For many people, 2020 has been one of the most difficult years in recent history.
On top of the stress caused by the pandemic, wildfires across the USA, and (of course) the US presidential election, there has been another huge source of stress – working from home.
Back in May, when the first lockdowns were starting and workers were forced to move to remote working, plenty of people thought it would be easy. We’d quickly read through a guide to building a remote workstation, and learn how to structure a great presentation for Zoom, and that would be that.
As we’ve all now discovered, it’s not that straightforward. Working in a remote team is difficult; managing one is even more so. But fear not. In this guide, I’ll share four key steps in hiring and managing a remote team, without losing your sanity. Too much, at least.
1. Choose the Right Employees
The first and most important step is this – hire people who can work remotely in an effective way. Theoretically, of course, anyone who works exclusively through a computer, and who has an internet connection at home, can work remotely. This constitutes a significant proportion of the workforce, and statistics show that an estimated 31% of workers have now switched to working from home.
In reality, and as we pointed out in our tips from experts on remote working, some people are better suited to remote work than others. As a manager, look for employees with a proven history of working independently, or at least showing initiative in their work. It can even be worth giving them a small task to do, such as:
- Setting up the Zoom meeting on which you will interview them,
- Emailing a few key people in your organization to check their ability to communicate in an appropriate way,
- Providing a checklist of all the systems and services they will need to sign up to as part of their onboarding, and instructing them to do this, rather than have IT staff do it for them.
In other words, micromanaging team members who work remotely simply isn’t possible, so make sure you hire those who can work independently.
2. Provide (Friendly, Secure) Communications
If you already have employees who are working remotely or are seriously considering this move, you need to spend some time working out how you are going to communicate with them, and how they are going to communicate with each other.
There are several elements to this. One is that you need to invest in a workplace communication-and productivity system that is suitable for the scale and type of your business. Slack is a great solution if you want to facilitate easy, quick communication between team members. Solutions like TeamGantt bring advanced project management capabilities to the table. If you check out the options and think they are expensive, just remember that renting an office building is even more expensive.
You should also ensure that, whatever system you use, it is secure. Homeworking is a nightmare for cybersecurity professionals because it relies on the security of hundreds (if not thousands) of individual, commercially provided WiFi networks. Make sure your employees are using a VPN, know how to verify that it is working, don’t use insecure channels for critical business communications, and are actively using a password manager.
Finally, recognize the importance of social communication in the workplace. Provide dedicated channels for people to get to know each other, such as a “water cooler” channel on your workplace communication software. Similarly, if you can afford it, provide an opportunity for everyone to meet up – in person – at least once a year, for example by convening a conference on the future of your organization.
3. Be Flexible
One of the primary benefits of moving to remote working is that it can make your business more flexible and agile. However, for many managers realizing this flexibility is the most difficult part of managing a remote team.
This is particularly true for managers of an older generation, who are likely to be used to a situation in which every employee is managed directly by one manager, who then channels their input into the company. For remote workers, it can be worth exploring other ways of managing them.
Similarly, a lot of “older” companies who are forced to work remotely still try to get employees to work in a synchronous manner. This is a problem because when remote work is combined with a lack of control over your own time, this can lead to a disaster. Remote work favors asynchronous work, and managers should recognize the challenges and opportunities inherent in this.
Remote workers, in general, work better when they are given larger projects to complete. Instead of managers breaking down large-scale projects into hundreds of smaller tasks, it is worth trusting your remote employees to manage projects for themselves. Not only will this allow them to work more effectively – because they won’t have to be in constant contact with their supervisor – but it will also free up managers to focus on more strategic priorities.
4. Manage Both Your Remote and non-Remote Teams
Finally, you should recognize that there is an inherent difference between remote and non-remote teams. Each requires a different approach and will develop a different culture. If you are managing remote and non-remote teams simultaneously, it’s not unusual for them to develop quite distinct characteristics.
This is not, necessarily, a problem. However, you do need to be aware of it, because it can cause tension between in-house and remote employees. Both can end up feeling that the other has a “better deal,” either because they don’t have to commute, or because they are closer to where the decisions are made in the company.
Of course, there is an easier way of avoiding this tension – go fully remote. While it can be a challenge to put in place all the tools you need to manage remote teams effectively, they do have the advantage that they are more easily scalable than “traditional” teams
In many ways, the recent lockdowns and the associated necessity to move to remote teams have accelerated trends that were already visible in the business community. Some companies were moving to remote teams long before they were forced to, and encountered the problem of keeping employees engaged and motivated during remote working many years ago.
As a result, there are plenty of resources out there, and no lack of expert experience, on making remote working a success. In other words, while managing remote teams might be making you crazy right now, remember that you are not alone.
- REMOTE: Office Not Required: This book from the team at Basecamp has become the go-to resource for teams looking to make the transition to remote work smoothly and efficiently.
- OMG I’m working remotely, now what?! This is a short blog post by Benedikt Lehnert, Director of Product Design for Microsoft’s Mobile Experiences, which is well worth the read. It brings together best practices and tips drawn from many different types of remote teams.
- How to lead a distributed team: Jennifer Dennard, Co-Founder of Range, offers four tips for managers who find themselves having to get used to managing remotely in a hurry.
- Remotely Managing: This Medium publication is from Stella Garber, the head of Trello’s distributed marketing team. There are a wealth of resources here for remote teams of all sizes and types.
- MiroBlog | A blog by Miro: Miro’s entire publication is dedicated to the future of distributed teamwork. A must for managers looking to develop their skills.
About the author:
Brian Skewes is a technologist into deconstruction. Over two decades of self-employment, he has accumulated a wealth of inadvertent real-world lessons related to building, running, and preserving a small company.