Managing a Remote Team

Posted by Gabe Murillo – Research Associate

The future of work is here, and it’s not going away. Having an office environment that is conducive to flexible and remote working is crucial to attracting top talent in any industry. Unfortunately, remote and flexible working are new concepts to many in the workforce, especially in management positions. In order to build a foundation for a sustainable and happy remote workforce, managers must have a solid understanding of the challenges of running remote teams.

In my experience working on and managing teams ranging from fully distributed remote teams to hybrid remote and in-office teams, I have been fortunate to observe some excellent managers and learn through trial and error. I have tested different approaches, platforms, and tools for managing remote teams and have some insight to share. My approach to managing remote teams is constantly evolving and (hopefully) improving, but a few things are very consistent. Ultimately, I believe the secret to managing a successful remote team is building a culture of communication, trust, and accountability. Here are a few ideas to start the process of building that work culture.

Overcommunication. Remote workforces thrive in a culture of overcommunication. Communication is more natural in an office setting; you have the same tools to communicate electronically and the option of an impromptu face-to-face to quickly go over an idea or get an answer to a question. It is also much easier to know when it’s not a great time to reach out to a co-worker. If someone is not at their desk it’s easy to know to wait to get up to chat. These face-to-face chats can be very productive and a great resource for moving ideas forward. Unfortunately, in a remote environment, it can often be difficult to have these conversations. Lack of face-to-face interaction can deter remote workers from having that quick conversation to hash out an idea or move a project forward.

In order to establish a culture of communication, it is necessary to create habits that facilitate communication. For example, scheduled video chats help maintain a face-to-face relationship with your remote workers. You should schedule at least twice as many face-to-face chats with remote employees. If you normally have one-on-one meetings with your team members once a week, check-in with remote employees twice a week. Make sure to include remote employees in all team meetings, video conferencing is best if feasible.

Make sure to communicate your organizational purpose and mission. Most people learn company culture, norms, and vision through osmosis and observation. Make sure that establishing your company’s purpose and mission is emphasized as part of on-boarding for all remote employees and is reinforced in your communications with remote workers. Having your entire team on the same page in terms of mission is essential to making remote workers feel included in the overall work environment.     

Time Accountability vs. Task Accountability. The availability of various tracking platforms makes it possible to track a remote employee’s actions down to the number of mouse clicks-per-minute to verify productivity. While the wealth of tracking platforms offers a lot of options to measure productivity, the invasiveness of these platforms may work against creating a productive culture of trust with your remote employees. To balance accountability and trust managers must carefully assess what is most important to your company’s culture – time or tasks. Having a clear understanding of time and task accountability allows you to more effectively communicate the purpose of tracking employees’ work.

Often remote workers can be tracked by the completion of tasks through a variety of project management platforms as opposed to strictly tracking time. Emphasis on task completion builds a culture of trust because it demonstrates that management trusts its employees to professionally manage their time in order to complete necessary tasks. Obviously, some level of time accountability is necessary, but that can be achieved by having employees self-report their time as opposed to tracking every minute of your employee’s time.

If time accountability is most important, be sure to clearly communicate expectations of time. If in-office employees are allowed a certain number of breaks, make sure your remote employees know that they are allowed those breaks as well. Also, make sure that you’re communicating what tracking stats are actionable. For example, if clicks-per-minute is not something that your management team is going to consider, either don’t track it or let your employees know that that data point is not relevant to your evaluation of their productivity. Tracking excessive metrics can make remote workers feel overwhelmed and insecure about their performance. In order to prevent unnecessary anxiety about tracking make sure to have a thorough conversation with remote workers about how you measure their productivity. Setting clear and defined expectations will make a world of difference and assure that you and your remote workers are on the same page.

Team Integration. Self-reflexively this is an area where I could use some improvement. In order to build a strong working relationship with remote workers, be sure to include them in team events and activities. If you are rewarding your team for excellent work, meeting project deadlines, exceeding goals, etc., make sure to also reward your remote workers. If you are taking your team out to lunch, send a gift card for a food delivery service. If you get your team gifts for work anniversaries or the holidays, make sure to send a gift card or other gift for your remote workers. Even sending encouraging or appreciative emails can go a long way. Remote workers risk feeling isolated from their teams, managers should try to fully integrate their remote employees to avoid this alienation.

Remote workers can be a great asset to your organization by bringing diversity and enhanced productivity to your teams. The most important aspect of managing a successful remote team is a strong foundation of communication, trust, and accountability. It is essential to think through the unique challenges of managing a remote team in order to retain remote workers and take advantage of the benefits remote workers can bring to your team. While some of these challenges can be addressed along the way, putting a solid plan together will make sure that adding remote workers to your team is as smooth as possible.

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