As technology connects us in new ways and companies expand the parameters of office work, more and more people are working with remote teams. It’s a new frontier and one that requires adapting existing communication, management styles, and assessment metrics. While leading a remote team does not come without its challenges, the benefits outweigh the costs. Remote employment can save companies tons of overhead costs (do you know what it costs to keep an office open five days a week?), allow work to continue through severe weather, and maximize productivity by giving employees the flexibility to work in the style that suits them. In fact, one study found that 40 percent of respondents reported that they would be less distracted if employers allowed for more flexible scheduling and remote options.
The benefits are clear, but what isn’t is what adjustments you’ll have to make to remotely manage your team. You shouldn’t treat remote employees like traditional ones. In fact, it’s impossible. Here are the key takeaways for making remote teams effective, efficient, and valued.
Trust may just be the single most important quality to have among remote employees and as a manager. You won’t see them sitting across from you in the office each day, but you’ll have to trust that they’re getting the work done anyway. Checking in too much or micromanaging will only dampen productivity while trusting remote team members will give them the freedom to reach their full potential. To make this easier, when hiring, look for candidates with a history of remote work and who seem like self-starters.
Newsflash: employees can’t work if they spend their whole day reassuring you via email that they’re working. When it comes to remote teams, set clear expectations, schedule meetings, and check-ins, and then trust that unless they’ve indicated otherwise, your employees are accomplishing what needs to be done. Micromanaging not only wastes time, but it also insults employees and can contribute to higher turnover levels.
What matters is the end product, not that an employee is sitting at their desk from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.. Many companies are finding that employees are most productive when they have the freedom to work in a way that works for them. Maybe they’re most creative from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. but get sluggish after 4 p.m.. Maybe they need an afternoon break but then burn the midnight oil. With remote teams, it can help to measure their success by what they’re accomplishing instead of getting caught up in the logistics of when they’re logging on.
Nowhere are good online tools more important than with remote teams. Do your research, choose a few tools, assign a purpose for each, and train employees in how to use them during the onboarding process. Having effective tools (that your employees can actually use) can make a world of difference in how well remote teams communicate and collaborate. Some industry favorites include Slack, Asana, Trello, Github, LastPass and of course Google Drive. Find what works for you.
Communication has improved light-years by two things: scheduling, and video. If it’s not written down, it’s more likely to get pushed back, postponed, or simply forgotten. And if it’s only voice, the door is left wide open for distractions. By scheduling weekly video calls with your team, you help everyone get on the same page, encourage collaboration, and even get to know one another. It’s the closest thing to being in the office together, and it should be used as such.
Just as group meetings are important for getting everyone up to speed at the same time, individual meetings are key for addressing personal concerns and offering constructive criticism. Yearly performance reviews shouldn’t be the first time an employee is hearing your concerns. Discussing progress with individual employees builds trust and helps you get to know each of them, both factors that can increase effectiveness and longevity.
Remote teams come with a fair amount of isolation, which means employees are less likely to have a go-to desk mate or coworker that they can ask for help. Assigning team members a pair to check in with and go to with concerns can do wonders. It not only unburdens you by limiting the number of questions you're asked, but it also helps strengthen relationships among team members and encourages creative solutions.
Avoid micromanaging by implementing clear standards and procedures for staying in touch and up-to-date with each employee that you manage. Have team members send a quick update weekly, say, Monday morning or Friday afternoon, with what they’re working on, what they’re having trouble with and what they could use some help with. This works best when it’s used not as a way to check up on how much work employees are doing, but to gauge whether you’re over- or under-assigning projects, how long certain tasks take and in what areas you need to invest more resources.
Simply put, nothing can take the place of face-to-face interaction. Many companies that function largely remotely have begun to hold retreats, where employees gather for a weekend or so for team building and get to know each other outside of Skype calls and online chats. This may sound expensive, but in all likelihood, it’s cheaper than keeping an office open all year. It can also help employees feel connected to their coworkers, which can translate to them staying at their job longer, a huge money saver.
Collaboration doesn’t happen as naturally across email as it does when sharing a cubicle with someone. Encourage team members to help each other out by creating a space for knowledge sharing, whether it’s contacts, research, or other helpful tools. It could be a Google Drive folder, a Facebook group or a Slack channel. What’s important is that there’s a designated space for the type of back and forth that would naturally occur when one coworker overhead another or bumped into them in the kitchen.
This should go without saying, but set goals for and with your team! No one can succeed if they don’t know what success looks like. Tracking progress and setting goals can motivate employees and help them identify areas that need work.
Need a review? Fear not. Here’s how to work with a remote team in just 13 steps.