Chances are, at some point in your working life, you will find yourself managing remote teams. Whether you’re coordinating between different office locations or integrating remote employees with your in-house team, it can be challenging to make sure everyone’s on the same page so the work gets done.
This guide aims to break down the task of managing remote teams into a feasible accomplishment, and will equip you with different techniques and tools to make this a successful, productive arrangement for everyone.
What to look out for and other potential setbacks
When it comes to remote working, we are all quick to crow about its benefits: boosted productivity, smaller carbon footprint, more satisfied employees, etc. But what about the setbacks? What are the potential bumps we could hit along the road, and how do we as leaders solve them (or avoid them altogether) to make managing our remote teams as smooth as possible?
Here are just three common concerns around remote working:
Professional burnout is defined as ‘a special type of job stress — a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.1’ Some remote employees could end up working too much and burn out, as it’s harder to separate home and work life when both happen in the same space. Or they could start to feel ‘virtually distant’ from the rest of the team, which could result in feeling frustrated, unnoticed or unimportant – all factors to encourage someone to leave their job and look elsewhere.
It’s harder to build a solid rapport between remote workers for the sheer fact that you can’t all hang out together. But this doesn’t mean you can’t forge meaningful digital relationships; it will just take a bit more work.
This is the idea that performance is mainly measured by time spent in the office rather than deliverables.
Professor of Organisational Health and Psychology, Cary Cooper, explains:2‘Office workers worry that if they're not in the political arena, it might affect their ability to get a promotion. They feel they need to be visible and that their employer may question their commitment if they work from home.’ This whole out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality should be discouraged, and this guide will show you how to keep remote workers engaged, active members of the team.
The key to managing remote teams? Communication
You need to make sure that projects are moving along smoothly, everyone is clear on their responsibilities and deadlines are being met, so keeping in regular contact with your team is essential.
Here are some great tools to help you do everything from meetings to brainstorms online.
GoToMeeting is the perfect video conferencing tool for online meetings, from one-on-ones to team catchups. The screensharing feature with this software is a big plus – it’s a great way to give presentations or demonstrations. You can also download the companion app that allows you to join meetings from wherever – this is incredibly handy should there be any last-minute emergencies regarding a project.
For project management
Trello is essentially an online board of lists, but it’s much more than that. This lets you lay out all your projects into little task cards, and within each card you can add files, assign due dates, make checklists and more. You can also add other people into your projects, and when one person updates the status of an item, everyone’s boards update so you get real-time progress. Plus, it’s free.
Slack is another fantastic tool to use for project management. Slack has been touted as the end to email because it pretty much eliminates the need for it (internally, anyway). Start a conversation with your colleagues about a certain project or topic, and everyone can join in like one very organised group chat. This is also a great way to encourage comradery between workers – you don’t have to use Slack solely for work!
World Time Buddy is a lifesaver for those working across multiple time zones – you can compare a bunch of different time zones and share time slots with others to create meetings or appointments. You can also use the app for convenient scheduling on the go.
Stormboard is an online brainstorming and collaboration tool: invite your team to a ‘storm’ and everyone can share their thoughts in real time. You can add videos or pictures, comment on other people’s contributions, vote for your favourite concepts and organise your ideas.
Google Docs is also a great way to brainstorm together, as it allows multiple users to edit in real time.
According to the 2015 Remote Working Benchmarking Survey3, one of the top pitfalls of a remote working scheme is virtual distance:
‘A sense of psychological and emotional detachment that begins to grow little by little and unconsciously when most encounters and experiences are mediated by screens on smart devices.4’
When a worker feels isolated – or like they have to work twice as hard as their on-site colleagues to be heard or understood – we typically assume that physical distance is the biggest reason. But it’s not as simple as that.
As Dr Karen Sobel-Lojeski writes in her article for the Harvard Business Review titled ‘The Subtle Ways Our Screens Are Pushing Us Apart’, virtual distance can also be attributed to operational distance (things like a miscommunication about a meeting time or a fuzzy conference call connection) and affinity distance (things that prevent deep, meaningful relationships from taking place). This sense of separation could build up over time and ultimately lead your employee to find other work, so it’s important to boost camaraderie and foster a healthy work community.
Here are just 5 ways you can keep your remote teams connected.
1) Schedule weekly recurring catchups
Having a quick videocall with the entire team each week (at the same time on the same day) not only creates a sense of consistency and organisation, it will help you monitor your remote worker’s progress. Briefly go over what happened during the week, and set goals for the upcoming week.
2) Schedule one-on-one meetings
In addition to usual weekly meetings, make sure you organise recurring monthly one-on-one videochats with your remote workers. Take this time to discuss short-term and long-term goals, but also make sure you get to know them as a person outside work as well. This will help them feel relevant and recognised inside (and outside) the company.
3) Make chitchat
In any normal office, there’s a fair share of un-related content being shared around: interesting articles, funny videos, dumb cat pictures, just a bit of silliness to break up the workday. It’s easy to leave remote workers out of these interactions, but they actually help build rapport. You can keep everyone in the loop with something like HipChat – a group and private chat, file sharing and integration platform. A bit of banter should be encouraged!
4) Get everyone together a few times a year
If you can afford it, get everyone – remote teams included – together in one place for a few days as a company retreat.
5) Try ‘pair buddies’
In Zapier's 'The Ultimate Guide to Remote Work', they write about one rather unusual method of keeping their remote teams connected:
As we've [Zapier] grown, it can be harder to know all your teammates. One easy way to mitigate that is to have folks on the team get paired up with one other teammate at random each week for a short 10-15 minute pair call. We use this to chat about life, work or whatever random thing seems interesting. Sometimes cool new product features come out of these, other times it's just good fun. Regardless it helps everyone better know their teammates.
Encourage all your employees – remote or not – to participate. Even if it seems a little awkward at first, this will help solidify the team.
How to avoid burnout
One of the main things to keep an eye out for when managing remote teams are signs of professional burnout. If you feel an overwhelming amount of job-related stress or persistent doubts about the value of your work, you’re experiencing the beginnings of burnout. This is something that can affect not only mental health, but physical health too, so it’s important to be sensitive to this issue. Remote workers can’t participate in the casual office chitchat that makes us feel less alone throughout the day, and therefore could be even more susceptible to burnout.
In order to prevent this from turning into deep-rooted unhappiness (which could then turn into a worker’s resignation), look out for the symptoms of burnout, which can include (but are not limited to):
- Lack of motivation
- Drop in job performance
- The inability to focus
- Chronic fatigue
Of course, the workers themselves must be educated on the risks, look out for early signs and symptoms and take personal steps to avoid burning out. So how can you as a manager help with this?
- Encourage your remote workers to implement a work-life schedule in order to build a healthy routine.
- No one’s life should be all work and no play; this is a sure-fire recipe for burnout.
- Help your remote workers set up a schedule for office hours (i.e. they will be available between 8:30 and 6 Monday through Friday) and make sure they stick to it.
- This goes both ways: your remote workers shouldn’t be checking their email after hours and your on-site staff shouldn’t expect your remote workers to be ‘on call’ all the time.
- Never cancel one-on-one meetings with your remote workers.
- Re-scheduling could make them feel as though they aren’t as important or as valued as your other colleagues.
- Always leave enough time for small talk.
- Show reasonable interest in their social life; demonstrate that you care about them as a person and not just an employee!
- If you feel that a remote employee is beginning to show signs of burnout, check in with them earlier rather than later.
Essentially, the best preventative measure against burnout is fostering a safe, non-judgemental atmosphere within your team. Your employees (both on and off-site) should feel comfortable enough to approach you if they are struggling, and you shouldn’t hesitate to reach out (as a boss and as a friend) to those who might be suffering. Health always comes first, no exceptions.
This guide shouldn’t be your end-all and be-all to managing remote teams; there are so many other helpful resources online to further your education on the subject.
Here are a few valuable articles definitely worth a read: