12 Tips For Managing a Remote Team (And Loving It)

This article was originally published on the Lean Startup Co. blog

By Lean Startup Co. Education Program

The future of work is both near and far. It’s near because things are changing right in front of you, but far because that’s where the remote workers are. Not only are more people working remotely, they are spending more time away from the office. While many employers agree that remote workers tend to be more productive, the surprising news is how much more. A two-year study recently concluded that remote workers saw a productivity boost equivalent to a full extra day of work.

While being part of a remote team sounds innovative and empowering, the reality is managing remote teams to keep them coordinated and on-task can prove to be tough. I have the good fortune to work with an extremely bright, dedicated team that just happens to be spread out across the planet. The experience has taught me some valuable lessons on best practices for non-local collaboration and insights into the future of work.

Although remote workers tend to be more engaged in their work, they have to work harder on the most basic things like communication. The following tips have helped our remote team grow to be more productive and well-coordinated:

1. Have a Plan for Synchronous Vs. Asynchronous Messaging. Synchronous refers to channels like phone, video calls and in-person meetings. Asynchronous includes email, Slack, text, messenger apps and anything where you can compose an answer before hitting send. If your team doesn’t know which messages belong in which channel, you will end up wasting far too much time on irrelevant conference calls, endless email chains, and suffering from notification fatigue. Our sync vs. async decision tree deserves its own blog, but what matters most is the process of discovering what works for your team. Don’t neglect this vital step.

2. Assume Good Intentions. This is closely tied the point above. Email can be wacky because there are no context clues like tone, inflection, body language, etc. People tend to interpret messages differently depending on their mood or what they assume about the writer. Train your team to assume good intentions for every message. Because my team assumes my positive regard, I don’t have to add smiley faces and exclamation points to soften the tone of compact messages. This saves us a significant amount of time and allows us all to focus on what’s really important.

3. Manage Expectations. Do this with your team, especially if you work with vendors. Make sure your team is familiar with turnaround times, communication protocols and any other limitations or costs related to scope. The outcome is that your team is crystal clear on vendor capabilities and can manage their operational expectations accordingly.

4. Stick To A Routine. Consistency in keeping appointments is supremely important. When you are dealing with complex schedules across time zones, a disruption in the call schedule will generate chaos. Gain consensus on a regular cadence of meeting times and make certain that team members treat this as a priority. Most remote workers are free spirits who prize independence. It’s important to help them recognize that regular meeting times are the foundation for playing respectfully with others, handling rare requests for exceptions, and greater productivity for everyone.

5. Video, Video, Video: I feel like this is my most important tip. We require video calls for every meeting. Meetings should be taken from a quiet place with high-speed WiFi and earbuds. When team members show up in a professional way, it means fewer distractions and less time wasted, while building rapport and dialing up productivity. It shows respect to your clients and fellow team members when you demonstrate that you value their time and give them the professional courtesy they deserve.

“I feel like this is my most important tip. We require video calls for every meeting.”-@mcgough_heatherCLICK TO TWEET

6. Hold Impromptu Video Calls. If you find an email thread going back and forth more than three times, move away from email. Add the item to an upcoming agenda for discussion or hold an impromptu video call on Slack. Practice radical candor live during those calls. Ask pointed questions and share real feedback. Team members can’t grow unless you challenge them directly while proving that you care about them personally. Radical candor takes guts, skill and compassion, but it is absolutely necessary for managing remote teams. One quick video call can save the entire project.

7. No Agenda, No Meeting. My team knows to come prepared to every meeting – even daily standups – with an agenda. Pre-select a facilitator and timekeeper, and assign someone to document next steps. On remote teams, it’s too easy for workers to make assumptions or gloss over essential points. The outcome of documenting actions, deadlines, barriers, and ownership is transparency and accountability.

8. Explaining “Why” Goes a Long Way. The hardest part about remote work is feeling left out and forgotten. Remote workers often miss out on the events that lead up to a certain decision or strategy. As their manager, I now make it an essential part of my process to make sure that they know the “why” of what I’m asking of them. I take a step back before responding or directing and align the team member to the goal. This has helped more sensitive workers understand the business case for asking a question or raising a flag and prevents them from immediately going on the defensive.

9. Make Time for Feedback 1:1s. Soliciting feedback from direct reports is easy to put off, but company culture can atrophy rapidly unless you maintain regular opportunities for feedback and course correction. Be mindful not to let these calls slip into tactical work. The outcome is learning directly about concerns or fears that could otherwise fly under manager radar, especially for employees who tend to be more shy or introverted.

10. Get To The Root Cause. If something goes askew, don’t just assume somebody dropped the ball and start pointing fingers. We begin with the Five Whys, a 10-min exercise that can be done individually or as a team. You might learn that an operational issue needs to be addressed or that an employee has an area for personal growth. The positive outcomes from finding the root cause of a problem is powerful. Rather than just finding a fall-guy when things go wrong, answering the Five Whys helps the team understand that you care about both the business objectives and their personal growth.

11. Help Them Unplug Completely on Vacation. In our company, we make it possible for employees to prepare for their time off in advance and temporarily hand off all responsibilities so they can truly let go and relax while on vacation. Each task is delegated to another team member temporarily. As part of the hand-off, the vacationer conducts a brief call with everyone who will be covering for them. Authority, timelines, and other items are then documented in a shared log that anyone can access for guidance on who to contact. As a result, work continues to flow like a well-oiled machine while the team member is away and everyone gets the time off they need with a clear conscience.

12. Remove the Remote Once in a While. Although the business world has grown pretty comfortable with the idea of remote work, you cannot underestimate the power of spending time together, face-to-face. We hold “team onsites” instead of offsites and we treat it like a trip to the 1980s: the whole team gets off technology and revels in some human-to-human interaction. There are so many positive outcomes from gathering in a shared physical space. It helps in planning long-term strategy, boosting morale, building relationships, and bringing new hires into the fold. We’ve learned individuals who don’t adapt well to attending team onsites are rarely a good fit for our company in the long run.

Collaborating as part of a remote team is sexy in theory, but it takes a real commitment from the entire team to learn how to work in a different, sometimes uncomfortable, way. That’s where learning happens, though. I can’t say I have it all figured out, but the above hard-earned lessons have greatly improved both our efficiency and team cohesion.

“Collaborating as part of a remote team is sexy in theory, but it takes a real commitment from the entire team to learn how to work in a different, sometimes uncomfortable, way.”-@mcgough_heather CLICK TO TWEET

How have remote teams worked out for your organization? I’d love to hear your stories – the good, the bad, and the ugly — as well as your own best practices for managing remote workers.

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