How remote collaboration can give you a competitive edge

Think remote teams are only for programmers and creatives? Rapidly growing national tutoring company Varsity Tutors proves you wrong. Founder Chuck Cohn talked to us about why he feels a remote set-up is a huge competitive advantage for his business, and how he keeps his widely dispersed and highly collaborative team humming along smoothly.

Start us out with a quick overview of your team – how many folks are you and where are you located?

We have about 60 employees and about 1,400 tutors. We have physical operations where we provide tutoring services in 14 metro areas. Our employees, though, are located all around the country. Our area managers can live anywhere, so rather than trying to find an area manager for Washington who lives in Washington, our view is that it’s more important to get the best person possible regardless of where they live.

How much collaboration is there?

A lot. We work in teams, and we all work in coordination because we divvy up responsibilities and help the same clients and interact with the same tutors.

As you were growing, what sort of pain points did you run into with the remote set-up?

You don’t build relationships with people nearly as fast when you’re working remotely. When you’re in an office, you bump into people all day long. You can read their signals. When you’re working from home, you have to make a concerted effort to do that because you otherwise wouldn’t talk to people unless you needed to talk about business. Over time that’s something we’ve learned we should focus on. Part of running the business is remembering to reach out to people and get to know them.

What are the benefits of the remote set-up for your business?

It’s incredibly powerful. When you find the right people, they really thrive. They love the independence and autonomy. They love that they don’t have to commute and pay the gas money. People end up working a lot more because they’re not spending so much time preparing to go into the office. That wastes a lot of time and has nothing to do with your business. People end up focused on productivity a whole lot more.

You mentioned finding the right people. Can you explain what you mean?

The people that we have on our team love the fact that we’re remote and see it as a huge benefit, so we’ve been able to attract incredibly talented people we might not otherwise have been able to attract early on. But there’s a certain type of person who can thrive in a remote environment and there’s a lot of people that can’t. You need really self-motivated people who understand that they’re going to be measured and evaluated based on their actual performance, as opposed to just putting in the time, as is the case at many corporate jobs.

Who is a slam dunk candidate for you?

People who have basically done the job before at another company, and the main reason they are coming to us is because they feel like they’re micromanaged or the company isn’t focused on the right business drivers. A lot of people just get burnt out on the commute. They’re hard workers but they realize, “Wow, I could achieve the same amount of work, maybe even more, in 80 percent of the time if I work from home.” Very talented people are leaving big companies because the big companies don’t offer them flexibility.

Do you have key tech tools?

We have a really sophisticated CRM we built over the course of the last five years. It basically helps us coordinate all the work, matches clients with tutors and assigns work to different people. We can then monitor what they’ve done and the response time.

How has this CRM impacted the business?

When I first started the company it was all managed in spreadsheets. It was chaos. Keeping track of who was doing what was really tough, and so we made it a priority to build a system that allows us to coordinate everybody’s activities and monitor what they’ve done. Not so I can check, but so that teams can work together effectively. Had we not spent so much time and energy trying to build it out, it would have been really tough to grow. We would have gotten to the point where the complexity would have broken our business – we would have dropped so many balls. As you grow, you need some sort of good system for managing and coordinating activities.

What final advice would you give to someone who is making the shift to managing remotely?

You need to over-communicate. Making sure that you include everybody and that they all feel like they’re part of the community needs to be a core part of your day-to-day job.

Post by Jessica Stillman

Jessica Stillman is a semi-nomadic freelance writer (current location: sunny Nicosia, Cyprus) with interests in entrepreneurship, remote collaboration, unconventional career paths and generational differences.