You’ve read the news: COVID-19 has spread to all corners of the world. In response to its rate of transmission, which the World Health Organization warns is accelerating, countries have locked down travel and instituted varying levels of restrictions on trade and business.
This has put business owners in a conundrum. Working remotely is now mandated by many countries, and if your company is one of these—and especially if this is your first time creating and handling one—you may be at a loss on how to comply with this mandate.
Fortunately, remote teams have been in existence long before anyone could have foreseen this ongoing tragedy. In this article, we’ll distill the experience of remote work experts and their tried-and-tested methods on how to manage and empower a remote team.
When you are dealing with remote team management, understand that it’s vastly different from managing a colocated team (or a traditional, in-house team). The main factor underlying their difference is that remote workers have a level of autonomy, freedom, and distance that colocated employees can only dream about.
And these freedoms are eye-opening. For example, a survey found that remote work or work from home setups allowed them to accomplish 30% more work in less time. And it doesn’t just benefit employees; 8 out of 10 managers and employees alike report lower levels of stress as well.
Freedom and flexibility also top the reasons why employees choose to work remotely. More and more workers are looking for such setups when searching for prospective employers. And the job market is responding positively to this demand: of companies in 2018, over two-thirds now offer remote work benefits, as you can see in the chart below:
Source: zenefits.com 2018
Don’t rush and immediately tell your staff that they can work remotely, however. You need to look at your IT infrastructure first, then look at how you should approach remote team management.
This guide seeks to help you with the latter.
In the 1973 book Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff, former NASA engineer Jack Nilles coined the term “telecommuting.” Tellingly, he was then working at the University of Southern California on a way to eliminate rush-hour drives to work by making employees work from home using telecommunications links.
This sowed the seeds of a remote team, which would become much more commonplace about 40 years later.
A remote team is a group of remote professionals, some in different time zones. They have a diverse set of skills, often with different languages and cultures, and working in differing setups and/or spaces. While you can work in a remote job quite easily, thanks to the internet and the prevalence of cloud-based software, managing one is another thing entirely.
You may ask, how is working remotely different from working in an office anyway? It’s not like their jobs or their tasks become something else when they work from home, for example, or any other coffee shop. The thing to remember is that working with people with different backgrounds, languages, and time zones means a one-size-fits-all solution won’t work. Remote work best practices for some may not work for others. You’ll have to find common ground with all of them, not just those who can speak English.
Remote teams are also called “virtual teams” in the context of workers leveraging the internet. For the purposes of this article, “virtual teams” and “remote teams” are synonymous.
A remote team, at its core, is similar to an in-house team where team members report to a line manager or an equivalent. The only difference is that they are not located in one site; they may be geographically dispersed; hence, the differing time zones.
Most professionals under the umbrella of a remote team are often called “telecommuters.” These are people who do work remotely, though not always at home. Others differentiate a telecommuter from a teleworker, who can work anywhere and at any time. In slang terms, remote workers call themselves “digital nomads” or “web commuters.”
Remote teams also have a line manager or a team leader, to whom they’re responsible for submitting their output or report. In this case, it’s you. Finally, they communicate using an interface, such as a project management software and/or a communications tool, where they complete tasks and keep track of projects.
Needless to say, successfully navigating remote team management means coming up with a management style suited to the challenges of a remote team. In general, managing such a team is more focused on generating results instead of monitoring tasks (i.e. objective-based management vs. observation-based management).
Companies are embracing remote work63%
Skills are more specialized59%
Remote work is becoming more common55%
Companies using flexible talent53%
Talent is hard to find39%
Remote work is the future38%
Credit: Upwork.comDesigned by
Remote teams differ from their traditional (i.e., in-house) counterparts. Here are some notable differences:
There are various types of remote teams, and managing them may slightly differ.
When building a remote team, you don’t simply cold-call random people around the globe and introduce them to a team. Well, technically, you could, but you should not expect them to do something productive, much less something awesome.
To build a team that would actually work as a cohesive unit, you need to look at the three main ingredients of a successful remote group. The three main ones are the members, the tools, and the processes. We explain more what each means below and, hopefully, a few ways to improve remote working for each.
The individuals who make up your team are, undoubtedly, the most important component of a remote team. Just as not everyone can function as part of a team, even fewer can work well, even excel, in a remote work setup. And not all managers have the temperament to manage team members who can’t be observed face to face.
However, with a bit of patience and time (and, of course, a willingness to learn), most managers and team leaders can become remote-team-savvy. And it begins by assembling a team that can shine in a remote setup.
Here are some tips for building a remote work-ready team:
Source: Upwork, Freelancers Union
In a traditional or colocated setup, you can use an all-hands meeting to apprise everyone of the situation. Apart from this, members can naturally form bonds with each other, either through water cooler talk or simply by being in close proximity. In a remote environment, obviously, you can’t do this. This is why you need to rely on something else: the remote work software tools to let you approximate interaction even when your members are far apart.
These days, remote tools often come in the form of software. In 2020, you have a lot of solutions to keep everyone on the same page while allowing you, as the manager, to stay on top of things.
Here are some examples of tools we think will benefit you as a remote team. Note that we’ve taken liberties to post an example for each software category, but you don’t need to follow our recommendation. Consider each category, however, as a crucial part of managing a remote team.
Remote workers need a solution that can layout their tasks and allow them to keep track of what they need to do, and when they need to do it. This is especially useful to workers in different timezones. A good project management tool can allow you to create projects, assign tasks, and track progress. A great example of a project management software is monday.com.
Most remote team leaders worry over how to collaborate effectively if your team is remote. The answer is communication—but updated to the 21st century.
Emails are outdated, and in the fast pace of the industry these days, you might as well send snail mail. To communicate with your team efficiently, you need an equally responsive tool that can give you real-time responses. You can use a web conferencing software or just an instant messaging platform. If you need a complete call center and messaging solution, RingCentral is one of the best in the businesses.
Manage your team’s production and compute their billable hours with a time tracking software. Not only does it help you track their payroll, but it can also help your team to spot their productivity black holes and self-correct. To manage your remote teams’ productivity and payroll, it’s helpful to have a good time tracking software. When I Work is a leading solution in this category, which works great, whether for colocated employees or remote ones.
Ideas are best shared in files, and it’s best that all team members can access a shared folder or drive for this purpose. Thanks to cloud computing, you can create, store, and share files with your team no matter where they are. Tools like Dropbox is fast and secure, giving you a location where users can create and store files. A shared drive allows another user to pick up where the other has left off.
Protecting your assets and securing your privacy is one of the biggest (and one of the first) things in your managing remote workers toolkit. Outsiders should not have access to your sensitive or confidential files. A secure password manager that can create strong passwords and encrypt them for your team is, thus, invaluable. A solution like Dashlane can perform this for you and even store other data, like billing information.
Finally, the last ingredient in a remote team is the process. While it doesn’t sound as sexy as “team” or “software,” processes are critical for one reason—it’s how you go about your work. You may have the best team and the software to support them, but with an inefficient process (or worse, one that works against your people instead of for them), your remote team will collapse. Understandably, not everyone knows how to efficiently work from home right away.
An effective process can help team members by guiding them to a “default action” in the absence of instruction. It’s a structure and direction that lets your team follow a guideline even without your direction.
That said, a process should not be set in stone or inflexible. You can ask your team to troubleshoot your process so you can streamline it and even improve it on many levels.
A critical part of the process is how people interact with each other, or what’s more popularly known as culture. Here are a few tips for fostering more productive and meaningful interpersonal relationships in your team:
While a work-from-home setup is mandated in many—if not all—countries at present because of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work is becoming increasingly common even without it. The challenge, however, is how to work remotely effectively. For managers, it’s how to manage a remote team and make them as productive (or more than) traditional colocated teams.
In brief, managers face the following challenges:
Tools are particularly important in a remote work setup, as your team uses them to collaborate effectively. If remote employees struggle with using your software, your team will likely fail no matter how motivated they are or how good a manager you are. Find the best products for remote work and then develop a workflow to use these tools.
Fortunately, software vendors have made applications and solutions that can cater exactly to your needs. The only caveat is that with this plethora of choices, finding one that can serve your organization’s precise needs is a bit difficult.
Looking at each software’s pros and cons can be a fruitful endeavor. Considering your shortlisted software’s alternatives is also a prudent exercise in case your issue is budget or resource concerns.
Differences in culture and values are some of the greatest obstacles to building a remote team from scratch. People in one country have varying attitudes about careers, to begin with; this will only be amplified when you hire people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, nationalities, or languages.
Understanding the culture of each member of your team, thus, takes paramount importance. Once you appreciate one’s culture, you can connect with them effectively. And you do that by encouraging communication.
Next to cultural differences is that in some teams, especially those with big and dispersed members, some individuals may be working in different time zones. Not only can this present a significant lag when communicating issues, but different time zones may disrupt the work-life balance.
As a remote team manager, you need to tread the line between real-time reporting and leaving room for employees to manage their time wisely. Find a middle ground between meetings, for example, where most of your team can attend. Failing this, you can record your conferences for later perusal and references of those who couldn’t make it.
As mentioned above, a remote team has an unprecedented level of freedom when they go about their daily tasks. This is one of the greatest gifts of a remote setup, but it’s also one of the biggest headaches. How do you make sure that your team is doing actual work and they can submit their deliverables on time?
Lack of visibility is a challenge, but not something that you have to compromise on. The trick is to make your team members accountable. We’ve already mentioned a simple way to do it above, but here are a few more ideas:
When you work with or manage a remote team, you clearly won’t have the luxury of having that water cooler talk or enjoy happy hour after work. Instead, you need to approach the forging of a remote team in alternative ways.
If you are looking at how to manage a remote team successfully, consider the following:
This is probably one of the easiest things to do. Your communication tools are there not only to keep each other updated on what the project needs or when it needs to be done. You can also use it for a far simpler, more basic purpose: greeting your team. Don’t just talk to your team about work; say hi when you can and ask them how they’re doing. Remember that your employees are not robots, so you shouldn’t consider them as such.
On the other hand, being much too chummy with your remote team members may be just as bad as not checking up on them once in a while. Employees, colocated or otherwise, will usually need a boundary to delineate their personal and professional life. Plus, it helps create a work-life balance that benefits everybody.
To this end, you should discuss work schedules with your team. If members have rotating or varying schedules, especially because of time zones, talk to them individually. Showing that you respect their time is often reciprocated, making them aware that they’re accountable for their time spent on producing work for the organization.
Plus, being clear with employees will keep their focus on the goals that you need them to reach. To be more specific, you can set clear expectations for the following:
The idea is that the more prepared and the clearer these expectations are outlined early on, the more productive your team will be.
We’ve already outlined the problem with hiring multicultural individuals. Culture and attitudes toward work and each other often lead to misunderstanding. Left to fester and unaddressed, these conflicts can tear any team apart.
This is why when making a team-building or bonding activity, even something as mundane as a video call, it’s always nice to be sensitive to others’ ethnic culture. Embracing cultural diversity should be part of it. Easy ways to do so include finding out how people want to receive feedback, respecting national holidays for each member, and celebrating cultural differences.
Inclusivity, however, doesn’t just refer to minding ethnicities. It also means making your meetings and, consequently, every decision feel as if it’s part of a team effort and not simply because you—the manager—decided it to be so. In addition, treat your remote employees as you would your in-house team. Remember that they don’t have as much access to you as they would if you were colocated. Inclusivity also means giving them access to you and your guidance as much as possible.
Remote teams also encounter roadblocks to communication when team members don’t (or can’t) communicate effectively. This is often the case in teams where the native language isn’t English or teams come from different backgrounds or countries.
For this reason, set your working communication channel first and decide what language you’re going to use. Most people, especially those working online, already have a decent command of English, especially in Western countries. However, simply speaking or writing in English doesn’t mean you can communicate well.
Effective communication means being quick and concise to minimize confusion. Practice saying exactly what you want by honing your writing skills. You should also use the right channels. Prioritize instant messaging or video conferencing, with emails at the bottom of the communication totem pole.
Prior to the pandemic, most remote employees are content with video conferencing at least twice a month. With nearly half the world in lockdown, however, things have changed. It’s a good idea to at least hold a video meeting at least once a week. Not only would these little moments make for better engagement but also be a boost to everyone’s mental health in these trying times.
Social distancing is one way to slow down, even beat the virus altogether. A remote team, however, is unaffected by distance, because distance itself empowers it. However, to bridge this distance, you should use the technology available to you and build a sense of community with it.
For one, building so is crucial to develop an engaged team. IM-centric platforms, like Slack, alongside your business phone solutions, can cross the distance quite well and cultivate camaraderie. In essence, you should find the software equivalent to going to someone’s cubicle and chatting them up.
This is even more important if you’re the manager. You should be as available to your team as much as possible.
Detailed Slack Review
Detailed Slack Review
Remote teams are inherently focused on goals, not activity. This means your management style must be flexible. Try not to worry too much about what’s being done right at this very moment; instead, look at what’s being accomplished and what’s already done. Worry only when you’re not meeting the goals in the timeline the team has set for itself. If you do, worrying over the little things will only lead to micromanagement, which every remote worker hates.
Goals, however, sometimes are abstract, especially if they are goals set by the organization itself. To make it more tangible, it’s a good idea to find an angle that can connect their interests with your goals. This helps them visualize where they are in relation to the overarching objectives. If they can map out where they need to go, you can bring out the best in them.
As mentioned before, trust is key to unlocking the secrets of a good remote work setup. Once you’ve nurtured engagement and accountability, it’s up to your team to do what they’re supposed to do. The only thing left is to trust them; after all, you’ve hired them, and you wouldn’t hire someone who will be detrimental to your team performance. Morale boosters may also help in ensuring that your team remains engaged and productive throughout this ordeal.
The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is a watershed moment for organizations and businesses in how they manage their teams. Now, even companies that regard remote work with suspicion are realizing that it’s one of the silver linings in this dire situation.
This doesn’t mean that colocated offices and production centers will be obsolete—far from it. It just means that remote work will become more commonplace as businesses find it much more accessible and easier than they hitherto thought it would. Communications software will be more in demand, as would ways to track employee productivity and manage projects.
These tools are all for nothing; however, if you don’t know how to manage your team. Taking precedence over any other tool or process should be knowing how to manage a group of people, whether colocated or otherwise. No matter what changes, we’re sure that forming, leading, and motivating a team of professionals will stay the same as it always has been.
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