13 Tips For Leading And Managing Remote Teams
One of the biggest things businesses learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic is that a physical office is not an absolute necessity.
Freed from the need to have employees congregate at some physical location every day, many businesses are now embracing remote teams, with talent hired from all over the world.
Not only does remote working cut costs for businesses, it has also been shown to improve productivity, employee morale, retention, and loyalty.
Despite the advantages, remote teams present one key challenge – how do managers effectively manage a team that is scattered all across the world, without the ability to physically supervise what the team is doing?
If you’re a manager who’s in charge of a remote team, this guide will share with you 13 tips that will make it easier for you to lead your team and keep them happy, motivated, and productive.
Before that, however, let’s understand what a remote team is, and the challenges that come with managing one.
What Is A Remote Team?
A remote team refers to a cohort of professionals working for the same organization, reporting to the same boss, and committed to a shared business purpose, but working outside the confines of the traditional office setup.
Since they are not confined to a traditional office, the members of remote teams often live in different cities, countries, and continents, and sometimes, they even have different time zones and cultures.
What matters is not their physical location, but the skill set they bring to the table, as well as their ability to work independently and maintain productivity and good communication.
Due to their geographical dispersion, remote teams rely on technology to work together and collaborate on projects.
Remote teams give organizations access to talent pools outside their geographical location, while helping the organizations to minimize the costs associated with running physical office premises.
Challenges In Managing Remote Teams
The lack of face-to-face interactions, as well as the geographical diversity makes managing remote teams a lot more challenging compared to managing a co-located team.
Here are some of the challenges you might encounter when managing a remote team…
1. Communication Challenges
The in-person interaction of a traditional office setup makes internal communication very effective. Everyone knows what everyone else in the team is working on, and gathering input from team members is easy.
With a remote team, fostering open communication is not as easy, yet it is critical if the team is to meet its goals. Relying on email alone is not effective, and often results in delayed communications.
A good way to overcome the communication challenge when managing remote teams is to create a dedicated space for communication. For instance, you can use a tool like Slack to facilitate fast and effective two-way communication.
Another effective way to improve communication within the remote team is to come up with a communication policy for the team.
You might decide, for instance, that scheduled calls will be used for major project updates, emails and project management tools for task setting, while channels like Slack can be used for discussions and other regular communication.
2. Tracking Work And Productivity
This is one of the biggest nightmares for remote team managers. How do you actually tell whether your remote team members are actually working? Someone could claim to be working, when they are actually catching up on a TV series on Netflix.
The best way to deal with this challenge is to track employees productivity by the work they deliver, rather than time worked.
For instance, if you have a remote content production team, you can track their productivity by the amount of content each team member produces each day or each week. This way, it becomes easy to identify members who are not pulling their own weight.
3. Scheduling Difficulties
When you have a remote team that is scattered across different time zones, scheduling video meetings and phone calls becomes a huge problem.
The problem becomes even worse when the remote team is composed of independent workers with flexible work schedules.
Fortunately, there are tools that you can use to make scheduling easier for remote teams. For instance, you can use polling tools that allow team members to choose dates and times when they are available for a meeting or a call.
Another option is to use websites that can assess each team member's calendar and schedule meetings and calls based on every member’s availability.
4. Cultural Differences
If your remote team members are scattered across the globe, they will definitely have some cultural differences that can create huge challenges for the team.
A person’s culture will have influences on their view of work and success, how they prioritize tasks, their interactions with other team members, their personalities, their communication styles, and so on.
In some instances, these influences can create friction between team members, leading to resentment, low team morale, and decreased productivity.
To navigate these challenges as a manager, you need to be aware of the cultural influences of all your remote team members. You can then come up with a plan on how to maintain healthy relationships between team members, while putting their cultural differences into consideration.
5. Team Building And Bonding
In a traditional office setting, team members can engage in some chit chat around the water cooler, talk to each other over lunch, enjoy happy hours together after work hours, and so on.
This helps build strong bonds between team members, which in turn makes it easier for the team to work together and collaborate on projects.
With a remote team, there are no such opportunities for non-work-related interactions, which makes it more challenging to create team bonds.
As a manager, some of the things you can do to enhance team bonds include creating social media groups for the remote team, celebrating employees’ birthdays, recognizing and celebrating their victories in front of the team, and so on.
You can also organize once-a-year retreats where the remote team members can come together and interact in person.
6. Distractions And Interruptions
In a traditional office setup, organizations go to great lengths to provide a working environment that is free of distractions to allow employees to concentrate on their work.
Your remote employees, on the other hand, work from all sorts of places – their homes, the coffee shop down the street, the library, a co-working space, you name it.
In some of these places, controlling distractions and interruptions is next to impossible. At home, for instance, kids and pets might not understand that one is working. At the coffee shop, one has to deal with other patrons, waiters, and so on.
These distractions and interruptions can make it difficult for remote employees to fully concentrate on their work. Unfortunately, as a manager, there’s not much you can do about this, other than encouraging your remote employees to find working spaces that have the least amount of distractions.
Remote Work Management: How To Manage Remote Teams
Despite the challenges that come with managing a remote team, below are 13 tips that will help you lead and manage your remote team more effectively.
1. Be Clear About Your Expectations And Requirements
When working with a team spread across multiple locations, it is very important to make sure that everyone clearly understands what is required and expected of them. You should have standard processes, workflows, and procedures for handling everything.
Some of the things you’ll need to be clear about include…
- Work hours
- The accepted ways of communicating with team members
- Timelines for responding to emails and requests
- Availability of team members
- Attendance at team meetings
- The platforms and tools to be used for tracking work
- Key projects and deadlines
- How to check-in when team members run into problems or have questions
Having clear expectations and requirements will make collaboration easier and reduce the risk of conflicts within the team, since everyone knows what they need to do at all times and in different situations.
2. Check-In Regularly
Checking in with team members within an office setting is easy. You can ask your team members how they are doing, or how their project is going when you run into them in the lift or at the water cooler.
With remote teams, such chance encounters will never happen. Therefore, you need to be intentional about checking in with your remote team.
A good way to do this is to set up time to have some formal or informal check-ins with your team members to find out how things are going.
During these check-ins, find out what team members are working on, how their projects are progressing, what their goals for the week are, what they achieved the previous week, their top priorities, and so on. Don’t forget to ask about their general wellbeing as well.
Such check-ins will give you better insights about your team members’ performance and productivity, workloads, needs and concerns, stress levels, and their general work experience.
3. Invest In The Right Tools
With your team spread out across the globe, you’ll rely on technology for just about everything – communication, managing projects, tracking employee productivity, document sharing, you name it.
To make sure that all these activities run smoothly and efficiently, you need to invest in the right tools and platforms. At the most basic level, you need to invest in business management tools to help you manage your remote team.
A reliable business management tool provides you with a central location from which you can do all the following…
- Communicate with your geographically dispersed team
- Assign tasks to team members
- Keep up with the progress of different projects
- Track team members work hours and their productivity
- Share information with your team members in real time
- Hold discussions with team members
- Automate workflows and management tasks
With the right tools, it becomes a lot easier to maintain oversight over your remote team, keep everyone on the same page, and enhance collaboration, while ensuring that nothing falls through the cracks.
4. Equip Your Remote Team Adequately
In-office employees are usually equipped with everything they need to get their work done effectively – a good computer, reliable internet, a good office phone system, ergonomic furniture, you name it.
When it comes to remote teams, a lot of organizations assume that all that is required is a laptop and an internet connection.
While your remote team can get work done with just a laptop and an internet connection, this setup is not optimal, and can affect the quality of their work.
It is important, therefore, to come up with a plan to equip your remote team with the right tools they need to do their work effectively. This includes high quality computers, video calling equipment, ergonomic furniture, a stable internet connection, and so on.
You can do this by providing your remote team with the financial assistance to help them acquire all the right equipment they need to do their work. For example, Automattic, the company behind WordPress, gives their remote employees a home office allowance to help them set up a proper home office.
In addition to equipping them with the right tools, it is also important to equip your remote team with the right skills. This might mean paying for online courses for the team, or giving them access to an online learning platform, such as Coursera or Lynda.
5. Hire The Right People
While many employees love the idea of working remotely, it’s good to keep in mind that remote work is not suitable for everyone.
Some employees need constant supervision and pushing in order to deliver optimal work performance. In an office setting, this is not usually difficult, since it is easier to keep an eye on such an employee and what they are working on.
In a remote work environment, keeping close supervision on such an individual is a lot more challenging, and without such supervision, such an employee might start slacking.
This not only affects their performance, but it can also affect team morale, leading to decreased productivity for the entire team.
To avoid such situations, you should be very careful when hiring remote employees. Ideally, you want people who can manage themselves – employees who can be trusted to deliver what is required of them at all times, with minimal supervision.
6. Focus On Outputs, Rather Than Activities
In a traditional office setup, work performance is usually (and erroneously) judged by a person’s time at the office. Provided you get in on time, spend the whole day on your desk, and don’t leave before time, you’re considered to have done a full day’s work.
When managing a remote team, keeping track of how employees spend their team becomes very difficult. Using this method to gauge the performance of your remote employees will only create mistrust.
What you should do as a manager is to focus on the outputs of your remote team, rather than trying to keep an eye on how they spend their time.
Determine what your remote team needs to have accomplished within a given time, and then leave them to do it. It doesn’t matter whether they spend the day watching cat videos and do their work at night, provided the work gets done on time.
7. Properly Document All Work Processes
In a traditional office setup, if an employee encounters a challenge when trying to do something, it’s not a big deal. They can easily walk to a colleague’s desk and ask for help.
For remote teams, this is not an option. Worse, trying to get another team member to help could mean wasting the whole day waiting for a response from the other team member.
The best way to deal with such situations is to make sure that all your work procedures are well-documented.
For a remote content creation team, for instance, you might have well documented procedures for keyword research, a well-documented guide for formatting articles, a well-documented style and tone guide, a well-documented process for creating and attributing images, and so on.
The documentation should also be easily accessible to your remote teams. This way, whenever a remote employee encounters a challenge, they can resolve it by themselves by referring to the documentation.
8. Create Time For Team Members To Socialize And Connect
A lot of times, remote team members only interact with one another when discussing work-related things. There’s no space for connecting and socializing. Unfortunately, this can leave team members feeling isolated and disconnected from the rest of the team.
As a manager, it is your responsibility to create opportunities for your team to socialize and create meaningful relationships that go beyond work. The idea is to create a virtual equivalent of the conversations that happen when colleagues are having lunch, when they meet in the hallway, and so on.
So, how do you do this when team members never get to interact in person?
One way to do this is to organize virtual happy hours, where team members can gather online and just engage in non-work-related talk. Alternatively, you can create space for team members to catch up and engage in casual talk before or after work meetings.
Another way to do this is to create a WhatsApp or Facebook group for your team. The aim here is to provide team members with a space to engage in informal talk, rather than having the group act as another avenue for work communication.
9. Encourage The Team To Step Away From Work During Non-Business Hours
When you have a remote team spread across multiple time zones, it is inevitable that some emails and work chats will be sent when some team members are having their non-business hours.
Unfortunately, the concept of remote working often blurs the line between work and non-work hours, and you might find some employees responding to work requests even outside their working hours. This results in situations where some employees are perpetually at work.
While this can lead to short term increase in productivity, it will eventually lead to work-related stress and burnout for your team members.
To avoid this, always encourage your remote employees to shut off and avoid responding to work requests outside their working hours. This will make your remote team feel trusted, and boost their overall wellbeing, leading to better performance.
10. Take Advantage Of Video
A lot more goes into communication than the words we say. How we say the words, our gestures, our facial expressions, and even our body posture also carry meaning that can enhance what we are saying.
Unfortunately, when you only rely on email and messaging tools to communicate with your remote team, you miss out on a large part of what your team members are trying to communicate.
This is why it is important for anyone managing a remote team to use video as much as possible. Not only does video allow you to build comfort and trust with your team, it also allows you to gauge their mood, their reaction to changes in plans, and so on.
Such insights, in turn, give you a better understanding of your charges and help you manage your remote team better.
However, this does not mean using video for every communication. That will only end up wasting people’s time and affecting their productivity. You can reserve video communication for team meetings, one-in-one check-ins, and announcements.
11. Balance Schedule Inconvenience
Scheduling meetings when you have employees across multiple time zones is a huge challenge. It is inevitable that some team members will find themselves having to attend meetings at hours that are inconvenient for them.
Let’s say, for instance, you have a team member in New York, another in Nairobi, and another in Tokyo. If you schedule a meeting for 9.00 am New York time, it will be 4.00 pm in Nairobi, and 10.00 pm in Tokyo.
In such a scenario, it is possible to find most meetings being held at awkward times for the team member in Tokyo.
Over time, this can lead to resentment in this team member, since they always have to sacrifice their convenience for team meetings, while the other team members always have meetings during normal working hours.
To avoid this, it is important to balance schedule inconvenience by scheduling some meetings at times that are more convenient for the outlier.
You could schedule the next meeting at say noon, Tokyo time. This means that the team member in Nairobi will attend the meeting at 6.00 am, while the team members in New York will attend the meeting at 11.00 pm.
Doing this shows solidarity with the team member who is often affected, and helps other team members appreciate the sacrifice this team member makes regularly in order to attend team meetings.
12. Take The Time To Learn And Understand Your Remote Employees
When you regularly interact with an employee in person, it’s quite easy to learn about them – their personality, their motivations, their working style, and so on. With an online team, this is a lot more difficult, since all interactions happen electronically.
While you don’t have the privilege of in-person interactions, you can still use tools like personality tests to give you better insights about your team members. You can then use this information to manage your remote team better.
For instance, if you know that one of your remote team members is introverted, you can reduce the frequency with which you hold video calls with them, and come up with alternative means for holding check-ins with them.
13. Ask For Regular Feedback
In an office setting, getting feedback is easy. When people are working remotely, however, it becomes much harder for team members to share their feedback.
As a good manager, you should make a point of regularly asking your remote team for feedback about your processes and workflows, projects, team meetings, and even your overall management style. Asking for feedback allows you to identify opportunities for improvement.
One thing to keep in mind here is that you should not ask for feedback just for the sake of it. Always respond to feedback shared by your remote team and act on it. Otherwise, they will feel like you are taking them for granted and stop sharing it altogether.