Learn the ropes around scaling your startup across borders

In this webinar, Deel, PouchNATION, and Rapyd all share about their best practices in managing remote global teams

Remote workforces are now a reality for thousands of startups around the globe. Startups are now much more likely to hire international teams to leverage a wider pool of talents and optimise resources.

As a startup founder, the people you hire depend on your business needs and available funding. However, managing a remote team is easier said than done and, while there are a lot of advantages, there are also a lot of challenges especially when managing a team with diverse backgrounds.

In the recent webinar “Scaling your startup across borders: How to effectively manage your remote team”, organised by e27 in partnership with Deel, we talked about challenges and best practices of managing remote international teams. Deel is a payroll and compliance software that helps startups recruit talent and work with remote employees across the globe. 

The panel featured Ilya Kravtsov, Founder and CEO of PouchNATION, a SaaS-based platform with NFC wearable technology and a one-stop guest management solution operating in 7 countries in Asia; Jonathan Hall, Senior Director of Business Development at Rapyd, a global payments solution provider; and Abhinav Krishna, Head of Expansion APAC at Deel.

The webinar was moderated by Meltem Kuran, Head of Growth at Deel. Kuran kicked off the discussion by remarking that as Deel experiences rapid growth to their current strength of over 275 people spread across 46 countries, they continue to operate without an HR team, and onboard employees using their software platform. 

Why build remote teams?

The panellists kicked off the discussion by outlining the various factors that push companies to build remotely, knowing the challenges and risks associated with building remote teams. 

Krishna started by pointing out that COVID-19 has accelerated the existing trend towards remote teams. He explained the four main barriers to going remote which are encapsulated as “HTTP”: Hiring (the right people), tracking (productivity and metrics), trust (culture and team building), and payroll (wages, benefits, and incentives). 

These four areas represent the biggest challenges to hiring remotely, says Krishna. COVID-19 has been the catalyst to innovation in the remote hiring world so startups can start trusting in remote teams. New technologies are solving many of these challenges so startups can create a remote working culture, build trust, and confidently make the leap into the unknown, and hire remote teams across borders.

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The challenges are around visibility and alignment — making sure that people are focused on the objectives set for the team. Knowledge sharing is critical in fast-growing startups, he said. From a growth perspective, market penetration and reach are important so it becomes critical to have people on the ground. Product localisation and local knowledge as well as the flexibility to hire a single person in a key new market are important drivers to international hiring. Lastly, access to talent around the world as globalisation spreads is another reason why startups are looking to hire internationally. 

Kravtsov added that the key to hiring international teams is transforming your organisation from being an input-driven to an output-driven company. Working regular hours is not as important in reality, he feels and thinks it is better to focus instead on output-driven goals. PouchNATION made a conscious decision not to measure hours worked: “We are focused on making it output driven and making people aware of that.”

How to ensure remote team members stay engaged

Continuing from the issue of tracking remote workers, Kuran took the discussion deeper to ask how companies make sure that work gets done and keep their teams engaged. When it comes to hiring remote employees and tracking their work, in Hall’s experience, more senior candidates tend to fit the profile of a remote worker much better. “They have the resilience and potentially perseverance to overcome the barriers that come with distance. I certainly have a preference towards experience when it comes to remote working,” shared Hall.

Ways to measure success in remote working revolves around methodologies and tools. At Rapyd, the methodology is centred on short frequent contact, making an active effort to ensure communication is not transactional. Having conversations that are not related to work is important. “Focus on highlighting achievement and milestones and saying thank you is important because it gives visibility into work and makes sure people know they are appreciated,” explained Hall. From a tools perspective, anything that enhances collaboration, sharing, and visibility is a win.

Kravtsov added that keeping people engaged remotely is a challenge because of the difficulty in ensuring that engagement is natural and not forced. “Engagement over coffee is naturally created in an office environment. Creating that engagement over a Zoom call is a little bit forced and I am a big advocate of creating a culture of engagement and I think creating that engagement should be about doing it spontaneously.”

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He said that at PouchNation they try to create that by having a huddle session every morning with the management team. “Cameras are a must — seeing everyone every morning creates engagement, We try to push these daily routines and make it less forced and more casual. It’s about not just contacting people when you need it so you don’t feel detached from your colleagues.”

Krishna feels the challenge is actually about two things: engagement and productivity.

When hiring a remote worker it’s very important to have clarity on personal and professional milestones. This could be as simple as knowing what family goals each team member has as well as their professional goals. While Deel does utilise tools to track productivity metrics and build efficient processes, “tracking comes from trust”, said Krishna. “If you cannot have trust, those tools are not going to be of any use.” Transparency in metrics helps teams at Deel to create a straightforward way to have every employee engaged and productive, he explained. 

Transparency is built from a data perspective with transparency around performance metrics shared with everyone, and also from a people perspective by sharing direct and honest communication. It is very easy to misunderstand things when working remotely so direct communication is key, he pointed out.

Kravtsov added that in his company, even a simple activity like writing sales targets on a whiteboard is replicated remotely to build more engagement.

How to build culture in a remote setting

Kuran moved the discussion to building team culture, saying: “we discuss a lot around communication but culture is a separate thing.” Building on these points, the discussion was taken deeper into the issue of building an organisational culture in remote teams.

Kravtsov described his experience of building culture in teams that do not have physical interaction: “Before COVID, our operation teams were working on live events and that created a real culture because they were practically living together on weekends etc. during the events. We were doing 20-30 events a month and then it went down to 0.”

He thinks the challenge of how to build that culture digitally can be tackled by having proper feedback loops, having an engaged multicultural team to make sure that there is always alignment even if people come from different countries/cultures, and building trust. This is so that even if colleagues give their frank opinion, the person will take it constructively. He added that this can be done only if you go beyond transactional interaction and engage in non-work related activities or interests.

PouchNation has used chat meetings to gather 5-6 team members to chat with one rule: don’t talk about work. They also hold an online dance challenge among team members who each have to make their TikTok dance videos. “That breaks barriers between teams and these things help build a great culture,” says Kravtsov.

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Krishna feels that culture building is not something that can be passed on by a CEO or HR team.  “At Deel we don’t have an HR team so how do we manage? Firstly, it is about the CEO defining a very clear and simple vision: A vision that is so simply defined for everyone that we automatically understand the culture to be built in our teams. Second, we define the role, responsibility, and metric well for each person.” 

Hall added that culture is an active effort and that building camaraderie doesn’t always mean spending money. “No one wants to get on a team call on a Friday night, so it’s about finding an engaging event that breaks down barriers.” 

Kuran concluded the discussion by saying that stating what the culture is and making it personal is very important: “Just knowing what are the things you want to be part of your culture and stating them makes a big difference.”

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The panellist then moved to discuss their favourite tools which facilitate a great remote work culture, apart from collaborative work products used in most companies such as Slack and Zoom. Krishna said that they of course use Deel for payroll activities and that his personal favourite tool is Notion, which has helped him a lot and played a crucial role to help him as he manages working with team members across time zones. 

Kravtsov added that their startup holds a fun tournament which they call the “Pouch Olympics” by gathering together on Zoom for games to play around words etc. Another way they build remote team culture is by organising Whatsapp groups across the company “where we encourage to share stuff that is not work-related.”

Hall said the tools that have worked best for Rapyd to encourage remote team behaviour is the concept of shadowing. Taking a peer from a different team so they can understand your challenges and suggest new ways of thinking. For example, getting product people on sales calls or tech team members on sales calls. This also helps with building empathy, Hall feels. 

Do certain cultures adapt to remote working better than others?

Hall feels that culture and personality are different things and personality plays a bigger role in determining the ability to work remotely. He said that people in some cultures may be shyer and some are more direct and don’t take offence if someone gets direct or steps over the line. “Personality is a clear driver,” says Hall.  

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Krishna thinks that company personality is an equally important factor. For example, remote workers working for a client who is not local are considered freelancers, and in some countries, that term has a bad perception. Freelance workers are not considered as important and often do not get paid on time. It is up to companies who hire remotely to say: “We will trust our people and build a great culture and we will go for people who will be responsible.”

So it also matters to look at the hiring company to see if they are creating the right environment to treat remote workers equally. 

How to incentivise remote workers

On the topic of employee benefits and incentives, the panellists shared their viewpoints on how to motivate remote workers. 

Financially, the incentives don’t change too much since ideally, the output should not change

Kravtsov says that beyond that frequent small gestures help in motivation. “If you can’t be in office and you have kids, craft incentives around flexibility around a personal situation. It’s about understanding the situation. Healthcare incentives are particularly important now during covid and recognising these things makes remote workers feel valued. 

Krishna added that in today’s age companies are hiring internationally to find the best talent and not to save costs. He added that in some cultures people place more important benefits like insurance and time flexibility to be able to do side projects and follow their personal interests.

Kravtsov thinks this is important to allow people to pursue secondary education such as getting another degree while working. They allow employees to have side projects outside the company and satisfy their needs and they find that these people are still committed to the company and still stay with you.

Kuran agreed that remote employees want flexibility and control over their own lives and giving that increases loyalty.

Why diversity works

To conclude the webinar, Krishna emphasised that it is important to remember that today startups are hiring internationally “for better teams, more diversity and faster growth.” 

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“If you believe in these things go ahead and start creating your remote team. Labour laws and payment laws are boundaries that companies like Deel are breaking with their technology. So people just need to take the leap.”

Kravtsov added: “Diversity works — it can be done. There is nothing to fear about hiring international teams. We are living in a globalised world and there is so much to learn, so go for it!”