Over the years, I’ve been asked countless times “What’s your secret for managing a remote team?”. Most are expecting a magical tip that would make the whole remote thing easy.
What I’ve learned over the past decade is there are no simple tips that make managing any team easy. The majority of management principles and lessons you learn to be an effective manager for an office environment are highly relevant for remote work. They just need to be adapted.
I’ve found that remote work can be a great force multiplier. Better communication, productivity, and employee happiness are some of the great benefits. However, I’ve also seen bad leaders get amplified in the worst possible ways. Under a bad leader, the effects in a remote environment can quickly cause employees to become demotivated, increasing their anxiety and levels of stress.
What is most disturbing to me right now is that there are tools being built by companies to empower poor leaders. Tools to literally track keystrokes, watch what an employee is doing via a webcam, and time tracking based on computer activity. It’s absolutely crazy.
After I left Zillow Group, I spent a lot of time reflecting on what made Naked Apartments so special. Inspired by Principles by Ray Dalio, a book I read a couple of years ago, I decided it’d be good to start documenting my learnings for my own clarification and further refinement. If other managers find this helpful, all the better.
I’ll continue to refine this list moving forward as I learn more.
For a manager to be successful, an organization needs to do their part in putting the appropriate framework in place to help a manager make the right decisions in the best interests of the organization.
1) Define core values and principles
By setting clear values, it allows teams to work cohesively and provide purpose. Most importantly, values help to shape a company’s culture.
In terms of hiring, values and principles provide a roadmap in decision making for future candidates. Without it, you’re allowing each team to figure it out on their own, resulting in a patchwork of values across the organization. This inevitably leads to misalignments and infighting.
2) Foster an environment of diversity and inclusive
Managers and their teams are tasked with hiring and retaining extraordinary employees. If those teams are only looking at a select portion of the population, they won’t be hiring the very best.
Hiring employees from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc., helps provide a company with a rich culture and varying perspectives.
One of the reasons I personally love all-remote companies is the ability to hire from around the country and even the world. It really opens the door to true diversity. Embrace it in your organization and you’ll quickly see the wonderful benefits.
But a diverse workforce is only part of the puzzle. Organizations need to also create a welcoming environment where all employees are treated fairly and with respect. Additionally, everyone should have equal access to opportunities and resources. If your company is running a hybrid of remote and office employees, this last point will be particularly challenging.
3) Prioritize wellbeing of employees
There is a never ending list of ways to help make employees healthy and happy in any work environment. An organization’s job is never done, as there are always ways to improve.
3.1) Provide flexible schedules and mean it
Many organizations tout flexible schedules, which is a great way to increase employee happiness and quality of life. Sadly, it’s an empty promise at many companies. They want employees at their desks for normal business hours, plugging away.
It’s a huge quality of life game changer that will increase your employees happiness and wellbeing if done properly. So trust your employees to do the right thing.
3.2) Watch out for overwork
It’s counterintuitive, but remote work causes people to overwork, not slack off. Separating home and work is difficult for even us with years of remote work experience. It’s so easy to get caught up and lose track of time.
3.3) Set clear written expectations around work hours
To avoid overwork, make sure to be clear about how many hours you expect employees to work remotely and how to handle flexibility in their schedule.
3.4) Demand employees take time off to recharge
A lot of companies offer unlimited vacation days. Again, an empty promise in most cases, causing employees to take way less time off. Add in remote work and you’ve got a recipe for burnout.
The organization needs to encourage and at times force employees to take downtime.
3.5) Create human connections
It’s easy to get lonely while working remotely. I feel fortunate that I have a great partner and beautiful children to have as a support system. Not all employees have a support system at home, so it’s important for organizations to foster internal networking events (virtually and in-person).
3.6) Provide and encourage participation in mindfulness programs
While there are a lot of benefits to remote work for employees in terms of mental health, there are also many downsides. Because of this, I believe it’s important that organizations provide programs to employees that will help them effectively cope with the highs and lows that come with it.
As a manager, in addition to the principles below, you will need to champion the organization’s principles.
1) Trust employees
If I only had one principle I could follow from this section, it’d be this one. If you’ve spent the time to hire an extraordinary employee, they should trust them to do their job. They are experts after all.
As a manager, it’s not only important to trust your employees, but to show you trust them. Actions speak louder than words.
2) Give employees long stretches of uninterrupted time for deep work
A major benefit of working remotely is the chance to avoid long commutes and office distractions. Many employees report greater productivity due to remote work, since they’ve got more control over their time. On top of productivity gains, some studies have shown that long stretches of uninterrupted time gives employees less stress.
The productivity gains are all washed away the minute a manager attempts to give themselves meaning by scheduling a slew of meetings for their team. So, next time you get the urge to schedule a meeting, try sending an email instead.
3) Utilize efficient and effective communication for remote work
With your team working in isolation, there is no chance of them overhearing a verbal conversation in the office, so it’s even more critical than ever for information to be free flowing between individuals and teams. It is your role as a manager to help breakdown silos of information and make sure things are transparent to the team.
3.1) Default to written communication over verbal
Information gets lost over time with verbal communications. Written communication can be later referenced and provided to employees who weren’t present in the original discussion.
3.2) Practice being succinct in your writing
We all add a lot of extra unnecessary words into our communications with others. When an organization shifts to mostly written communication, it’s important for everyone to shorten their writing to allow more content to be consumed throughout the day. Succinct writing starts with leaders.
3.3) Set clear expectations
Nothing is worse than receiving a one sentence response to an ambiguous problem with unclear direction. Clarity of information is paramount, even if you sometimes need to sacrifice being succinct.
Also consider the psychological effects of unclear expectations. Remote employees will be less likely to reach out for help and you won’t be able to see their body language, which might usually highlight a person who is struggling with a problem. Without clear expectations, employees could start resorting to cognitive distortions, spend more too much time working, or undergo undue stress.
3.4) Provide timely and contextual performance feedback
It’s easy to forget to give praise or constructive feedback when you don’t see someone everyday.
Now put yourself in your employee’s shoes.
You’re working in isolation. Weeks go by without any feedback. You make some silly mistakes. Still, no feedback. You have a successful product launch. Zip, nadda. You start to question if there is something wrong. “What if I’ve been doing more things wrong?” “Is my manager upset with me?”
A great employee can become completely demoralized in a matter of weeks because of lack of communication on your part. This happens already for many manager-employee relationships in office settings. The problem gets amplified in remote environments with people being in isolation.
3.5) When you need a meeting, run it effectively and with purpose
For many people, it’s just easier to hash something out over a video chat or call. If you’re going to interrupt a person’s day, make sure it’s worth it. Otherwise, you’ll be reducing employee engagement, along with productivity.
4) Evaluate and promote employees based on productivity and creativity, not “face time”
In an office environment, it’s so easy for a manager to monitor an employee’s time at the office to gauge how hard they’re working.
Have you ever seen an employee who is acting as if they’re working hard, but aren’t doing their fair share? I’ve worked with MASTERS of this dark art. They could stretch a task that usually takes hours over many weeks, artfully making it seem as if they were solving world hunger in the process.
Working with colleagues like that made it clear to me that productivity and quality are two of the most important factors in a performance evaluation. The time spent at a desk is meaningless. Output is important.
The problem is many managers don’t really understand what it takes for their employees to effectively do their job, so they fallback on what’s easy. Facetime.
What I love about remote work is it forces you to grade on output. There are no other good alternatives.
To grade an employee on their work, you’ll need to have a broad understanding of what it takes to fulfill the job. By no means should you need deep knowledge.
5) Foster internal networking and connections
In an office environment, it’s easier for networking and human connections to be created organically. Between “Water cooler” conversations, passing people in the hallway, sharing meals together, and face to face meetings, it’s fairly easy to get introduced to people around the office.
In addition, a manager will usually help make some initial connections for an employee during their first few weeks on the job. After that, it inadvertently falls on the employee. Take away the office and the employee will struggle.
In a remote work environment, it’s the manager’s job to step up and not only make an employee feel welcome, but make sure they get to know the right people in the company to effectively perform the duties in their role. This should extend past a new employee’s first few weeks on the job.
5.1) Use weekly video calls to create human connection
Nothing beats meeting in person, but video is the best alternative we have in remote work to make human connections.
What I personally enjoyed most was having a Monday morning call with the Naked Apartments team where we spent time connecting with each other on a personal level and not focusing on work.
5.2) Optimize socializing around team’s preferences and needs
Finally, each organization and team are different. There will not be a one size fits all way to socialize remotely. Your goal is to make people feel comfortable in an environment where they can be their true selves.
5.2.a) Collaborate with the team or an individual on what type of meeting format and time makes them feel most comfortable
Ask them their preferences and let them vote on it.
5.2.b) Schedule networking meetings during office hours
Employees have a life outside work. Don’t make them choose between personal relationships, like family and co-workers.
5.2.c) Make sure the team knows work can be put on hold without ramifications
It should be made crystal clear that deadlines will be moved to accommodate for lost productivity because of a meeting.
5.2.d) Make events fun. Don’t talk about work
6) Assume good intent
One of the downsides to moving to written communication is you lose a vital aspect of communication, which is body language.
That’s a big deal.
Is this person happy or sad, frustrated or being sarcastic? It’s impossible to tell with text alone. The use of emojis can help, but it’s not a replacement to seeing someone in person.
Because of this obstacle, you should always assume good intent until proven otherwise.
7) Conduct weekly 1-1s
Remote work can be isolating, so for some, a weekly one-on-one is something an employee will absolutely look forward to, even if they’re an introvert.
Some all-remote companies allow weeks or even months between 1-1s, which works for their cultures. Personally, I’ve noticed that most employees enjoyed the weekly calls, even to just say hi. Human connection is important.
8) Promote a culture of documentation
I’ve never been on a team that hates having existing documentation to aid in projects, especially when a project was inherited by the team.
Now ask that same team to document their project on top of their existing deadlines and you’re likely going to get in some heated debates.
From what I’ve seen, it’s usually a problem of getting started and facilitation. Many individual contributors simply don’t have the time to think through outlining and organizing thoughts of a big project.
This is where you come in. Help get the team started and add some documentation of your own. You’ll be amazed how quickly your team will jump in and start contributing. Overtime, things will get messy and outdated. Pitch in to keep it organized.
Your efforts won’t be wasted either. Employees will find answers to questions faster, allowing them to get more done. An added bonus is they won’t be distracting other team members with basic questions.
As your organization brings in new employees and teams are reorganized to meet the growing demands, this documentation will serve as a way to ramp up new members.