How to Effectively Lead and Manage Remote Teams

Author: Craig Pollack Date: Aug 13, 2020 Topics: General Business Owner Blogs, Best Practices

Remote work is our current workplace reality, but managing remote teams and keeping distributed employees engaged can challenge even the best of managers. However, this unique environment can also present a myriad of opportunities to support our teams and grow some key staff as up-and-coming team leaders. As a leader, it's your responsibility to care for a team not only as colleagues but as human beings. Managing a team, even when located together in one location, isn't for everyone. On any given day, you need to balance your own workload, overall team success strategies, and working with individuals within your department. To do this, you have to balance being a team player as well as being a leader. You also must be highly organized, strategic, and have a high level of emotional intelligence.

The transition to working remotely can impact a team’s culture as anxiety grows through the inherent lowered quality and quantity of communications. Add to this the unknowns between the current pandemic and the uncertainties of the current business climate and you're fraught team uncertainty. Additional factors such as kids at home, the caretaking of parents, and more will now be a part of their typical workday. So it's crucial for those in leadership to support our teams in ways that are different than ever before.

In a company that's primarily in-office, a manager can directly impact the success of their team. But, this role is even more important when it oversees a fully or partially remote team.

Why? When your team is widely dispersed, a manager is tasked with bringing together their employees and giving them the tools to work well together. In times of confusion, questions, or ambiguity related to remote work styles, the manager is expected to make calls or answer critical questions.

As the manager of a remote team, you need all the skills of an in-office manager -- and more. Not only do you need to be tactical and organized, but you also need to take extra time to make sure that colleagues feel in the loop, included, and like they can succeed at your company. This takes added time, much more communication, and a strong sense of inclusion and empathy.

So, what does remote work mean for those in positions of leadership? How can managers continue to lead and inspire their teams without meeting in person? What practices can we implement to care for our coworkers beyond the office?

Here are few best practices along with some practical tips for successfully managing remote teams...

1. create an effective remote hiring and onboarding process

Before you can manage a remote team, you'll need to hire and onboard your talent.

To get started, use digital platforms such as Indeed or LinkedIn to announce and promote your new job position. Be sure to note that the position can be held remotely in any location. This descriptive language will make it easier for prospective candidates to find your listings via search engines, as well as your own promotions.

Our managers have seen that one of the best ways to interview and evaluate a remote candidate is through a virtual hiring process. While this process could include video interviews with hiring managers and the candidate, it could also include other steps such as a writing test to evaluate a candidate's writing or other virtual tasks that allow a candidate to show off their level of skill in a given area.

If you can accept candidates in different locations and time zones, you should also take steps to accommodate them in the hiring process. This could include hosting an interview during their work hours.

When you interview remote talent, you'll also want to put any judgments related to a candidate's location aside and interview them in their natural work environment. Additionally, if you’re hiring for a position that's going to be remote, conduct all interviews via video to avoid any location biases in your hiring panel.

After you complete the hiring process, you'll want to welcome your new hire with a smooth virtual onboarding process that teaches how the company works while allowing them to get to know their teammates remotely.

As you prepare an onboarding process for a remote employee, identify ways that you can digitize your current onboarding process. For example, if there are documents or resources an employee should read up on, make sure they are in a PDF or online format. You might also want to create an internal training website, or knowledge base, where employees can find these documents even after they've completed a new-hire orientation.

If there's an aspect of your onboarding that is too complex for a PDF format, consider doing a virtual training session where you walk your employee through various tasks. This will allow them to see a demonstration of a process they'll do first-hand and ask you questions about it as they learn.

On the FPA team, each employee's onboarding process lasts roughly 90 days and can be fully virtual. During this process, remote employees receive virtual training sessions, links to blog posts, and digital resources that relate to their role, self-paced mini-online courses that familiarize them with our software, and informal virtual coffee chats which allow the new employee to get to know colleagues.

On top of virtual onboarding, every employee has regular check-ins, career chats, and ongoing training with his or her supervisor to ensure that they're progressing in their role.

Ultimately, the goal any manager should have when onboarding remote employees is to make them feel supported, informed about how their company works, and more confident in their new role. To start an employee off on the right foot, think about your current onboarding processes and where they can be improved to add more communication and decrease confusion. Then, determine how you can make these processes virtual.

2. Schedule and run effective virtual team meetings

Determining Which Meetings You'll Need

When you or your team members are remote, team meetings will be a crucial means of communication. Not only do they allow you to all join on one video call to talk about projects or goals, but they also enable teammates to get to know each other and stay visible.

At a minimum, conduct weekly meetings for everyone on your team to be together in the same virtual "room". It’s important to have that face-to-face time each week. Start by checking in with each team member to see how they’re feeling, followed by an ice breaker, a roundup of what everyone’s working on, and then, potentially, a discussion article provided by a different member of the team each week.

Preparing for a Virtual Meeting

If you haven't already, you'll want to designate a meeting software, such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom or GoToMeeting based on your needs, budget, and how large your virtual meeting will be. Then, you'll want to make sure that all of your team members have the program on their computers.

When you're ready to schedule the meeting, be sure to pick a time that works for team members in different timezones. Stick to this meeting time and avoid canceling to ensure that remote employees who didn't get a cancellation notice don't tune in. Send an email and calendar invitation to your team explaining why you've decided to hold the meeting and what they should do to prepare for it. You'll also want to include meeting login information or a number they can call into if they aren't near a computer.

If you'd like employees other than yourself to present at the meeting, it can also be helpful to create a slide deck ahead of time so each teammate asked to speak can submit and get their slides approved by you beforehand. Allowing teammates to submit slides beforehand will help you ensure that each teammate will give the most valuable information to other remote employees in the time they have to present. Using one slide deck will also limit any issues related to switching screen-shares during the meeting.

Running the Meeting

Just before you launch the meeting, make sure that your computer's sound and video are working and that you have a work-appropriate background. You should also ensure that the environment around you is quiet and not distracting to your teammates. Once you launch the meeting, wait a minute or two before starting the discussion, just in case other remote employees are running late from another virtual meeting. During this time, feel free to mingle with teammates and get to know them.

If you have colleagues that can't attend the meeting, plan to record it. This way, someone who wasn't available or had technical difficulties can listen to the meeting discussion after to stay in the loop.

If the meeting includes a small group of people or a new employee, leave time in the beginning for everyone to introduce themselves and give a brief description of what they do at your company.

You can also consider a quick virtual ice-breaker.  Ice breakers might sound cringe-worthy, but they single-handedly transformed our meetings from transactional run-downs of everyone’s to-list to a fun, personal opportunity to get to know our teammates a little better.

Wrapping Up the Meeting

At the end of the meeting, leave time for questions. If you have some in-office employees and some remote employees, it can be helpful to invite remote employees to ask questions first to avoid teams accidentally speaking over each other. One done, send the slide deck and meeting recording link to your team so they can reference them later on.

Refining Your Meeting Schedule

As you start to run multiple virtual meetings, you should continue to evaluate their effectiveness. After each meeting, you should try to answer questions like, "Are the right people in the meeting?", "Is this the right frequency for meetings?", "Is the meeting too long or too short?", and "Is this the best use of everyone's time?"

Often, you only need to change one variable to make things work better for a remote team. While it might be tempting to book your team with tons of virtual meetings to stay on the same page, leave team members with some flexible calendar space each week. Make sure you're not filling your calendar with eight hours of video calls per day. Encourage your team to block time to work on other projects. Another way to improve the effectiveness of your team is to consider doing most of your meetings in the afternoons and leaving mornings for "deep thinking" work. Just make sure you give people time in their day that is unscheduled.

3. CHECK-IN WITH INDIVIDUALS ON YOUR TEAM REGULARLY

When you or your teammate is working remotely, you can't easily turn to them to ask them a question, get to know them, or have a casual work conversation. This is why, on top of your roster of remote meetings, you should also consider booking one-on-ones or informal virtual coffee chats with people you don't often see daily.

This will allow you to keep up with your employees, discuss their work with them, help them with any blockers they might be facing, and offer visibility so they can feel like you're an accessible manager.

Aside from discussing work with each employee, you should also schedule time to discuss your employee's career growth and progress. The biggest worry I hear from remote folks or those being managed by a remote manager is that they won’t have the same opportunities for advancement. I HIGHLY recommend over-communicating when it comes to discussing career growth with remote workers.

Personally, I have weekly check-ins with each of my direct reports where we talk about what they’re working on. But I also schedule monthly and quarterly career chats where I draw up a personalized growth plan for each of them, and we run through prompts to check their satisfaction in their current role and their aspirations for what’s next.

Aside from scheduled one-on-ones, you should also consider leaving some areas of flexible time on your calendar. This way, if a remote colleague has a question or concern that's easier to discuss in person than via text-based message, you're able to quickly jump on a call.

Be ready to jump on a phone call or video conference without having to schedule a time for it and let your team know you're available over your instant messaging software and build “air-time” into your calendar for check-ins and quick talks.

4. EMBRACE AND IMPLEMENT DIGITAL PRODUCTIVITY TOOLS

On top of video call software, there are many helpful tools that you can use to manage remote or dispersed teams. Here just a few types of tools you should consider implementing:

Scheduling Tools

When everyone is remote, having an email or IM discussion just to determine a good time for a meeting can be redundant and non-productive. Luckily, there are plenty of tools that allow you to request, manage, and schedule meetings with your team. For example, if you have Microsoft Outlook, you can see your teammate's calendars, working hours, and availability. Then, you can send a meeting invite for a time that they're free. From there, your teammate can accept, reject, or suggest a new time for an event.

Unified Work Flow Systems / Instant Messengers

With a system like Microsoft Teams, you can have an integrated platform that allows you to chat, call, and video call, along with sharing documents and screens. You can create specific teams grouped by areas of work type and by leveraging integrated apps you can assign different team members to tasks virtually. 

Ever got caught up in a giant email thread where multiple people were replying to the same message? An instant messaging app, such as Teams, will allow you to create group threads to discuss projects, upload assets within the conversation, and see when other team members have replied clearly. This is also a helpful way to communicate with your team about topics that don't require a full video call to discuss. Aside from quick conversations, you can also host mini-meetings on your instant messaging platform. This takes little time and provides us with an opportunity to work with in-office and remote employees.

5. BE MINDFUL OF TIMEZONES AND REMOTE EMPLOYEE BOUNDARIES

Remote work options allow you to hire talent from other areas of the country or the world. This is a great way to boost the level of diverse thinking on your team as well as control costs. However, one challenge disparate teams face is adapting to teammates in different timezones. As a remote team manager, it's important to navigate around your teammates' differing work hours, while also encouraging teammates in your timezone to be mindful of other remote teammate schedules.

As you onboard employees or implement a team calendar, ask remote teammates to mark their working and non-working hours on their schedule. You can also have an intro conversation with teams to discuss timezones and preferred work hours, just to ensure that all team members are up to date with who will be working when.

If a large chunk of your team is in another timezone, you might also want to consider working on that timezone's schedule one day a week or doing a split shift, where you complete half of your work hours when one chunk of your team is most active and another do another shift when a team in another timezone is online. This strategy could help you be more available to your global teammates and stay in the loop of what they're up to.

6. TAKE STEPS TO ENSURE ALL TEAMMATES FEEL INCLUDED

Commonly, remote employees struggle with feelings of disconnection and a lack of visibility. Without an office filled with people, remote employees don't have the opportunity to make small talk with colleagues, ask questions, or have a quick work-related chat. This can leave them feeling un-included or out of the loop on team projects. They might also worry that it will be hard to excel at their company if they aren't as visible as other employees.

To help each employee feel a sense of belonging, identify where you can make processes and group events more inclusive. It's truly is the little things that can make a difference in helping a remote employee feel included. That feeling of inclusion can make such a difference to employee retention, happiness, and performance.

Aside from making your remote employees feel included through simple actions, you can also schedule activities that allow them to offer ideas or work virtually with the rest of the broader team. For example, you could host a campaign brainstorm where all remote members are invited to share their ideas. Or, before you leave for the holidays, you could expense your team's dinners and host a virtual hack night where you work ahead to ensure the business still runs smoothly when everyone's on vacation.

Not only do team bonding activities allow the team to work together, but they also allow remote members to feel included and get to know their colleagues.

7. add moments of fun

Just because you’re not all located in the same physical office, doesn’t mean that you are not all part of the same team. Remember to build in time for fun, engaging activities to reduce the potential loneliness of remote work and create camaraderie.

Some of virtual activities include coffee breaks, Sli.do polls, stretching and yoga sessions.  One of our favorites is Friday's “Virtual Happy Hour,” where we catch up on the week's events and what we all have planned for the weekend.

8. encourage empathy among in-office and out-of-office teammates

When it comes to remote work, some of the biggest challenges that employees face are feelings of loneliness and disconnection. They also find it hard to unplug at the end of the day because their work is not clearly separated from their home life.

As a remote team manager, it's important to recognize the challenges your employees might face and give them any other guidance when necessary. If you have any teammates who are in-office, you should also encourage them to consider the challenges a remote employee might go through on a regular basis.

9. USE EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE AT ALL TIMES

While you might be calm and collected when managing a team in the office, overseeing remote teams might feel different to you emotionally. Even though you can't see a team and they can't see you, you should still use emotional intelligence at all times.

Emotional intelligence, also called EQ, is a sought after skill that enables you to understand your emotions and train yourself to react in an appropriate way to certain scenarios. 

For example, when managing a remote team, you might need to resist the urge to mistrust or micromanage colleagues that you can't see every day. In this scenario, leaders that lack emotional intelligence might panic about their team going off-course and begin to control every aspect of everyone's work. Meanwhile, an emotionally intelligent leader might address this concern by scheduling check-ins with teammates to make sure a project is on the right track.

Resist the temptation to micro-manage, even if you feel uncomfortable about having less visibility into the day-to-day. Autonomy and flexibility are hugely important for managing remotely. Keep your team focused on the critical goals, and don't worry about how they get there. Trust them to solve problems and make good decisions, but set a high bar to show you trust them to accomplish great things with the privilege of autonomy and flexibility.

In another common team management scenario, you might find that your employee made a big mistake when you were offline. While a less emotionally intelligent leader might send a long ranting email, someone who understands their emotions will take a minute to note what frustrated them about a situation and then plan a chat to discuss constructive feedback with the employee.

Here's a great rule of thumb - No angry emails! Trust and respect matter hugely for remote teams to operate well, and because email is more important for remote teams, it's important to keep emotions out of it where possible. Email and other digital communication should be respectful and "not a place for venting."

Emotional intelligence can also help you in scenarios when there's a disagreement among your teammates. When you sense someone is angry or disagrees with a decision on a remote team, jump on a call quickly to resolve it. Don't let things fester. Sometimes, the lack of face to face interaction makes it easier for people to jump to conclusions or feel misunderstood. It's important that you signal to your team that if they are upset or concerned, that you're there for them.

While you should use emotional intelligence to manage your own responses, you should also encourage your team to use the skill in their work life, too. For example, if you find that someone is inappropriately venting over a communication platform, make it clear what people should do instead. Alternatively, ask your teammates to schedule one-on-ones or send polite messages requesting a quick chat to discuss a situation. Give your team an option to vent about things that won't be disruptive to others, and importantly, won't lead to side chatter either.

When you use emotional intelligence properly, your teammates will feel comfortable coming to you with questions and concerns more often. They'll also develop a stronger sense of trust in you as their manager. Ultimately, a manager who understands their emotions and the emotions of others can manage teams in a number of different scenarios.

recap

If you've never worked remotely or managed remote teammates, it might take time to develop the perfect dispersed team management strategy.

As you build up your management tactics, your most important goals should be to help the team to function smoothly, build an inclusive work culture that enables employees to succeed, and use emotional intelligence at all times. While building solid processes is key to ensuring work gets done, taking time to build a positive company culture will allow team members from every region to feel like they can contribute their diverse thoughts, ideas, and strategies.

What are you doing to improve the management and leadership of your remote teams? Are you doing anything specifically to improve this part of the work environment for your staff? How do you manage this? Please share your thoughts in the Comment box below or shoot me an email if you'd like to chat about this in more detail.

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Author

Craig Pollack

Craig Pollack

Craig is the Founder & CEO of FPA Technology Services, Inc. Craig provides the strategy and direction for FPA, ensuring its clients, business owners, and key decision makers leverage technology as efficiently and effectively as possible. With over 25 years of experience building the preeminent IT Service Provider in the Southern California area, Craig is one of the area’s leading authorities on how small to mid-sized businesses can best secure and leverage their technology to achieve their business objectives.

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