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Managing a Remote Team: Four Keys to Success

Kristen Craft | December 20, 2018
Working remotely from a cafe

So you’re managing a fully remote team. You may go weeks or years without seeing your employees in person, but you still face the challenge of management every day.

Done right, you have a happy team producing effective, asynchronous work. In the best remote teams, communication overcomes misunderstandings, and distance is no blocker to camaraderie and success.

Done wrong, you’ll have low employee retention, high dissatisfaction, and slow-moving projects. You’ll find everyone is confused and frustrated by the disjointed nature of the team. These are big problems even in traditional offices, but it might completely break a remote team.

Avoiding the pitfalls is a tricky task, but not an impossible one. If you lean into the following areas while managing a remote team, you’ll find that it might even be easier than managing an in-office team.

1. Communication

At its core, remote teamwork relies on collaboration. And you can’t collaborate without great communication. So what is great communication? Broadly, it’s an open flow between coworkers and managers, leading to everyone being on the same page. But the structure of this communication might look different for each team.

A more hands-on team (such as one with newbie remote workers) might need a daily status update from every member. More loosely organized teams (where you have more freelancers, or your employees have years of industry experience) might do better with a bi-weekly check-in. Give yourself and your team room to experiment and learn what’s most effective as a group.

You can make this learning curve easier by starting with some shared principles. One great example is Help Scout’s policy of assuming benevolence: the idea that miscommunication is more likely than malice, so give everyone the benefit of the doubt if communication goes awry.

Regardless of how you do it, you need to make sure your communication is succinct and clear. You must think about what you say before you say it. But that’s the beauty of remote work! Since most communication isn’t in person, you have more time to think about what you’ll say in a meeting or over chat, so you can be intentional about every direction you give.

Your Toolkit:

  1. Availability Guidelines: Foster transparency by having an open, asynchronous message policy, with clear guidelines on when and how you’ll respond. If you can’t always have an inbox or chat open, consider having office hours.
  2. Documentation: Document everything, including policies, standard operating procedures, and team goals. Encourage everyone to get involved in documentation, and make this info available to the team in a centralized place like Tettra. Consider adopting an open communication policy, where the whole team can see questions and answers to your documentation.
  3. Shared Schedules: Use them to schedule regular check-ins and meetings. Encourage everyone to share status information, (like out of office time and other work details,) so that it’s clear when you can and can’t expect a quick reply.
  4. Culture Decks: When everyone is remote, there’s no “office vibe” to pick up on, so it can be hard for employees, especially new hires, to know how to interact with one another. Help ease the confusion by having a culture deck that employees can reread at any point. We’ve built a library of examples to get you started.

2. Tools

Having to many or too few tools at your disposal can frustrate you and your team. Nobody wants to see their work grind to a halt if one tool goes down. At the same time, having too many tools will fragment your communication. And nobody wants to waste time tracking down a conversation across three different channels.

You need to find the sweet spot for your remote team. The trick is to find a small handful of necessary, go-to solutions that take away the grunt work without overwhelming your team. While the options vary, there are a few broad categories of tools every leader should consider.

At minimum, you’ll need some type of progress tracker to stay on top of what needs to get done, as well as an instant messenger. To make sure that your day isn’t filled with answering tangential questions, you should have a team wiki to share all of the information your remote team needs to do their jobs. You can also save yourself time and effort with an employee portal that simplifies the feedback and performance review processes.

There are, of course, other tools you can use to help your remote team, but these four categories are the ones you’ll want to cover first.

Your toolkit:

  1. A Communication Tool: Such as Slack or another instant messaging software.
  2. A Team Wiki: Such as Tettra, so all the necessary info lives in one clear, easy-to-search spot.
  3. An Employee Portal: Such as Lattice, to manage employee engagement data, feedback, and performance management programs.
  4. A Digital To-Do List: Such as Asana, Trello or other progress tracking software, where you can set tasks and see if your team is on track.

3. Goal setting

Goal setting can help motivate your team and clarify what they should work on. Setting and meeting small goals helps propel employees to achieve bigger, harder goals. Goals are valuable to any business, but they can be harder to set and share with a remote team. Without frequent in-person meetings, your team will benefit from clear expectations and an easy way of tracking goals.

The system that works for you might be as simple as check-in meetings and shared documents. Or you might want to use a more complex, dedicated system for your remote team.

Regardless of how you approach it, the goals that stick have a few things in common. Make goals clear and easy to understand, using the most basic language possible. If you have to explain a lot of moving parts to get the point across, you should break the goal into smaller steps. Goals should also be presented to the team as soon as you know what you want to achieve. That way, your employees know exactly what’s expected of them, from timelines to behavior, and will know when they’re on track.

Your toolkit:

  1. A Goal-Setting System: Be they KPIs or OKRs, a clear progress tracking method helps your team stay motivated and moving forward.
  2. Progress Reports: Hand in hand with goal tracking, make sure that employees can ask questions and update you on progress. This will help them navigate difficult blockers or bumps in the road. You might consider implementing a progress tracking app or weekly progress meetings.
  3. Project Roadmaps: Create a roadmap of expected milestones for each project, so everyone has a predictable baseline for how their work should go.

4. Trust

At the end of the day, the best-kept secret of managing a remote team is trust.

If you don’t trust your team to get their work done, you’ll be more likely to micromanage, and people will feel less empowered to do their best work. When people feel seen and respected as competent adults, they’ll take more risks and think outside the box more often, which can lead to big wins for your business.

It isn’t enough to simply say that you trust your team. You need to demonstrate that trust. It’s not always easy, and all managers struggle with finding the right balance of trust and intervention; communication and goal setting can help. With clear expectations and well-documented goals are, you should feel confident that everyone knows what to do unless or until they reach out for help. Try to stand back and let your team do their jobs.

Trusting your employees will also help to inspire confidence in you. When it comes time to make a big decision or a major change in direction, your employees will be more likely to take it seriously and trust your judgment, since they know you’ve done the same for them.

It’s also worth noting that personal connections can help foster trust. Take the time to get to know the people on your team, even if they live thousands of miles away and across multiple times zones. Start to learn about how they spend their free time and what they prioritize in their lives.

Your toolkit:

  1. Effective Onboarding: An extensive and well-documented onboarding process helps you feel confident that employees understand what they need to do and how they need to do it.
  2. Video Chats: Making eye contact and seeing one another, instead of merely reading texts, helps form stronger bonds between far-flung coworkers and teammates.
  3. Social Interactions: Regular social interactions about non-work topics help you and your team connect on a personal level, creating a digital version of the office water cooler chat. These also let you keep a finger on the pulse of things that could impact the team’s work. For instance, if you know about a team member’s sick parent or a new baby, you’ll be better able to support him or her.

These keys to managing a virtual team may not be so secret. But every single one is worth devoting time and thought to. Being intentional about these high-level concepts, and making explicit plans for implementing them, is the trick to finding success as a fully remote team.

Looking for a way to help get your team on the same page? Check out how Tettra can help remote teams connect.