The Ins and Outs of Managing Remote Teams

March 12, 2020
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This is part three in a “how-to” series for building effective distributed teams. We’ve compiled advice from CEOs and functional leaders to help you better understand how to structure a distributed team, best practices for hiring and managing distributed and blended teams, and what tools you’ll need to be successful.

Going Distributed: How to Be an Effective Remote Manager

Managers are increasingly being tasked with leading fully remote or distributed teams. Ultimately, many of the basics of effective leadership — such as caring about employee well-being, providing opportunities for growth, and clearly communicating expectations — hold true whether you’re remote or colocated.

However, it can be challenging to build strong team bonds and a culture of accountability when you don’t have the opportunity to see one another in person every day. Here are some tips on how to effectively manage remote teams from some of the most experienced remote leaders in the business.

Manage Processes, Lead People

To be an effective manager, you need to trust that your team members are capable and qualified to do their jobs. In remote work, that trust can be difficult to achieve, since you don’t see your direct reports every day. However, good process management can help build a culture of accountability. Weekly demos, public discussions via email or forum, and strong documentation practices can help team members understand each other’s progress. Andreas Klinger, head of remote at AngelList, said, “Create processes that can basically enable your people to autonomously run and make decisions on their own because most likely they’re more qualified to make those decisions at any given moment.”

Set processes can also be effective for managers themselves. David Singleton, CTO at Stripe, said that their team has created playbooks for remote managers based on specific scenarios to help them get up and running. For example, there are templates for certain types of meetings, such as one-on-ones, reviews, status updates, and more. For teams that do not have templates already in place, designing meetings intentionally can help lead to more effective outcomes, said Shishir Mehrotra, co-founder and CEO of Coda. “Design your meetings and interactions like you’d design an app. Think about the incentives and what types of behaviors you are creating or not creating via the meeting,” he said.

Create Bonding Moments Outside of Work

It can be tempting with remote work to constantly focus on output rather than building connections with colleagues. However, these connections help employees feel as if they’re a part of something much larger than themselves and can help with job satisfaction, work/life balance, and retention.

“If we only talk about work, we don’t bond in any other way,” said Job van der Voort, founder and CEO of Remote. “We started to have a question of the day that could be related to anything, like, ‘What is the TV show you enjoy most,’ or ‘If you had a superpower, what would it be?’” These simple questions helped employees get to know each other informally, and often led to deeper discussions about interests and hobbies outside of work.

Shishir Mehrotra, Coda (l) and David Singleton, Stripe (r) talk remote team management. (Photo: Slava Blazer Photography)

Singleton said that encouraging informal “watercooler” meetings and Slack chats on non-work related topics has helped Stripe. Even more effective in establishing a culture of trust has been bringing the team together every six months into a single location. If these larger gatherings aren’t practical, or only two or three employees are close together, van der Voort suggested subsidizing their travel and/or coworking space so they can occasionally work for the day in the same location — even if their projects aren’t related to one another.

Dedicate Conversations to Employee Well-Being

Regardless of your personality type, working remotely can feel isolating at times for many employees. A 2018 study from Virgin Pulse discovered that two-thirds of remote workers aren’t engaged. An effective manager needs to be able to understand when an employee is starting to disengage by prioritizing regular conversations about employee well-being.

“You don’t want to survey your employees every week in a way that’s unnatural,” said Mehrotra. “But if you build well-being into existing conversations, then it doesn’t feel wrong. For most of my one-on-ones, I start with a sentiment question asking them to rank on a five-point scale how they’re feeling.” Even this small ranking can open up a dialogue, and create a connection that feels like a safe space between the employee and manager.

Klinger recommends centering personal well-being discussions around understanding the context of what’s bothering them. Oftentimes, employees will identify the root cause of their lack of productivity, engagement, or satisfaction themselves. “It’s sometimes just easier to focus on the context to get people to start talking, and then reverse engineer a solution from there.”

Make Remote Work Human

The number of remote workers will only increase in the next few years, so mastering these management practices can ensure that employees around the globe are successful and satisfied. The ultimate goal is to make remote work more human and help employees feel as if they’re all connected and working as a part of the same team.

Thinking of developing a more distributed model for your team? Check out our related articles: Choosing the Right Remote-Friendly Team Model and 5 Practical Tips for Hiring a Global, Remote Workforce.