As a person who managed teams remotely long before the pandemic required it, and who has never met her virtual assistant in person, I think I have learned a thing or two about how to manage effectively from afar. Heck, I even teach workshops on the topic!
But if it’s your first time managing employees when you’re not all in the same location, or if you’re used to “management by walking around”, you might be feeling just a little uneasy staring down an indefinite period of remote management. How will you stay on top of everyone and their workload? How will you help resolve conflict? How will you know what your team is feeling? How will you meet your goals?
Here’s the spoiler: much of the advice I’m about to share around managing remotely is simply advice about good management. It just happens to matter that much more when you’re not all in the same place.
But first, let’s take a moment and just all agree that it is 100% possible to manage your team effectively even when you’re not all together every day. In fact, companies you likely know and love, like Basecamp, Zapier and YNAB, are actually remote-first companies. Many companies report higher productivity, engagement and morale from their remote workforces, because working remotely gives people the freedom to work the hours that make the most sense for them so that they can maximize their productivity and work around their other obligations. If you’re still skeptical, then I'll ask you simply to suspend your disbelief.
Now, let’s get to the good stuff. Here’s what you need to know to manage your team from afar while keeping productivity and morale high:
Remote Management Mindset
Here are some tips to adopt an effective remote management mindset.
Start with trust. Resist the urge to micromanage, even if you feel your grip has loosened and you are worried about your employees' productivity. Your employees will thank you. Remember, people don’t leave companies, they leave managers. And I’ve never heard someone say “wow, I really love being micromanaged”. It’s demoralizing; don’t do it.
- Set clear expectations and deadlines. Provide clear expectations and goals. Your employees aren’t mind-readers. Let your employees know you are there for them, and then let them get to work. Put expectations in writing. Make sure everyone understands what's expected and any questions are answered. If you fail to set clear deadlines, employees often go one of 2 directions. Either they assume it’s urgent and drop everything, or they put it on the backburner since no deadline was mentioned. It’s likely neither of those extremes.
- Use the magic words “does that timing work for you?” to ensure that the deadlines you are setting are not unreasonable and that the exchange feels collaborative.
- Focus on goals, not hours. Use the SMART goal framework to help you set clear, meaningful goals with realistic timelines. Judge employees on their performance instead of counting the hours worked.
- Hold a brief, daily team "stand-up" meeting where everyone can say what they are working on and where they are blocked or need help. Since there'll be no more passing each other in the hallway and piping in when you hear something you can help with, you've got to orchestrate a way for those conversations to keep moving.
Here are some strategies to help you better communicate with your team while working remotely.
- Video is your best friend. Dr. Mehrabian’s well known 7-38-55% law of communication tells us that only 7% of the meaning we ascribe to someone’s communication comes from their words. The rest is voice/tone (38%) and body language (55%). Use video chat whenever possible, and especially for difficult or complex conversations.
- Follow the “2 exchange” rule. If you’ve had 2 back and forths on a single issue over Slack or email, and you still aren’t on the same page, pick up the phone. This will save a ton of frustration and time.
- Define communication channels and internal SLAs. Define which channels your team will use, and for what purposes. How quickly should emails be answered? What about Slack messages? Which channel is used for emergencies? Most people have wildly different answers to these questions, so it’s best to take feedback and come up with a plan that everyone is aware of and can agree to. This also helps to ensure that people feel comfortable turning off Slack and email notifications so they can limit those costly distractions.
- Define core hours. Ask your team about their needs and try to accommodate schedules. If one of your employees has a baby at home, you might need to work meetings around nap schedules, etc. If possible, determine a few hours a day when everyone is able to be around and online at the same time, and let employees work out the rest of their schedules for themselves.
- Make time for non-work conversations. When all conversations are scheduled and we don’t want to “bother” people, it can be hard to remember that we’re all full humans and then it’s harder to keep morale up. Plan a virtual happy hour. Encourage your employees to schedule virtual lunches or coffee dates with each other. Create a “water cooler” Slack channel.
- Consider the 1:1s sacred. Use an agenda, make good use of time and don't cancel unless absolutely necessary. This is likely the only dedicated time your employees are getting with you weekly.
Remote Performance Management
- Praise anywhere. In meetings, in public Slack channels and in private, feel free to praise employees liberally. But don’t forget to be specific.
- Give constructive feedback in private. Use a private video chat room (with a password or waiting room). Always use video. Do not give constructive feedback via Slack or email. For feedback conversations, performance conversations and anything that has a risk of being misinterpreted, video is best, as it's the closest you'll get to a real face to face conversation. See Dr. Mahrabian’s law above.
- Be timely. If, in the office, you would have grabbed someone for a quick feedback session post-meeting, do the same virtually. The longer you wait, the less everyone will remember, and the bigger deal it will seem.
- Use a task management software. By using a collaborative task management software, you can eliminate so many time sucking “status update” meetings and emails. I love Asana, Wrike and Monday, but there are many fantastic options out there.
- Brainstorm alone; evaluate together. Study after study shows that brainstorming in groups produces fewer and less unique ideas than brainstorming alone and then evaluating all the ideas. A remote environment lends itself very well to leaning in to brainstorming alone.
- Use document collaboration software like GSuite, Quip, etc. Being able to share and edit docs, spreadsheets and slides without worrying about who has the latest version will massively increase productivity and decrease frustration and confusion.
Remote management doesn’t have to be hard, and it doesn’t have to be scary. Take stock of where you are in terms of the above, and decide what else you’ll implement or improve this week. Then next week, pick something else from the list. You don’t have to overhaul your processes all at once; just take baby steps. And when, and if, we can all go back to the office, all of these remote management skills will serve you well in person too.