Managing Remote Teams
There has been an explosion in the use of outsourced and remote workers over the past few years, a shift helped in no small part by the pandemic as thousands of companies were pushed into managing remote teams to be safe and meet government regulations.
This shift in work set-up comes with huge potential benefits, but there are some pitfalls to be aware of too. Advantages include things like far lower overheads and thus higher profits, but if badly managed, performance can suffer and clients may be lost.
While most of the perceived problems around remote working are paper tigers or have little basis in reality, there are some things to be aware of. In this article, we’ll cover why remote working is so great, and some of the dos and don’ts to follow when it comes to managing remote teams.
Successfully Managing a Remote Team
There are three major fundamentals to focus on run a remote team successfully.
Firstly, there needs to be a shared communication channel. Basecamp, Slack, Google for business, it doesn’t matter too much what you use, the main thing is that everyone is on it and appropriate team channels are set up so relevant people can see relevant information.
By relying on older methods like email or fracturing people across different programs, omissions in communication and misunderstandings will continuously occur.
As an addendum, never assume anything about the people you’re dealing with, and make communications as easy as possible. Just because someone has a glowing resume or many years in a role, it doesn’t mean that they’ve entirely understood you or that they have the same way of solving the problem. It’s common for a team member to spend days or even weeks going in the wrong direction.
On video calls and text exchanges, keep asking people to repeat their interpretation of the current mission and how they intend to move forward. Explain that the reasoning behind this is to ensuring that everyone is on the same page, not that you don’t trust them.
Secondly, set up standard operating procedures, write documentation, and record help videos – that way you only need to explain things once.
This library can be updated and improved over time as the business evolves. For the most part, once each process is polished, even taking on new staff shouldn’t result in much extra downtime for the extant team because the fresh hire can just be directed towards the documentation and guides to get to grips with themselves.
Thirdly, and most importantly, find remote workers that are intuitive and highly self-motivated. Regardless of the position you’re trying to fill, for any role, self-motivation is one attribute to look for above all others.
Having to remotely micromanage people would mean that you could never get your work done. You need team members to do their tasks better than you could, and whether they work in a coworking space, café, or their mother’s basement, without a high level of internal drive and discipline, they’ll fail.
In this new age of remote working and personal freedom, many people dream of working remotely, but only a small minority have the mettle to really thrive with it.
What to Look For in a Remote Employee
For the most part, the things that make a good remote employee are not too different from what makes a good employee in general, but there are some traits which you’ll want to place particular attention on when you’re considering taking on a new remote worker or considering whether your current team will be up to it.
You need people who are particularly self-motivated and driven, people who can be relied upon to complete tasks regardless of whether someone is monitoring them. In other words, they need to be self-starters who are comfortable working more independently and won’t need micromanaging.
You also need to take their personal preferences and psychology into account to some extent – there may be people who you could trust to work alone and still do a good job, but if they actually really dislike working this way and miss the more social atmosphere of a typical in-person role, chances are that they’ll burn out quickly or performance will suffer regardless of their talents.
Ideal remote workers are hard to find and typically either have an entrepreneurial mindset or a self-employed one. Worker bees who just want to be told what to do tend to disappear, leaving you only with initiative-takers and self-employed types who are comfortable with more independence and will make managing a remote team easy.
Securing Your Valuable Remote Workers
The potential problem with the kind of entrepreneurial people mentioned above is that they will often outgrow their position in your business and possibly even set up their own gig in competition with yours.
To tackle this problem before it arises, you need to provide a leadership path for them within your company. Develop a clear roadmap of rewards, goals, and timescales, even if they don’t ask.
If you’ve identified someone really worth holding onto and want to induce stellar results, then future directorships, shareholding, and profit shares should also be on the table.
The self-employed and seasoned-freelancer types need to be paid well right now, or you’ll find they get poached and will happily bolt to receive their proper market rate elsewhere.
It’s worth making any diamond-in-the-rough you find the exact same offer you would to a strong entrepreneurial type since you can’t be exactly sure of people’s mindsets, and you want to foster loyalty with incentives as soon as you can.
Wait too long, and unbeknownst to you, they’ll be applying for other jobs and/or only performing at a fraction of their potential since they see no point in putting in more effort than necessary.
Onboarding and Training Remote Employees
Just like with in-person jobs, the onboarding and training that needs to be delivered to a worker in a remote team depends on their job type.
Roles are commonly categorized as either systems/process-driven or creative/skilled. Bringing on a new employee into one of these two groups will require a different approach to the other.
People who are doing systemic or operational work generally need to follow finely-tuned manuals and standard operating procedures.
For example, an existing staff member may need to do each task, map it out, and see how long each measurable unit takes. A new person will then be able to get all of the recorded information immediately, and they can review and absorb this at their own pace. You’ll be able to see if they’re performing just by looking at the numbers over time and seeing whether mistakes are being made.
For more creative jobs, the chances of you being able to bring on someone with no experience but the right attitude and training them from scratch are slim.
It’s always going to be less of a gamble to find someone with a demonstrable track record. You know what you’re looking for, they know what you need, and they’re able to hit the ground running.
That’s not to say that training people is impossible though – far from it. In fact, even if you get a real expert, it’s likely that they’ll need some level of training to get acquainted with the particular procedures and tools your company uses which they may not have encountered before.
Remotely training people can be done in a ‘hands-on’ way by setting up a video call and mutually screen-sharing to show and explain what’s being done on screen. This is just as good as sitting next to each-other in an office and pointing to your screens as you explain.
Creating Your Own Training Resources
And again, just like in an office where people might be given print-outs, you can easily create PDF guides with screenshots and numbered guides to explain how to use software or company systems, documentation on following company policy, etc.
Create a folder with notes, instructions, drafts, and, ideally, a standard operating procedure for anything likely to be done more than once in the future. The most vital or complicated tasks will need a more detailed folder. Videos, flowcharts, and step-by-step instructions will make life far more comfortable in the future.
You’ll realise how valuable this library of resources is when you find yourself giving a new team member the same job after the last one has left the organisation. Sometimes, you’ll save yourself having to go over everything again with the same person!
External online course providers are also another great option for the continuous professional development of a remote team. There are loads of options out there covering all sorts of topics, from health and safety to programming. Many are officially accredited and will provide your workers with expert guidance at no time cost to you.
How to Evaluate Your Remote Workers’ Performance
Keep good records of standard operating procedures (SOP) and the time it takes to complete each task. If the task is something you yourself can do first, you can time yourself as you create the SOP. Depending on the task, a specialist could complete it in more or less time, but at least you can have a bare minimum benchmark.
For the most part, a specialist should work faster, but there are times when their specialist knowledge or creative process means that they actually need longer but the end result is much better, so take results into account and adjust expectations over time.
Everyone works in their own way, and one of the biggest benefits that remote workers themselves appreciate is more freedom to get their heads down and do things in a more focused style that suits them best, so try not to be equivalent of a bridezilla control freak when it comes to managing your remote team.
Remember that really all that matters is if they can give you the results you need in a given timeframe. This is what you measure success by – not how often they’re wiggling their mouse or how many keystrokes they’re clocking between 9:00 and 17:00.
Raising Engagement When Managing Remote Teams
Having operated entirely remotely for over five years, we at Out of the Box Innovations have learnt a thing or two about the process and are afraid to tell you that ideal remote workers are born, not made, so there’s no easy blanket method for keeping people engaged.
Again, not to sound like a broken record here, but you need people who can motivate and manage themselves – the kind of person who would rate high on conscientiousness if you put them through a Big Five test (which isn’t a terrible idea for a new hire, just saying!).
Let’s think about an office environment：
Some staff seem to need constant policing; others benefit from less authoritative and more hands-off coaching. A third group is highly self-motivated, and any attempts to influence their mindset can actually spoil their work ethic and performance.
Typical offices will have a mixture of the three, and the ratios vary by department, company, and industry. People can also be any one of these three types of workers at different points in their careers and depending on their company environment.
The key to remote working is finding people that are already self-motivated. The only help these people need is for you to empower them to focus on their work without nannying, coercion, or manipulation. It’s better to spend a bit longer on the hiring process finding an exact match candidate rather than expending effort on creating engagement later on.
But How Can You Motivate The Right Person More?
During crises like the pandemic, fears that people won’t be working properly and pulling their weight will come to the fore, and you may be trying to think of alternatives to micromanagement or cutting costs through shuffling your payment structure.
When it comes to motivating people, direct financial rewards have a limited effect and can make your work relationships feel transactional. A better option when managing remote teams is to look at making small gestures and offering assistance which shows you care about their well-being.
As often as possible without becoming obnoxious, reach out to check that your employees are okay and if they have any questions or concerns, and know that giving the occasional unexpected reward or gesture of gratitude can go a long way.
It can be harder to pull off in an effective way with people you’re not in the same room with and may have never even met, but these actions encourage a deeper human bond and feeling of kinship.
This works as an emotional carrot and stick rather than being a purely financial or authoritative one; if a remote worker feels genuine friendly feelings and appreciation from you, they’ll feel much more motivated to produce good results for you, and guilty if they don’t meet your expectations.
Managing Remote Teams: Tracking Work Time
Rather than having employees check in multiple times a day and justify themselves (or using screen-sharing apps that can be somewhat invasive at best, straight-up spying at worst), both manager and worker can agree on how long a set of tasks should take. That makes it simple to map out a week. A trusted staff member, or manager, can do each job once and time themselves. (They can even record themselves to produce a standard operating procedure video).
This way, if an employee has a 12-hour day one day and then decides to take half a day the next, it doesn’t matter. If they want to stay in bed until lunch and then work through the night, it’s okay. Keep in mind when managing remote teams that everyone has their own productivity hacks and works best at different times. By “setting and forgetting” like this, no one will be hampered by worrying about micromanaging or having to look like they’re doing enough.
While it might be hard for employees to stay self-motivated at home, a manager of a remote team who chooses not to spy will struggle to understand if their people are indeed putting in the agreed time, effort, and focus.
Some workers will overwork as they feel they’re not getting enough done. Due to the high risk of burnout, this becomes self-fulfilling as they grow fatigued and take 12 hours to do what could really be done in 8. This can also be driven by being micromanaged remotely, where manager’s messages and nudging can be more stress-inducing, as messages lack tone and body language and can thus be mistakenly interpreted as more harsh, impatient, etc than they actually are.
How about Managing Yourself?
Managing a remote team is important, but you need to make sure that you can manage yourself and your own time just as well!
Experiencing remote work and learning what works and what doesn’t for yourself also gives you more insight into the process and a better understanding of the problems your employees may be facing.
To really put together an ideal workflow when starting to work remotely, it pays to test all office-based rules and see whether they’re optimal for you. Write down every rule, custom, and convention that occurs to you and seems feasible, and then set about experimenting with them.
For example, do you feel more professional and work-focused if you continue to wear a suit or some other “work” uniform? If so, carry on. Are you a 9-5 person? Most people aren’t – perhaps now’s the term to set a new schedule which covers your peak alert hours and see how your efficiency changes.
Experiment and optimise every aspect of your workday. Do you find that long 10-hour days with a full 3-day break offers maximum productivity? If so, then a four-day workweek could be excellent for your quality of life and work performance.
When managing remote teams, you can experiment with these sorts of factors for yourself, and then discuss the findings with your team to see if they’d like to make similar changes to you too.