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Managing remote teams, I’ve encountered many of the classic pitfalls of remote work. I know just how frustrating and counterproductive remote work can be, just as much as I’ve enjoyed the benefits it’s brought to my life.
As a remote teams manager or prospective remote manager, you’ve probably had the same frustrations. Anyone who’s managed a remote team knows that it’s a different game than managing on-site.
Remote managers need to make the extra effort to communicate and connect with their team, even about the simplest things.
Managers can also struggle with setting expectations about productivity and work hours, especially with new hires.
Fortunately, you don’t have to struggle with the same challenges that I have. And you don’t have to take my word for it, as I’ve spoken with remote managers who have solved the three classic pitfalls of remote work transitions.
Here are three mistakes you need to be aware of:
1. Infrequent or Inadequate Communication
In an office, managers can just walk over to the desk of anyone they supervise. Many managers make the rounds of their team every day so that they can check in on the status of current business.
Rounds and frequent check-ins are also critical to assess morale and job satisfaction.
Of course, when you’re supervising a group from afar, it’s difficult to assess the mood of the team and its members.
You’ll have to make an intentional effort to keep tabs on your colleagues’ needs. That means finding new tools to keep in touch. Email won’t be enough on its own.
“You need to establish a good communication system,” says Luis Magalhães, editor of the blog at DistantJob.com, a remote staffing agency. “When all the team is virtual, emails won’t cut it and will lead to overload. Each team needs to figure out how to best combine email, chat, and calls or video conference in a way that works for them—and this often takes some trial and error.”
Chat tools like Slack are invaluable for remote teams. They can create a space for some of the informal idealizations that shared physical space in an office can facilitate.
Project management tools like Basecamp can help everyone keep an eye on the status of their team and projects.
Conference calls and group video conferencing are also excellent ways to get team members comfortable during a transition to a remote or partially remote location.
If some of your team used to work together, you might be able to keep some of the old positive group dynamics by holding regular conference calls. Real conversations, even over the phone, create much stronger bonds than chat or texting.
But don’t expect your colleagues to get used to those tools right away. You’ll have to meet your team where they’re at, especially when they aren’t used to the medium that you’re planning to use.
Even a veteran of a certain type of software might not be sure of the etiquette surrounding the new communications regime.
Even email policy can be confusing when a team is transitioning to a virtual workplace.
“Many organizations have found ways to make remote teams work,” says Wayne Turmel, founder of the Remote Leadership Institute, “but the collaboration must be planned for, constantly assessed, and tweaked.
You can’t just have people working on their own and expect it to happen, especially when what communication there is maybe through tools like Skype for Business or Slack or other new technology that people have no experience with.”
There are more tangible remote team communication problems as well.
If you’re in a business that requires frequent, urgent conversations about fast-moving developments, remote work can be a challenge.
Someone you might have been able to walk across the room and ask about an urgent issue could be making a trip to the drugstore, without you knowing it, at the worst possible moment.
“Remote workers may keep non-traditional hours,” says Diane Domeyer, executive director of the Creative Group recruiting and staffing agency, “and reaching them for an urgent project or impromptu meeting may be more challenging. Managers should know when staff is available and the best ways to reach them.”
2. Unclear Expectations of Productivity and Availability
You can avoid those sorts of snafus by setting a clear expectation of availability. Unfortunately, too many remote managers make the mistake of leaving critical policies like that unstated until the worst possible moment.
Remote managers need to set expectations about the time their team is working. Remote employees should be expected to maintain office hours.
Teams will be more able to get things done quickly if everyone is working at the same time. Workers will also feel more connected to the group.
“Articles about remote work stress how nice it is to have flexible schedules,” says Magalhães, “but it’s hard to pump up a team unless you get them all in the same ‘virtual room’ often. You might need to ask the team members to compromise their schedule flexibility to allow for at least some overlap!”
You should also set clear expectations about response times for communications. If office hours are in effect, it’s reasonable to expect a colleague to respond to one form of communication within 30 minutes.
Remote work also tempts workers to indulge in bad habits and enjoy the creature comforts of home.
As Kevin Tash, CEO of Tack Media, points out, “Some people take advantage of working remotely. That’s why some organizations don’t trust people to self-manage. It becomes hard to ensure when an employee is working and when they are playing on their Xbox.”
Of course, most employees are not going to abuse their time, and taking a break from work isn’t the end of the world.
One of the biggest draws of remote work is the flexibility it allows for the family: Workers can care for children or elders more easily if they don’t have to commute or work in an office.
That’s one of the main reasons that even trusted, hardworking employees can accidentally break protocol or fail to meet expectations without knowing it.
3. Incomplete Onboarding for New Remote Hires
Integrating new employees is hard work under any circumstances, but doing it when you and the new hire are in completely different locations can be a challenge. There are several reasons why.
For one, getting the person onboarded is more difficult. Working through paperwork and orientation takes more planning and effort than on-site employees. Plus, remote employees never learn the intangible parts of a job. They won’t be able to intuit company values and work styles.
A new remote worker won’t be able to see their colleagues in action, so they won’t necessarily know who takes on what role outside their job description.
That can lead to confusion and frustration. New workers might not know who to ask for help when they need it.
It’s easy to see why the previous two mistakes can compound each other with a new hire. New hires won’t know what is expected of them unless you, the manager, tell them directly.
Team members will not be able to train the new person on expectations and company culture through more casual interactions.
As the boss, you will have to have explicit conversations about those expectations with your new colleague. That can be awkward, especially if you have to schedule a Skype call to do it.
But here’s the good news, after all this doom and gloom: You already know what to do to fix all these problems.
You need to hire the right people, trust them to do their job right, and set them straight when they’ve gone wrong. If you can do that—and if you’ve been managing for a while, you can—then you’ll have no trouble transitioning your team to remote work.
How Can Leaders of Remote Teams Fix Mistakes?
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