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Tips for managing remote teams

10 min read
There’s now evidence to suggest that working from home (WFH) - or more recently, working from anywhere (WFA)- can boost productivity. But that’s not to say it’s without challenges - social isolation, time management, blurred lines between work and home life. It’s unfortunately too easy for remote workers to be sidelined, or left out by employers who fail to realise the value they bring to an organisation.


Traditionally, managing remote teams has also been considered something of a headache. You know high employee engagement means a productive and loyal workforce, but how engaged are those distant people you are supervising but rarely see? Are they really happy, efficient and stress-free? By prioritising employee engagement for remote workers, there can be positive outcomes for on-site employees as well, as a whole company develops the flexibility to thrive even in challenging circumstances.

Here are our best practice tips for managing remote teams:

Distributed, not remote

Remote workers can often feel just that – isolated, unappreciated and a cog in the corporate machine, forgotten once a task is finished. Instead of ‘remote’, perhaps refer to your off-site teams as ‘distributed’. A simple word can change a mindset.

Communication

Beware app overload

There’s a vast array of communication apps and platforms out there for remote working, and a real danger of causing communication chaos and breakdown by using too many. Stick to one or two trusted platforms (most of them perform multiple functions anyway) and make sure everyone knows how to use them.

Brief effectively

When employees know exactly what they are doing, they can be left to get on with the job. Preparing a clear, written project brief distributed to your team in advance of a meeting saves time and queries later. Make sure you include contact details of everyone involved; background; objective; target audience/customers; brand guidelines; timings/deadline and a budget. Be precise about setting goals; asking for a task to be done ‘quickly’ will be interpreted as ‘within the hour’ by one employee and ‘by tomorrow’ by another.

Meet effectively

Conference calls have come a long way from crackly, echoey multiple dial-ins where everyone spoke over each other and nobody could read each other’s body language. Meet with your project team virtually using video conferencing platforms. Much of our human communication is non-verbal and being able to see and interact with a team makes it a more engaging experience. Be aware though, that unnecessary video meetings or ones with too many attendees to see properly can turn participants into disengaged ‘Zoombies’.

Support effectively

Once a project is underway, remote team members need to be able to dip in and out of a virtual office environment for rapid responses to queries, information-sharing, resources or even just some conversation. Ditch email in favour of chat apps; these integrate with many other tools to share and store resources. Brainstorming can even be done remotely, using collaborative whiteboards.

Even though your team will be interacting through the chat app, as a manager it’s important to check in on each person 1:1 and face to face. This makes employees feel valued, listened to and supported. Decide what cadence of check-ins works with your employees – daily or weekly – and never cancel a 1:1. The key here is ‘overcommunicate rather than undercommunicate’.

Share company news

Include remote workers in company news communications: share future vision and what’s happening in other areas to show how they are contributing to the bigger picture.

Systems

Set goals

Everyone, remote or otherwise, needs goals to work towards and achieve. Remote workers will get bored and disengage if they feel excluded, undervalued and unable to see how their input makes a difference. Be open and clear about large-scale company or team goals to help employees understand what their individual achievements contribute. This is important for remote workers, reminding them that they are a valuable team asset and are not forgotten. In writing, set goals that are motivating,  SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely) or OKR (Objectives and Key Results), and tied to a clear action plan.

Focus on output, not process

Remote working is not like 9 to 5. Managers have to shift expectations away from the how/when and onto the tangible results. Don’t be that pandemic lockdown manager who insisted employees kept their Zoom screen on all day so he could see they were at their desks working. Some people work better at 6 am, others prefer to work into the night. As long as goals are clearly communicated, tracked, and deadlines met, let your employees get on with their job.

That said, you should set the same expectations for on-site employees regarding number of working hours, communication cadences and response times to make sure nobody is disgruntled about double standards. Boundaries are important to ensure people can switch off and not be disturbed after working hours. Where you manage international teams, switch schedules around regularly so it’s not always the employee in Australia who has to get up for a meeting at 8am.

Use project trackers and productivity tools

The best project trackers help you create to-do lists and deadline countdowns, give instructions, work requests, scheduling, real-time project progress, workload management and time tracking, and integrate with other applications. Trackers will keep everyone aligned on ownership, expectations, next steps and deadlines.

XM talks: Managing people working from home


Technology

Invest in the best

Technology drove the WFA revolution; the 2020 coronavirus pandemic proved its worth. With remote teams everybody saves money: employees save on commuting and lunch expenses, employers save on office rents and business travel expenses. It makes economic sense, then, to kit out your remote teams with the best tech you can afford: HD laptops, tablets and phones, and access to the fastest, most reliable broadband. Security is, of course, paramount – connect remote teams through your company’s virtual personal network (VPN) so they are safe to work anywhere.

Company Culture

Remote workers often miss out on the camaraderie, perks and sense of belonging that embodies company culture in a physical office. If sensitively handled, remote workers can soon feel they are valuable members of the organisation.

Give a fantastic onboarding experience

While hiring, ideally onboard a new team member in person at company headquarters to experience its vibe, culture and ethos and meet teammates. Use video testimonies to express what a great company you are to work for – not just a print copy of the annual report. Give get-to-know-you surveys to personalise birthday cards, gifts and swag and understand what motivates that person.

Give a little piece of the office

When allocating the office equipment budget, don’t forget the remote workers. As well as the latest compatible tech, maybe organise delivery of an office-quality chair and some branded stationery and clothing (even for the whole family) to bring some company identity to the WFH environment.

Have a daily virtual huddle

At some point during the day, get together virtually for a short check-in on each other’s well-being and workflow, and to connect as a team.

Create a virtual water cooler

Remote workers don’t have the casual, culture-affirming interactions of bumping into colleagues in corridors, by the lift or in the kitchen. To avoid loneliness, it’s important to keep a chat environment always on (but not distracting) for both formal and informal social interaction.

Meet up in person

After the initial onboarding meet and greet, it’s important for team members to meet in person at least twice a year where possible, but make sure there’s a sound reason for gathering everyone: launching a new project, to celebrate improvements, a change in company direction or culture, or to energise a team that’s feeling stale. If you have a group of employees in one area – perhaps collaborating in a shared workspace – travel to meet them, rather than making them travel to you.

Appreciation

Remote workers can feel sidelined or forgotten, with some managers taking an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude. Don’t be that manager – treasure and appreciate your remote employees and they’ll remain engaged, valuable assets to your company:

Give meaningful gifts

You’ll have your employees’ dates of birth on file – make sure you send at least a handwritten birthday card, if not a gift. When company swag comes in, send a package to their home, and even include some items for their children or pets.

Be liberal with praise

A remote team member has had a good idea, or solved a problem. Let everyone know about it. Recognition can be as simple as a ‘Well done!’ GIF on the project chat thread, to an invitation to an industry ceremony where your company has won an award.

Give and receive regular feedback

You’ll only know if your remote employees are satisfied by surveying them, and of course surveys deliver measurable results. You have three types at your disposal:

  • eNPS: ‘On a scale from 0-10, how likely are you to recommend our brand/company to a friend or colleague?’ This simple survey is ideal for gauging remote workforce sentiment as part of a wider employee engagement program.
  • Pulse surveys Frequent and quick, these are particularly useful to collect employee experience feedback about specific activities or projects.
  • 360 surveys: For remote workers who have traditionally been ignored on the feedback front, 360 surveys offer the change to give and receive feedback from their manager, peers, direct reports, as well as themselves.

Remote working is here to stay. It’s not just a different way to work, it’s a different way of life. With great tech, open communication, inclusivity and appreciation, your remote teams can be as engaged as your on-site workers.

XM talks: Managing people working from home