- Leaders who effectively manage remote teams understand there are a few key differences between in-office and remote leadership needs.
- We heard from 80+ remote leaders, and a majority identified the need for "over-communication" as their biggest takeaway.
- Micromanaging is one of the biggest mistakes that managers of remote teams make.
Since social distancing and work-from-home edicts went into effect, a lot of folks are transitioning into fully remote work arrangements for the first time in their careers. But for others, working exclusively from home isn’t a new practice.
Between 2005 and 2017, the U.S. saw a 159% increase in remote work. A 2019 survey from Gallup showed that 43% of Americans worked from home at least occasionally, with about 8 million people always working from home. These numbers were set to rise even before the novel coronavirus sent such large swaths of the population into the confines of their homes, making unwitting remote workers out of those of us still fortunate to be employed.
While navigating this new normal at work has been challenging universally, for managers and company leaders, these challenges can sometimes be magnified. As a manager, implementing best practices for remote employees on an individual basis comes with some specific needs and tasks. Implementing these practices at scale — when your entire company has gone remote essentially overnight — is a whole other ballpark.
That’s why we asked managers and company leaders who have years of experience working remotely what lessons for success they’ve learned — and what mistakes they recommend avoiding. Here’s what they had to say.
9 things effective remote leaders do
1. They over-communicate with their team.
“Success in remote work has a lot of facets to it, but the No. 1 thing is increasing the check-in cadence and over-communication,” Christopher Sica, a Chief Revenue Officer who’s worked remotely for his company, The Ronin Society, for two years, said. “This will help with smoothing out the problems you'll encounter in the transition. The biggest mistake to avoid is not having project management tools to be able to track the progress of projects. You don't have the water cooler for check-ins anymore.”
2. They encourage their team to keep regular working hours, which includes time for taking breaks.
“Have your team keep regular working hours and make sure they take meaningful lunch breaks just as if they were in an office,” Claudia Lenschen-Ramos, a Global Program Director at Lionbridge who’s managed remote teams for 11 years, said. “Don’t make everyone power through all day until you feel the project is ‘done.’ This helps team members establish self-discipline and maximize focus.
3. They create space for communication that doesn’t have to do with work.
“Make sure to connect socially with your team members and colleagues occasionally,” Lenschen-Ramos added. “Allow time for checking in with each other and engage in communication that's not related to work from time to time. It helps personalize your day as well as humanize your future interactions with each other. People work well together when they like and respect each other.”
4. They invite feedback regularly.
“Open yourself up to negative feedback regularly, especially as you venture into a new challenge,” Deya, a Digital Business Manager who’s managed remote teams for three years, said. “Invite feedback constantly and reassure your team that you really welcome their honesty during this overwhelming time for everyone. You are open to making this a better process for everyone involved, and anyone can privately message you at any time with that feedback.”
5. They use the right project management tools.
“It's important to create a balance between managing workers as well as giving them enough freedom to get their work done and not micromanage. I find project management tools to be especially useful in this regard,” Meg Marrs, CEO of K9 of Mine and a remote leader for the past five years, said. “Asana and Trello are two of my favorite project management tools. These programs are a lifesaver for keeping track of various tasks and getting a look at what everyone's progress is on their assignments.”
6. They emphasize with their team members.
“My top tip is to frequently try and put yourself in the shoes of the employee and think about what you are asking of them, given their timezone,” Ahmed Mir, the leader of a remote, global team for the past year, said. “It can be easy to forget that some things are simply not possible due to time zone differences. Asking someone to complete a report by tomorrow when it's already 6 p.m. in their timezone just isn't effective long term, and it doesn't build trust.”
7. They create clear OKRs — or Objectives and Key Results — to track progress and align on goals.
“You need to make sure each individual understands their primary OKRs for their daily work, their month, the quarter and the year, and those objectives need to be in line with the overall mission of the company,” Matthew Turner, founder of Boston Turner Group, a 100% remote company, said. “OKRs that align in this way make sure your entire company is focused on the mission from wherever they work. It also gives you a great way to monitor if they are really successful without relying on just walking around the office to check in on them.”
8. They ensure that no one feels left out.
“The biggest mistake is to leave anyone out, no matter how unintentionally. The manager’s responsibility is to make sure that everyone feels connected and up to date on what’s happening with the team, and with the organization as a whole,” said Grace Judson, a leadership coach who’s helped managers lead remote teams since 2005 after years of leading a part-remote team herself. “I recommend daily 15-minute (yes, daily!) video calls. It can be difficult to organize across multiple time zones, but it makes a huge difference for everyone to check in and – in this time of the pandemic especially – to say ‘Yes, I’m here, I’m safe, my family is safe.’”
9. They ask the right questions.
“Our teams have a clear protocol for the way in which we work together,” Liz Nilsen, a remote Associate Director of four years, said. “The team gathers and we use what's called ‘Strategic Doing’ to work through four questions as a group: What could we do together (what are our opportunities)? What should we do together (which one is the right direction right now)? What will we do together (what specific commitments are we making to each other to get moving)? When will we get back together (when will we review progress, adjust, and plan for our next steps)?”
7 things effective remote leaders DON'T do
1. They don’t expect to maintain the same level of control they felt in the office.
“Don’t try to maintain the same type and level of control over your team as you had when you were in the office,” David Johnson, a Chief Technology Officer who’s managed remote, global teams for five years, said. “When you go remote, you are working with people in their own houses, on their own terms. Therefore, they are given much more latitude and inherently expect much more as well. Managers need to be able to let employees have more personal control with their time and workflow.”
2. They don’t see Slack as a total replacement for good, old-fashioned phone (or video) calls.
“Use a group chat program for ‘hallway talks’ and email for more formal communication, but also be sure to pick up the phone or video chat to connect on a personal level with your team. Encourage them to do the same,” Wendy Smith, CEO of the Blaze Strategy and previously a remote team leader for five years, said. “Many times a simple phone call can clear up any misunderstandings and save time and bandwidth by quickly getting to the heart of the conversation.”
TJ Hoffman, Chief Operating Officer of Sibme, a fully remote software company, especially encouraged the use of video calls — and said that all cameras should be turned on for these.
“Use web conferences or recorded videos, and make everybody turn on their cameras,” he said. “Talking to an avatar or a blank screen is a waste of time; you might as well just send an email. When we get on video, everybody gets on video. We've gotten very comfortable with one another, since we're all in our home environments… I think that's helped us break down some of the ‘formality barriers’ that exist in a lot of offices.”
3. They don’t silo team members.
“Don’t silo your team members at all. Make sure they all know what everyone is doing and when they are doing it,” Ben Walker, CEO of Transcription Outsourcing, a 100% remote company, said. “If you were in the office, everyone would more than likely know everyone else’s projects and schedules, so keep that the same now that you are remote. You don’t want people thinking ‘so-and-so isn’t working on this or that, I am doing all the work and they aren’t doing anything.’ Keep it as close to an open office format as possible.”
4. They don’t let anxiety over their team’s productivity get the best of them.
“For those who have had remote management thrust upon them recently, there may be a certain amount of anxiety that productivity is suffering among the team. I assure you, people are looking at Instagram and reading not quite work-related articles — just like they probably were at the office),” Carlo Barajas, a digital marketing consultant and manager of a remote team for eight years, said. “It's OK. Hopefully you've built a team that you trust and that takes pride in their job. Fight the urge to micromanage, because your constant emails/DMs will only distract your employees from finding their flow.”
5. They understand the importance of regular meetings — but they don’t overschedule them.
“The number one mistake that can be avoided is too many meetings. Some managers may feel a sense of loss of control, and the insecurity rising from that may lead them to believe more meetings is a good way to regain control,” Geoff Hoesch, CEO of Dragonfly Digital Marketing, a mostly remote company, said. “From my experience, though, you can be a lot more effective with the right task scheduling software (we use Asana).”
6. They know that giving employees the right resources for remote success doesn’t stop short at messaging tools.
“You need more than email and Slack to run a successful remote business,” Gillian Ellis, a remote project manager, said. “Tools don't just include technology. They also include training materials, guides, instructions, etc. Creating an environment rich in tools, both technical and not, will provide you with the best chance at succeeding remotely. Some essentials are: reliable hardware (laptops); file sharing programs (SharePoint, Dropbox); training manuals’ reliable email programs (MS Outlook, GMail); video conferencing services (Zoom, MS Teams); and chat software (Slack/Teams).”
7. They don’t overextend themselves.
“Remember that your employees follow your lead, and a team that feels balanced and fulfilled outside of work is often more productive,” Lindsey McCoy, Co-founder and CEO of Plaine Products, a predominantly remote company, said. “In working from home, it's easy to let work take over everything. But you're not doing anyone a favor by working 24/7… I continually remind myself that by building breaks into my day, I'm giving my team the permission to do that, as well.”