How Do I Know If a Remote Team is Right For Me?
As a good manager, you try to help your employees out when their lives get busy.
John told you his kid is sick today, so you agreed to let him take the conference call from home. Next, Suzy just told you she needs to relocate to Denver, but you’re based in San Francisco.
Are you going to let her, one of your best employees, go, and be faced with yet another hiring challenge? Or should you agree to let her work remotely?
If you’re facing these questions, going remote may be the easiest way to grow.
It keeps your best employees in the company regardless of where they want to live, it gives you a much larger (and potentially cheaper) hiring pool and it helps accommodate employee emergencies without costing the company lost time.
Remote Leadership is Different From In House Leadership
As a manager, you need to be ready to embrace a different leadership style and be prepared for problems that you never encountered (or imagined encountering) before.
Most of the issues sound fairly straightforward, though even the very best in house managers will likely fail to see them unfolding remotely. The underlying problem with each of them is a lack of communication.
That’s why we brought in Wayne Turmel of the Remote Leadership Institute to discuss the top problems that managers face when transitioning to a remote or hybrid team. He has coached over 500 remote teams including American Red Cross, Schneider Electric, Dell, and several departments of the United States and Canadian governments in addition to writing multiple books on remote coaching.
Today, he dives into some of the most common issues he sees (that most managers have no idea is happening!) when helping remote teams. Specifically, we discuss how to identify, solve and maintain solutions to the following challenges:
- Maintaining Trust
- Treating Employees Equally
- Creating Policies
- Avoiding Siloed Work
- Accommodating Extroverts
It’s important to realize that communication is the root of each of these problems and that when in doubt, reach out to your team and simply ask.
Identifying, Solving and Maintaining Solutions to These Top Problems
If you Slack Sarah a time-sensitive question about a project and she doesn’t respond, what do you start thinking?
You might assume that she’s on a Target run while the rest of the team is working. Or that she’s at the beach getting in a good wave.
On a day that you aren’t dealing with a stressful project, you might assume she’s tied up with another project.
The underlying problem is that you’re making assumptions, which is what we are forced to do when there is no evidence.
You can identify trust issues with the language your team members use.
If you consistently hear comments like, “I asked this person, but she must be out of the office right now as I haven’t heard back yet”, you might want to look into the situation.
Another key indicator is that a team member is always copying you on an email to a co-worker or emailing you excessively with updates.
In this case, the team member is either trying to show you that they are working as they feel you don’t trust them, or they are trying to show you that another team member isn’t following through.
Either way, you have trust issues. So how can you, as the boss, facilitate trust?
One way is simply to set an example yourself.
Turmel says, “I always check in with my team prior to heading outside.”
For example, the day of our discussion, he was working early in the morning and then planned to go for a walk in the middle of the day. To handle this, he lets the team know on slack that he will be out and also leaves his phone number and says that if they need him they can contact him there.
This does two things very well. First, the team knows where he is and isn’t questioning if he is just skipping out on work today. As the leader, the team wants to see that you are committed.
Secondly, if they do need to contact him, they can do so easily.
Trust takes a long time to build, even in live relationships.
In addition, encourage your team members to also take full advantage of their status updates. If John sees that Sarah is online but hasn’t responded to his request yet, he might make the assumption that she doesn’t really care about his project. However, if he uses the do not disturb status, people will know that he is working on an important project and will get back them later.
Finally, set expectations upfront with your group. If your job is tech support, you might need to be available from 9-5. However, if you’re a writer, it doesn’t really matter if you’re writing at 4pm or 4am. Have these discussions with your team and set expectations.
Treating Employees Equally
While you may be running a fair team, your employees might not perceive it that way.
For example, this is one scenario Turmel gave that happens quite frequently in hybrid teams:
He said that the remote team will often think that the in-house is lucky because the boss will pick one of them when it comes time for a promotion. However, the in-house team may be jealous of the remote team because the boss isn’t interrupting them every time he/she needs something.
While neither of these assumptions may necessarily be true, what really matters is how your employees perceive it.
Look at patterns in your decisions and habits and ask for anonymous feedback.
Have you picked mainly in house team members for promotions? Do you make considerably fewer requests to remote team members?
If this is true, simply address it with your team. Acknowledge that you have picked mainly in house team members. Then, either be open with the team that you prefer to promote in house team members for x,y and z reasons or explain how you are picking promotions and why being remote versus in house had nothing to do with it.
It’s important to execute this conversation correctly as well. Make sure that you communicate this online first so that the whole company sees it rather than the in house team hearing about it first.
This can also happen in 100% remote teams as well. If there is one team member that always responds immediately to you, you might be constantly messaging that person with questions.
Again, look at your actions and patterns in your daily routine. Address them with the team and encourage their feedback.
One of the most important parts of transitioning to a remote team is making sure that you have certain policies in place. For example, what kind of webcam are we going to use? Will we have daily check-ins on Slack? How will one on one meetings work?
However, creating a firm policy based on your work style and experience can lead to an unhappy team. While you can probably sense a shift in dynamics when a policy isn’t working for an in house team, it’s a little harder to identify in a remote team.
So how can you identify it in a remote team?
It will probably show up in your team’s work. Perhaps they are missing deadlines or their work isn’t what you had discussed in the last team meeting.
Turmel gave the following example: you may have a policy in place where managers only have one on one meetings with team members on Thursdays. This may be the same as your in house policy, but if one of your in house team members has a quick question, he or she will likely just pop into your office.
On the other hand, if your remote employee has a quick question, she’s more likely to try and figure it out on her own rather than scheduling a call with you. This might mean that projects are requiring more revisions and it’s taking longer to complete them.
Continuously test your policies and conduct anonymous surveys asking for feedback. In addition, one policy may not fit all team members.
Also, monitor your progress with these policies in place. At the end of the day, we only have policies to help us work better. If numbers are going down and team meeting are not as productive, don’t wait to make changes.
Avoiding Siloed Work
When I asked Turmel how fractions in remote teams start he responded, “It usually starts where you have one person that gets very focused on their work and they become siloed.”
If you’re working on a project in house, employees are probably talking about it in the break room, in the hall and walking to their cars.
In a remote team, your employees may forget that they are only a piece of a bigger picture.
How can you spot this?
That employee will typically send messages only to the manager rather than the rest of the team. In addition, he or she may be leaving conference calls that are concerning another struggling team member. A general lack of interest for other parts of the project that isn’t directly impacting that employee’s work is a good sign of siloed work.
Fixing this is fairly easy, but it’s important that you stay vigilant about maintaining the solution.
As the manager, don’t allow team members to use you to ask a question that another team member could answer. Instead, recommend that they check in with John. The more your employees talk to each other, the less siloing will occur.
Be gentle in your execution as you don’t want people to stop reaching out to you. Keeping an open line of communication is crucial to a remote team.
If you are in the process of transitioning to a remote team, some of your employees may not have ever worked remotely before. If that’s the case, they may not realize what it’s really like and some may struggle with the transition.
This is particularly true if you have extroverts on the team.
Turmel says, “Over 60% of our contact with people comes from people at work.” If you’re an extrovert, it’s going to be a shock at first and will take some adjusting.
How can you better support your extroverted employees?
Consider investing in synchronous tools, like webcams and chat, rather than asynchronous tools like email.
Once you have those tools, ask yourself how you can facilitate more conversation. Is there another way you can allow people to experience more personal touches and jokes?
One solution may be doing more team trips. A lot of remote companies invest in retreats so that the team members actually get to know each other.
Do you have some employees that live in the same town? Offer to sponsor a night out for them to get together.
You can also encourage employees to check out co-working spaces. Even if they aren’t interacting with people on your team on a daily basis, they will be happier if they have personal interaction daily.
Finally, ask your employees about their personal lives. How are their kids doing? Did they get that car they were talking about? Be personable and bring it up in group chats.
Take The Next Step
Remote working has crept up on companies. Many never intended to go remote, but are now forced to compete with companies that offer employees more flexible options.
Prior to switching, set expectations upfront. Who is paying for inkjets? What communication tools are necessary? Make the transition in waves and continuously tweak your policies.
I want to leave you with one last piece of advice that Turmel gave: always measure productivity, not activity.
At the end of the day, if you find that your team is more active than it is effective, revisit these suggestions and share this with your team.