5 Tips for Managing a Remote Team
By Alex Howland, Ph.D., Consulting Psychology
Working remotely is no longer a rarity. Employees want it and employers are seeing the benefits to the bottom line. As commute times increase and overhead costs for office space mount, the idea of a remote workforce becomes a more logical choice for everyone.
According to the 2018 U.S. Census American Community Survey results, 5.3% of workers in the U.S. worked from home in 2018. In 2013, that number was 4.4% and in 2008, it was 4.1%, so clearly, working from home is becoming more of a reality than a perk. But for managers, a remote working environment could create challenges – namely, how do you make sure your staff is not only accomplishing their work, but excelling at it and staying engaged?
I run a company called VirBELA that provides (and works in) virtual office space, so we see up close how companies with distributed workforces can succeed. If you are a manager who oversees a team that works remotely, here are five tips to help keep your team productive and engaged:
1. Establish trust. Trust is the foundation for a remote team. Trust means having faith in your team to complete their work and put in the effort. Additionally, if team members don’t trust each other, it can lead to animosity toward those who are perceived to be slacking in their roles.
A manager can build trust in a few simple ways:
- Set clear communication expectations and short-term goals.
- Establish response expectations to email and chat/text messages.
- Be available to jump into one-off meetings.
With shared expectations, team members can hold each other accountable. This helps distribute leadership and it makes it more likely for the team to stay engaged and consistent.
2. Manage output, not time. Remote workers are apt to work in different time zones and they might have different work habits. I prefer to do my work when it’s best for me and I want the same for my staff because it leads to more effective and efficient work. That might mean I’m out for a run at 2 p.m. instead of at my desk. Or that I’m working at 6 a.m. on some individual work before communication channels start to ignite for the day. To maintain trust, it’s important to be transparent. I share with staff when I am off for that run and won’t be available, and in return, the staff does the same.
Also, instead of being focused on specific schedules, we focus on output. We set objectives and key results (OKRs). Each Monday, team members share what OKRs they expect to accomplish that week and at the end of the week, we check in again on progress and talk through any blockers. This takes no more than 30 minutes at the beginning and the end of the week. Anything requiring more time typically gets its own ad hoc meeting.
Allowing the staff to set their own weekly goals helps them have ownership in those goals. The expectation isn’t that they achieve them 100% of the time, but consistent misses are noticed by team members and create cause for a deeper understanding of problems. Sharing progress as a team helps create some social pressure to perform. Team members tend not to let other team members down and if it is clear that some employees are being far more productive than others, the discrepancy becomes pretty clear.
3. Create a level playing field. In a traditional brick-and-mortar workplace, there are many folks who work at the main headquarters, but a good percentage of the staff might also work remotely. The effects of this work setup tend to make remote workers feel ostracized and managers feel out of touch. To level the playing field, a virtual workplace means that everyone works from home via the cloud — and the benefits are enormous. Not only does it save on overhead for the company, but commute times shrink to zero. Additional benefits include less impact on the environment via pollution and alleviating the crush of people on mass transit. But most importantly, everyone works in the same environment together. No one has “closer contact” to senior leadership.
4. Foster a friendly culture. Often, working remotely falls into this idea that it’s all work, all the time. Conference calls tend to be transactional and task-oriented. But at the end of the day, we are all human beings, working through a shared, virtual environment. Try to keep it more relational. Maybe someone just had a baby or adopted a pet. Promote the idea of sharing photos through your interactive, virtual platform. Even a simple “how is everyone doing?” to start the meeting is a good opener to get everyone to relax and open up. Try to keep it light and fun rather than just get it done. But make sure the door is open for everyone to be heard. This will lead to greater commitment to the organization and feelings of psychological safety, which has been found to increase innovation and well-being.
5. Reinforce the vision of the company. As we are heads down on our work, it’s still critical that we review and not lose sight of the company’s vision. Quarterly, managers should talk about the vision of the company, where it is headed and the latest results. Many times goals change or get tweaked due to changes in the direction of the company or industry. Review the goals during team meetings or 1:1’s and get your team’s buy-in so results can be achieved. Check that everyone is aligned on a shared vision and understand how their projects are top priorities in making progress toward that vision. Ultimately, people want to know how their role contributes to the greater good. Reinforce the vision and celebrate wins as you work towards it.
Working virtually is not much different than working in a real office, except you collaborate through a shared, virtual environment that everyone has access to. Instill an attitude of trust and collaboration from the start and you’ll see employees are much happier and productive as they save time and costs commuting in a real world and spending time doing what matters most to them. And as a result, everyone has a fuller, more meaningful life.