I have a lot of experience working from home. I enjoy it immensely for all the reasons you’d expect. It saves time. It’s less stressful. I’m more productive. I can take a 30 minute nap before my next call. There are so many great things about working from home that I’m not sure I could ever go back to a 5 day in-office work week. And, while I’m personally more productive from home, I am a leader, and managing remote teams is a different beast entirely. Remote team management takes a special skillset we’ll dive into today.
Some people talk about the challenges of working from home – how to stay motivated, how to stay disciplined – I don’t have these problems. The only area where I have experienced a bit of a learning curve as it pertains to home work, is managing remote teams. It’s one thing to work from home as an individual contributor. You get all the productivity benefits without too many discernible disadvantages. But when you’re managing a team, things get a little more complicated.
How do you build personal relationships with people you don’t actually see?
How do you monitor team morale when you’re not there?
How do you get water cooler experiences without being at the water cooler?
How do you give tough feedback when you’re a thousand miles away?
There are a few good articles on this subject including a particularly good one from Harvard Business Review. I suggest giving it a read. In this blog I’ll add some tactics that have worked well for me over the years. Give them a try and let me know how they work.
As much as I’m a big supporter of working from home, I’m equally as passionate about the importance of spending real face time with people at the beginning of a relationship. In my experience, managing remote teams is infinitely easier and more productive when you’ve already spent some face time getting to know a person.
Even a week or two of in person time can make all the difference for remote team management. Once you’ve been in the same room with someone, watched their mannerisms, processed their expressions and calibrated their tone, you can have much more productive conversations later when you are remote. By contrast, if you don’t spend some live time with a person and jump straight into online communication, I find it challenging to pick up on nuances, changes in tone and hints of sarcasm. When you miss out on these things, your communication as a whole can suffer in a material way.
I’m sure there are some who will point to the sad truth that I’m getting old … I wasn’t raised on zoom. That may well be the case, but I feel it’s important to make an in person connection early on in a manager-employee relationship.
My advice for managing remote teams is to invest 2-4 weeks early in the job to build those initial relationships so remote collaboration can be easier down the road.
When you’re managing a remote team you don’t have the ability to orchestrate work streams in fluid way like you might if you were in the office. You aren’t in the middle of everything so it can be challenging to keep the team focused on the most important things and to maintain visibility into progress. If you’re not careful, the team can end up veering off course and exerting a lot of misdirected effort and energy. In my experience it’s good to build additional structure into how the team works towards its goals and how you measure success.
One thing that has worked for me when managing remote teams is to institute a team-wide Monday morning kickoff to keep everyone focused on the most important things for the week. This way you never get off track for more than a few days. Even with larger teams of 20, 30, or 50 people, this type of Monday kickoff works well. I also like to close out the week with a Friday “wins” communication. It recognizes all the key wins for the week relative to our most important goals.
By bookending the week in this way, you establish a constant loop of goal setting and success recognition. People stay motivated and focused on the right things and it doesn’t require you to be there in person.
When you work in the office, the social part of relationship building kinda takes care of itself. You hang out with people, you talk about binge watching your favorite show – that sort of thing. That’s how you build real connections with people on the team that can mean the difference between average performance and awesome performance.
It’s really important to find ways to get personally invested in your team members whether you’re in office or at home. They need to know you care about them and that you’re genuinely interested in helping them find success. When it comes to remote team management, I rely heavily on collaboration tools like Teams, Zoom, and other apps to engage in a continuous social dialogue with the people I lead. At any given time I probably have 5 or 6 conversations going on that have very little to do with work. In my experience, if you don’t make a point of building some unproductive fun into your conversations when working from home, things can end up getting too rigid and formal.
My recommendation for managing remote teams is to increase how often you randomly check in with people on your team – send them a text, call them, whatever – build some social time into your daily collaboration.
Managing a team is tough. And remote team management when you’re not there in person is even tougher. I hope these tactics are useful for you and please share your own tips in the comments below. I’d love to hear what works for you.