really. I love VR, AR, and 3D. They’re super fun. I’m not sure how useful they are when applied to a business context, though. In business, you want to optimize for the removal of overhead. Text chat can be consumed almost instantly; it can be copied, pasted, and revisited as many times as needed; it can be quoted for straightforward clarifications, etc. New technologies are fun, but the written word is still the gold standard for getting stuff done.

So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?

Again, ThinkRemote is remote by default. We have two kinds of customers: readers and advertisers. We interact with our readers by email and social media and with advertisers almost exclusively via email. It’s been the same thing since my 90’s video game-related projects. I wish people would stop acting as if this is a challenge that’s very hard to crack.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?

If you are coming across as harsh, you should ask yourself a couple of questions.

One: are most of your interactions with your team feedback interactions? That’s what I call “Seagull Management.” Like a seagull, you fly in, you shit on people, and you fly away. Jokes aside, it’s easy to fall into this pattern if you are busy. But there’s no replacement for putting in the time to work together with your team. If you regularly ask someone’s opinions, discuss them with them, make suggestions about their work, and then “honest feedback” becomes just one more kind of interaction, instead of the defining interaction in your relationship.

Don’t have the time? Then you need a management layer. Give the feedback to the person’s manager and use their (hopefully better) relationship with the person to deliver it.

Two: Are you using clear, concise language in your feedback? Ideally, pointing the person in the right direction?

Let’s say that you tell me something like: “Luís, your answer to the last question is terrible. It doesn’t sound authentic.” Well, alright, what am I supposed to do with that? What exactly was wrong with the answer? Was it the wording? Was it the content? What’s your metric for “authenticity”? What direction do I need to go to make it more authentic?

Most people think they are masters of feedback, but in reality, what they say roughly translates into: “This doesn’t sound/read/look good to me, but I don’t want to put in the work to figure out exactly what the problem is, so read my mind and solve it!”

Your feedback doesn’t sound “harsh.” You’re not missing “nuance from body language.” You’re just either overworked or intellectually lazy. So the solution is, again, not a tool; it’s either delegation or self-improvement.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

I can give one concrete idea, and that’s all you need: get people interested in what you do and who want to get better at it. Some of my good friends think the thing to do in a team is to get everyone talking about their favorite movies, sports, or video games. I’ve seen many such attempts end up in a couple of people talking while everyone else’s eyes glaze over.

A group of people gets together because of a particular common interest and, ideally, a common goal. That’s very different than them all having the same interests or similar interests across the board. If you have a marketing team, then the common interest should be marketing. If people can’t bond talking about marketing in that team, then you have the wrong people! That’s not to say that one or two can’t also talk about Lord of the Rings or baseball, but chances are, that’s not an interest common to most of the team.

My first managing success was on a media website about video games. Guess what the team bonded over?! Writing and video games! Everyone loved video games. Everyone wanted to get better at writing. We didn’t talk about tennis or Marvel movies in the team meetings, though some of us enjoyed those things!

Get the right people, lifelong learners, that love — and will therefore be engaged in — your niche. Camaraderie and cohesion will grow out of that.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t take an interest in your team member’s lives and goals. But that’s about you being an incredible teammate or leader. It’s different from creating team cohesion. Knowing your people is about you serving the team. You should know that Jane is an amateur bird-watcher and help her plan for her trip to the Galapagos. But that’s not a subject to bring up in a team meeting or group chat. It will bore the rest of the group into a state of disengagement.

Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m already doing it. I want every job that can be done remotely, to be done remotely. When this happens, it will level the social, political, and economic playing fields worldwide. Money will stop being pooled geographically and instead flow to the best talent from all around the world, enriching their communities. The cost of living in rich countries will go down. The income in developing countries will go up.

Wealth redistribution is a nasty concept for many because, so far, the philosophies that advocated for it also advocated for policies that enforced it. No one likes to be told to do anything, and no one wants to think they need to give up their stuff to achieve some vague utopic goal. But with a truly global workforce, redistribution will happen naturally and voluntarily because talent is evenly distributed across countries, and wealth will flow to where talent is.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Go to www.thinkremote.com , and follow me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/luismagalhaes/

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

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