Remote work has become part and parcel to the way we work over the last decade. Leaders are now adopting the best-proven practices of managing a remote workforce And with it, creating a multitude of changes.
It’s changed the way we:
- Define our teams – 52% of global workers work from home at least one day a week.
- Conduct our meetings- 53% of meetings involve attendees who join remotely.
- Manage our staff
And those numbers are pre-COVID-19.
But let’s focus on the last point- ‘How we manage our [remote] staff’. While remote work has come to the forefront, the concept of ‘remote team management’ or the ‘proven practices’ of managing remote workforce hasn’t been as clearly defined.
With a rapid change in the way we work, the way we have had to manage our distributed teams has inadvertently evolved as well.
Whether it’s doing daily Zoom stand-ups and video conferencing, assigning actions through Asana, or creating ‘water-cooler’ channels on Slack for casual communication, we have had to adapt our techniques for remote team management.
In this post ‘managing a remote workforce: proven practices’, we’ll be exploring the very concept of ‘Remote Team Management’- what it is, how it differs from traditional methods, and the use of its terminology so you can become a successful remote team manager.
Along with the conceptual emphasis, we will also discuss some best-proven practices for managing a remote workforce. In a nutshell, this is a holistic guide that illustrates the proven practices of managing a remote workforce.
Here it is-
What is Remote Team Management?
Remote Team Management is as simple as the name sounds, the task of managing virtual teams. Up until today, the concept was few and far wide, but as working situations are evolving, it is a concept that becomes more and more common.
More offices are packing up, challenging the idea of a permanent working office. Remote working will continue to become a social norm as people have realized the ability to login and work remotely.
Traditionally, remote working is associated with terms such as “Offshore teams” or “Outsourcing”. The reality is that working from home (as many of us are doing now) is also a form of remote working.
These scenarios all require management and leadership, as with any traditional job, and this concept refers to “Remote Team Management”. It is crucial to be able to create effective management techniques and learn how to manage a remote workforce in these situations as virtual working brings with itself a unique set of challenges.
Managing a remote workforce: proven practices
When everyone is working in different locations, the logistics of remote team management gets harder. As a manager, you can’t be everywhere at once. One can say that remote working is the perfect set up to let your ability to delegate, lead, and communicate shine!
The first step in the ‘best practices for managing remote teams guide’ is to start by keeping your goals in sight at all times. Cap the amount of work you take on in a particular week (or month, if you’re more of a strategic than tactical planner), identify their priorities, and mark them according to how critical and time-intensive they are. For example, if a task is urgent and time-consuming, it should be given the highest priority for everyone concerned. This way, they too can push busywork down the queue so that it doesn’t take up most of the bandwidth during business hours.
Below is the list of some tips that can be stated as ‘managing a remote workforce: proven practices’. You can leverage these tips to manage a remote team more efficiently than ever, enhance productivity, and lead them to succeed. For managing remote employees, best practices are:
- Standardize weigh-ins
- Organize communication modes
- Take employee well-being seriously
- Leverage the right tools
- Clarify expectations
- Focus on outcomes, not in-seat hours
- Enable and equip
a. Standardize weigh-ins
At the office, it’s easy to call everyone to convene for a meeting, but when virtual, you’re going to have to set aside a fixed hour for remote teams dispersed globally. You need to take time zones and associated business hours and work shifts into account. Only then can your staff clear their schedules and make themselves available to be in on the conference call. It helps to set this as a recurring calendar event that can send out automated alerts as the meeting hour draws near. This practice of standardizing weigh-ins makes managing a remote easy.
b. Organize communication modes
Since communication is a mix of asynchronous and synchronous, you’ll need to prioritize the channel, frequency, and mode through which talks happen, be it one-on-one or group discussions. Set housekeeping rules so that everybody knows what is on the agenda. It keeps them on the same page. Appoint a resource for taking notes so that there’s a record of what was completed, in progress and yet to be started. Even change requests and action items that await a decision can be compiled so that the schedule stays organized around priorities. This keeps the conversation on course and prevents it from becoming a source of work interruption and personal productivity.
c. Take employee well-being seriously
Prolonged periods of working without social contact can adversely impact an employee’s mental well-being. In fact, about 20% of full-time remote workers report struggling with both loneliness and collaboration. Everyone takes to remote work differently, and it’s important to check in on individual team members, whether they’ve worked remotely before or are new to the concept. Organize virtual lunch or coffee meets to establish a safe space for your members to open up. They can even bust some of that work-stress with productive diversions, such as online team-building challenges. These teasers let them flex their creative muscle while keeping teammates connected to each other.
d. Leverage the right tools
It is your job as a remote team manager to keep your teams effective and cohesive in your physical absence. The kind of tools you use is a template for the engagement that follows. Apart from email and file sharing, it makes sense to invest in a Slack or any of its alternatives so that you and your teams are all in one workspace.
e. Clarify expectations
Vague goals have no place in remote work. As a manager, you should set expectations around SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely) goals. Your teams are then clear on what they have to do. Besides, it keeps business hours all about work and lets your workers unplug afterward. They can stay on top of their work without the worry of a backlog piling up. The more reasonable the expectation, the easier it is to score and link individual performances to eventual success.
f. Focus on outcomes, not in-seat Hours
Many managers worry that the absence of face-to-face supervision is detrimental to employee productivity. This arises from the logic that what can’t be seen cannot be managed. But research shows that this fear is unfounded, with 76% of founders reporting sustained or increased productivity levels. This indicates it’s high time we focused on the outcomes rather than effort hours. After all, your employees are accountable for the work and not for how long they spend on their seat.
g.Enable and Equip
For work to progress, the working conditions have to be favorable for every member of your team. If only one half of your team is mobilized and ready to hit the ground running while the other half is experiencing technical downtime, remote teams get even further siloed. Run inventory on the hardware and software requirements so that your team has everything it needs. This includes an internet pack allowance, work phones with messaging apps, and any other device that will keep what your team is working on visible and measurable.
The 3 P’s of remote team managerial success
People, processes, and platforms- All three are interwoven.
A remote work setup is destined to succeed only with an understanding of what is remote team and what are the team dynamics. Only then can inefficiencies in working processes be checked and if required, revised. Even the type of tool and usage frequency differs when teams are co-located and remote. Default to virtual workspaces that contain sufficient integrations to enable easy file sharing, conversation, decision fast-tracking, and repository creation. Your work is made easier when this is all centralized onto a single platform for multiple users!
First things first, your remote team must comprise people who are trustworthy doers. A clan of doers tops the list of ‘how to manage staff remotely’ tips. Where there’s trust, there is a guarantee that your team will fulfill their commitments and deliver.
It cultivates a culture of gratitude that recognizes and appreciates exceptional workers.
2. Size up requirements
If every line of work requires full-time staff, you run into more losses from the permanent overhead tacked onto your payroll for one-off projects. Therefore, it is essential to assess the workload and nature of work so that niche or one-time services are passed onto contingent workers.
Besides eliminating inefficiencies, it taps into a diverse body of skills and expertise that can be hashed out online, while freeing up your permanent staff for high-visibility work.
3. Create a process plan
Think of it as a solution to the question “how you work” rather than the details behind the structure. Cluster your teams by competence level and experience so that they can collaborate for a particular task while having full autonomy over the roadmap for individual elements within that task. This reduces the amount of back and forth.
Evolution of remote team management
While the concept of ‘remote working’ has been around for centuries, I’ll spare the long details and concentrate on only the last 30 years.
The concept of remote team management has traditionally been associated with ‘offshore/international teams’ with the approach gaining traction due to the rise of outsourcing as a business strategy in the early 1990s.
But in the 2000s, with a rapid rise in telecommuting due to improvements in wireless internet and broadband and with it a rapid rise in remote work tools that work over a reliable connection, the concept of virtual or remote work became a mainstay in offices around the world.
Coming to now, the concept of remote work has become fluid and part and parcel of the way we conduct work. Remote working setups are a business strategy, with entire organizations building their workforce remotely. These include companies such as Zapier, Stripe, and most recently Twitter, who recently announced all employees would be allowed to work from home ‘forever’.
And with such changes, talent recruitment is evolving too with 72% of talent professionals agreeing that work flexibility (which includes remote work options) will be very important for the future of HR and recruiting.
But what does that mean?
Apart from managing their staff remotely, what are the day-to-day fundamental differences in remote team management to let’s say a more traditional management approach?
Differences between Traditional and Remote Team Management
Here’s a quick breakdown of proven practices of managing a remote workforce-
|Manager Responsibility||The approach in a remote team setup|
|Delegation of Tasks and Responsibilities||Over-communication in explanation of tasks with longer and clearer explanations to avoid confusion and create clarity.|
Along with a clearer carving of individual responsibilities to avoid doubling up of tasks (which would be harder to detect).
|Performance Management||Requires frequent performance evaluations to ensure individual development and to ensure the continual development and management of remote team training.|
|Maintaining Employee Accountability||So how do I know if my remote employee is working and being productive?|
RTM’s would follow stricter adherence to process as well as an increased reliance on asynchronous communications (i.e. emails and slack messages).
|Project Management||Again, a heavy reliance on asynchronous communication methods to make up for the ‘hallway conversation’ approach or the informal touchpoints for in-person in project management.|
|Measuring Output||Assessment of team output and productivity is driven by metrics, i.e. meeting deadlines and completing tasks.|
We would need countless articles to expand on the above, but it gives you a taste of some of the challenges of managing remote employees.
The Difference between Remote Team Management and Distributed Team Management
Even though I’ve been using the two interchangeably, there are key differences between the two terms.
First, in leading remote teams, not everyone has to be distributed away from each other necessarily. A remote team makeup can often just have 2 or 3 people that are working remotely while the majority of the team may be working from the main office. So the term ‘remote’ doesn’t necessarily need to apply to everyone and can only be for a portion of the team.
Distributed teams, on the other hand, is when everyone is separately located away from each other. So for example, you could have one team member in Sydney, with another in London and a third in Paris – but they’re all still working towards the same common goal. A manager needs to monitor distributed team management carefully but at the same time, be flexible. They should be able to take elements like cultural or time zone differences into consideration.
Challenges and proven practices for managing a remote workforce
The rise in newly remote workers is a byproduct of the shift from risk-averse to change-compliant businesses. Whether they’re full-time or contingent, the process and platform to find, hire, onboard, and allocate work to such virtual employees have been disrupted.
And while no two companies approach remote work on the same lines, they’ll find a few common complications that bog down productivity and ensnare even the most competent of workers. Missed messages, allocating the same work to two different individuals, or failing to check in on a task assigned and worked on is just the beginning. Here’s more where that came from, with some solutions to help you learn the ropes of how to manage a remote workforce better as a manager;
a. Infrequent miscommunication
Miscommunication expectedly does more damage when workers are remote than when they convene in one location. The longer the reasons behind silences, missed messages and skipped meetings remain unknown, the more likely it is for coworkers to misread the situation. As a manager, the onus is on you to give your teams a clear sense of direction pertaining to work-related discussions. It’s one thing to set up an agenda but quite another to ensure the conversation stays on topic. This means you need to be an expert at explaining strategy.
What to do about it
Everyone thrives on structure, particularly when they’re physically distanced and unable to read the room. The first step when you are managing a remote international team is to create a workspace setting with a facility to schedule meetings, automate reminders, and update notifications as and when things change.
For example, if a meeting set for a certain hour is canceled, moved up, or pushed back, communication etiquette demands that you should inform your employees so that they can get on with their day.
Next, involve them in determining priorities and get inputs into how much effort and time these activities would take. Collective meetups can help everyone hash out concerns and reach a consensus on expectations, keeping them realistic and reasonable.
This is also the opportunity to set the tone and purpose behind objectives. Employees can get back to you if there are any hitches in the delivery. A two-way communication clues you in on what is happening across different lines of work.
b. Workload guesstimations
When you can’t see individual workloads, the schedules you draw up fail to capture the exact bandwidth available. There will be an imbalance in work allocated, with some staff overloaded while others hang around waiting to take something up. Either case isn’t conducive to productivity, and unchecked disparities impact both performance and the quality of work. If your remote workers are dispersed globally, you have the additional worry of finding a common meeting time to catch up on what everyone has been doing.
Impromptu work meetings that run on the tail end of someone’s day means select members will sacrifice by staying back beyond their usual business hours. And if such meetings demand a certain task to finish within those remaining hours, those members have less time to unplug. They end up logging in to work the next day sleep-deprived, drained and stressed.
What to do about it
Use project schedules to book in people and work. With everyone using the same platform, it’s easier to match actual availability with work hours. What’s more, departmental teams can pull up their schedules and get notifications into revisions. Unless absolutely necessary, impromptu meetings are unadvisable. It only puts people on the spot and interrupts their focus mid-progress.
Instead, rotate meeting times so that everyone on board stretches and is accommodating to staying back, rather than making it acceptable for only one set of members to stay past their work hours.
In the event that you require a work update but everyone can’t be online in the same window, try splitting meetings into smaller team sizes according to the timezone that members are in. They can collectively gather their findings, tally up work and get back to you to simplify information reconciliation.
Above all, to prevent yours or your team’s focus from being pulled repeatedly, permit recordings so that your team can replay it later and verify that they’ve done everything required of them before the next meet.
c. Technical glitches
The technology stack you use when teleworking hinges on strong connectivity and reliability. Slow speeds, power outages or downtime results in the risk of offline workers and unsaved work. By the time things are back online, they have more catching up to do. Safe to say that digital technology is the very air remote workers breathe and the moment it snags, it impacts how much work you can do. Everyone faces this problem at some point, where they are cut off mid-sentence during a teleconference call. At other times, there will be background distractions depending on where the worker is working out of.
What to do about it
Pick a highly recommended and responsive broadband provider; there’s really no other way around it. As mentioned in an earlier section, give all your workers an internet allowance. Or alternately, reimburse them for set up costs for an inverter and WiFi. Home plans are considerably cheaper than business plans, so signing them up for one helps them remain productive and connected.
Budget for technical resources accordingly. The more supportive you are of your workers’ endeavours to remain available and online, the more likely they are to reciprocate in kind and perform beyond your expectations, glitch or no glitch!
d. Offering remote encouragement
A lot of articles that recently surfaced on LinkedIn reported difficulty in establishing work-life boundaries, with many missing social interactions at the office. Many companies make the mistake of assuming that now that workers save up on commutes and office routines, they’re free to work longer hours, which in retrospect, adds to the stress levels.
A manager’s competence determines team performance. And they themselves are answerable to their seniors. Hard-pressed for time, they eventually lose track of escalations and concerns that remote employees bring to them.
Predictably, what happens next, is that both employee productivity and morale tanks. After all, would you feel motivated enough to plough through work when your concerns remain unmet?
What to do about it
Bring casual back into conversations by facilitating virtual hangouts. It can be a brief coffee run or a 1:1 with individual members. Acknowledging anxieties and lending a patient ear can help you understand where your employee is coming from. What’s more, you can use the opportunity to straighten out differences and unload your limitations as well. If a new recruit is on the team, check in on them post-introductory meetings to ask how they’re getting on. Inform them of the line of authority to reach out to in case of a problem. Organize polls and encourage your workers to fill them out. The responses can give you insight into what is or isn’t working out for your team. If everyone is experiencing the same issue, finding a solution can be given immediate priority.
In difficult times, employees turn to a leader for cues on reacting to crises. HBR’s post on managing new remote workers quoted Daniel Goleman on the “trickle-down effect”. That is, if a manager communicates stress and helplessness, it shakes up the confidence of other workers. Besides monetary incentives, today’s workers seek recognition and reassurance. Strong and simple words of encouragement can get virtual teams back on track. Remember not to go overboard with either criticism or praise. It’s about recognizing the severity of problems and getting a sense of how your employees are coping. With this support, employees are more likely to think things through with a sense of purpose and focus.
Concluding ‘Managing a remote workforce: proven practices’
There has been a rapid change in the way we work. This has changed the way we have had to manage our teams. Remote Team Management is an increasingly important discipline that needs to be included in our toolkit for managing remote workers.
And numbers don’t lie! Owl Labs 2019 State of Remote Work report surveyed 1200 full-time workers, of which 62% of them worked remotely. Of these, 33% of the respondents were happy doing what they do. They were willing to put in extra hours so long as some flexibility could be wielded. The option to scale to full-time remote work will undoubtedly attract talent from sources for you to tap into. More interestingly, managers who previously led on-site teams will have the opportunity to sharpen their communication and decision-making skills remotely!
For more information on the best-proven practices of managing a remote workforce and to build your remote team management skills, read one of the articles below.