My advice for managing a remote team

In Work Life by JD Dillon

Yesterday, I shared what I’ve learned as a remote worker over the past 10 years. 

Today, I’m shifting focus to a critical part of the remote work experience for any employee: managers.

Managers can make or break the remote work experience. This is especially true for managers who have limited experience as remote workers themselves or are suddenly thrust into the role of a remote manager with no preparation.

Of my 10 years as a mostly remote worker, 5+ were spent managing remote L&D teams. Some people worked from home. Some worked in offices, but they were the only members of the team in those locations. All had unique needs that I had to quickly figure out after spending the first half of my career managing people I saw in-person every day.

Here are the five most important things I learned about effectively managing a remote team.

Let them do their jobs.

Every manager has their own way of keeping tabs on their teams to make sure things are getting done. When those tactics are eliminated, it can be a natural instinct to over-process the remote work experience. For example, I had a peer who required their team members to sign into chat by a specific time every day as a way to track attendance. Don’t do this! We’re talking about adults after all. Clarify role expectations and output requirements for each team member. Some jobs may require people to be available at specific times, and that’s fine. Once the guardrails are established, get out of the way. Be there to support. Conduct regular, non-disruptive check-ins. But let people find the best way to get their jobs done in a remote context.

Make sure they have the right resources.

What do team members need to be successful while working remotely? The answer probably will not be exactly the same for each person. Do they have the right technology? Do they need tips on how to develop good remote work practices? Do they need to talk more regularly as they get comfortable? Have this conversation early on with each team member. Don’t assume that a laptop, a phone and an internet connection is all people will need. Check back in after a few days/weeks/months to see if needs have changed.

Over communicate well.

Remote work eliminates the ability to turn around and quickly mention an update to your team members. Informal communication must be tactically replaced. However, adding piles of meetings to everyone’s day is probably not the best answer. This is where group chat (first HipChat, now Slack) has been essential for me as a remote manager. Every team and project has its own channel. Notifications are used purposefully so as to not spam team members. Email replies often include a “can you mention this in Slack” to shift behaviours and ensure a dedicated place for topical discussion. At one point, I held a scheduled standup via Slack in which team members were expected to report on their progress by a certain time via text update. This kept everyone informed but didn’t require work to stop for 30 minutes so people could wait for their turn to speak. 

Talk about something else.

For some reason, the human side of manager/team conversation tends to slip in a remote setting. The “how was your weekend” thing vanishes, only to be replaced by more work stuff. Make it a habit to have non-work conversation with your remote team members. Dedicate your one-on-one time to talking about them, not their job tasks. Share what you’ve been watching on TV in the team chat once in a a while. Ask everyone to gather on camera for a regular virtual team lunch to maintain the connections that often feel easier in person. Remote work can feel stressful and isolating. Managers can make this even worse if all they seem to care about is the work. 

Bend (but don’t break).

Maintaining a consistent workflow at the office is relatively simple. Everyone feeds off of one another’s rhythms and habits to maintain the status quo. This changes immediately when you work remotely. Now, its up to each individual team member to figure out their own practices in order to be as effective as possible. Collaborate as a group to determine the workflow elements that must stay consistent. Establish and agree to clear, purposeful guardrails. From there, flex as needed to help each person find their rhythm. For example, it may be just fine for people to adapt their work hours as long as they get their tasks done. However, everyone may be held to providing updates in your project management app on a set cadence.

What’s your best advice for remote team managers? Share in the comments!