Kleanthis Georgaris, vice president of product at Toptal, is responsible for the evolution of Toptal’s platform and associated products. Paul Estes, editor-in-chief of Staffing.com and host of The Talent Economy Podcast, recently sat down with Georgaris to discuss how companies and employees can successfully transition to a remote environment, based on The Suddenly Remote Playbook, published by Toptal. The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Current events have dramatically accelerated the transition to a distributed workforce. What advice do you have for a company suddenly trying to manage a remote environment?
A: If you try to go remote without the right processes and the right culture, the whole thing collapses. That places importance on ensuring the right frameworks are in place. You have to set up the right meetings, the right cadence of meetings, and you have to ensure there is direct communication between all the stakeholders. The transition exposes inefficient or absent processes that you can easily hide in an onsite environment.
To go remote successfully requires a fundamental paradigm shift, and that’s not easy. When you’re onsite, you might assess your workforce’s performance by output, tasks, and how often you see them in the office. When you go remote, you don’t know how many hours everyone is working, what they’re doing during the day, or how many meetings they have. You have to switch to a results-oriented mindset and allow your team to deliver.
Read Toptal’s Suddenly Remote Playbook here
Q: What is required from both managers and employees to execute that type of paradigm shift?
A: Leaders have to set the right goals for their team. You’re moving from a synchronous paradigm to an asynchronous one. That means you can’t expect your people to respond right away. Managers need to set expectations around communication and transparency. How quickly do you expect people to respond during the day? At what times will they be offline? What does everyone need to know before a meeting?
Leaders also need to fight the feeling of, “I don’t see you. Maybe you’re not working.” They have to trust their people. They have to set goals and trust their team will deliver.
Finally, managers need to maintain bonding and team-building. You still have to find ways to meet and have hangouts in the remote environment. You can’t lose touch with your team.
As for the employee, it takes self-discipline to be successful in a remote environment. You have to over communicate your availability. Overcome the trust barrier by being transparent so your manager and your team know exactly when they can reach you.
Q: As a remote product manager, you have to coordinate with many different disciplines and time zones, which is physically and mentally draining. How do you help people develop a work-life balance as they adapt to remote work?
A: We’re very aware of how important that balance is to personal health and employee performance. It’s easy to lose that balance, so we take it seriously. To handle it within our product management team, we set up a special initiative where we tasked a senior product manager with the responsibility to improve our work-life balance index.
We provide tips and tricks for managing communication overload and protecting downtime so they can recharge. We ask our people to block non-working times in their calendars where they turn off Slack notifications, do not check their phone, and are completely out of work during these hours.
We also have product manager pairing sessions where two or three of us meet to set personal goals around work-life balance. Then, the others hold you accountable. For instance, I may have a goal of working out five times per week; now, I’ve got two peers holding me to my goals.
Q: If you look out 18 months, what do you think will change with regard to how organizations work? What will the new normal look like?
A: I think there is an underlying trend here. There’s a democratization of opportunities in a more globalized world. The way we work is now more competitive for talent and for companies.
In the past, local talent did not have many options. Now, the great talent in, say, Romania or Bulgaria, could work for American companies remotely. That changes how companies have to treat their top employees.
It also means that a US-based company, for example, that had underperforming teams can now turn to a remote environment for alternatives. They’re no longer tethered to the pool of employees near their location.