Lessons Learned

Five Best Practices for Managing Remote Teams

by | Jul 6, 2020

“Telecommuting comes down to trust.”
– Kate Lister, Global Workforce Analytics

Adapting to remote work can be a huge adjustment to both employers and employees. Employees not only need to have the right equipment to access their company’s network securely, but also have a home office with a door to keep children and other distractions out.

Executives with years of experience in managing remote employees share what has worked for them:

1. Ease into remote work by offering flexible schedules

Under normal circumstances, a larger and more established company usually would slowly ease into it by giving certain employees one or two days a week to work from home. Some employers experiment with ‘remote’ Fridays. Others allow flexible hours and monitor employees’ performance, making adjustments along the way.

Unfortunately, with lockdowns and stay-home mandates in effect, companies these days do not have the luxury to ease into remote work. They could, however, follow the best practices and software tools described in this report, or hire a remote work consultant, to make their transition successful.

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate!

If you asked business leaders to share insights on how to manage distributed teams, you would hear a chorus of emphasis on communication. Noel Andrews is a big proponent of not only collaborating with his team about work, but also socializing with them.

“If you want to build a real team, you have to get to know them and what makes them tick.”
– Noel Andrews

Ali Marsland, the Director of The Effective English Company, holds weekly check-in video calls with her direct reports and monthly calls with all employees.

“Without good open communication channels, it’s likely that small issues will become major problems before you even know they exist.”
– Ali Marsland

However, communicating more does not mean flooding your team with superfluous emails. Information needs to be concise, relevant, and on point—and exchanged via appropriate channels. The main challenge with a remote team is to coordinate individual work with the broader strategy.

To ensure success, the following conditions must be met:

  1. Everyone knows what their tasks are.
  2. Everyone has a basic idea of what their colleagues are working on.
  3. Everyone understands how their own tasks are related to the tasks their colleagues are working on.
  4. Everyone has access to all required information needed to complete their tasks.
  5. Everyone has an equal chance to provide input.

As a management coach with over seven years of experience, during which he coached people at large companies such as Shell and Coca-Cola, Mads Singers reveals the key to communication among remote employees: “A lot of communication that naturally happens in an office does not happen in a distributed team. So you need to be a lot more focused on goals and clear expectations in terms of delivery.”

Many companies are now using video conferencing tools like Zoom to replicate office meetings at home. However, Nico Appel warns they cannot simply virtualize everything in their transition to remote work. “This just goes to show that most people, who are used to working in the same office, try to bring their habits of talking and having meetings over to remote. That won’t work,” says Appel.

Rather than focusing on the short-term technological and social challenges, teams need to learn how to communicate with purpose, clarity, and inclusiveness.

3. Make sure everyone has a voice

Every employee has their own comfort level with online socialization. While some are more extroverted than others, the more introverted ones may find it difficult to speak up when necessary. Matthew Knowland gives some great advice on how to maintain engagement among distributed team members:

“Let everyone see each other in virtual meetings and have everyone speak. This can be as simple as detailing what they are working on, any challenges, and where they could use some help from the team.”
– Matthew Knowland

At Dynamite Circle—a fully remote team who meets in person twice a year—Catalina Alvarez not only makes sure all remote employees feel like they are part of the team, but also that their work and skillsets are valued.

Having private one-on-one meetings with every team member gives remote employees a chance to provide their input and to air out any grievances or concerns that may not otherwise crop up during a team meeting. “It is really critical to have one-to-ones with every team member as well as effective team meetings,” advises Singers.

4. Focus on the results rather than face time

Managers who are used to giving performance reviews in the office may struggle to ascertain how their remote employees are performing. Therefore, it may serve us well to reframe what remote work actually is. Rather than focusing on the fact that an employee is ‘working from home’, there needs to be more emphasis on skills, discipline, attitude and professionalism.

“People do their work, and it is their own decision and responsibility to figure out how, where, and when they produce the deliverables they have committed to.”
– Nico Appel

Where people work does not matter—only that they get work done and achieve the desired results. Some people prefer to work at a library, café, or co-working space rather than at home. “Being able to work from anywhere can be a great advantage,” says Appel. “I can change my location and my output is basically unaffected.”

Managers of distributed teams, however, should consider time zones for scheduled calls and overlapping schedules with all team members.

5. Encourage remote employees to set boundaries

One problem for remote workers is that it’s hard for them to turn off. As someone who has worked remotely for over five years, there were times when I thought to myself—’let me fire off one more email before bed’—only to spend another three hours on the computer.

Having worked remotely for over ten years, Tristan King, the Founder of Grow Like An Elephant, emphasizes the importance of setting clear boundaries between work and personal time: “On one hand, you have flexibility of when to work, no commute, and so on. But on the other hand, if you don’t keep a handle on it, you can become a hermit and work 24/7 while never leaving the house. Setting boundaries is super important.”

What remote employees can and should do is to stick to consistent work schedules, and coordinate these schedules with whom they report to. Once they finish work for the day, that’s it—no more checking email or answering Skype calls until the following morning. On the flip side, they should limit their time on social media during their working hours.

To help remote employees maintain these boundaries, companies can provide guidance on setting up home office space conducive to getting things done without getting interrupted.