How can you make remote work actually work? The right technology stack and the right processes to work from home on a distributed team.
Today’s guest is Lars Helgeson from GreenRope. Based on Lars’ two decades of 100% remote work experience, he offers simple and practical advice to pair technology with processes that establish a solid, remote-working foundation.
Ben: Hi, Lars. Welcome to the show.
Lars: Thanks for having me, Ben.
Ben: Absolutely. Would you mind taking a moment to introduce yourself and explain what your team does over at GreenRope?
Lars: Sure. We are a CRM and marketing automation software platform. We help customers of all sizes, businesses of all sizes, non-profits, government, organizations with sales, marketing, customer service, project management, event management, knowledge management, and learning management all in a single unified platform.
We've been around for about 20 years and have grown organically. We've never taken any seed funding. Currently, we have about 1000 customers in 40 countries and are slowly growing organically. Just happy to be here, shed some light on remote work, and how the right software tools can help businesses scale.
Ben: Absolutely. Are you 100% remote or do you have some office location?
Lars: We have been 100% remote since the very beginning.
Ben: Very cool. Having been all remote for two decades now, I feel like you're a bit ahead of the curve relative to the development of remote work becoming more common, certainly in the technology industry. What would you say are some of the benefits of working remotely and having a fully distributed team?
Lars: I came out of the military and am working in the government. Back in those days, which was a long time ago, there were a lot of cubicle farms there. I'm sure that at some point, some of us have been in the prairie doggie thing where somebody says let’s dance up in a cubicle.
I think one of the big advantages of working remotely is that you have the freedom and the flexibility to work when and where you want. The key is not everybody can do it. There are some people who love to go into an office and they want to be in a cubicle. They want their space. Sometimes, it's because they want to get away from their home or their family. Sometimes, they need the structure. So, remote work isn't for everybody.
I think for those who want that freedom, who want that flexibility, the freedom to be able to work from anywhere is so liberating in how you can choose to live your life. If you can do your job remotely, that means that you can be on the road somewhere. You can travel. You can be in another country. Or you can just be home and be with your dogs or your family if that's what you want.
Usually, the biggest requirement is that you have a good internet connection and you have a quiet workspace. As long as you can get those things, you can be working in the back of your car at a campsite somewhere. You can be working in a coffee shop somewhere, in some foreign country. You can be anywhere. As I said, it's not for everybody but if you can embrace that, that freedom, schedule your life around that, have the freedom and the self-discipline to do it, it's life-changing.
I could not go back to working in a cubicle. I couldn't do it. Once you have the taste of freedom, how could anyone go back to that? I'm sure there are people who do, but I have a hard time identifying that. I really enjoy the freedom.
Ben: Yeah, just getting out of the office space-esque cubicle farm-type environment. Something that you touched on that's really important is that it's not for everyone. But with the advent of the pandemic, a lot of people are forced to work remotely. They are forced to work remotely whether or not they feel that's how they work best. It's not a choice for a lot of people. It's also forced a lot of companies to have to very quickly readapt the way that they work in order to facilitate an entire mode of operating that they were (maybe) never prepared for before.
With that in mind, let's say that if I'm a marketing manager and I'm in a situation where, as of three months ago, I've had to manage a marketing team remotely, and we were previously in an office location, what would be the single most important thing that you would advise that person to focus on in order for them to help their teams stay focused?
Lars: Whenever I talk to any business about how to use technology, how to manage what needs to be done, the thing that I always come back to is understanding the requirements, knowing what has to get done. Most marketing departments, you've got some creative that needs to get done. You have some account management work that has to get done. You have to deploy whether you're posting in social media, whether you’re launching your website, landing pages, ads, whatever. You have to have the tools to have all that together.
I think the main thing comes down to what are your requirements and understanding that there are tools to do all of those things. You just have to find the right tools. You have to figure out what they are.
One of the important things from a marketing manager's perspective is how the data gets created and distributed. You have to know if you're going to be using different pieces of software. Where does that data go? How was it used? How was it reported? What are the metrics? How are you holding people accountable in what they're actually doing?
Usually, the big part is the integration of that data. If you have no disciplined process to do that, you're going to end up with a spaghetti mess of chaos. Nobody wants that. Nobody wants that uncontrolled hope that a person does their job kind of thing. That's not how businesses operate. That's not how you scale. It's not how you create a consistent brand experience. Everything has to be in some sort of a process, some sort of a documented way of understanding how people do things. Otherwise, it's the wild west.
One of the common phrases that I've heard before and I'll say it again is having the inmates run the asylum. If you're a marketing manager and you have people who work for you, maybe they use a particular piece of software that they really like but nobody else uses it, they really like it and they really own it, there's going to be a little bit of this battle back and forth because the end-user—the junior person—is going to say I'd really love to do this this way. I really like the software. I want to do this. The manager doesn't want to upset the apple cart, doesn't want to upset this person who works for them and says that's okay. You can use that. We'll do whatever makes you feel most comfortable.
Afterward, they're starting to accumulate this data on this platform. This person may be the only person who knows how to get that data, how to access the platform, how to use that, how you transfer that data into the rest of the information that you're trying to use. If you have inmates running into the asylum, that problem gets magnified by every time someone does that. The complexity of the system with that many degrees of freedom turns into a nightmare.
It's funny because we talked about the freedom of being remote. The freedom of how you manage data has to be controlled. You can't have one without the other. Often, that's what usually happens. In an office, you can really control the environment. You can walk over to somebody's cubicle and say you better go and do this for me right now. I need this data right now in Excel or upload it in a CSV or whatever. Then, the person will be like, okay. I'll go do that. You can't do that if the person is working a thousand miles away, they're at home, or whatever. You have to rely on controls. If you're going to give people personal freedom, you have to have control over the way that data is generated and manipulated.
Ben: That's a very interesting point. Without that, nothing else works. That's great insight. I think on the flip side of that, as an individual contributor on a team, say, I'm someone with the boss, essentially, and I'm suddenly finding myself having to work remotely. I've never worked remotely before. No one else in the team has worked remotely before. What is the single most important thing that you think someone in that position can do to make that transition as successful as it possibly can be, both for themselves and for their organization?
Lars: I'm a little biased in this because I own a CRM company. I think the key to the success of any business—it doesn't matter if you're remote or if you're working in the office—is a solid CRM. A CRM that has all the data fully integrated, built into the platform.
If you have a marketing person that's working somewhere else and they're sending emails out, that data instantaneously gets back to the CRM and is used by other people in the marketing team, other people in the sales department, people doing customer service. You can call the contact and you can see a history of every interaction with that contact, every relationship, everything that's associated with that relationship.
If you're working in project development, you have to have a good project management system. If you're managing events, you have to have a good events management system. If you're an HR compliance or if you're trying to onboard and train new employees or even train existing customers or new customers, you need to have a learning management system that (again) is tied into the CRM. All of these components work together. If you have any of them that are off playing in the lead just doing their own thing, you've lost control of that data. Part of that is from a usability perspective.
As a senior manager or a boss, you have to see what's happening, but you also have to see how the other pieces play with each other. So, to define customer service, I can access all that other data. But then, you also have the IT department and how important it is to control your data, to know where it is, and from a privacy perspective, to know that your customers, that you're a good steward of your customer’s data because they trust you.
Someone is going to write you some amount of information about who they are. We do this all the time. We sign up for a product or service and we give them our email address, our phone number, maybe our social media information, our name, whatever it is. All that data is now held in that system. If that data then gets shared because you have inmates from the asylum or whatever, you've got a complicated system, you have other pieces of software, now you have to control the data, not only in one system but in 10. What happens if somebody leaves? What happens if somebody exports the data and you don't know if they exported that data? The more splits in the data, the more places that your data sits, the more vectors there are for the loss of that data.
As a business owner, as a boss, as a manager, C-level executive, wherever you are in the work corporate structure, even if you're a startup, you have to understand where that data is being stored. You have to understand how it's being used. You have to share it with the people who need to have it so that if you need someone to look up a contact record, you can see the history of every phone call that you ever had, every email they've ever opened, every meeting you ever had with them, every product demo, every video they've watched, every webpage, every project they've been associated with, all of that needs to be in one place so you can access it when you need it, and also to limit the ability of that data to just go flying off on its own if someone were to go walk in that data. That's where companies lose customers. They lose trust. In the longer run, that's one of those things that truly does impact both of your top and bottom line.
Adding another tool to your marketing stack isn't always the solution to every problem, but I think in this case Lars is spot-on. If you don't have the right technology to facilitate effective remote work, then nothing else that you do is really going to matter. That's true no matter what tool or what type of software it is. If there's a gap, if there's something you really need and it's missing, that pain point is going to be felt much more sharply in a remote work environment that it would've been if you're all in a shared office space.
It's equally important to have documented processes in place to make sure that your team can make the most of that technology. I think that believing that you can have one or the other but not both together in conjunction is a potentially ruinous mistake. Find the technology you need. Absolutely do that. But make sure that you are also helping your team understand how to use it. Now, back to Lars.
If someone was new to working remotely, they were just having to adapt everything with the way that they work and the way that they interact with their coworkers, maybe if they're feeling kind of lost in the sea of all that change, what would be the single most important thing that you would recommend that person do in order for them to be able to work from home successfully?
Lars: I think a lot of it comes down to structure. Again, it’s tied to the CRM, it's all connected. It doesn't matter at what level you are. You're part of a team that's generating information. You're generating content. Maybe you're generating statistics. Like you're saying, if you're developing content, maybe that content is for print. Maybe it's for email. Maybe it's for websites. Maybe it's for social media. Whatever you're doing, someone is managing the development of that content.
People need to have structure to work. We all need to know what we are working towards. What's the overall goal? [...], why are we here? We need to know the why and we need to know the how. It depends on what kind of project, what kind of person, what kind of company. There may be varying degrees of directiveness that a manager has to have over their employees or their subordinates. If there needs to be a lot of direction to people, then you have a project management system put in place where there are many tasks that are laid out for them with deadlines. You can create your codependent tasks. You can do all the things that you need to build a liquid project management.
If there's a way to take other data that is related to that, that relates back to the CRM, make that part of that whole structure. It really comes down to providing structure. I think that's one of the things when people go to the office, they feel like there's a sense of structure. They feel like I'm walking into my office on this day. I'm clocking in. I'm going to be giving these tasks. I'm going to be told what to do. At the end of the day, I'll be done and I'll go home.
When you work from home, you don't have quite the same physical structure. You have to replace that with a software-related type of a structure. Having a really good project management system, having a good CRM is something that flows to every single level, from the most junior person in the company all the way up to the senior management because you need to be able to roll that data up to a high level, get reported, and see we're working on these projects. What sort of utilization of percentages do we have? What's our overhead looking like? What's our expense ratio look like? All these different things related to actually executing. They tie into the rest of the way the business operates.
With people on remote it’s scattered all over the place, that software has to be the unifying thing that pulls them all together.
Ben: Sure. What are some of the top mistakes that you see companies make when they attempt to implement work from home policies? And how can those problems be avoided?
Lars: I think really it comes down (again) to a lack of structure and planning. I think that's what happened with a lot of companies when the pandemic hit because there was not a lot of warning. One week where everything's looking like it could be bad, then the next week everyone's told to go home. Everything from our education system, we have teachers that don't have the tools they need to teach remotely, to businesses where people were working remotely. They don't really know what to do, they're not really tracked. You've got all these issues that suddenly have to be resolved very, very, quickly. Unfortunately, it was a lot of these kinds of things that took planning to do it right.
I think a lot of businesses did a knee jerk reaction and said, okay, we're going to get Zoom. We're going to get Microsoft teams. We're going to get Meet or whatever. We're going to have our meetings and talk. Those are important to have. It's good to have FaceTime. It's good to have people involved in some way to feel that interpersonal connection in the business.
On the other side of that, you have to come up with the process and the structure to help people have a way to bound their day. What are they doing? How are they supposed to be doing all of it? Make sure that you have a maintained structure of management. Every business has people that do stuff and people that manage stuff. [...] obviously, but people have to know where they fit. And that takes planning.
What I always tell companies to do and with our customers—we work with them when they come on board, set them up with the CRM and marketing automation systems—is before you even go down that road, have a good understanding of who your target market is. Know your market segment. Have your buyer personas defined. Look at your buyer’s journey and your process both from a buyer’s perspective and internal process.
Have stuff written down. Documentation. It doesn't have to be complicated. It doesn't have to be super fancy or lots of flowery words or whatever. Just have it written down so that you can then translate that into an actual system, actual software. I would recommend using the CRM as the core for that and having all the pieces connect back to the CRM.
The last part is understanding your data model, understanding what data you are accumulating, how you are going to use it because as you go through this finder’s journey, you have to know how you're going to use that. If the number of likes, shares, reads, clicks, website visits, or whatever it is, impacts the business, make sure you have a way to collect that data and store it in a useful way.
Ben: That's all solid advice. That does it for all the questions I have prepared. Before I let you go, is there anything else on this topic you think could be important to throw out there or to share with our audience?
Lars: I think a manager has to be very aware of the personalities of the people that work around and underneath them. I was saying before, there's so much to a business that goes beyond software. It really has to do with understanding people, how they work, and I think that's very much a conversation. They don't work as well when you have this hammer approach ruled by fear kind of thing. It's about how you create an environment where the people who are in the company feel like they're part of a team, feel like they're heard, and feel like they're valued. I think that's really one of the important things when you're talking about creating a good company culture.
It's harder when people don't go to the office. It's harder to set the tone because you're not seeing them every day. I think that if every manager were to take a few minutes and think about each of the people they work with, think about their personalities, think about what really motivates them, even if it just means opening the door, having conversations, and saying hey, how are you doing, extended remote work can be hard. How did you feel? Is there anything we can do to make you feel better? Do you feel like you have enough structure in your day? Do you feel like you have enough tools to accomplish what you need to accomplish?
Simple conversations like that go a long way. The more human-centric approach, especially now where we feel very isolated, goes a long way towards helping a company operate and just be more efficient and be happier. People like to feel valued and that's how we do that.
Ben: Absolutely. That's great advice. Thank you so much for coming on this show, and sharing your insight into making remote work actually work. Like I was saying before we actually jumped into the interview, even though we are a few months into the pandemic, I think this is really continuing to be something else at the top of a lot of people's minds right now.
Lars: Yes. It's definitely not going away. We're going to be in this situation for quite some time. Not that the pandemic is good or that anyone getting sick is good, but I think the direction that it's pushed our culture and our society as a whole has actually had some positive effects on it. There's less traffic, there's less impact on the environment, people are spending more time at home, there are more pet adoptions, things like that. The little things.
When you have everyone starting to work from home, the positive impact can be really substantial. I'm a surfer. The idea of catching a wave, of how society is changing, take a look at where the direction the society is going and build your business around that. Catch the wave of how things are changing and make your company fit the culture that you want it to be. I think that, as leaders, we all set that. It doesn't matter if you're the CEO or a junior person. You have an impact on all of those things.
I think the more we think long-term, we think more in terms of how we ride this wave in a way that can help our business grow, scale, provide us with advantages, and the quality of life we enjoy from being able to work remotely. Whether that means we're at home with our family and we're able to travel more, then those are all things that can impact both our lives, the company, and the people around us.
Ben Sailer is the Inbound Marketing Director at Automattic. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.