Sharon Koifman of Distantjob: “Maintaining structure”

Maintaining structure. When people start working remotely, there is much misconception that was created by the outsourcing/freelance industry where remote means having all the flexibility in the world and doing what you want as long as you bring results. Unfortunately I don’t subscribe to that, I truly believe that people should have some kind of schedule. […]

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Maintaining structure. When people start working remotely, there is much misconception that was created by the outsourcing/freelance industry where remote means having all the flexibility in the world and doing what you want as long as you bring results.

Unfortunately I don’t subscribe to that, I truly believe that people should have some kind of schedule. They should put work clothes on, take a shower and come on their computer at approximately the same time everyday. Letting their team know what their tasks are at the beginning of the day and what was accomplished at the end of the day.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharon Koifman.

Sharon Koifman is obsessed about remote management.

He was born in Israel and moved to Montreal — a city he describes as “the most beautiful hybrid between new and old, combining the modernity of a North American city with the old charm of Europe” — at age of 10, and he lives there now with his lovely wife and two daughters. From there, over the past twenty years, he’s built and run three fully-remote companies.

Sharon grew up in an entrepreneurial family, and was heavily inspired by his father, who ran a boutique engineering firm. It was his father who first introduced Sharon to the idea of working remotely. He would design industrial machines on his computer and outsource the building to a machine shop that put together all the components.

Thanks to that influence, Sharon has built businesses from his own computer for the past 20 years.

He started back in the era of the dot com crash, where he ran a web hosting provider with an office in India. Like many entrepreneurs, he was taken in by the idea that he could combine the growing technical expertise in India with the much lower cost of living and hire several expert developers for the cost of a single western worker.

But the reality made much less sense than the math. The fact was that he had the people, but they lacked the team spirit, the culture. His experts were scattered and didn’t know how to work together — and the company suffered for it.

Once he sold that first company, he realized that whatever he would do next, he would benefit from managing his own employees remotely, but also that he would need them to feel the same tight-knit bond that people working in the same office have. As a child, he loved team sports like rugby and football, so he knew exactly what to shoot for — he just had to make it happen online!

Since then, Sharon has studied and researched not only how to operate remote businesses but how to create an amazing work culture, one where people love to come to work. He has dedicated his mind to finding ways — through systems and processes, services and tools — to bridge the gap between the faces in the monitor and the people in the real world.

These days Sharon runs DistantJob, a unique recruitment agency geared specifically for finding full-time remote employees who work from all over the world. He’s been working tirelessly to promote remote work. The key difference in his approach is that he wants to show how remote work benefits businesses.

Everyone talks about the benefits to the individual — less stress, less commute, better work-life balance, more options of where to live… We’ve heard it all. But Sharon’s argument is that remote work also benefits companies and their bottom line. He believes companies who adopt remote work can be leaner, less expensive, more environmentally-friendly, and have access to better and more productive people, faster.

And suddenly, the whole world was forced into remote work! So, in the wake of the COVID crisis, he wrote “Surviving Remote Work” in order to help businesses not only survive but actually thrive in this new environment.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?

I was born in Israel and moved to Montreal, Canada when I was 10. Since then I was always fascinated with technology. When I was kid I always wanted to be an inventor but later realized that in order to actually bring a product to life you need to sell it and make a business around it, so my dream very quickly turned into building a successful company.

I’m also part of a family of businessmen where my father influenced (or maybe even brainwashed) my brother and I as kids that this was the best path to take. Actually my dad is the first person who I saw that actually built a company from his own computer. He ran a small engineering company where he would make all the designs on AutoCAD by himself, then he would outsource to a machine shop to create all the components and ship to the client, where he hired temp employees to put the machine together based on his clear instructions.

In my early 20s I tried to start a legal music distribution site by bootstrapping, so to fund it I used my shared hosting account and sold a few accounts to some colleagues. A few years later I found myself with about 3000 shared hosting clients, while the music site never actually launched. Empirehost was completely run out of my computer. The servers were in Texas and later on moved to New Jersey and my employees were all in India.

I learned so much about what to do and what not to do with international and remote hiring because of that experience, that it opened me up to the next idea of running a recruitment agency called DistantJob

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

In the early 2000s, when you had 2 offices in India with quite a few employees, you simply couldn’t avoid also providing some outsourcing solutions. So as an added value to my hosting I provided affordable web design and development. The target were mom and pop shops who did not know much about design, and they needed to get a site up and running. It was a cheap, easy solution, and looking back to my 25 year old self, I admit I did not know how to provide a great product. Luckily, neither did most of the offshore outsourcing companies out there, we were all mediocre. Yet, to my surprise, once in a while I would get a gig from other web design companies, merely becauseI was cheap. So they would get paid like a North American company and simply offload me the work.

Today I realize that completely outsourcing processes and methodology to a company that you have no control over, and where you don’t even communicate directly with the people who are doing the job was practically a business sin. When a client hires a premium design company, they don’t just hire you for the web design, they hire you for those methods and processes and trust that you will do things in a certain way.

There is no question that there was and still is value to international hiring considering the access to massive pool of talent and people living in countries where the cost of living is significantly lower, but the reality of that time is that unless you could have flown over to open an entire office yourself most people felt that you needed to hire an outsourcing company to provide you these individuals and that was a real sad state of affairs.

That realization was the wake up call to start the first recruitment agency that specializes in remote talent.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I started DistantJob, all my interviews were actually done by phone. It was somewhat unusual because even my first manager at the time, we would talk mostly by MSN messenger and sometimes through voice. It was when I first met my wife that I had somewhat of a wake-up call. It was our third date, I was telling her about my business and all the people that I work with and she started asking some personal questions about them. How old are they, are they married, what are their hobbies, and for the majority of the questions I was quiet and embarrassed about not knowing much about the few people that worked for me. She was clearly unimpressed with the so-called employees that I had, wondering if it’s all in my imagination which led to the question that truly hit home. Do you know what your employees actually look like? I was dumbfounded. Immediately I got my manager on Webcam, he totally did not look like what I expected, the voice really did not match the face. He had somewhat a high pitch voice, and looked more like a soccer hoodlum. I still look back this last decade and can’t believe that I did not have a face to face conversation with people that were responsible for my success. Unfortunately that manager was at the end of his career with DistantJob, but it was incredible how much closer I got with my future managers by just seeing their faces. Today my managers are my friends and the zoom hangout is how we do it.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

This is an amazing question, because while we preach that the transition to remote is not always such a big change where it comes to processes, one key difference is burnout and mental health.

Burnout usually comes as a combination of a decrease in three key metrics: mental health, the ability to disconnect and the trust created with the manager/boss.

The disconnect part happens mostly on the employee side. It is about separating the workplace from the social space even if the desk is 2 steps away from the bed and it is about dressing up in some kind of work clothes when working and then moving to lounge clothes when done. When you are at home you can lose touch a bit with the outside so it is important to book social events and workouts at the same level of effort as one would book a sales meeting. All of this is up to the employee, but the boss/manager can easily guide the employees, they can set expectations and coach them.

Which brings us to the second point, where a boss needs to build trust with employees so they can come to them with any issue and know that their mental health is key to the success of the company. This involves creating a consistent “asshole free environment” where everyone works as a team. The bosses should get to know people on a personal level, the name of their kids and pets, the hobbies. Like a therapist that by discussing everyday stuff, can read between the lines to figure out how things are going. That trust and focus on mental health while encouraging people to live life, is key to having much less burnout.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?

I have been building companies from my computer for about 18 years now, and of course now I wrote the book on it, Surviving Remote Work.

Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?

1) Culture

When you move to the virtual world from the office it’s quite hard to replicate some of the activity revolving around culture. While Zoom beer is fun, it’s clearly not like a real happy hour, and chatting on a slack channel doesn’t have the same feeling as hanging in the cafeteria or around the water cooler. At DistantJob, I often attempted to replicate these experiences. We often celebrated birthdays with a zoom happy hour, which did not seem to work so well. So I changed the strategy. I changed the focus more to one on one or small group settings, and it was a far bigger success. Our teammates get to play online board games with each other, or go out for a walk together, each person putting on their headset and walking in their own region. We still keep active channels on Slack to share hobbies, like our passion for food and Nerdy jokes. Our culture was born based on our passion for Remote work, food, games, jokes and simply having great conversations.

2) Mental Health

Remote workers have been shown to be happier but, if you don’t stay on top of your mental health, the isolation that comes with remote work can lead to depression and disconnect. If that happens, the best-case scenario is that you’ll lose an employee. Yes, I said best-case scenario, because an even worse situation is having someone sitting there getting paid and not really producing. At DistantJob, Covid Time is definitely a tough time for some of our employees, yet we try very hard to be there for each other and solve each other’s problems. Creating a “family” experience in the company does let people understand that our success does not come just from work.

3) Communication

Communication is key to success in a remote environment. You need to hear from your employees and see them, because if not they will end up in remote lala-land. In DistantJob we like to use Slack with an easy shortcut to zoom (/zoom) whenever we want to chat. But before all that, we created company policies on how not to distract each other. When we are away on slack it means we are busy, but you can still reach us on Telegram or phone for emergencies. I like to hear from my people in the beginning of the day, whether through a quick slack message or Basecamp updates.

4) Evaluating the time frame of work

When you go remote, you have quite a lot less control on hours of work. The truth is that making sure that people come on time does not work even in a physical office considering that the average amount of productivity that happens in an 8 hour shift is about 2 hours and 53 minutes. But when starting to deal with remote, you even have less of that control, so you are often left with simply evaluating the work and the time it should take, which is not easy.

This was a big challenge when I started hiring at DistantJob. When I did recruitment myself I was working at an intense speed but once I hired someone, it was much harder to evaluate if they were really being productive. That was with no doubt one of my biggest challenges. So here’s how I figured it out. I first created a KPI (key performance indicator) which let me evaluate their production. For each recruiter we started to measure the amount of outreach and the response which comes from the candidates on a daily basis. Getting the KPI right was important because it then gave me the ability to create goals for the team. Actually, when we started using an Agile framework my teams started setting goals for themselves till we reached an optimal working capacity.

5) Maintaining structure

When people start working remotely, there is much misconception that was created by the outsourcing/freelance industry where remote means having all the flexibility in the world and doing what you want as long as you bring results.

Unfortunately I don’t subscribe to that, I truly believe that people should have some kind of schedule. They should put work clothes on, take a shower and come on their computer at approximately the same time everyday. Letting their team know what their tasks are at the beginning of the day and what was accomplished at the end of the day.

I specifically remember the time a member of my marketing team did not show up for the end-of-year group event. When I asked her manager why she was the only one who did not show up, she told him she had overslept — with a minimal apology. To be clear: the hangout happened during her core working hours. I remember being particularly annoyed with that answer, because I want my people to be honest with me… But sometimes coming up with an excuse at least shows that you care. (Bonus point if it’s creative, like some Aliens decided to have a few drinks with you the night before.)

“I didn’t wake up on time for work,” simply means to me that this person is not taking this job seriously. Combined with her need to always work from a random noisy coffee shop, it very much felt like she wanted to be a “whatever, whenever” freelancer and that doesn’t work in my company. I asked her boss to re-introduce her to the company structure but she ended leaving 2 weeks later for everyone’s benefit.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

Culture — Culture has become quite difficult to define, and because of this lack of clarity, it becomes much harder to implement and replicate. I tend to provide an alternative definition to culture. Culture is about connection, it is how you get to connect to the company, which gives you a feeling of belonging. It is also the connection your employees have for each other, which enables better team work; and last but not least, it is the connection to your clients. This definition is really important because it defines a goal. When you understand that your goal is to connect people, you no longer feel the need to replicate your office experience. You just need to focus on what creates deep connections in a virtual world.

Mental Health — The key to securing a healthier, happier, and in that matter more productive company, is to get to know the team on more of an intimate level. Your first meeting on Monday should be at least partly dedicated to talking about the weekend. Learn about the family, kids, pets and hobbies. It truly goes a long way.

Communication — Communication starts with proper onboarding. Even if your employees have been working for you for a long time, you need to restart the onboarding because Remote comes with many misconceptions. As a boss or a manager, you need to clearly define the tools and methods of communication. Define how you want to learn about tasks and updates. Discuss when it’s the best time to communicate in order to eliminate distractions, discuss what to do when your employee is not busy. Best time to do it is in the first week to set precedent, and adjust from there as needed.

Evaluating work — just like the example I gave from our company, evaluating the work starts with measurable goals called KPIs. This is crucial, because once you detail and automate tracking for the KPIs, you can simply hire a consultant to define the standards or use an Agile framework and get the team to slowly motivate and somewhat peer pressure one another till you reach optimal work capacity. If you already have a good grasp on how to evaluate effort in the physical office, write down what keeps your people busy all day. Have a meeting with your management team, and translate that into the virtual world

Structure — I’m often seen as having an Old Man mentality in the remote community. Because remote has a history with, and is often affiliated with freelancers and outsourced employees, ( which I like to call non-committal employees) that creates a huge misconception about what it means to be a real remote employee.

A remote employee should still come and leave at approximately the same time as a co-located employee would. They should have a schedule. They should communicate their goals at the beginning of the day and let you know the results at the end. You can evaluate the commitment, and when you ask your employees about their team accomplishment, if the discussion goes into what he or she has achieved, that’s something that needs to be explored.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing 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 employee?

To be fair, I don’t think it’s really a remote question. As long as you have the webcam on, you should be able to give the same constructive experience as you would be physically. But the concept of being constructive is always trying to give 2 compliments for one criticism. So you start with, I love the way you do this, thank you for kicking ass, here’s where you can improve. Another method is to provide disclaimers, what I’m about to tell you is harsh but I’m really investing in making you a superstar. Although I don’t see any of these as techniques and more part of the personality of anyone who cares. So I guess the best approach is to make sure that you care about the person in front of you.

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

Who the hell gives constructive feedback through email?! Pick up the phone, turn on your Zoom and talk to the person. The experience should not be different than dealing with a local person.

Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?

Don’t let people disappear. Think of all the things that you enjoyed in your office work and made you and your team more productive. See if you are achieving them great, if not ask yourself why go back to the drawing board. With today’s technology you really can replicate most of the experiences that you enjoyed in the office.

What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?

For me empowerment means people who are more independent, feel like they can take more risk, challenge their bosses and know when they succeed. You achieve empowerment by creating trust and creating connections. When I discuss building trust it’s not about I trust whether my employees are competent or ethical, which I definitely hope they are, but it is about whether they can trust me to criticize or talk about anything that matters to them and the company. That means that the boss needs to lead an asshole-free, risk friendly work environment and make sure there is consistency on this among all management and employees. Consistency is important because anytime that you are not consistent in your behavior and message with any employee you take away 3 months worth of trust building efforts.

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 want people to fall in love with the idea of remote work. I think that most people understand that remote work can be pleasurable, can offer the employees more flexibility in their life, can offer the boss more people to choose from and sometimes at better value, but I feel there is so much more that people don’t appreciate about how amazing the remote world is.

First of all, research shows that people are significantly more productive at work when remote. Also, international work gives jobs to people across the world who immediately become consumers of a lot of western products. This is important because it means no one is really losing their job and more people across the world need less charity. Of course last but not least is the environmental benefit. Creating a remote environment means you are creating a greener, happier, more productive world with less need for charity. This is truly a movement worth working on.

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

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” ― Albert Einstein

I thrive and grow through mistakes; I don’t know any other way of doing it. I created a working environment that is mistake friendly and that’s how I create amazing independent employees.

Everything discussed here I delve heavily in my Book Surviving Remote work.

Thank you for these great insights!

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