The trend of remote work has been on a steady climb in recent years, accelerated by a global pandemic that forced all but essential workers to set up their home offices. Yet, even as businesses are returning to in-person operations, the numbers show that remote work is here to stay. As of 2021, 16% of companies globally are fully-remote, while nearly 62% of employees report working remotely at least “occasionally.”
If you’re managing employees who work from home (whether temporarily or permanently), you’ll know firsthand that remote employee engagement can be challenging. With the right strategies and tools in place, however, you can build a productive and highly-engaged team without ever setting foot into an office.
Want to learn more about how to manage a remote team? In this blog post, we’ll talk about:
- The differences between remote and in-person teams.
- Tried-and-true tips on how to successfully lead your remote employees.
- Insights from our team leaders on what they’ve learned about remote employee management.
Though the scope of work may remain the same, working (and managing!) remotely won’t translate directly from standard in-person operations.
Challenges of managing remote teams
Managing employees who work from home comes with its own set of challenges. Many of these stem from the lack of in-person interaction, which provides critical information for leaders and employees. When you’re in the office, it’s easy to observe how employees are doing; you can see who is thriving and who is struggling, who is slacking, and who is overworking themselves. This nuance can be lost when your check-ins are limited to the digital realm.
Another challenge in managing remote teams is communication. Everything from quick check-ins to all-hands-on-decks meetings is limited to instant messaging and video conferencing. Without clear routines and expectations from leadership, these remote communications can be less effective (and waste more time) than their in-person counterparts.
In a similar vein, the team bonding that occurs naturally through communal space and lunch breaks won’t occur in individual home offices. Team leaders must therefore be more intentional about setting aside time and activities for team building.
How remote teams differ from in-person teams
With the inherent differences in virtual work versus face-to-face work, remote teams come with unique needs. Most notably, remote employees need to develop “working-from-home” skills in addition to the core competencies of their job description. Leaders will need to help their employees cultivate time management, self-discipline, remote communication and collaboration, and the ability to learn new technologies and processes quickly.
Virtual teams also tend to benefit from a different structure than that of traditional teams. This is largely due to the nature of telecommuting, which requires consistent communication and collaboration. Remote workforces are often more effective with a flat organizational structure, where there are fewer levels between employees and upper management. Additionally, remote managers who adopt a transformational leadership style — one that is closer to coaching than to commanding or controlling — tend to achieve higher levels of team performance.
Remote team advantages
Though virtual work naturally comes with challenges, there are also several advantages to having a remote team. With no commute and more flexible hours, virtual employees can manage their time and responsibilities as they see fit, so long as the work gets done. As such, people who telecommute can enjoy a better work-life balance than their in-office colleagues. This balance also leads to better health outcomes, both by reducing stress and limiting exposure to potentially sick coworkers.
Remote teams don’t just benefit the employees, however; they’re also great for the employer’s bottom line. Most tangibly, having fewer employees (or none at all!) in-person cuts down on office space and associated costs. Remote work can also boost productivity due to the lack of distractions that can come with commuting, working in a shared space, and balancing work and life responsibilities. Finally, companies that offer flexible working arrangements have a competitive advantage over other employers. Allowing employees to work remotely not only opens up your business’ applicant pool but can play a key role in attracting and retaining top talent.
How to manage a remote team
Here are five of our top strategies for managing your remote team and helping them thrive.
1. Ensure employees are engaged
Remote employee engagement is one of the most important factors when it comes to the success of your virtual team. Having regular check-ins, both individually and at the team level, is critical to engaging your team and solving any potential problems before they arise. In these meetings, employees can share what they’re most proud of, where they may be struggling, what can be improved, and where they’d like to see their roles evolve. By listening to their feedback (and implementing change where appropriate), your team will feel seen and heard, making them more likely to be engaged in the work they do.
It’s also crucial to show appreciation for your remote team! Don’t be shy about shouting out your team members for a job well done, tagging them in social media posts, and so on. A little praise can go a long way in keeping spirits and performance high.
2. Master remote communication
Perhaps the largest challenge of managing a virtual team is managing remote communication. Setting clear guidelines around communication, as well as the appropriate channels to do so, can help make this significantly easier. Hosting daily check-ins and regular video meetings, as well as opportunities to communicate outside of those parameters, can help eliminate ambiguity around staff responsibilities and daily ongoings at the company. There’s no shortage of technology out there to help facilitate remote communication, from instant messaging platforms to video conferencing software to good old-fashioned email.
As a general rule of thumb, you’ll want to have all important conversations, information, and decisions documented online. Sharing notes from video meetings, sending important updates in company-wide emails, or just having your employees type out their daily to-dos will keep everyone on the same page. When it comes to team projects, having well-written workflows for each process can provide a quick reference point and ensure nothing gets missed. Additionally, checklists (for both individual employees’ work and for each step of an assignment) can keep things organized.
In addition to mastering communication regarding company updates and assignments, you’ll also need to clearly communicate your expectations to your team. Due to the nature of remote working, these may differ from what you’d convey in an in-office setting. The exact processes and expectations regarding employee communication and work will vary by company; what matters is that you convey what is expected of each employee, and what they can expect from you in return. It may feel like you’re overcommunicating — in the remote workforce, there’s no such thing.
3. Establish a remote office base
In a traditional office setting, you would set up spaces for your employees to work and interact: desks, meeting rooms, break rooms, and so on. Even though your remote team may not have the same physical space, they still need a remote “office” base where they can communicate, collaborate, and access company resources.
Here are the tools Lightning Media Partners use to keep our remote office running smoothly:
- A real-time communication platform. We use Slack for our daily check-ins, as well as to ask questions and share information with our team members in a timely fashion. (And yes, we also share a few memes and “bits” along the way.) It also allows us to share and view everyone’s status and online availability in real time.
- A digital workspace. Trello has been an incredibly helpful tool for both our staff and our freelance writers. The shared workspace gives us access to everything we need to complete our assignments, as well as columns and checklists that denote the progress of each task.
- A video meeting space. For certain tasks, there’s no substitute for face-to-face meetings. We use Zoom to hold our video conferences, whether it’s for all-hands-on-deck meetings, training workshops, or 1:1 check-ins. It’s also been the home for team-building activities, such as happy hours!
- A shared document storage tool. Given the structure of our team and workflow, we’ll often have multiple hands on any given assignment. Rather than storing closed files on individual computers, we use a cloud service to access and store the digital assets we need. Plus, the ability to edit and view documents in real time allows for streamlined collaboration.
- A team calendar. Our shared calendar allows us to see important deadlines, shared meetings and access links, holidays, and employee availability at a glance. We’ve found that this not only keeps us organized but promotes better work-life balance by ensuring we don’t message our team members when they’re offline.
4. Help curb distractions
A certain degree of distraction is inevitable, particularly for remote teams who may have home or life responsibilities that crop up during the typical workday. Workflow and communications shouldn’t add to that list of distractions. Managers of virtual employees must therefore do their part to minimize obstacles and ensure everything moves through its designated process. As mentioned in point #3, Trello has been key to keeping our team assignments visually organized. The columns and checklists help denote task progress, while also limiting how much work is in progress for each person at one time. The use of Slack for communication, as well as designated channels for each sub-team or type of assignment, helps with task prioritization and timely completion.
Another strategy that’s helped curb workflow distractions comes from our own leadership: employee empowerment. Our team is given a set of assignments and deadlines for the week, and our managers allow us to block our time and responsibilities as we need to. We also use Slack to convey our working status in real time — for example, if someone is in a meeting or is just entering “deep work mode.” This eliminates unnecessary interruptions and allows everyone to do work when they’re most available and productive.
5. Make time for fun
Team lunches, holiday happy hours, and team-building activities are all built into the traditional office settings, and with good reason. Having opportunities for more casual connection is critical for team bonding, which improves communication and collaboration while keeping morale high. Fortunately, remote team leaders can replicate these types of activities in the digital sphere!
You’ll want to create a virtual environment where your team can comfortably socialize. We use Zoom for team-wide happy hours, bringing together managers, staff members, and freelance writers in a more relaxed setting. Having “show and tells,” conversation starters, games, and other activities handy can help break the ice. (And yes, if it’s after work hours, you can welcome your team to bring a drink if they so choose!)
Even if your team never meets face-to-face, having fun virtual events will help your team feel comfortable and connected. And if you do coordinate a company retreat or other in-person interactions every now and then, you’ll already have broken that initial “meeting” barrier, allowing for even stronger team bonds to form.
How our team manages
Lightning Media Partners has been a fully remote company since its inception in 2018. What was once a partnership of our founders Nicole and Sean has now become a fully-fledged team with employees and freelancers spanning across six different states — something that wouldn’t be possible if they restricted the talent search to New Jersey.
Nicole and Sean now manage our part-time and full-time employees, while our assistant managing editor Sammi leads our freelance team. To figure out just how they do it, we asked each of them to share their best advice for fellow managers of remote employees. (Spoilers: it all comes down to communication.)
“My best advice for remote team leaders is to touch base with your team regularly,” Sammi said. “In an office setting, it might be more obvious that an employee is working through an issue, but in a remote environment, you won’t know unless you ask or they’re willing to tell you.”
Sean advised that remote team leaders invest as much time and energy as possible into developing your communication skills and, more importantly, understanding the various communication styles of your employees.
“When someone makes a mistake or something goes wrong on your team, trace the issue back to where communication broke down and work towards repairing that line,” explained Sean. “In many cases, that breakdown occurs at the management stage, and the best leaders are those who can repair lines of communication within their organization without belittling or ostracizing their workforce.”
Finally, though mastering remote communication is key to day-to-day progress, it’s also important to schedule time for the team to meet in person — even if it’s just once a year.
“When we held our first in-person employee retreat, it truly gave us a different perspective on the team dynamic and how each of our team members interacted and collaborated with each other,” Nicole explained. “I think (or I hope!) everyone came away from the retreat with greater insights on how to work together better in a remote setting.”
Looking for more insights? Check out the Lightning Media Partners blog to discover tried-and-true remote work strategies (and Spotify playlists), need-to-know information on entrepreneurship, and more.