The reality that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is changing the idea of work can no longer be disputed. By the end of March 2020, over 100 countries had instituted some form of lockdown, confining millions of people to their homes and forcing many companies to ask their employees to work remotely.
Even though COVID-19 has added to the number of people working remotely, the World Economic Forum reports that an estimated 7% of employees in the US already had the option to work from home before the pandemic arrived. This implies that the virus may have given a boost to a trend that was already moving in the direction of remote work.
Figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 23.8% of full-time employees worked an average of 3.40 hours at home per day in 2019 (Source).
Those who may dismiss the move towards remote work experienced during COVID-19 as a passing fad probably have not seen the numbers. The research and consulting service, Global Workplace Analytics, reports that “surveys showed 80% of employees want to work from home at least some of the time.” The same organization estimates that, by the end of 2021, up to 30% of the global workforce will be working from home several days a week.
For those managers who suddenly find themselves responsible for supervising remote employees, this may feel like being thrown into the deep end. Indeed, managing virtual teams is something that needs to be done in a specific way. This implies that, as a manager, you will not just continue with business as usual.
We have put together 27 tips for successfully managing remote teams to help managers sail across a new normal.
The Challenges Of Managing Remote Teams
With more employees working remotely, the job of the manager is also evolving. Managers are left wondering how they are supposed to manage people they rarely see in person. This presents new challenges that managers have to deal with; hence, the tips we present in this article.
To understand the 27 tips in this article, let’s start by looking at some of the problems they seek to solve.
Failing To Differentiate Between Remote Work And Traditional Work
Several elements make remote work different from the traditional work structure. Thus, remote work requires different skills from those needed in the typical work arrangement. For instance, remote work calls for better time management, the ability to follow written procedures, and the knack to communicate using information and telecommunication technologies effectively.
Both the employees and the manager may not have remote work experience and assume that the rules that applied in the office can be taken as they are and transferred to the remote environment.
The differences between remote work and typical work imply that managers may need to start looking at how to hire employees effectively and how they onboard them. If this is not taken into account, managers may find themselves with employees who would be great in the co-location environment, but struggle in a remote setting.
Lack Of Clear Expectations
As a manager, it would be a mistake to think that since people already know what they should do in the office, it should be clear to them what is expected when working remotely. Thus, it is vital to ensure that everybody clearly knows what is expected. For instance, you may want to look at issues like when team members are expected to respond to communication, or when they should attend virtual meetings.
Lack Of Communication
When employees come to the office in the morning, it’s easy to discuss ideas with them when you meet at the cafeteria or wait for a meeting to start. However, when they work remotely, it’s easy to neglect such engagement. Thus, managers of remote employees need to consider how they will use different forms of communication to replace the face-to-face interaction at the office.
Even though it may be exciting in the beginning, remote workers may feel isolated and lonely. If the manager has not devised methods on how to deal with this, it could become debilitating.
A study published by the Harvard Business Review concluded that “remote workers feel shunned and left out.” If not appropriately managed, isolation and loneliness could become the basis for physiological and physical health challenges.
Lack Of Trust
The fact that employees are part of your team means that you trust them. If there are employees that you do not trust, then it may mean that your hiring systems need to be improved. Treating employees who work remotely as if all they wanted was to earn company money for doing nothing, has a negative impact on collaboration and engagement.
While it is essential to treat remote employees with trust, it cannot be disputed that some employees were just never created for remote work. Such employees may find it challenging for them to work without someone watching over them. Therefore, a manager who believes that there is no need to track the time and progress of remote employees may discover that productivity suffers.
The challenges discussed above do not provide an exhaustive list. However, they show that the manager of remote employees needs to be clear about the challenges they may meet. They also show that when employees move to remote work, it cannot just be business as usual. Policies have to be looked at again.
1. Determine Your Responsibilities
As a manager, before you can hope to determine what is expected of others within a changing environment, you will need to start by looking at what is expected of you. This will depend on your specific situation.
In a remote setting, the interactions between team members may no longer be as much as those of a co-located team. Therefore, one of your most important jobs is to provide a solid understanding of what is required of others. This will ensure that each employee is clear about what is expected of them, and how they are connected.
You will also need to understand your role in applying the rules of the company fairly and consistently. Added to this, you have the responsibility to ensure that employees have access to the resources they need and to you when there is an emergency.
2. Find The Right People
Great as it may be for some employees, not everyone can work well in a remote environment. In the same vein, it’s not everyone who is cut out to manage a remote team. Thus, managers need to be extra vigilant when they bring new members into their teams.
In a remote setting, individuals should understand the importance of deliverables and goals. Even though such individuals still need direction and guidance, they should be able to get the work done no matter where they are. This implies that such individuals can be trusted to deliver outcomes with minimal supervision.
It could be a challenge to identify the right employees during the short time an interview allows. One way of solving this problem could be to hire several individuals on a short-term basis for a few projects and assess their skills. You can then select your permanent employees from that pool.
If the employees you’re managing have shifted from co-location to a remote setting, you could help them to adapt through training.
3. Create Structures
Productivity in any workplace depends on predictability and structures. It’s easy to disconnect when employees work in different locations. Mitigate this by creating team rhythm. There should be a clear timetable for meetings, and employees should know what different people are doing so that they have an idea of where they fit in the process.
When creating this rhythm for remote employees working in different time zones, ensure that the burden of inconvenience does not fall on one member. Rotate meeting times so that the inconvenience of having a meeting either too late or too early in the day does not fall on one employee.
There is no dispute that you have to establish procedures and expectations for your remote team. However, this doesn’t mean that you are the only one who should develop them. It is for this reason that you should invite the team to participate when creating these rules.
While you may be clear about employees’ experiences in co-located teams, it’s only the individual employees who would understand their specific situations in their remote settings. Also, it’s the team members who know how best to get a job done.
An example of an area where you may want to involve employees is the method of communication they would prefer. You could then use the most preferred method when you deal with employees individually.
5. Focus On Communication
When team members work in the same place as the manager, it’s easy for an employee to walk into the manager’s office and inquire about something. When working remotely, your team members may not always have an idea of where you are at a given time. Thus, you would want to be clear about how you will keep an open line of communication and remove any communication barriers.
One way of ensuring that communication happens regularly is to block certain times of the day and inform employees that they can book short sessions with you during those blocks. You could then have a calendar so that remote workers know which blocks are taken.
To ensure that everyone is clear about how communication will happen within the remote team, consider creating a communication strategy. This will determine the number of meetings you will have with your team. In the strategy, look at such issues as limiting noises in the background, decorum around what team members can have in their backgrounds during video calls, and the use of meeting templates.
6. Clarify The Rules
When you introduce rules to the remote team, be clear about what they mean. For example, using vague terms like “properly” and “quickly” may confuse people about what is expected. Thus, you would want to state what a “one day” deadline means, with regards to when it starts and ends.
7. Determine Outputs, Forget About Activity
In the traditional work setting, as long as someone has clocked in, is sitting at their desk, and leaves at the agreed time, they usually consider themselves to have done a full day’s work. However, in the context of remote work, the workplace and the home are no longer easy to separate. Thus, it is essential to focus on what is delivered, instead of the amount of time an individual spent sitting at a desk.
To determine outputs, there is a need for clarity regarding what should be accomplished over a given period. To ensure that tasks don’t lag, create milestones that have precise deadlines, and schedule meetings to follow up on progress.
However, some jobs will require you to track the time that a remote employee took to complete them. For these kinds of jobs, you can find a time tracking tool like the Workpuls Clocker.
8. Create Well-Documented Procedures
One of the things that your remote team members will not be able to do with ease is to walk over to another team member’s desk, or your office, and ask how they should do something. One of your most important duties is to ensure that there are well-documented procedures in place. Ensure that all employees know where to find these documents, and then follow them.
Guard against just telling team members what the goal is without providing them with an idea of how that task is to be accomplished. To make things easier for yourself, let the employees be responsible for creating the standard operating procedures (SOPs) for their roles. Continuously update these SOPs as things change.
9. Do Not Overload Employees
When employees are co-located, it’s easier for the manager to see that an employee is overloaded. You may notice that the employee is not taking their lunch or is leaving late every day. You don’t always have this insight with remote employees. If proper care is not taken, employees may end up getting overloaded.
If you have no choice but to send a remote employee an urgent task, inquire about how it will affect their other deadlines. The employee may then provide you with an idea of how much time they need to be added to the tasks that will be affected.
Another thing you should encourage your employees to do is not to overload others with emails. For instance, a “reply all” can send communication to people that it doesn’t concern. This gives employees the extra task of filtering through emails that they should not have received in the first place.
10. Include Everyone
Even when you deal with team members in the same location, some individuals may prefer to take the back row. If you’re not careful in remote teams, such individuals will disappear altogether. Thus, find a way of getting each team member to present something at each meeting. This does not always have to be work-related; it could be something as simple as asking everyone to say what the best thing that happened to them was since the previous meeting.
Including everyone could also involve fostering shared leadership. For example, you may find people that will help you by taking responsibility for a particular project. Also, you may ask members who are experts in their areas to coach others. Apart from encouraging engagement through shared leadership, you are also taking some tasks off your plate.
11. Encourage Social Interaction
Jonathan Kanter, a professor at the University of Washington, concludes that the social isolation caused by the social distancing measures could have some adverse effects in the long run (Source). Such conclusions show the importance of maintaining social interaction.
As a remote team manager, you’ll need to come up with ways of ensuring that none of your team members suffers from social isolation. This could be done through the creative use of technology to create engagement. You could take a leaf from remote working platforms like Upwork, which has a “virtual water cooler” known as the Coffee Break, where employees can interact and share information and news.
Another good idea is to have a chat room that is always open. Using the chat room, remote employees can make inquiries and share information.
12. Look For Opportunities For Collaboration
One way of encouraging employees to know each other and feel less socially isolated is for you, as the manager, to find opportunities for collaboration. Instead of having one employee work on one project on their own, determine ways to make remote workers accomplish projects in small teams.
13. Include Physical Meetings
Just because employees are working remotely should not mean that they can never meet physically if an opportunity arises. Sometimes, you may have to make it happen. This may not always be possible, but you could travel to regions where your employees live and organize meetings where everybody meets at the same place.
14. Create Team-Building Activities
In the same way that you can hold virtual meetings with your remote team, you can also do virtual team-building activities. Involve the team in coming up with the ideas.
15. Treat All Employees Equally
Some managers of remote employees may be managing groups of co-located employees and remote employees at the same time. In such a situation, it is easy to end up with one group receiving more benefits than the other. For instance, if you supply meals to your co-located employees, find a way to extend that benefit to your remote workers. If remote workers have flexible hours, find a way you can extend this benefit to co-located employees.
16. Provide Emotional Support
In a remote environment, the team members you manage meet different emotional challenges than those in a co-located environment. We have already alluded to loneliness. Some may struggle to manage their time.
As a manager, you may also be the source of employee problems if you fail to respect the fact that even though they may be working remotely, they are not available 24/7. Unless it was an absolute emergency, you would want to keep communication within reasonable hours.
To provide emotional support, you will need to always be in communication with your employees and ask them if there is anything they need from you.
17. Build An Environment Of Trust
As a manager, if you do not trust the people who work for you, you are probably not doing an excellent job in your selection process. If you have to worry about what a remote employee is doing continually, you haven’t been clear about the output and the deadlines. Be clear about guidelines, such as a timeframe within which emails should be answered.
18. Recognize Excellence
While it is vital to treat everyone in your remote team equally, you should still be able to recognize excellence. Because you will not meet the employee in the corridor and remember to recognize them, be deliberate about mentioning this during team meetings and in your one-to-one meetings with your employees. Inform them what it is that they have done well. This also provides other employees with details about what the expected standard is. The secret is to be consistent.
19. Provide Feedback
Remote employees don’t have the opportunity to interact with you informally in the same building so that you can give them both formal and informal feedback. Also, because they may not have a chance to see how others are doing things, they may always be apprehensive regarding their ability to meet the standard. This calls on you to be deliberate when it comes to providing feedback.
20. Provide Ongoing Training
With the proliferation of employees working remotely, there has been a corresponding increase in companies offering remote training. Remote training is especially important when things are changing because employees need to learn new skills around working remotely.
21. Help Team Members Understand Company Values
Your role as someone responsible for remote team members is to help them understand the values and mission of the company. While they may be working remotely, they need to feel that they are part of the company in every way. This may include involving them in determining the values of your company. You can also find a way of aligning your company values with employees’ values by selecting new employees based on your values as a company.
22. Connect Company Goals To Employees’ Aspirations
One of the significant benefits of remote work is that it allows your employees to work anywhere in the world, as long as they have the required tools. As a manager, this provides you with an opportunity to connect your employees’ goals with those of the company. For instance, an employee who has always wanted to visit New York could be given a chance to work on a New York project when it arises.
By knowing your employees’ aspirations, you could easily determine how to connect them to those of the company. This has a positive effect on engagement, job satisfaction, and loyalty.
23. Be Flexible
One of the great things that people like about working remotely is the flexibility that this affords them. For instance, an employee may want to get her groceries at 11 am, when the shops are less busy, and then work an extra hour in the afternoon. This calls on you, the manager, to be flexible, as long as the work is done. Ensure that the customer and other team members are not being inconvenienced.
24. Determine The Most Effective Technology
The reason why remote teams have become pervasive is the availability of technology. However, as a manager, you need to ask an important question – which technology will enable my team to work at its best? Of course, a one-size-fits-all will not work here because different companies do different things. Your job is to ensure that the technology you select will assist your team members in remaining connected.
When it comes to infrastructure, be clear about who will provide the remote team with the tools they need. If you ask the team members to supply their own equipment, you’ll need to determine how it will be paid for, how technical support will be provided, and what features it should have. If this is not clarified, you may risk the security of the communication and data that your employees have access to.
25. Find A Project Management Tool
The proliferation of remote teams has been accompanied by a corresponding growth in available project management software. A project management tool’s advantage is that it provides a central place where all team members can determine the stage at which a project is at.
The main advantage of most innovative project management tools is that they allow conversations to happen within projects rather than in emails. Anyone who has access to the tool can follow conversations there, reducing the time taken to find information and ask questions that have already been answered.
26. Be Ready To Deal With Technical Problems
Most companies have a dedicated in-house technical team to solve any technical challenges that employees meet. However, remote teams may be spread out so they will need a special arrangement with regards to dealing with technical challenges.
As a manager, it’s your responsibility to ensure that your team is not delayed by the fact that a team member cannot accomplish their tasks due to technical problems. Solutions may include identifying service providers near each team member that would be available when a technical problem emerges. Another solution is to provide a backup by paying for access to a shared workspace where employees can work from while their problems are being attended to.
27. Be Culturally Sensitive
Managing remote workers could mean that you may end up managing employees from different cultures. Being culturally sensitive includes agreeing on which language will be used to communicate during interactions. Also, you’ll need to invest in learning the communication styles of your employees, and how they view punctuality. You should be willing to embrace different cultures without diverting from your own company culture.