Building a remote team – how we did it at Tamr

The pandemic caused many companies to rethink their organizational setup. Are we going to demand people back into the office? Or should we go for a hybrid model or maybe even allow being fully remote?

In our case, the pandemic didn’t have much to do with it: we needed to build a remote team of support agents and support engineers to be able to provide 24/7 support for our global customer base.

The team we have today is distributed over four countries – India, the Netherlands, the Philippines, and the United States. In this blog post, we share our approach to building a remote team.

Why building a remote team requires a well-thought-out approach

Space and time matter, they just do. Communication is harder. Collaboration is harder. Coaching and mentoring are harder. 

Being able to meet in person, observing all the subtle non-verbal cues, allows you to communicate more effectively. 

Being able to quickly get the team together in the same room for a spontaneous brainstorming session enables more seamless collaboration. 

Being able to meet in person for a coaching session makes it easier to connect on a deeper level and build strong personal relationships. 

These things are just harder when you are located in different geographical locations and time zones. It is not impossible, but you do need a well-thought-out approach. Let’s move on to the first pointer to get there, define what team qualities you need.

Define what team qualities you need

Tamr, the company we work for, provides software that does ML-based data mastering (if you’re interested, you can read more here). Our customers include the largest Fortune 500 companies and the data mastered by Tamr feeds into key operational processes such as customer onboarding, sales, and risk management. When Tamr’s software breaks, our customers risk losing money either through missed opportunities or increased costs. What follows is that time is of the essence – there is pressure to solve customer issues as swiftly as possible. Supporting enterprise software is a team sport, as it requires deep product knowledge and a variety of skills typically not held by a single individual.

To be successful, we identified three key qualities for our team1:

  • Collaborative
  • Proactive
  • Inquisitive

You want to think through what is important for your team because you can only focus on so many things. The qualities you come up with will drive the decisions you make as a leader. It will drive what behaviors you encourage, and what activities you organize to achieve your team-building goals.

For our key qualities, we came up with the following criteria:

  • To encourage people to collaborate, you need trust-based relationships and safe psychological work environments.
  • To encourage people to be proactive, you need them to feel empowered.
  • To encourage people to be inquisitive, you need to show how and provide the right tools and training.

With this in mind, we got started.

Invest time in onboarding and team bonding

Ron Friedman, an award-winning psychologist, identified that one of the key things high-performing teams do differently is that they invest time in bonding over non-work topics.

What we try to do is spend the first minutes of our meetings on non-work topics. These topics can be super mundane, like what the weather is like on the other side of the globe, or how your puppy dog decided to use your new shoes as a toy. In our case, as young fathers, every now and then we have our babies say hello to the team.

Another thing we did to facilitate team bonding is making transparent how we are wired individually and as a team. Each team member completed a personality assessment. We then collected the “scores” on each of the attributes and looked at how we are wired as a team (the average and median scores). Next, we looked at the (variance in) individual scores, allowing us to zoom in on the diversity within our team and iterating how magnificent it is that we have all these different traits and qualities in one group. It also raised awareness about, for example, that some team members feel comfortable voicing their opinions where others do not. We used the free PrinciplesYou personality assessment and can wholeheartedly recommend this tool.

Connecting on a personal level is important when you want to encourage trust-based relationships and provide safe psychological work environments. Team members need to know that they can be themselves. Building this level of trust requires a bit more effort when everyone is remote, but it can be done.

When it comes to onboarding, you want to be strategic about what information to deliver how and when. Too often, onboarding is cramped into one or two days, exposing new hires to an information overload and thereby making it totally ineffective. To prevent this and also take into account the real problem of “Zoom fatigue” we split the onboarding over a period of two weeks, max two hours per session. We had different “guest speakers” from other teams in the company to do introductions at the same time. Important for us is that the new hires would feel comfortable reaching out to other colleagues for help when needed.

Give autonomy to team members

For people to feel empowered, they need autonomy. Autonomy gives you the freedom to think for yourself, make decisions, and solve problems. We made an inventory of different projects and recurring tasks and divided ownership among the team members. People are encouraged to talk about their projects during standups to share insights and learnings with the team.

Another area where you can hand autonomy to your team members is personal and professional growth. We asked our team to define learning goals for both hard and soft skills. It is up to them which goals to set and how to work towards achieving those goals but we offer coaching and guidance.

Finally, if you have the opportunity to praise your (new) team in front of others, for example during a company-wide meeting, do so. Especially for folks who are remote, making someone feel part of the team requires effort. It means a lot to be recognized when you’re solely based on the other side of the globe and may at times feel a bit disconnected from the HQ.

Deliberately lead by example and get the right tools and processes in place

The age-old adagium, “lead by example”, is a powerful one. It is true for leading teams of all kinds but for remote teams you have to be even more deliberate about it. You will likely have fewer opportunities to demonstrate the desired behavior so you have to be effective during the time you have. Make those meetings worthwhile.

Since communication flows less naturally when you are all remote versus being in the same room, you need to pay extra attention to the tools and processes you have in place. Slack or similar apps can help you lower the barrier to team communication. We developed playbooks describing key processes and other assets (scripted triggers, instruction videos, living collaboration files, etc.) to enable the team to work efficiently. Since our team is 24/7 and shifts only partly overlap it is even more important that people can do their work independently.

Closing thoughts

Building a remote team requires a well-thought-out approach. There is tremendous value in being able to do this well, since the world we’re living in is becoming more technology-enabled and people will increasingly want to benefit from the opportunities that come with this trend.

Based on our experience, even with team members spread out over different continents, it is still possible to build strong personal relationships and an excellent high-performing team.

But building the team is only phase one. In this phase everyone is hyper-focused on making things work. In our case, we even synced up time schedules for the first few months to optimize for the ramp-up of the new team members. In some ways, the ongoing management of your remote team in a state of business as usual is more challenging. In this second phase, you have to think about how to ensure people stay engaged, motivated, and keep growing personally and professionally. We only recently entered that stage and it’s a little too early for a proper evaluation. Our hypothesis on key success factors is this: establish strong communication patterns, give team members autonomy, make sure they are challenged (but not overloaded). 

Now it’s time to put that hypothesis to the test.


1 Note that the qualities you need are very much dependent on the function of your team. For example, the qualities you would be looking for when building a remote sales team are likely to be quite different.

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