Millions of businesses across the world have had to learn all about managing remote teams this year.
For some, it’s been a huge and unexpected paradigm shift. For others, specifically those already allowing some degree of remote working, it’s perhaps been an easier transition.
Regardless of where you are on the remote working spectrum, it’s undeniable that managing a remote team is very different to taking charge of an office environment. It’s been an uncomfortable change for many managers, especially those who have been doing things in the same way for many years.
But companies can and do thrive with entirely remote workforces. Remote first companies have been doing this for years, and blazing a trail other firms can learn from.
Whether you’re managing a permanently remote team by intention, or suddenly operating in this way due to Covid-19, this article will help you establish smooth and productive working practices. Most importantly, following the tips here will ensure your team is kept content, and not managed too much, or too little.
10 Tips for Managing Remote Teams
1. Define Hours and Expectations
If it works for your company, there’s no reason why you can’t stick to a traditional 9 to 5, despite having a remote team. This is, of course, only applicable if you have a team in just one time-zone.
However, it’s worth looking at the opportunities more flexible working hours can bring. For starters, allowing flexibility can mean happier staff who can better fit work around their personal lives.
There are benefits for the company too, however. In many businesses, there are tasks that are easier to perform outside of core office hours. Some duties are easier to carry out in the absence of customer calls or online sales, for example.
With this in mind, it’s wise to take a “why not?” attitude to requests for flexibility, rather than a “why?” attitude.
Whatever work patterns you settle on, the key thing is to define what’s expected of everybody. What core hours must people be available? Exactly how much flexibility is permitted?
Decide these things collaboratively and document them, so that everybody knows where they stand and there are no grey areas.
2. Ensure Staff Know Where to Go for Help
What should staff members do when they’re stuck? Who should they ask? Should they pick up the phone, start a Zoom call, send an email, or ping off a Slack message?
These become BIG questions in a remote environment, because you can’t just peer over the monitor and ask somebody.
If staff don’t know how to resolve difficulties, it can cause frustration and inertia. Ultimately, less gets achieved. So make sure it’s easy for blockages in the system to get unclogged. That includes ensuring that managers know the important of giving timely responses.
3. Avoid “Zoom” Overload
Zoom has really saved the day in 2020. It’s facilitated everything from news broadcasts to family lockdown quizzes to parliamentary meetings. Companies have leaned on the platform hard in order to replace face-to-face interaction.
However, we’re already hearing tales of “zoom fatigue,” and it’s a very real thing.
The danger is overuse. Some companies have long fallen into the trap of unnecessary meetings that do little but drain away time. Zoom calls have, in many cases, become the modern day equivalent.
Video calls definitely have their place, but it’s wise to be judicious about when they are needed. Consider alternatives too. Sometimes a shared document with active use of comment sections is more useful. It’s also asynchronous, so doesn’t require a bunch of people to check and adjust schedules.
4. Check in Regularly
While it’s good to avoid meetings for the sake of meetings, there is an exception when it comes to looking after individual team members.
Regular one-to-one catch-ups are really important when you’re not crossing paths with your team on a regular basis. Knowing, for example, that there will be a regular Friday catch-up, means that every individual knows they have an upcoming opportunity to raise questions or concerns.
There are two really important things to remember here: First, don’t let these meetings slip. This can leave the employee feeling that they’re not valued.
Secondly, and on a related note, don’t cancel a catch-up just because it doesn’t seem like there’s much to discuss. If that’s the case, use the time to talk about broader things, or even non work-related subjects.
And that brings us neatly on to the next tip…
5. Provide a Social Outlet
One thing that’s inevitably lost when managing remote teams is the social, “water cooler” element of office life.
It’s down to every company to provide opportunities for staff to bond and get to know each other. This means arranging non-work-related events and initiatives for the team.
The idea of a “Zoom happy hour” has become rather clichéd in recent months, but it’s not bad as a starting point. Quizzes, murder mystery events and online gaming sessions are all good options, as are things involving physical activities like group yoga sessions and walking meetings.
Just a couple of key things to remember: First, make sure that the kind of social activities you plan are decided on by the whole team. All too often they’re based on the whims of one strong-minded manager, without any thought to whether everyone will enjoy or feel comfortable with them.
Secondly, make sure you run these events on company time, or time people are being paid for. It’s never right to expect people to give up their valuable free time to improve your company’s culture.
6. Decide How Tools and Apps Should be Used
There are numerous great tools that help facilitate remote working, such as file-sharing apps, “Kanban” project management systems like Trello and Asana, and messaging systems like Slack.
However, it’s really easy to end up creating a time-sucking monster by over-using these tools, or using them without solid guidance.
The key to getting this right is to clearly define what to use each tool for. For example, say a staff member has a query on an upcoming project. Should they send a Slack message, email their line manager, or put the query on the relevant Trello board?
Making sure people know how to use each tool, specifically in the context of your company, is crucial.
If you don’t develop clear processes, everybody will do their own thing. You will end up with time wasted on endless Slack chats, key decisions undocumented, and a really troublesome and inconsistent flow of information.
7. Take Data Security Seriously
When the Covid pandemic began and lots of people suddenly began working from home, it seems likely lots of corners were cut in terms of data security.
Companies needed quick solutions, and things were done in a rush. However, with more time to consolidate, it’s now crucial that companies patch those holes.
Dependent on the size and structure of your business, this could be your issue entirely, or something an IT team takes care of. Either way, it cannot be ignored. Remote working inevitably creates opportunities for data breaches, so a full risk assessment is required.
Don’t be surprised if investment is required to get this right. You may even wish to consider a full “thin client” style system so that data remains on central systems and is only accessed via a remote window, with nothing stored on people’s individual computers.
8. Ensure Staff Store Files in the Right Places
This point ties together the previous two, and highlights another danger of people being given too much freedom to do their own thing.
Issues around random and inconsistent file storage often rear their heads in small start-up environments. The worst culprits are those with teams that are tech-savvy enough to make things work, but perhaps not tech-savvy enough to avoid creating huge problems for themselves in the long term.
It’s all very well letting people use their own laptops, choose their own software, and work in the way they’re most comfortable with. Unfortunately, the problems with this always reveal themselves once the team grows beyond a few people.
Usually it’s issues finding a particular vital file or trouble tracking how a decision was made. Having company data and – potentially – intellectual property, scattered all over different people’s laptops and cloud storage systems, is a really bad idea.
It gets far worse once somebody leaves, especially if they do so acrimoniously. It’s really easy to lose control over stuff like this, so if this resonates with how things work within your business, do something about it fast.
9. Think VERY Carefully About Monitoring Software
Many bosses switching to managing remote teams for the first time become tempted by monitoring software. There’s certainly been a notable increase in companies advertising software like this in 2020!
The best advice is to think really carefully before using something like this. If you’ve hired the right people, your trust in them should be a given. And while it may seem tempting to replace the ability to look over their shoulders, there are inevitable implications for their perception of your mutual relationship.
There are, of course, some businesses where monitoring may be a necessity for compliance reasons, or other solid justifications. There’s nothing to specifically say you should eschew remote monitoring completely – just be mindful of the implications for company trust and culture.
And of the subject of compliance, be aware that many countries have strict legislation about employee monitoring. As such, you must ensure that the company itself doesn’t fall foul of the law.
10. Copy the Experts
Our final tip brings us full circle to something we said at the start: Remote-by-default companies have been doing all this stuff for a long time, and many have become masters of the art.
This means that they’re a great source of inspiration and ideas, so take a look at some of their initiatives and see what your business can learn from them.
Businesses like this are often keen to discuss how they maintain their remote working culture. There’s nothing to stop you learning from their ideas and experiences – or even straight up doing some of the same things as them!
Managing remote teams is certainly different to managing on-site staff. There’s an inevitable shift away from presenteeism and daily interactions, towards something that’s much more based on results and output. Ultimately this can be a very good thing.
Remote working is definitely here to stay, and managing remote teams effectively is increasingly becoming a valuable skill within itself. Hopefully these tips will help you up your game.
Ben Taylor was setting up tech for remote working as far back as 2001. A passionate advocate for work / life balance and flexible working patterns, he’s the Founder of HomeWorkingClub.com, a popular site for aspiring home-based workers.