Managing a remote team is tough. It’s even tougher if you’re used to everybody working in the office where you can manage by walking around, pop by people’s desks for informal checkups, and keep your finger on the pulse of your team. But when the whole staff has gone into work-from-home mode, you miss out on that valuable water cooler effect.
In a remote setting, business owners carry two burdens — their own work and their team’s performance. It can be overwhelming trying to figure out how to navigate the remote working environment when you are taking on both responsibilities in a new setting.
If some of your team members have never worked from home before, they may not know how to stay focused, manage their time, or communicate with others. That’s why you have to be intentional when managing a remote team. You’ll need to make sure your employees clearly understand what you expect from them and determine how you’ll monitor and measure effort, attitude, and impact from afar.
Here’s the good news: once you learn to manage a remote team, you can attract top talent to your staff because people love workplace flexibility. No matter what’s happening globally, you can help great employees work productively and stay connected from home.
Here are the nine best practices for managing remote employees:
1. Focus on the mission and its results, not on tasks and checklists.
In a traditional office environment, business owners want to see employees “working.” Some reward the worker bees who can whip out long checklists of activities. But a busy employee isn’t necessarily a productive one. Have you stopped to ask just what that “hard worker” on your team is actually accomplishing? And is what they’re accomplishing benefitting your organization in a meaningful way?
Remote work will show you in stark contrast what matters and what doesn’t. You may be surprised to find that much of the busywork that takes up time in the office actually doesn’t move your needle at all.
“Nobody really wakes up in the morning and thinks ‘Great, I have tasks to do,” says leadership expert Carey Nieuwhof. “You need a cause that’s bigger than you. If the mission isn’t bigger than you, you need a new mission.”
When you’re the business owner, it’s up to you to craft and communicate your mission. When you’re a manager inside a larger company, maybe you can’t rewrite your enterprise’s mission, but you can probably fashion a team mission and get your people engaged in bringing it to life.
Whatever you do, though, don’t waste time going over endless to-do lists that probably produce few results anyway. Keep your team focused on accomplishing results that drive your mission.
2. Invest in effective communication and workflow management software.
We live in a technology-rich age. Take advantage of what it can offer you as a business owner that’s team is working remote. Check the list below for some of the most affordable and effective project management and professional communication software out there:
Lack of face-to-face communication weakens a team’s trust in you as the leader and its members’ rapport with each other as colleagues. But clear, frequent, and direct communication can help your team get stronger than ever. To do that in a remote situation, you’ll need to over-communicate.
Since you are at a distance, you don’t have access to one of the most powerful communication tools in your toolbox — your intuition. Instead, you’re having to assume that your team got your message, understood it, applied it, and knew how to respond to it. Those are some big assumptions. Thus, your normal communication streams may not work as effectively as usual in an all-digital environment.
What does it mean to overcommunicate with a remote team? Three things:
1. Emphasize your core message. Reduce your full message to a single sentence. Repeat that sentence several times in your email, video, or speech. If you have several core ideas to get across, you can try sharing them one at a time to avoid muddling your message.
2. Build your core message around your objectives. Everything you share with your team needs to focus on an objective. Otherwise, your people may conclude that what you have to say isn’t relevant, and they’ll be tempted to tune you out.
3. Contextualize your message. Don’t just tell people what they’re supposed to do; let them know how their work affects people up and down the chain. Employees who see themselves as part of something greater are more likely to stay motivated than those who just see an endless list of tasks in front of them and can’t contextualize those tasks in the service of a mission or vision.
4. Conduct frequent check-ins.
89% of HR leaders agree that ongoing peer feedback and check-ins are key for successful outcomes, according to research from Globoforce. Check-ins are relatively easy to do when you’re at the office. You can pop into Bob or Sarah’s cubicle, find out what help they need, and offer any coaching or advice you think is necessary. Working remotely, though, you miss the opportunities for that non-formal interaction. So you’ll have to build check-ins into your schedule as an intentional practice. Carve out the time for a daily, one-on-one, face-to-face check-in with each member of your team if you possibly can.
5. Empower productivity. Don’t try to control it.
If you have a dispirited, disempowered, unproductive team, then you don’t have a remote-work problem. You have a culture problem. Screen monitoring software won’t fix that, but your solid leadership can. So help your people be productive, but don’t watch over them like some digital Eye of Sauron.
Business owners can’t control employee productivity anyway, no matter how much they try. If your team members want to be there, they’ll do everything they can to be productive for the company they love. If they don’t want to be there, they will find a way to dodge you. You can’t control that. What you can do, however, is hire the right people and then create a culture of productivity for them to flourish in. Then, regardless of whether your team works virtually or in person, your staff members will be the kind of people who get work done, and you won’t have to worry about monitoring them or nagging them to stay on task.
6. Engage your team members like you’ve never engaged them before.
Research from Gallup found that only about 15% of employees are really engaged at work, and managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement. Or as conventional wisdom puts it, “People don’t quit jobs; they quit managers.” We know that old truism isn’t 100% accurate, but it touches on a core principle of organizational development — engaged employees love their jobs and own their results better than disengaged ones do.
What is engagement? TalentCulture defines it by saying, “When employees are engaged, they adopt the vision, values, and purpose of the organization they work for. They become passionate contributors, innovating problem solvers, and stunning colleagues.”
Unfortunately, remote employees are likely to feel left out, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review. Don’t worry, though, there’s plenty you can do to engage them. Regular video meetings, chats on Slack, frequent feedback, and a positive vibe can go a long way toward engaging employees wherever they call an office. Just knowing you are making an effort to engage them can cause many employees to feel excited to meet you halfway.
7. Try not to babysit your employees too much.
There’s a difference between setting expectations and micromanaging.
It’s not micromanaging to set high expectations for yourself and your team and to hold everyone accountable to those expectations. Neither is it micromanaging to implement process improvements, monitor progress, or counsel employees. And it’s certainly not micromanaging to monitor compliance especially if you work in a highly regulated industry. In fact, it might be a sign of poor leadership if you aren’t doing those things.
But the best way to challenge your team with high expectations is to set clear, concise, achievable objectives. Then, hold your team members accountable for their individual and collective performance using metrics you previously agreed upon. This approach keeps the focus on the objectives and external metrics and doesn’t allow it to turn inward or become personal.
How do you know when you’ve crossed the line into micromanaging? You are micromanaging when you care about your team members’ success more than they do.
Some symptoms of micromanaging could include work-from-home dress codes or intrusive check-ins. People who are micromanaged feel violated, untrusted, and unfocused. They are unlikely to engage in deep work and will leave for a better situation as soon as they can. While it’s important to have your employees feel ‘seen’ and respected, it is equally as important to have people on your team that understand and work well in a remote environment. Some people are simply not cut out for the model & signs of this will come to the surface, though.
8. 10X the power of your 1-on-1s.
Whenever your team goes remote, your one-on-one meetings with team members move from important to critical. A one-on-one meeting offers the ideal setting for reinforcing team and individual objectives, providing feedback, and coaching your staff members. The ideal one-on-one meeting is 45 minutes long, follows an agenda, and covers both action items and feedback. For guidance in setting up productive one-on-one meetings, check out this resource from Leadr.
9. Respect diversity.
Often, workplace diversity training just covers ethnicity, gender, and maybe sexual orientation. But in any team, you are also dealing with diversity of age, skill, family structure, personality, and situation.
Some of your remote employees enjoy quiet, focused settings at home with only occasional interruptions by a cat. Other employees are managing small children, middle schoolers, and older parents all while working at the kitchen table. And still others may be coping with domestic violence, emotional abuse, or family turmoil while trying to stay focused and engaged with work.
So if two employees don’t respond to a remote situation with the same enthusiasm, remember it may not be due to lack of interest but simply to situations outside their control.
Remote work, once just a dream for many knowledge workers, is clearly coming into its own. Learning how to guide your employees while giving them the tools they need to succeed in a remote environment is key. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll wonder why you didn’t try the working-from-home option sooner..
Stephanie is the Marketing Director at Talkroute and has been featured in Forbes, Inc, and Entrepreneur as a leading authority on business and telecommunications.
Stephanie is also the chief editor and contributing author for the Talkroute blog helping more than 100k entrepreneurs to start, run, and grow their businesses.