10 tips for managing remote employees, and distributed teams
As workforces around the globe become distributed, managers have to adapt and figure out how to efficiently manage remote employees. Even if New Zealand moved to Alert Level 3, the working-from-home rule applies and will continue. So now is a good time to audit your practices and improve where possible to maintain trust, productivity levels, and desired outcomes.
Make the best use of chat and visual tools
There are many communication tools at our disposal, so let's taking advantage of all technology available for managing remote employees. Setting up the right tools plays a huge role in making employees feel that they are part of the team, creating a sense of togetherness. It is also important to understand what tools work best for all different type of conversations; we suggest creating a rulebook and have managers follow that to ensure consistency across the organisation.
Tools such as Slack and Google Chat are great to engage in a quick conversation with an employee. For virtual meetings, Zoom and Google Hangout are the best tools easily accessible. For task collaboration, Trello is the best tool to use.
Set objectives and timelines
Be clear about team objectives and expectations around output deadlines. This is important for employees to succeed. Avoiding the micro-management of tasks will help build trust and allow for transparent communication on progress. Set expectations on response times and working hours - ensure these align with the ones for your in-office employees who are helping with emergency crisis response.
Have regular meetings
Having regular 1:1s allows you to connect with your employees, check in on projects and develop a rapport. Unlike direct reports who work in the same space with you, there is no opportunity for impromptu office run-ins, so keeping these meetings consistently on the calendar is an essential way to stay up-to-date on what your employees are working on. Having a regular meeting cadence also helps build trust and create space for support. Make sure to hold 1:1s via video conference whenever possible.
Facetime - If you have the opportunity, a face-to-face meeting can build morale and help your remote workers connect to the company culture and the team. If you’re in the same area, it could be helpful to schedule a weekly or bi-weekly in-person meeting. If your remote employees are spread across the world, a yearly team off-site or teamwide conference can help build a stronger team connection. Make the most of the time that you do have with your remote employees. Talk about work, but also use this time to build personal connections. Going out for lunch, or doing something fun outside the office can help break down barriers.
Practice inclusivity with all employees
One of the trickiest challenges managers of remote teams face is making sure that their remote employees feel included in meetings – particularly when part of the team is not remote. ‘It’s important to make sure people are making eye contact with the person on the screen and to position all participants so they feel they have a seat at the table,’ says Lakshmi Rengarajan, WeWork’s director of workplace connection. It can be easy to schedule a last-minute meeting to hash out a problem, plan a project or brainstorm an idea, but remote workers are often left out of these impromptu meetings because they aren’t included on the invite, there is no video option on the invite or the meeting is outside their working hours. To combat this challenge, do your best to make all meetings remote-friendly. This means including a call-in option for every meeting invite and doing your best to plan ahead. If you do need to call a last-minute meeting, make sure that you take detailed notes and follow up with your remote employees afterwards to relay the information and see if they have any questions.
Establish professional trust
When you’re managing remote employees, you won’t have as much oversight into their day-to-day activities, so it is important to build professional trust. Making an effort to see your employees in person from time to time can help build trust, and regular 1:1 check-ins give you an understanding of your team’s workload.
It’s also important to be flexible. Many remote workers look for virtual jobs to maintain flexibility in terms of location and hours. That doesn’t mean that they should be working from their phone while attending a concert, but it does mean you should help your employees determine working hours that work for them and trust that they’ll get their work done during those hours.
Use project/product tracker tools
Managing projects over email can leave you and your employees with an exploding inbox that is difficult to keep track of. Instead, a project management tool, like Asana, Airtable or Trello, helps to keep you and your team aligned on next steps, expectations, deadlines and ownership. Most tools allow you to comment on tasks, reassign them, set deadlines and attach documents or content. A lot of details can slip through the cracks when you’re coordinating a project over email, so moving your project to a project tracking tool can remove some clutter and confusion from your inbox while giving your remote employees a visual way to see where projects stand.
Virtual collaboration sessions
It’s easy to give your remote workers tasks that can be done in a silo, but promoting collaborative projects is a great way to build team morale and keep your remote employees inspired. There are easy ways to brainstorm and problem-solve as a distributed team, like using a Google Doc for ongoing ideas or hosting a Slack brainstorm.
Prioritise with goals in mind
Along with setting expectations and guidelines, you should set goals with your remote employees. It is easy for any employee, remote or otherwise, to lose steam and do the bare minimum if they don’t have long-term goals that they are working towards. To keep them engaged, productive and feeling included, make sure they know what success looks like for their role and that they understand how their goals make an impact on the team’s goals.
Remote workers, and all workers for that matter, should have personal goals they’re working towards, but being open and clear about company-wide or team-wide goals can help your employees understand how their personal goals ladder up into larger goals. For remote workers, this is particularly important because it reminds them that they are a valuable part of the team and are not forgotten. As a team leader, you may have heard large-scale company goals so many times you could recite them backwards, but that information doesn’t always trickle down to remote employees.
Create watercooler moments
Having casual conversations about non-work-related topics can create intimacy and build relationships across your team. Of course, with remote workers, there aren’t watercoolers or office snacks to bring the team together. If many of your virtual employees work in the same satellite office, you can set up a webcam between your office and their office to make it feel like you are working together. This might feel strange at first, but after a week or two, your employees will adjust and it will feel natural. Just make sure that the webcast goes both ways; that way it won’t seem like you are spying on them.
If a webcast is not doable for your office situation, or if most of your employees work from home, find ways to encourage non-work chatter. For example, have everyone check-in before each meeting to say how they are feeling or to share something about their weekend. Or, as Rengarajan recommends, ‘You can reach out to a long-distance colleague and say, “Let’s just have a chat on video over lunch together.”’