As remote work becomes even more widespread (or required, as we’re seeing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic), business leaders will need to adapt to this rapidly changing world. While all employees will face a steep learning curve, remote management may represent the most difficult transition.
To keep teams happy, business leaders will have to create brand new systems for meetings, communication, visibility, and team interconnectedness. But with the right systems in place, remote work can actually represent an opportunity to improve performance — especially considering most employees favor the added flexibility of working from home.
While no one can predict what the future holds, here’s how managers can navigate this new remote reality.
Read on to discover real solutions to the issues and challenges facing managers as their workforce evolves into a remote experience.
Communication challenges in remote management
While you may have your in-office communication skills down pat (if not, here’s a blog post to help you build this foundation), remote work requires a nuanced approach.
There is a lot of informal communication that takes place in a physical workplace. Perhaps you run into a stakeholder by the coffee machines and chat about an upcoming project. Maybe you see one of your employees looking visibly distressed at their desk and ask them if they want to talk. Being in the same room as your team allows for a lot more spontaneous communication.
When you aren’t in the office, these opportunities disappear, and even normal meetings and conversations become more difficult. Consider the 7-38-55 rule for communication, which explains that:
- 7% of what is communicated consists of the literal words or content of the message;
- 38% comes from vocal information such as tone, volume, and intonation;
- And a whopping 55% consists of body language.
If you’ve ever sent a Slack message or email that wasn’t taken the way you intended, now you know why.
Since communication is clearly more challenging for remote management, business leaders need to be very proactive in addressing this issue. Here’s how to do it.
1. Schedule regular video check-ins
Video calls give you the ability to communicate using words, tone, and body language (covering the 7-38-55 bases), making them the best way to connect with your remote team.
But it isn’t enough to just make your scheduled meetings video meetings. Remember those impromptu conversations? Use a video conferencing tool like Zoom or Google Hangouts Meet to schedule regular, repeated video 1on1s with all of your direct reports. This gives them the opportunity to broach personal topics or share ideas that just don’t fit into your regular meeting schedule. This is extra important for any employees who are struggling (either professionally or personally). Empathy and tough conversations naturally translate better with visual and verbal cues.
Beyond your 1on1s, consider hosting at least one full-team video meeting per week as well. This gives your team a chance to see and connect with each other while helping you maintain strong team bonds. You may even choose to host a virtual happy hour on Fridays or daily 10-minute coffee breaks to allow for casual conversations.
2. Establish guidelines for instant messaging
While video check-ins are a huge part of remote management, a majority of communication will likely take place over messaging services like Slack or Microsoft Teams. These platforms allow for instant, informal contact between teammates, replacing the desk-side or coffee machine chats you had in the office. Messaging tools are important for the many quick questions that arise throughout the day, as well as idea-sharing and casual conversation. Unsurprisingly, a recent McKinsey report found that, “Improved communication and collaboration through social technologies could raise the productivity of interaction workers by 20 to 25 percent.”
But before you roll out Slack or an alternative, ensure you have some guidelines in place:
- Explain how your team will be using the tool: Is it work-related discussions only, or a mixture of work and casual? Will there be company-wide channels or will people be grouped into teams? Who is in charge of managing the app?
- Establish tool etiquette: At what time of day is it no longer okay to message coworkers? How quickly are people expected to respond? When can you tag individuals or full teams? What channels have specific restrictions around posting?
- Offer resources: If you can, run training sessions for your team showing them exactly how the tool can be used. If that isn’t an option, you can also share online resources, like YouTube videos, walkthroughs, or online courses, to help them get comfortable.
Even if you already use a chat app before you shift your business to remote work, how these tools are used will change drastically with this transition. Creating, adjusting, or reemphasizing guidelines is still a valuable exercise.
3. Remap your workflows
As we explained in another post, workflows are “a map for getting routine work done in the fastest, most efficient, and most satisfying way possible.” Those maps are going to change quite a bit when you shift to remote management, so it’s essential that you repeat your workflow process:
- List out all of your internal workflows if you haven’t already
- Diagram each of the steps, taking into account the new tools and steps required in a remote work context
- Talk to your team. Ask them how they expect their work will change during the transition and incorporate their feedback. This might help you identify new tools required for your remote stack as well.
- See where workflows could be shortened or improved. Remote work can add complexity to some workflows but it can simplify others.
- Build out your workflows in a workflow management tool like Unito to build alignment and easy collaboration across tools and teams.
Once you’ve completed this process, make sure you communicate these changes to your entire organization. Having already consulted them for their input, you should have an easy time getting buy-in for your new workflows.
Meetings during remote management
While you might often dream of a meeting-less world, they’re an essential part of remote management — perhaps more so than in the office. Meetings become extra valuable, as they provide the important face-to-face contact previously mentioned in this post. You may even find yourself starting and ending meetings with informal conversations, using that time to personally connect with your colleagues and reports.
Here’s how to effectively run various types of distributed meetings.
As mentioned above, one-on-ones are necessary because they give your employees a dedicated space and time to check-in with you. If you’re feeling extra busy when you’re working from home, it might be tempting to cancel or postpone these meetings. But according to the Harvard Business Review, “When you don’t commit to a specific time with boundaries when you will devote your attention to your direct reports, they need to find other, much less effective ways to connect with you.” This means the other communication methods such as email and Slack may be used more frequently, but less efficiently. Something that could have been a 10-minute conversation during your one-on-one suddenly becomes a multi-day, back-and-forth email.
Here are some tips to help you properly manage remote 1on1s:
- Consistency is key. Schedule regular check-ins at a set, agreed-upon time.
- Prioritize this meeting. Never make your team feel as if their concerns or time are not of utmost importance to you.
- Make it as easy as possible. Always include a Zoom link in the meeting invite. Don’t make agendas complicated or complex. Do whatever you need to do so you’re not scrambling to get set up and wasting their valued time.
- Encourage the use of video. It’s great to be able to see your team members whenever possible during a one-on-one. This helps with visual communication cues, and enhances the sense of connection and visibility.
- Be prepared. While a normal one-on-one can occasionally be awkward, a remote one-on-one video call can be downright painful if there are lulls or silences in the conversation. Make sure you’ve come with updates on anything brought up in your previous 1on1. You should also come with at least a few questions to ask your employees. These should not be focused only on their work — their personal well-being is just as important. You may also want to track changes in their happiness over time, in a private document or task, so you’re more aware of any trends and can proactively address ongoing issues in subsequent meetings.
If you’re concerned about losing touch with your team because of remote management, daily stand-ups are the easiest way to maintain visibility and transparency. They allow you to ensure alignment on priorities, know what work is being accomplished and what is blocked, and identify opportunities for collaboration.
How you host these stand-ups will likely depend on your team size. While a video conference works for a team of five people, bigger teams might find a Slack thread more efficient. Managers can post “Stand-Up” in a team channel, and everyone can simply respond with what they’re working on for the day.
At Unito, we do a mixture. We’ve always done asynchronous daily scrums, with every member of the company sharing what they achieved yesterday and what they’re working on today in a dedicated channel. As we shifted remote in response to COVID-19, certain teams added video stand-ups as well. Consult your team and find your perfect mix.
Project kickoffs and check-ins
A new, cross-functional project typically starts with a kick-off meeting. Then, throughout the duration of the project, you may have several more meetings to check in on progress and allow collaborators to get feedback or ask questions.
For remote teams, a kick-off meeting remains important. This is when people will have the most questions and concerns, and you want those to be voiced for the entire group to learn from. For this, video calls are likely your best option.
However, you may be able to streamline remote projects by making check-ins asynchronous. Within your project management tool, you can create recurring tasks for each member to share their updates with the team. Questions and concerns can be expressed in the comments and if they’re not easily answered then the project manager could call for a video meeting. And of course, if different collaborators are in different tools, you can use Unito to sync all the projects together, making it easier for everyone to share those updates.
Considering you’ll likely see an increase in meetings as you shift remote, it’s always nice to see where you can eliminate some to save you and your team some time.
Brainstorm sessions might be one of the most difficult meetings to hold remotely. Usually, your team can sit in a room together for an hour and spitball ideas or throw things up on a whiteboard. There really isn’t a digital tool that can recreate that experience. That doesn’t mean you should stop doing brainstorms, but you do need to think outside of the box.
Use Zoom to see everyone you’re brainstorming with, but be explicit in giving the floor to people. While in a room, people can interrupt each other and yell things out, this really doesn’t work remote. Ask people to raise their hands if they want to contribute, or just call people out by name.
Did you like to throw post-its up on the wall? Well, Trello can be a great replacement, with cards representing virtual post-its. Then there’s Miro, which is about as close as you can get to a digital whiteboard. Your entire team can collaborate in real-time on a single “board”, writing, drawing, or building whatever you might be brainstorming. Miro and Trello even integrate nicely with one another, so you can combine the two.
How to maintain visibility in remote management
I recently read about an employer who asked every remote worker to keep their laptop camera on for the duration of the workday so they could ensure they were seated at their desk for the required eight hours. This kind of extreme micromanagement is not what we mean by visibility (and it’s also a great way to destroy any sense of trust you may of earned).
As a manager, it’s your job to ensure that your team’s projects are running smoothly. To be successful at remote management, you need visibility into their day-to-day work. When you’re in the office it’s easy enough to walk over to your employee’s desk and have a quick chat about the state of a project. But remote you need to be way more systematic and way more active.
Daily stand-ups are certainly one way to gain visibility into this work. But for more granular details, you will likely depend heavily on your work management tools. This is a two-way street: You need to check the status of projects more regularly, and your reports need to commit to keeping their tasks and projects updated.
One way to ease this burden and save yourself some time? Build an overview or “master” project to gather all of your team’s important tasks into a single view that you can monitor with ease. Unito makes this easy to do even for large teams spread across multiple tools.
No matter your approach, the extra effort you put into maintaining visibility will pay off tenfold when you don’t have to adjust timelines or scope down the line.
Remote team management
It’s important to not lose sight of the people you’re working with, whether you’re managing a remote team for the first time or your organization has been distributed for years. Not everyone thrives in a remote work environment, so it’s your job to keep your team happy and motivated as they navigate the day-to-day.
Here are some tips to help you manage your team on a more personal level:
Seek informal interactions
If your only communication with your team members is about work, it’s easy to forget that these are real people you’re talking to. Make sure you and your team set aside dedicated time for regular chit-chat and personal catch-ups. A simple ‘How are you feeling today?’ is something that I’ve personally found to be so helpful when working with managers in the past, and it can make all the difference for your employees.
Assume the best
Working remotely can be tough for many, and can often accompany a difficult situation (family illness or the current global situation we’re experiencing). Make sure you’re always assuming that your employees are doing their best with whatever situation they’re going through. Also, being open to flexible work schedules or arrangements, especially for employees who are parents, can ease a lot of the stress associated with working from home.
Work on your emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence — or EQ — is important in a face-to-face setting, but even more crucial when it comes to remote teams. Brush up on your own EQ with our thorough guide to Emotional Intelligence.
Set an example
Your employees are looking at how you are acting and conducting yourself while working remotely. This is especially important to remember during a difficult or uncertain time. As the Harvard Business Review shares, “Research on emotional intelligence and emotional contagion tells us that employees look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden changes or crisis situations.” Stay calm, and be strategic when it comes to what information you’re sharing with your employees on a regular basis. Nobody needs a manager to constantly be sharing doom and gloom regarding world news. Instead, only share info that your team will find helpful or uplifting, such as important news about the business or a link to a baby otter cam they can watch to brighten their day.
Remote management webinar
Want a deep dive on remote management from the experts?
Watch this webinar where Janet Mesh, Co-Founder and CEO of Aimtal (a remote-first digital and content marketing agency), Amanda Marochko, Head of Strategic Partnerships for Buffer, and Mathieu Hétu, former VP of Engineering at Unito, share their tips, tricks, and remote management experiences
Embracing remote management
Remote management may represent a lot of change for leaders in your business. But with the right preparation and dedication, it can represent an opportunity to improve performance and build new bonds with your reports. With the above tips and the incredible options available through technology and innovation, you can feel secure in your ability to manage and support your employees wherever they are.