Male small business owner leading a virtual team meeting

Your Guide to Remote Team Management

10+ min read • May 25, 2020 • Derek Miller

Working remotely is a trend that has been on the rise for many years, and the coronavirus pandemic caused more people than ever to work from home. While the topic of remote work has been covered extensively through the eyes of the employee, what about the managers who must oversee the production of remote teams?

Whether you’re managing one person or a dozen team members across multiple departments, overseeing remote employees can be daunting. Between varying time zones and work hours to multiple communication channels and reporting systems, managing a remote team takes coordination, consistency, and time.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 forced many businesses to rush their processes and systems for handling remote team management—leading to inefficiencies, communication gaps, and lost revenue. 

While the coronavirus outbreak threw gasoline on the remote work movement, there’s reason to believe that the virtual office will grow more prevalent following the pandemic. A recent study of 300 US CFOs by Gartner found that 74% expect to see an increase in permanent remote work for their employees moving forward.

Managers need to work on their remote management skills for immediate and long-term purposes. While managing remote teams is hard, it’s not impossible. 

Follow this guide on remote team management to help you fine-tune your leadership techniques for employees working from home. 

A few topics that we will cover include:

  • Keeping employees motivated and engaged
  • Fostering productivity in remote workers
  • Creating a healthy remote work-life balance
  • Handling distractions from a managerial stance
  • Introducing remote work policies to your team
  • Finding the right tools for the remote job

Keeping Employees Motivated and Engaged

One of the main reasons businesses refrain from offering remote work opportunities is that they believe that it’s hard for employees to feel motivated and engaged while working from home. While there can be added distractions at home and less visibility for managers, employees are often more productive when working from the comfort of their homes. In fact, a 2019 Airtasker survey of 1,004 full-time US employees found that remote employees worked 1.4 more days a month than in-office staff.

The key to keeping remote employees motivated and focused is to develop a work-from-home environment that breeds self-accountability. You can do this with thorough processes, defined expectations, clear communication, and consistency. 

Below we dive into a few steps to help managers keep remote teams focused and engaged.

  • Give your team leadership opportunities and experience. Many workers feel less visible working remotely and want to prove themselves. Provide new opportunities for your employees to solve problems creatively or take the lead on projects. By delegating responsibilities, you will continue to grow, motivate, and empower your employees.
  • Be clear about goals and expectations. As a remote manager, communication is one of the most important skills to develop. Communicating expectations and goals clearly to your team members is crucial for keeping your employees focused. Be diligent with communicating important information like task ownerships and deadlines. Don’t be afraid of redundancy. Consider following up with an email summary after a conference call and ask for verbal or virtual verification of said information. These steps will help you set clear goals and expectations for your team, which will prevent misunderstandings or communication gaps.
  • Take time to recognize good work. Another way to keep your team more engaged is to reward and recognize their achievements. Employee recognition is an important part of good management regardless of where your team works—but arguably more important when they’re out of the office. Track milestones and follow your employees’ production toward the goal and make sure to acknowledge big and little wins. Consider mentioning it on a conference call or simply message the employee individually to show your appreciation for their hard work.

Engagement levels of your team are going to rise and fall. At the start of the pandemic, most employees were not yet comfortable working from home, but that may change as they become used to their new environments and processes. 

For permanent remote teams, engagement rates will change depending on projects, deadlines, and personal lives. As a manager, it’s your job to keep your remote team moving forward toward your organizational goals. Consider focusing on delegating responsibilities, improving communication, and recognizing great work to help engage your employees. 

Fostering Productivity in Remote Workers

One of the biggest challenges that managers face when leading remote workers is making sure they are maximizing productivity. How do you know that your employee isn’t watching Netflix while they work? You don’t. 

While some managers trust that their employees are doing the best they can, others quickly resort to micromanaging. 

There are a few common signs that you are a remote micromanager:

  • Do you follow up excessively with your employees, checking in on their work 3 or 4 times a day?
  • Are you a conference-call-aholic, conducting daily meetings that last an hour or more at a time? 
  • Do you provide frequent feedback on your employees’ work and expect them to make those adjustments immediately? 

If you answered yes to these questions, then you may be hovering over your employees instead of letting them work. Not only does micromanaging elicit feelings of distrust, but it can lead to a lot of wasted time reporting and meeting instead of actually working. 

While offering feedback is reasonable and expected of managers, some leaders struggle to let employees take charge of their work. Managers have to take a step back and let their team make decisions on their own. Will they sometimes make mistakes? Yes, but your staff will learn from them and will be ready the next time they face a similar situation.

Additionally, providing feedback in a remote setting can be more difficult than in-person. Without body language or additional context, your “feedback” might not be received with the same tone that you intended. If you’re not careful, you could unintentionally alienate or insult your staff.

Micromanaging is also a waste of your time. Managers are best suited for big-picture decisions and strategy, not the daily minutiae. Instead of spending your hours watching over employees, take a step back and focus on the long term and how you can better position your team to move the company further.

Managing a productive remote team requires walking a thin line between offering complete autonomy and micromanaging. It is your job to ensure your team is working, but if they are hitting their goals and tasks, let them have freedom to arrive at those targets on their own. Step in only when necessary and offer your support—not always your authority. 

What you may find is that not only will your employees be more productive, but you will be, too!

Creating a Healthy Remote Work-Life Balance

Maintaining a work-life balance is a challenge in today’s environment. In the past few years, European countries and American cities have proposed Right to Disconnect laws, banning companies from expecting employees to respond to work emails and other forms of communication after their traditional work hours. 

Creating a work-life balance is even more challenging when your home and office are in the same place. If you know your employees have easy access to their office, it can be tempting to reach out, expecting an immediate response. 

However, as a manager, you set an example within your team. You determine whether your employees have a healthy work-life balance.

There are a few ways to encourage your employees to maintain a healthy distance from work after hours: 

  • Acknowledge when you would like a response. You should know when your team is scheduled to work. If you send an email or text outside of those hours, acknowledge that you know they are off the clock and give them a reasonable time when you would like a response. Communicating urgency of a question or task can keep employees from feeling pressured to respond immediately to non-pressing items. 
  • Lead by example. Managers are supposed to lead. When it comes to setting a healthy work-life balance, do your part to develop that culture in your team. Set policies for when people should turn off for the day, and don’t be part of the problem by messaging your team after hours. You can also spearhead non-work-related conversations or virtual Happy Hours to develop a more relaxed remote environment.
  • Communicate with your team when someone is out. If an employee is away from the office or taking personal time, let your other team members know. Encourage your other employees to avoid contacting that person so they can truly take their personal time for whatever purposes they need. Taking this step will set precedence on your team that employees can have days off, even when working remotely.
  • End the day with a social activity or comment. Without a traditional commute, it is hard for people to know when to stop working and clock out. As a manager, you can lead this initiative. Say goodbye to your team each day in the same way you would if they were in the office. You can also use icebreakers to end the day while also developing more rapport between your team members.

Employees often work late because they feel insecure about their position within the company. They want to keep working to impress you as their manager. You are responsible for setting guidelines to clock out for the day to create a healthy work-life balance.    

Handling Distractions from a Managerial Stance

There’s no doubt that remote work comes with its own set of distractions. From your favorite new TV show to household chores and adorable pets, there’s plenty of ways to procrastinate.

Let’s not forget the additional distractions that COVID-19 created—like unruly children and bored “coworkers” (aka significant others).

At-home distractions are not reserved for employees—managers must also deal with these obstacles. These distractions can make it hard for you to focus on your tasks and can lead to bottlenecks for your team. 

The first step you can take to mitigate distractions at home is to make sure your team has all the resources and equipment they need to execute their job.

For example, remote workers with poor internet connections or outdated computers are going to be less productive and more disinterested in their tasks. Consider providing a company stipend to cover internet upgrades or a new work laptop. 

Additionally, look for ways to be flexible around the lives of your team members. Flexibility is one of the main benefits of remote work. You may allow an employee to start later in the day so she can get her children’s virtual classrooms set up in the morning. Another employee might need to work on the weekends when her husband can watch the kids. 

You can form better relationships with your employees by approaching distractions with a solutions mindset. Instead of reprimanding employees for not having childcare or high-speed internet, look for ways to balance kids and work or improve their connections. 

In a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, your team members already face a significant amount of stress. You don’t want them to start fearing for their jobs as well because of circumstances out of their control.  

Introducing New Remote Work Policies

As you and your team adapt to remote work, whether temporary or not, you will need to develop new rules and best practices to guide your team members. Some of these policies will be punitive, as not every employee can handle working from home. However, most systems will center around improving communication and workflows—which is widely applicable.

If you do need to create a new team or company policy, follow guidelines used by writers everywhere: tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them.  

  1. Send out an email explaining the new company policy. Explain that this policy will be discussed on an upcoming call—either during a weekly check-in or in a dedicated meeting.
  2. Discuss what the policy means and why it was created. Open the floor for questions and comments. By having this meeting as a group, you only need to answer questions once, instead of answering the same questions repeatedly by email.
  3. After the meeting, summarize any questions that might have been asked and their answers. You can also invite people to ask questions about individual cases privately as needed.

For example, you may need to introduce a new time tracking tool for employees to log the hours spent on specific tasks or projects. Following this process minimizes confusion, creates a paper trail of clarification, and gets your whole team on the same page.

During this time, explain whether a policy is permanent or temporary. During the pandemic, upper management likely created a wave of new pandemic policies. If you don’t know the answer, tell your team to act as if the policy is permanent until they are told otherwise. 

Finding the Right Tools for the Remote Job

To do any job well, you need the right tools. This is particularly true in the age of remote work, where you need to collaborate, communicate, and update team members throughout the day.

Consider the needs of your team and how technology could fill them. For example, for improved communication, Slack is one of the most-used tools on the web. During the pandemic, Zoom calls became invaluable for collaboration.

Additionally, you may find that collaboration and project management are harder without an in-office team. To solve this, consider tools like Wrike or Basecamp, which can handle simple projects or advanced, multi-team plans. 

If possible, look for tools that offer multiple uses within your team. Slack is another strong example here: it serves as a communication tool while increasing collaboration on different projects and teams. 

Serene is also another useful choice. This tool blocks websites that cause distractions (like Facebook or Twitter) for a set time. It also encourages you to create task-based to-do lists and accomplish them within limited time windows. Serene is used by people who are easily distracted at home and want to carve out time to get a lot of work done.

Pro tip: let your team have input on the tools you use. Trying to force a new productivity app or website on your team is akin to forcing a square peg into a round hole. Your employees either won’t use it (limiting its value) or will only do the bare minimum to make you happy. 

Consider testing different apps and collecting feedback on which ones your team members want to use. This way, you can guarantee that any investments in tool purchases and employee training don’t go to waste.   

Finally, remember that you don’t need a flashy new solution for every problem. Sometimes creating a simple spreadsheet or sending an email can resolve team issues without much time or investment. Think about the easiest possible solution first, and then look into more complex tools as needed.  

Unless your employees have previous experience working remotely, they are turning to you for guidance. They want to know how to maintain normal levels of productivity and work, even during a pandemic. They want to use the best tools and grow professionally, even without in-person meetings or training.

Use this time as a leadership opportunity. If you can guide your remote team through a global pandemic, then you can motivate them through any obstacle. Both you and your employees are going to learn some hard lessons during this period of remote work, but you can all come out stronger and wiser for it. 

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Derek Miller

Derek Miller is the CMO of Smack Apparel, the content guru at Great.com, the co-founder of Lofty Llama, and a marketing consultant for small businesses. He specializes in entrepreneurship, small business, and digital marketing, and his work has been featured in sites like Entrepreneur, GoDaddy, Score.org, and StartupCamp.