There are lots of good reasons that you might have (and want) a remote team – but that doesn’t mean that managing remote workers is easy. Managing people that are sitting in the same office with you is challenging enough, but when your team is not in the same building, it gets a lot harder. Add to that time-zone and cultural differences, and you can see why it’s not easy to manage a remote team.
Having managed people working remotely for some time, I’ve made many mistakes. This lead to a lot of research into what other businesses were doing with remote team management, and some changes to my approach that helped enormously. These both helped the team get more of the right things done, and helped me have more confidence and trust in the team.
Here’s my distillation of the best practices for managing remote workers…
1) Give Crystal Clear Directions
When you’re not in the same room with someone, it’s extremely easy for them to misinterpret something you’ve said. For this reason you need to develop a way of briefing in work in such a way that it’s virtually bullet-proof. You might want to use a Trello board or start a Google Doc to record the brief, but you should definitely specify absolutely everything you can about the work and the approach you want your team member to take. Depending on the type of work, this could include the length, style, time you expect it to take, desired end-result, your KPI’s for the work, tone, design, style, language or really any expectation that you have (and may not even realise). Think screen-shots, examples, screen-casts, diagrams, etc. You really cannot provide too much information when you’re managing remote workers.
2) Break Things into Tiny Tasks
Here’s a tip based on personal experience… never start working with someone by briefing in a whole project. Especially at first, the tasks you delegate should be tiny! Once you have worked together for a longer time, you might want to expand the scope of work that you brief in at once, but don’t get ahead of yourself. Even if you brief work in flawlessly, there will still be times when it’s misunderstood – especially in the beginning. Be patient when this happens – just correct course and keep going.
3) Check-In Daily
Remote workers are out of site and it’s all too easy for them to be out of mind. Before you know it, you can easily let days, weeks or even months slip by without any contact. If this happens, you quickly lose touch with your team member and soon enough, the only thing you have is an overdue project and maybe a big bill. Don’t do this.
Instead, have a daily rhythm where you check in daily with each other. It might just be 5 minutes using a chat platform, and it might be either a quick progress update, or it might include one of the following two points. But either way, don’t skip the daily check in as a key part of managing remote workers.
4) Hold Regular One on One Meetings
This is really just part of being a manager, but when it comes to managing remote workers, it’s even more important. (Also see our post on how do you actually manage people.) Having a scheduled meeting where you can get an update on the work, but also dive deeper into other aspects is so important. You can cover things like; what’s working/not working for your team member, their short-term and longer-term goals, anything holding them back, their ideas for improving the area they work on or your business in general, or the practicalities of their working environment. The following three points are always items for discussion as well.
Scheduling these one-on-one times as a regular meeting helps your remote worker to feel like a valued member of your team and is likely to increase their commitment to you and your business.
5) Recreate the Water Cooler
When you work in an office with others, you can’t help but have some banter which is non-work related. Some see this as a waste of time, but it indirectly helps you each understand each other better, which in turn, leads you to work together better. It might not seem efficient to chat about sports teams or your respective families, but in the long-run, it makes a lot of sense.
When your team is separate from you, it’s easy to overlook the importance of this casual chit-chat. Try to get inventive as to how to recreate the water-cooler in a systematic way. It might be something as simple as starting each meeting with some conversation about the weekend. Or, you could introduce a tradition of having a bizarre weekly question which prompts more of an open discussion (eg “what are you having for dinner tonight and why?” or “what’s one thing on your bucket list?”). There are even some businesses that start a chat channel for something non-work related (eg “what are you watching on Netflix at the moment?”.
Although it might seem like a waste of time, these discussions help your remote team members know each other (and you) much better than they otherwise would if discussions are strictly limited to work. They happen naturally in an office, and although you might have to force it a little bit at first, you’ll soon find that people will get the hang of it when working remotely as well.
6) Share Company Goals and Wins
When team members understand the bigger picture of their work, it usually correlates to higher motivation and productivity. When you’re managing remote workers, make sure you give them the greater “why” behind the work and don’t just focus on the task at hand. This might include sharing customer stories / case studies, discussing your vision for the business and where you see it in 5 years time, and also sharing your reasons for starting the business. It’s also valuable to get team members’ input into short and medium-term goals.
7) Build a Culture of Showing Your Work
When people work side by side, they hear a lot about what is going on in the business. They can hear see what marketing is being done, hear the sales efforts on the phones, and know what struggles the engineers are facing. When you’ve got a team that is working remotely, none of that is true. Find a way to keep everyone up-to-date on what everyone else is doing. This could be a weekly update from everyone during a meeting, or a chat channel where you all share a small win for the day.
An end-of-day email is also a fantastic way to both encourage people to focus on their accomplishments, and to increase the transparency between team members. Encourage people to share even the things that might seem mundane or trite to others.
8) Understand When to use Which Tool
Working remotely allows a great deal of efficiency but be careful you don’t lean too far this way. The quality of your communications is equally important. Different tools are better suited for different situations and in terms of communication quality, in general you can say that “Vide0 > Phone > Chat > Email”. That is to say, when you communicate by video you’re much less likely to be misunderstood and you can more easily get everyone on the same page.
- Video is perfect for when you have a sensitive or complicated issue to discuss. They usually take more time to arrange and not everyone loves video, but it’s great for getting everyone on the same page.
- The telephone (or any voice call like Skype) is a step down from that as you lose the body and facial language cues. But you still have the verbal tonal differences which communicate a lot! Most people can communicate far more thoroughly and effectively on the phone than they can in writing.
- Online chat is very fast and is great for lots of day-to-day updates. However, if there are disagreements or an issue becomes sensitive, it’s best to switch to a voice or video session. Chats can easily get lost as well, so anything that requires detailed communication should not usually be done using this method.
- Email is great for detailed communications – especially if you’d like a record a reference to go back to later. Email is very one-way though so is quite prone to misinterpretation.
9) Have regular Face Time
Although you might love the concept of “working remotely”, almost all businesses that do this for any length of time build in some regular face time as well. Face-time might be in the form of an annual or semi-annual conference for team-building. Or, it could be a weekly meeting in the office (obviously only if the team is local). Having regular contact where you and the team actually get together does amazing things for your working relationships.
What tips do you have for managing remote workers?
This is unlikely to be a complete list, but these are definitely the main principles that helped me get better at managing remote workers. By sticking to these practices, everyone tends to be more productive and happy – which is exactly what you want! What are some of the things that you’ve tried? Anything to add to the list?