Whether you find yourself managing a remote team due to the pandemic or you’ve been doing it awhile and want to up your game, we’ve got you covered. Our best tips below, from people who have it down.
“Many organizations suddenly started holding meetings virtually, but few probably had ‘the talk’ about what their online meeting culture would be like. Is it okay to just be on audio? To do other work on calls? To meet before 9:00 a.m.? To use online meetings to socialize? It’s important in terms of culture and consistency to decide how your organization will handle this new environment. Without the talk, organizations will just slide into an online culture instead of deciding what [that culture] will be.”
—Lee Gimpel, founder and principal, Better Meetings
“Instead of a set number [of check-ins], set expectations [about] communication. Do you expect a daily update on a project or updates only after milestones? Should updates happen via email or internal chat? You should also set and respect communication boundaries—employees should understand what’s expected of them when it comes to their work, but they should also know they aren’t expected to be available 24/7.”
—Josh Brown, marketing manager, Helpjuice
“Remote workers tend to be more productive because they work to their natural rhythms. They don’t need to stay in the office until 5:00 p.m. before they go home. Help your team by giving them a clear sense of direction, setting their agenda for the day or week, and then giving them the flexibility to meet their targets on their own time.”
—Greg Heilers, co-founder, Jolly SEO
“Except for meetings, let employees choose the work times that suit them. This lets them balance their work and personal life.”
—Saurabh Jindal, CEO, Talk Travel App
“Not everyone is accustomed to remote work. Don’t add extra pressure by over-regulating it; employees need to find their rhythm with time.”
—Pavel Kaplunou, marketing communications, Smart IT
“One of the dangers of working from home is not that employees get distracted and work less but that they actually work more—sometimes to their own detriment. Even before the coronavirus struck, 59 percent of workers admitted they checked in with their bosses or coworkers at least once a day while on vacation. And 23 percent did so three times a day! What kind of vacation is that? Make sure employees understand the need for productivity, but also encourage them to have time for themselves.”
—Jason Richmond, president/CEO and chief culture officer of Ideal Outcomes, and author of Culture Spark: 5 Steps to Ignite and Sustain Organizational Growth
“Set do-not-disturb times. Constant Slack messages or meetings can be distracting. To help us focus, every day from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. we have no meetings, and from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. we have a ‘No-Slack Hour.’ It’s easy to conflate work life with home life when you’re working at home, so we ask each of our team members to sign off after 6:00 p.m., no exceptions.”
—Neal Taparia, co-founder, SOTA Partners, currently incubating Solitaired
Check in . . . but Don’t Overdo It
“It is up to managers to keep a pulse on their team, and they need to do so without being invasive. A great way is to establish a ritual: a one-to-one regular meeting with each team member focused only on the person’s attitude, well-being and support needs. A bonus is that this ritual becomes a routine itself, giving anyone working from home an additional level of structure to their week.”
—Edoardo Binda Zane, teamwork and leadership trainer and consultant, EBZ Coaching
“The frequency of formal check-ins will depend on each employee’s responsibilities, but meetings are often less necessary with open communication channels such as Slack. When employees can easily reach me when they have questions, I’m more aware of what they’re working on in the first place.”
—Erik Rivera, CEO of ThriveTalk
Embrace the Mess
“There’s no hiding that we’re all working from home. Seeing a [colleague’s] spouse or kid can build rapport and make us stress less about having a pristine environment.”
“Recognize that, in addition to work, employees are managing a number of new stress factors in their personal lives. A good practice is to focus on outcomes and productivity expectations while being flexible on when employees do the work. Understand that many may need to shift their work schedules to meet family obligations, especially those with school-age kids doing virtual learning.”
—Kevin Palisi, MBA, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, founder and managing director of Ancora Search
“[Use] this time to pause and invest in learning new things.”
—Shiv Gupta, CEO, Incrementors Web Solutions
“Keep in mind that if you’re managing a team remotely now, you’re managing a team during a crisis remotely. Be sensitive to the additional stressors that you and your team are experiencing.”
—Alice Stevens, senior content strategist, Best Company
Motivate, Motivate, Motivate
“The best way to motivate your remote team to be productive, creative and independent is to trust them. Only check in with a purpose. For example, you can check in asking what’s happening with the project you assigned three days ago. You should not check in just to say hi and see what they are doing. They will interpret that as a lack of trust and a sign that you’re making sure they’re actually working.”
—Dennis Vu, CEO and co-founder, Ringblaze
“Motivation is only really a concern during the adjustment period. Once people get used to working from home, productivity soars. We’ve seen a 15 percent uptick after switching to remote work, which I attribute to the increased flexibility and results-based approach, rather than strict time monitoring. Trying to keep the same style of management regarding this ‘time on the job’ mindset is a mistake a lot of companies are making. It doesn’t work. I’ve tried it, I’ve failed at it, I had to adapt. The results speak for themselves.”
—Sean Nguyen, director, Internet Advisor
“Motivation begins with everyone understanding and believing in the company’s mission. The company needs a clear strategy, and there needs to be a goal for the team to rally behind. Every employee needs to fully understand their role and responsibilities and should feel that their contribution is critical to the success of the company.”
—Dan Edmonson, founder and CEO, Dronegenuity
“The best way to move to a results mindset is to set fixed targets. As a founder, I never cared much how many hours my team worked as long as they got results. If they get something done by working five hours a day, I’m happy for them to take the rest of the day off. It helps them relax and stay motivated. It also helps them focus and be efficient. If I demanded they sit in front of a screen for eight hours, I don’t think they’d get more work done.”
—Chris Kaiser, CEO and founder, Click A Tree
“The best way to motivate remote workers is to let them know you trust them to do the work they’ve been given. There’s no room for micromanaging, and we’ve found that giving workers the freedom they need to get the job done is the best thing we can do.”
—Vinay Amin, health expert and CEO, Eu Natural
“When you’re working remotely, it can be easy to feel like you’re in a void and get into your own head worrying about whether you’re doing enough. Acknowledging good work is one easy way for a manager to let their team know they’re on the right track, and that’s a more powerful motivator than either silence or criticism.”
—Matt Erhard, managing partner, Summit Search Group
“The challenge with motivation is that it’s fickle. Sometimes it’s here, sometimes it’s not, and expecting to be motivated will only lead to frustration and procrastination. A better approach is to develop a sense of loyalty, trust and commitment whether employees are remote or not. Transparency in your communication, clearly stated expectations, awareness of the challenges of working from home unexpectedly with family members in the house—all are key factors in helping your employees stay focused on what needs to be done. If they were good workers when you were all in the office together, there’s no reason for them not to be good workers remotely.”
—Grace Judson, speaker and trainer, foundational leadership skills
“Allow employees to become leaders—to set up processes, take responsibilities, hire for their own needs and shape their own roles. This can deter some employees, but more often has led to driven and motivated employees who then add a lot to the business.”
Handle Performance Issues Like a Pro
“Start with clear expectations. If you agree on goals/KPIs together, it’s far easier (and less awkward!) to handle performance issues. Being objective takes the emotion out of discussions, which makes it easier for both you and the employee.”
—Sam Wilson, co-founder, Virtalent
“Use video. For feedback conversations, performance conversations and anything that has a risk of being misinterpreted, video is best, as it’s the closest you’ll get to a real face-to-face. Dr. Mehrabian’s well-known 7-38-55 rule tells us that only 7 percent of the meaning we ascribe to someone’s communication comes from their words. The rest is voice/tone (38 percent) and body language (55 percent). Use video chat whenever possible, especially for difficult or complex conversations.”
—Alexis Haselberger, productivity, time management and leadership coach, Alexis Haselberger Coaching and Consulting
“Some people have a harder time adjusting to remote work than others, and this is something managers need to acknowledge. I try not to make assumptions about the reason for the poor performance until I’ve talked it through with the employee. In some cases, adjusting expectations regarding workload is a more reasonable solution than disciplining the employee for poor work, especially if they’re struggling with anxiety or trying to educate and care for children at the same time as they’re trying to work.”
Keep the Team Connected
“Some leaders who are new to managing remote teams miss a critical aspect: virtual team-building. When employees work from an office, they have an opportunity for social interactions with coworkers throughout the day. Remote employees and teams do not have this basic social outlet, so you must be intentional about providing time and opportunity for team bonding. You can include virtual team-building activities like icebreaker games and questions at the beginning of a video conference call. You can also plan more elaborate online team-building games and remote activities to bring people together and boost engagement, like these.”
—Michael Alexis, CEO of Team Building
“To improve remote-work culture, I like using breakout rooms (particularly in Zoom) to replicate the water-cooler moments that happen in a physical space. I’ll start a meeting by breaking a larger group into smaller groups of two or three people. I then give them two to five minutes to talk. It’s a good opportunity for people to catch up on more personal/life issues with colleagues or do more informal check-ins on projects. Those check-in moments can pay big dividends [when it comes to] productivity.”
“We’ve organized two video game tournaments, one on FIFA and one on CS: GO. Both were streamed to everyone in the company, and winners received monetary rewards. Management put the teams together, and the best part for employees was that the competitions took part during work hours.”
—George Gochev, owner, Remote Job Openings
Avoid These Common Mistakes
“The urge to micro-manage from afar is the most harmful impulse a manager can have when it comes to remote teams. Remember that the time the employee spends talking to you is time they’re not putting toward their work. Similarly, asking employees to track their internet or computer usage during work hours adds stress and gives them the feeling that you don’t trust them. Unless employees are paid hourly and need to record time for that reason, tracking is unnecessary and counterproductive.”
“A common mistake for managers and execs is to set up tools for the team that they don’t use themselves. If I didn’t use Asana, then my team members would feel less need to use Asana, and our projects and workflows would start sliding sideways.”
“Make sure employees are using their vacation days when they need to. I’ve seen some managers who seem to have the mindset that people working from home don’t need PTO—after all, they’re already at home. This can be damaging for the long-term mental health of the team, especially those who are already predisposed to working past their scheduled hours without a commute to stop them.”
“Communication is less nuanced/more direct when working remotely, so it’s more obvious when you’re checking up on your staff than you think it is!”
“Maybe the silver lining is that this crisis reminds us that we have always needed each other, and we have learned that everyone is struggling to find a new normal. The key is to show our humanity and compassion while we look out for one another.”
—Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder and CEO, Mavens & Moguls
We can get on board with that!
How One Company Uses Tech to Communicate Better
- Email should be used for most non-urgent communication. We try to use email to follow up after a conversation, not to start one. We try to check our inboxes once or twice a day: Emails shouldn’t take over the day!
- Slack should be seen as the equivalent of “tapping someone on the shoulder” (i.e., it is fairly disruptive when someone is working). It’s best for more urgent, shorter conversations—the same kind of conversations you would have when walking over to someone in an office and asking them a quick question. We still shouldn’t expect an immediate response from someone on Slack, but we definitely try to respond on Slack quicker than we would reply to an email.
- Video/phone meetings should be the equivalent of a meeting, with a defined topic. These should be scheduled ahead of time.
—Sam Wilson, co-founder, Virtalent
Four Tips for Running Better Meetings
Lee Gimpel, founder and principal of Better Meetings, tells us how to run better online meetings.
- Think about soliciting more feedback and interaction from your audience. This is a good practice and keeps people engaged and less likely to meander into some other task. It could be a poll or stopping at the 10-minute mark and asking for questions versus waiting until the full hour is over to solicit feedback. It could be a more collaborative presentation where you ask for ideas or stories from the team.
- There’s a temptation to use every available minute of a meeting. Instead, plan to leave extra time at the end of the block you’ve reserved for your team. This way, your team can return calls and check in with each other after the meeting, replicating the moments when we leave a meeting and follow up with someone as we walk back to our desks.
- Eliminate tourists. Most video-call platforms work okay for calls between two or three people; even business-grade video conferencing still has awkward lags and cross-talk. As a rule of thumb, if you want people to participate, keep meetings below half a dozen attendees. Cut out those who are sitting in but aren’t necessary. This might be a welcome change for all involved.
- Allow yourself to go low-tech even when the video conferencing software you’re using is high-tech. In other words, sometimes using a real whiteboard, holding up a printed page, sharing an ugly spreadsheet or displaying a model can be faster, easier and more effective than trying to get additional online meeting tools to sync documents or virtual screens. Don’t let online meeting technology dominate when it may only complicate.