Lessons from Managing Remote Teams

Managing remote teams requires a new set of skills for leaders, especially during periods of rapid change and uncertainty. 

In order to step up and provide the emotional and professional support your team requires, it’s best to first understand the different types of challenges your team faces. Then, you can address those challenges to create a healthy and productive working environment that can evolve over time as your teams’ needs change.

Challenges in Managing Remote Teams

There are four major challenges that leaders face managing remote teams and employees face working from home. 

  1. Technology Issues: Outside of the office, you have far less control of the actual working environment for your team. Employees can have spotty Internet and power outages that slow the pace of work or shut it down completely. They may also require better lighting, audio and visual equipment, keyboards, monitors, etc. to keep them in a professional environment.
  2. Frequent Distractions: By now, we know all too well how shared spaces, family members, roommates, pets, construction work, lawn care, natural disasters, cultural events, and more can pull folks away from work, or at the very least hurt their ability to concentrate.
  3. Isolation: While introverts may thrive on their own, many people experience loneliness and depression without regular human contact. Additionally, team members can suffer from a lack of motivation when they work independently as opposed to in a collaborative environment.
  4. Burn-Out: Despite the fact that working on remote teams is more common than ever before, many people continue to struggle with burnout and an inability to unplug. Frequently changing priorities and a lack of necessary resources also contribute to this type of work-related fatigue.

Create a Diverse, Inclusive, & Empathetic Working Environment

Now that you have a baseline for common issues your team may be experiencing, it’s time to work on solutions. First, take a look at your team’s makeup. Creating an environment that is both diverse and inclusive will lead to better outcomes for your organization. Try your best to build a team of individuals from different genders, ethnic and social backgrounds, and age groups. Embrace diversity and find ways to encourage shared perspectives from everyone involved. 

Keep in mind that not everyone feels comfortable speaking in group settings, or may need more time to process information before providing a thoughtful response. If you see certain individuals regularly dominating the conversation, ask direct questions to pull in quieter team members or discuss important issues ahead of time in your 1:1 so you can support their opinions in a group setting.

Best Practices for Managing Remote Teams

Next, take time to understand what motivates–and distracts–your team members. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to people management, so your management style needs to be as unique as your team members. 

As mentioned earlier, have empathy for different work-from-home situations and encourage team members to minimize distractions. For example, you can create a separate window with tabs for personal sites on your computer, but keep it minimized during working hours so you’re not compelled to respond to notifications and personal subjects when you need to focus on work, and suggest your team members do the same. 

You can also encourage team members to silence their phones, instant message/chat, and email alerts for the first three hours of every working day, or when they have a meeting-heavy day and need to be present on calls. 

You should also set best practices for providing transparency with calendaring. Letting team members know that you have a weekly Spanish lesson or childcare responsibility, for example, and blocking that time off on your calendar will help to establish boundaries that you are inaccessible at certain times and encourage them to do the same. 

While some team members might be hesitant to be transparent about their life responsibilities at work due to the 24/7 grind of corporate culture and internalized expectations around always being “on” and working overtime, companies are realizing a lack of transparency actually decreases productivity and work quality. As we shift back towards balance both in our individual companies and collectively as a society, it’s helpful to be clear to team members that they won’t be penalized for honesty about their life on their calendars, and in fact, it helps you get to know your team and become a better manager. 

Additionally, there are a lot of tools and resources to help you get to know the unique personalities and working styles of your team members. Many organizations will facilitate personality tests or finance virtual and in-person team bonding sessions to improve morale and collaboration between team members. You can also take time when you onboard new team members to discuss communication preferences, personal boundaries, and learning styles so that everyone has more empathy and understanding when interacting with each other.

Communication is Key

As you learn to communicate better, over-communicate.

Depending on the urgency of your work, daily check-ins can keep everyone updated and identify blockers early in the process. At the very least, teams should meet at least twice a week as a group and managers should have one-on-ones with each individual. Beyond direct reports, create opportunities for skip-level conversations if you’re higher up in the company or sit in a middle-management role. 

Outside of team meetings, encourage team members to have “virtual coffee chats” with members outside of their department so they can have stronger ties to the broader organization. You can also invite individuals from other departments to join your team meetings and provide updates on projects they’re leading or answer questions related to their work. This can also be an opportunity to share back information to their department about what your group is focused on.

During team meetings, it’s important to create productive routines. Here are few tips for enabling more productive remote meetings: 

  • Create agendas, especially when meeting on new topics/initiatives
  • Send recap emails to ensure everyone is aligned on next steps
  • Encourage everyone to participate in the conversation

One way to increase participation is to empower junior team members to lead calls. They will not only see how challenging this can be, but it will also build confidence and new leadership skills.

Beyond scheduled calls, the conversations need to continue. Create separate, shared spaces to communicate as a team and with the company as a whole. Knowing there is a safe space to address challenging or time-sensitive issues within your team or get feedback from the outside can be essential to solving problems as an organization. 

There should also be a hierarchy for flagging time-sensitive issues. This will vary based on your company culture, but one way to do this might be:

  • Email: Not time sensitive
  • Instant Message: Timely response needed
  • Unscheduled Call: The topic requires a conversation
  • Text: Urgent matter

Plan and Prioritize Work Consistently

In the wise words of Benjamin Franklin: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Start with the right project management tool depending on your needs and budget. Give your team members time and training to get familiar with the interface of new platforms if they haven’t used them before – adopting new technology comes with a learning curve, after all. 

At the start of a big project, outline all of the major milestones you want your team to hit. Then, break up the milestones into results or outcomes you need to produce. Those are then divided up into smaller tasks that can be assigned to individuals. Breaking down the work in this manner is helpful for everyone. It gives management a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on with the project, while informing individuals of their specific responsibilities.

Agile methodologies are also helpful for team project management, and having what is called a “WIP” or work-in-progress board with labels to show the status of an individual task: backlog, to-do, in-progress, stakeholder review, blocked, complete. This helps managers communicate with remote team members regardless of time zones to understand where they are at in terms of progress. 

It’s also best practice to streamline communication around tasks into the task itself as much as possible, including storing documentation, feedback, and status updates in the  tasks on your project management platform for full transparency and record-keeping.

While building out a new project, it’s also important to have a kick-off call with all parties involved. Here you can establish the ‘why’ around the work that is being done, assign roles, and set clear goals with an overarching north star metric that everyone can align on. 

This north star will help with decision-making and prioritization as the project progresses. If work requests arise that sit outside of the parameters you’ve designated for your north star, take a hard look at whether that task is the best use of time and resources. It might be a great idea, but a distraction at the same time. Stay focused to keep your project on time and within budget.

Finally, be consistent. As you establish methodologies for working with your team, stick with them to avoid unnecessary change and uncertainty in your team members’ lives. Your team is depending on you for leadership. Show up when you say you will. Honor your commitments and when you can’t, signal as early as possible to avoid blockers. If you can’t show up for your team–time off is important for you too–provide a path for them to complete work and get necessary approvals in your absence.

At the end of the day, every team is nuanced. What works best for one manager, may not work for everyone. Getting regular feedback from your team members on how things are going and what can be improved will always help you become a better leader. 

With all of these best practices for managing remote teams, nothing can truly replace in-person connection. If at all possible, make time to be together in real-life a few times a year and create space for downtime and fun. When people feel secure enough to let their guard down, team members will bond and a magical transformation occurs that can motivate your team and improve morale for months or years to come.

About the Author: Sarah Fruy – VP of Marketing at Linqia

As the VP of Marketing at Linqia, Sarah Fruy is responsible for everything from brand and product marketing to growth marketing and demand generation. Most recently, Fruy served in a number of growth-focused roles at Pantheon where she led the strategy, goals, and road map for Pantheon’s demand generation efforts, public-facing website, branded assets, partner marketing program, and experimentation practice.

Fruy is a ScrumMaster® and Certified Agile Marketer who joined Linqia with over 15 years of experience in the online advertising, digital media, and website operations industries, along with marketing strategy and digital marketing certifications from Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management. Previously, she worked at emerging media companies, such as Say Media, as well as heritage brands like the San Francisco Chronicle. Fruy is a guest contributor on many popular websites as well as a frequent public speaker having delivered thought leadership presentations at conferences including GitKon 2022, Martech, DrupalCon, Digital Summit, DMWF, Growth Innovate, and more.

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