Knowing how to manage a remote team will be a critical entrepreneur skill in the coming years.
It’s not only a matter of value, though hiring remote employees can be a great way to get top performers on an SME budget. It’s also a matter of this being the future of work. “Work-life balance” is a growing factor in employee retention. Younger generations value the ability to work from home more than a raise in salary.
What follows are ten tips to manage remote teams. These are based on my insights from running remote companies for over a decade.
1. Make it a priority
One thing that I always try to drill into the people at the highest levels in my company is that they signed up for two jobs. Management is a full-time job, regardless of your other responsibilities. This extra workload is the price you have to pay for being at the top.
So don’t bemoan your employee’s lack of autonomy (and we’ll talk about making them more autonomous later, fret not). Instead, take ownership of your role as a manager, and don’t try to offload it to others or “hack” it.
I’m not saying that you need to work overtime and kill off the other aspects of your life. What I mean is that you must consider management duty when planning your workweek. Don’t make it into something you “fit” between other tasks.
Keep that in mind as we go over the remaining points in this mini-guide to managing remote teams.
2. Have a Timezone Policy
Part of the magic of having remote employees is that you get to pick the best ones from around the world. Inevitably, this will mean that you will have people spread across different time zones. Decide early on how you will handle this.
In my company’s case, I’m pretty flexible, but when it comes to finding clients top tech experts, I’m strict. The people I place in my clients’ companies must work the company’s business hours. Yes, this means some of them have to work at night. Remote work isn’t for everyone.
Do you need to take this as gospel? No. This is what I’ve seen produce better results and less managing headache. But I’m not blind to companies like Automattic or Buffer, which thrive on having some employees work while others sleep.
3. Have a short remote team meeting every day
No exceptions. It doesn’t have to be long – 15 minutes is long enough – but it must happen every day, at the same time. Doing it like this will provide a daily heartbeat to your team’s activities. And it will help counter the “lone wolf” attitude that people risk falling into when working from home.
During the meeting, every team member provides a short status update on their tasks. Don’t try to solve problems as they come up, that’s a lousy use of meeting time. Use the meeting to identify potential blockers. Then, address issues one-on-one after the meeting.
4. Communicate as Hemingway, not Shakespeare
Never be afraid of repeating yourself. Instead, embrace it – follow up emails with a ping on Slack; follow-up video meetings with email. “If it’s worth saying once, it’s worth saying twice” is one of the best policies you can adopt when managing a remote team.
And don’t be afraid to over-explain things and go in detail. Provide all the info you can to help your employees succeed. At the same time, keep your language simple. Even the most English-fluent can be a bit stumped by complex expressions, if not natives. Be more Hemingway, less Shakespeare.
5. Prefer video chat whenever connection permits it
Video is the lifeblood of remote communication. Make sure to use video as much as possible when interacting with your team.
There is too much that you miss when using written or spoken means of communication. You lose eye contact. And you miss body language.
A video chat will let you get to know your employees better. It will help you form a closer relationship. Of course, this applies to the daily team meetings, as well!
6. Get to know your team
Knowing how your people feel and being close to them will be critical in keeping them productive. Yes, that’s right – remote work won’t remove the need to work on your soft skills.
Quite on the contrary. The most significant challenge with remote work is not the language or timezone barriers. It’s the building of rapport between the team.
I can identify the people in your team that will give you trouble and that you’ll lose sooner rather than later. Who are them? The ones that you don’t know how many children they have. The ones you don’t know what their favorite video game is. The ones you have no idea if they prefer StarWars or StarTrek.
When you build up your team as a family and get to know them as such, then you’ll get more focused, loyal and hard-working people.
7. Groom casual conversation
Most people are used to sharing in online spaces. Multiplayer video games, Twitter and Facebook have put them at ease to do so. In the process, thriving communities bloomed.
But for some reason, we get reluctant to do so when it comes to the shared work environment. Lead by example. Be a sharer. Have a casual Slack channel where you share the things near and dear to you. It could be videos, articles, opinions, whatever. Encourage others to do the same.
A web of friendly relationships strengthens any team. Nurture it.
8. Encourage your remote employees to go over you
When someone in the team needs something done. When they need some file that you know is somewhere on your cloud drive. When they need something that is under someone else’s responsibility but, of course, you have access to… That’s the time when you need to play matchmaker.
Don’t try to solve it immediately and by yourself. If you do that, you’re training your people to come to you whenever they need something. That’s not sustainable.
Point them to the right folder, or person, or card in your project management system. Sure, take ownership as a leader. But don’t be the “easy button.”
9. Build a transparent virtual office
There are a ton of useful tools to build a virtual office. There’s no “best choice” here besides what works the better for you and your team. The most important thing about creating a virtual office is not the tools you use, but how to make it as flat as possible.
And sure, you want the leadership to be able to discuss things in private. And no-one is stopping employees from going to private chat. But push for all the planning, work, and work-related discussions to be public. Make as many files and even WIP as possible available to all.
Taking this stance will have two effects. One, people won’t have to nag other people for files and info – they can look it up. Second, everyone is aware of the direction of each project. Everyone can see how their work impacts it or not, as well as provide feedback.
10. Conduct a weekly retrospective
At the end of each work week, make your daily meeting longer. Go over all the work that the team did that week. Have each employee show the team what they managed to get done, and the challenges they faced.
Take some time to praise the good stuff, the accomplishments. Ask the team what they could do to make work go smoother during the following week. Commit to helping them put in place at least one of those improvements. Then, proceed to help them plan and prioritize the tasks for the week ahead.
Don’t handhold. This is not a meeting to you should rush. Now is the time to open discussions and help the team find the best way forward. Try to be work as a referee instead of a boss; offer your suggestions only if you feel the team is stuck.
These ten tips are the tip of the iceberg when managing remote teams, but they should get you off to a great start! Reach out to my team and me on Twitter @distantjob if you have any questions!
Sharon Koifman of DistantJob