Do you need to change your style of management with remote workers?
Updated 29th April 2022
Managing other people is a complicated, multi-faceted job at the best of times. It's hard enough balancing business objectives against the needs of staff all working in the same building. Throw in remote work, and the whole thing can become even more complicated. Bosses used to a more traditional setup may not realise how different managing remote teams can be to running a centralised workforce. While all your hard-earned skills won't go out the window, it's important to adjust your approach.
Remote work is quickly becoming one of the biggest employment trends of the 21st Century. The ability to work remotely is in higher demand than ever, along with other types of flexible work. Believe it or not, many employees value these initiatives even more than financial incentives. Implementing flexibility arrangements is a vital step forward improving accessibility and inclusion.
Managing your concerns means trusting your team
There's a lot to consider when you go from managing people in physical workspaces to leading your first remote team. Will you be able to coordinate everyone effectively? How might this impact your deadlines? What if they're all just watching Netflix and day-drinking?
It's important to address your own concerns about managing remote teams as early as possible. The distance and practical feeling of invisibility involved with remote staff create a sense of ambiguity. Without that tangible presence of someone doing something, it's very easy to worry, which can impact your management style.
The only way to address this is to put yourself in a position where you can trust your team. And you can only reach that point by setting out expectations with clear communication. Being able to trust your team won't just stop you pulling your hair out; it'll increase their productivity too. According to Paul J. Zak's "The Neuroscience of Trust", employees at high-trust companies reported 74% less stress and 50% higher productivity, as well as over three quarters more productivity. The other points in this guide will provide a framework for remote management. This should make it easier to trust your remote staff to meet their obligations.
You don't appreciate having someone across the room or in the next office until there's suddenly four hours of motorway between you, and only an internet connection to bridge the gap. It can be easy for remote workers to feel isolated in that situation. Overcoming that divide is a huge part of managing remote teams.
It helps to keep them in the loop on things like video stand-ups. But don't forget asynchronous communication either. Make use of direct messaging apps like Slack or WhatsApp. Remote teams may end up having to send more emails than office-based teams. So these services are great for stopping their inboxes from getting out of hand. The sense of community we have at work has a big impact on group productivity. So remember that good communication can ensure your remote team share in that feeling too.
Just remember that we said "consistent" and not "constant," or you'll just be putting that communications build-up somewhere else. So with that in mind, it's important to:
Set expectations when managing remote teams
Make it clear from the beginning how things are supposed to be done. For the communication and file-sharing tools that are the backbone of modern remote work, this means setting out guides of best practice and leading by example.
You also need to clarify expectations for helping your remote teams manage their output. Even when it comes to office-based staff, people aren't always clear on what they're supposed to be doing. So imagine how that problem is exacerbated for bosses managing remote teams. Make the team and organisation's short and long-term goals clear, as well as how individual tasks feed into them. By doing this, you provide your remote workers with something to refer back to.
Two of the most effective ways of doing this are via SMART Goals and OKRs. These methodologies are widely used in the professional world, first, because they are numerically measurable. Second, they give both manager and employee a clear view of what the goal is. And third, they show what has been done to achieve it.
Avoid the urge to micromanage
Regular communication and clear expectations are great, but there can always be too much of a good thing. The impulse to micromanage your remote team is understandable. You want to ensure that everyone is working just as hard as they would in the office. We've seen great 'office-based' managers turn into micromanaging demons when dealing with their remote teams. If you wouldn't do it normally, the likelihood is you shouldn't be doing it now.
Micromanaging remotely can potentially be even more disruptive than in person. Rather than hovering around an employee's desk, a remote micromanager constantly messages asking for updates. That, or they schedule an unreasonable amount of video stand-ups. Compare having a brief face-to-face conversation at your desk with having to constantly stop and reply to messages, or sit waiting for an "urgent" video call to start.
This is why mutual trust is so important for managing remote teams. Micromanagement will often impede the efficiency it was meant to promote. It also makes employees feel as though they can't work with autonomy, which is a direct contributor to their stress.
A 2020 study from the University of Indiana followed on from research they conducted in 2017. They found that employee mental health and mortality are heavily influenced by the amount of autonomy they have. Again, we can't emphasise enough how useful SMART Goals and OKRs are for mitigating these kinds of concerns. Simply put, it's because they focus more on the results than the process.
Build a routine for checking in on your remote workers
With your expectations established, remember to check on your remote teams to see how they're getting on. You might be using a customisable digital service like Weekly10, or prefer direct 1-1 conversations. Either way, it's important to check in regularly and consistently for several reasons.
Firstly, checking in allows you to keep an eye on engagement and productivity. It enables you to ask key questions in a timely manner. In turn, that ensures that your remote employees have everything they need to do their best. It also means you get regular updates on their contributions to team-wide goals and objectives.
Secondly, it enables you to monitor their wellbeing. This is especially important in cases where an employee is ill, struggles with mental health, or has an underlying physical condition. As a manager, you have a certain duty of care. Checking in with your team means you can take measures to help them. That might mean improving their access to mental healthcare options. Or it might simply mean encouraging and supporting them while they seek any help they need.
Finally, a regular check-in might be the perfect thing to curb any micromanaging tendencies when you're managing remote teams. If managers know when their next update is coming, it makes it easier to wait for. It helps when an employee knows when their next update goes out. It can encourage them that little bit extra to meet their daily targets.
Give your remote workers recognition
It's easy to overlook remote employees. After all, they literally aren't there. Many have a valid concern that, regardless of the quality of their work, telecommuting might be getting them passed over for promotion.
Recognition for our contributions plays a significant role in our sense of belonging. This is another way regularly check-ins can benefit remote employees. It's an opportunity for their accomplishments to be highlighted. For example, Weekly10 allows managers and employees to tag other members of the organisation and praise them. Aside from helping hard-working remote employees to feel more noticed, this also helps managers to see the true scope of an individual's contributions, which is especially helpful for managing remote teams.