Remote team management is a balancing act.
On one side, remote employees can "just work when they are most effective," notes Charli Hunt, Founder of Proof Content.
On the other hand, Rebecca Newenham, Founder of Get Ahead VA, points out that it is challenging to "provide the support that each employee needs and help them adjust effectively."
So, what are the pertinent challenges of managing a remote workforce? And how can you become an effective team leader?
Remote Team Challenges
Staffbase reported that 85% of the virtual employees say the communication they receive from their employer is not enough.
Yes, technology has made remote collaboration as easy as clicking. But humans use body gestures, facial expressions, tones to piece together the context.
Unfortunately, Slack cannot help your team members process or build upon that context remotely.
Buffer’s State of Remote Report (2020) found communication and collaboration was the topmost challenge for remote workers, along with loneliness.
2. Facetime with remote employees
You cannot rely on workplace encounters to track employee productivity. Similarly, remote employees cannot scan your face or body posture to read the situation.
So, supervisors may think employees are not doing their job, and workers — with less managerial access and support — may believe their needs and concerns do not matter as much without face-to-face contact.
You cannot disregard unconscious perception as well.
MIT Sloan Management Review's extensive research reports passive face time can distort employee credibility. The study states that managers and peers think an employee is "committed" or "responsible," if they can observe the said employee in passing.
3. Mistrust among remote employees
Mistrust is a significant issue that can easily fester without your supervision. Since remote employees do not work in a shared workspace, it is natural for them to assume.
That their work is an afterthought, no one is listening to them, or that you are always unavailable.
Such assumptions can quickly crack your team morale.
4. Work-life balance for remote workers
Then there is work-life balance. In a distributed work environment, the line between work and personal life blurs.
As a result, employees can fall prey to unhealthy lifestyle habits, which may lead to loneliness, depression, or burn out, especially without a social support system.
Out of 1004 employees Airtasker surveyed, 29% of remote employees struggled with work-life balance, compared to 23% of onsite workers.
You may also observe issues like:
- Low morale and team spirit
- Colliding cultural etiquettes
- Little to no office culture
- Wrong work tools (aka tech stack)
- Budget mismanagement
Remember: It is your responsibility to be vigilant and weed out any issues before they can sprout their ugly heads.
Can All Employees Become Good Remote Employees?
The tl;dr? No, they cannot. There are caveats though.
You see, most employees thrive on recognition. O. C. Tanner found 78% of employees — who feel recognized — are more engaged at work than those (33%) who are not.
That is not all. Recognized employees also have a great working relationship with their managers.
How Do You Manage A Productive Remote Team?
There are two things you must consider: employee characteristics and trust.
Find the right characteristics in remote employees
Successful remote employees exhibit particular traits like:
- Strong communication
- Work prioritization
Based on your business goals, budget, and resources, you may seek additional or other traits of good employees.
Can You Trust Remote Workers?
Often, employers think remote work is a privilege an employee has to earn, which is a valid point.
You are paying someone — that you cannot see or observe — to work.
Plus, not all positions are remote-friendly. Your company may require onsite employees.
Sam Wilson, Co-Founder of Virtalent, states that managers must "look at the role and employee's personality to identify how 'remote' the remote role can be."
Then, observe whether the office employee:
- Works without constant supervision or direct orders,
- Manages herself with enough maturity and accountability,
- Shows intrinsic motivation,
- Completes the tasks in given timelines,
- Demonstrates flexibility and accommodates team and project needs,
- Possesses the right set of tools
What To Know About Managing On-site Teams vs. Remote Teams
Managing a team is a never-ending responsibility.
You may find positives in leading an onsite team. Or you may prefer remote collaboration. However, each work setting brings forth unique pluses and minuses.
Here is a look at how team management differs for remote and onsite collaboration. (The more you know, the quicker you can act.)
1. Office culture
Office culture is a defining characteristic of your company. Your employees evaluate it to decide whether or not to stay with you.
Since onsite teams share a workspace, have informal meetings, do team dinners/group activities, and talk over water coolers, healthy work culture is easier to cultivate.
What about remote teams then?
Well, intentional efforts can make up for the lack of sharing the same time zone. For example, PwC encourages their employees to take mental health breaks, even "while on a conference call," says Rod Adams, US & Mexico Talent Acquisition Leader at PwC. "They can also use one of our well-being apps for meditation," adds Adams.
Collaboration within onsite teams is easy.
You can find a swift solution to a client emergency. Your team can get rapid IT support.
You can even debug a new product release update.
For remote collaboration to function, you need asynchronous work systems that leverage screen sharing, instant messaging, and other digital communication tools to scale team productivity and round-the-clock customer support.
3. Work satisfaction
Physical offices are seeing higher employee turnover as workplace practices adopt employee-centric policies.
Your job as a manager then becomes to listen to onsite workers, prioritize their needs, and align their goals to your employer's.
In a remote team, however, work flexibility allows you to design a customized work satisfaction system.
GaggleAMP offers unlimited time off and encourages breaks during the day. "We have groups that do virtual happy hours, play games together, or just catch-up after the workday is over," says Michelle Brammer, Director of Marketing at GaggleAMP.
Every team member — remote and onsite — needs to work on building trust with one another actively.
Onsite, you can encourage impromptu bonding time, start an open-door policy, promote transparency.
For remote collaboration, you can share each member's goals with the team (with permission, of course). Ensure that every member can express their concerns and updates without interruptions. Have a one-on-one interaction to ask about a team member's day.
TeamBuilding encourages "Mister Rogers Calls," wherein an app randomly matches two team members for a one-on-one video call. Michael Alexis, CEO of TeamBuilding, says the members chat "with the only restriction being that you cannot talk about work projects."
While you may notice attentive eyes during team meetings, the onsite employees tend to linger afterward to chat.
Besides, they do not dive into deep work right after a meeting.
The remote setting is not any better. A sudden doorbell or a family member with a cat video can break your employee's focus.
Both environments require a solid structure to get past distractions.
Remote Management Processes
- Meetings: Schedule weekly and monthly team and one-on-one virtual meetings. (Reserve yearly meetings for a fun get-together). Without meetings, remote workers can feel disconnected from their team and employer. In turn, they become unsure of where they stand. You want employees to feel valued. Plus, you can easily exchange work feedback.
- Scheduling: Use online polls, calendar apps, and gamification to simplify scheduling. Since remote workers and independent contractors have flexible, inconsistent schedules, you have to get creative just to meet.
- Deep work: Not everyone can work at the pace you expect. So, use apps like Todoist and WasteNoTime to set time pockets and enable deep work. You can also track their billable hours (especially if they are working on a client project) with Harvest or Toggl.
Employee interaction and support
- Manage expectations: You must set clear expectations for every virtual team member, including yourself. Start by clarifying the tasks and corresponding rationale, scope, deliverables, deadlines, success metrics, and support structure. The thing is, everyone defines 'smart work' or a 'quick turnaround' differently. So when you bring each member on the same page, the results will be fruitful.
- Organize 1:1s: According to Harvard Business Review, a canceled 15-30 minute employee meeting can create long-term problems. Yes, making time for a one-on-one check-in with each remote employee is overwhelming. For your employees, however, it says, “I am important.” They can share their challenges, give feedback on current processes, and get your guidance. First step? Show that you care. And ensure you have an agenda for each session.
- Offer real vacations: Buffer's State of Remote Report found that 43% of remote workers opted for a 2-3 week vacation. Disconnecting from work leads to better sleep cycles, lower blood pressure, and improved work performance. Leverage work flexibility to help your employees maintain their physical and mental well-being strategies.
How To Implement A Remote Team Program in 3 Steps
To enable an effective remote team program, you must first identify:
- Your goals as a remote manager
- Your employer's expectations
Your program is a dynamic entity. And you must continually revisit it to ensure your team has the right resources, tools, and processes to succeed.
So, where do you start?
Prerequisites: Begin by getting the buy-in from C-Suite.
Remote employment is beneficial. There is no doubt. Alexis observed TeamBuilding "saved at least $300,000 by working remotely" over 7+ years.
Then, classify which team positions can go remote and whether you have the right employees (see Employee Characteristics and Trust). Next, draft a timeline to roll out this program in your team (and company, if applicable).
It will be wise to determine the following as well:
- Work schedules of your team members
- Performance and productivity metrics
- Operational costs and limitations
Do not forget to create a process for resolving problems. A blame game or a misinformed gesture can prove hazardous. Instead, consider a team exercise to find root causes.
Sidenote: Another process you can set is sharing the “why” behind your team projects. Technology has made the distance obsolete, not human insecurities.
1. Working conditions
Sit down with company management to finalize appropriate workflows for projects and secure exchange/storage of data. Decide workspace and Internet requirements, essential tools, guidelines for working in public spaces.
Then, discuss employee compensation, benefits, and legal rights. Although most remote employees get the same benefits and legal rights as onsite employees do, their zip code may compel you to make sure your business is compliant with the local entity's protocols.
And finally, create a centralized location to access information.
2. Communication etiquettes
Without a precise guideline to interact, your team members can quickly suffer from notification fatigue, resulting in lower motivation and accountability.
And in the absence of non-verbal cues, they can misinterpret good-intentioned messages.
So, write down communication etiquettes for:
- Sharing urgent information, feedback, concerns
- Contacting supervisors
- Signing in and off for work
- Participating in informal conversations
- Assigning vacation handover work
3. Recurring meetings
The first step is to ensure your remote team understands that regular meetings help your team performance.
Brief on your team on:
- The attire for different types of meetings
- Video conferencing tool
- Impromptu conversations
- Facilitation and note-taking responsibilities
- Appropriate backdrop
- Wi-Fi requirements
- Secure exchange of sensitive data
- Conversation starters
- One-on-one sessions
When each team member follows your set protocols, they automatically respect each other's time and take ownership of their role.
What additional points should you include in the program manifesto?
- Team-building activities
- Physical and mental well-being
- Out-of-office handover procedure
Remote Tech stack
No remote team can survive without the right tech stack.
And to build one, you need to be thorough. Why?
There are hundreds of SaaS tools for each business management category. And one wrong tool can affect your otherwise healthy tech stack, hindering your team performance. Now, some of these questions may not be relevant to your tech stack strategy. That is fine. Just remember you should choose SaaS tools that multiply your team’s performance.
So here is your checklist to choose the right tool:
- Is the pricing model per-user or per-company?
- Is it an all-in-one platform?
- Can it integrate with other tools?
- How does it handle and store your data?
- For front-end tools: Do they offer GDPR-compliant features?
- How easy is it to use?
- Can your team start using it immediately?
- Does it provide instant communication and feedback features?
- Can your team collaborate in real-time?
- How robust is its customer support?
- Can you add branding customizations?
When your team is working from five different time zones, "you need to be confident that you have hired the best people for the job, so you can let them do their work without micromanaging," notes Dennis Vu, Founder of Ringblaze.
Hiring the best people may be easy, but retaining them is another story. As a manager, you must build a team on:
- Business and remote employee goals,
- Work expectations,
- Remote-friendly processes, and
- Open communication
What systems and processes are you implementing to improve your remote team?