The Savvy Manager's Guide to Managing Remote Teams

May 22, 2020

You are one savvy manager. You’ve earned your scars, and you know how to manage a team to help them be successful. But now, you’re faced with managing a remote team. Can you imagine? Managing people that aren’t in the office with you? Maybe not even in the same location together?

Slow down, take a deep breath.

Your skills are still relevant; you just need to tweak them a bit. This post will tell you how. You’ll learn how to manage a remote or distributed team and what you can do when your team members are scattered in different locations.

Let’s start by clearing up a bit of terminology.

Remote Teams, Distributed Teams, or Remote Distributed Teams?

Teams run the gamut from 100% co-located to 100% distributed, where everyone, whether they’re local or remote, is in a different location.

  • Co-located: The “normal” setup. Everyone on the team works in the same place, usually even in the same space or at least building.

  • Distributed: All team members work from different locations. They can be both local and remote, but they do not work in the same space.

  • Mixed: In a mixed team, some team members do their work in the same place, while others are in one or more different locations. For example, Erik, Jennifer, and Tim are working in the New York office, Angela and Mark are in the San Francisco office, and Julie and Deborah both work from home.

  • Remote: Team members work in a location relatively far away from their stakeholders. The term remote became commonplace when outsourcing development to different countries started. But a remote team doesn’t have to be in a different country. It can be local, for example in the same city. But you can also have a remote team within the same organization when that organization has different locations. So, the term remote is used for both organizational and physical distance.

  • Remote co-located, remote distributed, and remote mixed: As explained above, a remote team can be remote in an organizational and/or physical sense. Where the team members do their work is immaterial. Therefore, a remote team can be co-located, distributed, and mixed.

  • Really garbled: To make things interesting, you can also mix local and remote teams. For example, you can have a team with people from both the outsourcing company and the company that is being outsourced to. And a team like this can be co-located but remote from its stakeholders, distributed somewhat close to its stakeholders, and, of course, anything in between.

Fair warning: people being people, terminology gets mixed, meaning that remote and distributed are terms that are often used interchangeably.

Challenges of a Mixed Setup

The most challenging situations are when part of the team is co-located and the other part is distributed, simply because the co-located people tend to interact and communicate as they always would. It can easily lead the distributed members to feel they are second-class citizens that are isolated and kept out of the loop by the first-class co-located people, even when that’s not the intention.

It’s the main reason why Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood (co-founders of Glitch, the company that created FogBugz, Stack Overflow, and Trello) lived by this rule: When you have one person working remotely, the whole team should communicate as if they all are remote.

Of course, you can’t forbid co-located team members from interacting socially, so there’s always going to be some disparity. But you can intentionally work on organizing social interactions that include your distributed members.

Distributed or Co-Located, Managing Is Still Managing, Right?

OK, so you’re no longer in the same space with everyone. But, managing is still managing, isn’t it?

Well, yes and no.

What it takes to create and maintain an effective, high-performing team doesn’t change.

However, taking an in-person management strategy online will make things worse. So, you need to adapt to a new reality and change how you create and maintain an effective team.

When you walk up to someone’s desk, you don’t do it to just walk up to someone’s desk, do you? You do it to reach out, make someone feel supported, show interest, or be curious. That’s what you’ll still do. The only thing that changes is that you use a video call to do it.

That said, you do need to be more intentional and deliberate about how your team works together and interacts.

Trust and Communication Are Sitting Ducks

As a savvy manager, you know that trust and communication are essential for a well-performing team. And you also know that it’s often lacking, even in co-located teams.

Many will tell you that communication is the most essential ingredient for good teamwork. I disagree. Trust is. Communication is merely the conduit through trust ebbs and flows. When people are not communicating, especially when they’ve received appropriate training, you can bet my life on it that you have trust issues in your team.

Yes, we generally trust our co-workers not to bash our heads in. But asking for help, admitting you were wrong, getting your work reviewed, and voicing your opinion are actions that fill many with trepidation. It takes courage—and a lot of it—to open yourself up to your co-workers’ words, actions, and interpretations of what you do and say.

Showing that kind of courage becomes more difficult when communication becomes harder to interpret.

By necessity, distributed teams use written communication a lot. And, as we’ve all experienced, written words can easily be misinterpreted. After all, “c’est le ton qui fait la musique” (it’s the tone that makes the music) and that’s exactly what’s missing.

So, what can you do about it? There are a couple things you, as a manager, can do to work better with your remote teams.

What You Can Do

Foster trust obliquely. Trust can’t be built; it has to grow, according to Brené Brown, a leading expert on trust and vulnerability. She came up with BRAVING as an acronym for the Anatomy of Trust. It describes what goes into trust: boundaries, reliability, accountability, vault (you don’t share what’s not yours to share), integrity, nonjudgment, and generosity (of spirit). Working on each of these allows you to address trust issues without naming the elephant in the room.

Be the first to show trust. It’s hard. It’s scary. But, it’s necessary. Trust is hard enough without having to fear for employment and financial consequences. So, as a manager, the one with the most power, be the first.

Measure outcomes and results. You get what you measure. So steer clear of measuring output, activity, and attendance. They don’t mean anything and are easily gamed. So, find the metrics that work for you and your team: metrics that tell you whether you’re on track toward your goals.

Improve everyone’s communication and writing skills. Communicating your message effectively and without getting other people’s hackles up unnecessarily is the same whether you speak or write. That said, writing can be more difficult because people can get hung up on grammar and punctuation rather than their message, or they get way more formal than they would be in person. So help them up their communication and writing skills, and reap the benefits of better communication in and with your team.

Adopt emoji. Emoji are so ubiquitous in everyone’s day-to-day messaging that it’s becoming somewhat ridiculous to avoid them in business. They add the emotional information you would otherwise pick up from someone’s tone.

Agreeing on How Your Team Works Together as a Team

While co-located teams would benefit from establishing their “rules of engagement,” doing so for remote distributed teams is even more necessary.

A team agreement provides clarity for everyone and is a great tool in managing expectations about what is okay and what is not.

As it’s a team agreement, you and your team are totally free to decide what goes in it. A good way to start is to scan this post for “agree” and collect everything you need to get agreement on.

Another option is to adopt the core protocols as distilled by Jim and Michelle McCarthy out of their experience leading a team of 150 developers and their subsequent research into high performing teams.

The Core is a set of protocols that govern interactions within a team. Overwhelming at first, they do work and besides creating a high-performance team quicker than you’d believe possible, they have the added advantage of creating a common language for all teams. This means that moving from one team to another becomes that much easier because the rules of engagement are the same.

Lights, Camera, Action!

Anybody familiar with the Agile Manifesto is familiar with the principle:

“The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”

In-person conversation conveys a lot more information than just what’s being said. We are social animals and pick up a lot more from nonverbal cues than from the verbal ones.

But you have to remember that the Agile Manifesto was written and signed in 2001, three years before online audio and video calls took off with applications such as Skype. And takeoff wasn’t exactly a rocket launch. As with any other new technology, it took quite a while before it became mainstream.

So, you can take that face-to-face conversation principle more as being a vote against nonvisual forms of communication, such as telephone conversations, memos (oh the horror), or email.

Sure, nothing beats real live in-person conversation. But video (conference) calls come extremely close. You get almost as much nonverbal communication as you would with everyone sitting down at a conference table or at their desks.

What You Can Do

Having your camera on may feel awkward at first. Many people don’t like it. But you simply can’t do without it. Believe me, I’ve been there. I’ve had to work with remote team members prohibited from using video because of bandwidth issues. It was…inadequate, to put it nicely.

If you or your team members feel uncomfortable having a camera on them, just bear in mind (and remind them) that it becomes a nonissue pretty quickly (people even forget having an entire camera crew following them around), and no one sees more than they would in-person!

So, insist on a “video always on” policy, and set the example by always showing up with your camera on.

Time Zone Etiquette

If your team is spread over multiple time zones and the time difference is more than a few hours, you will need to establish some boundaries.

  • If at all possible, find a time slot that is within normal working hours for everyone, and use that for important meetings.

  • Shift the timing of regular meetings so everyone gets their fair share of blessing and burden of attending them in or outside of normal working hours.

  • Be mindful of what time it is for the person you’re trying to reach. It may be the middle of the afternoon for you but the middle of the night for them.

  • Get your team to decide until what local time it’s okay to use the phone or another intrusive method of reaching each other.

  • Greet someone using their time of day. It’s a tiny effort that goes a long way to show respect and sensitivity to someone’s circumstances.

More Communication Best Practices for Remote Teams

You can do a lot more to promote good communication in your team. Much of it applies to co-located teams as well, but you can do without them because of the ease with which you can call impromptu meetings.

  • Schedule daily check-ins and weekly accountability meetings.

  • Give your team (and yourself) multiple methods of communicating. Phone calls, team chat apps with channels dedicated to specific topics, video conferencing, and e-mail. Look for ones available on both laptops and smartphones.

  • Agree with your team on which kinds of messages go where. For example, team-wide announcements go in the announcement channel on the team chat app. This helps team members to quickly get up to speed when they return to work and keeps them available for new hires.

  • Communicate a lot, but don’t carpet-bomb anyone. You don’t want to ask a question via email, a DM in your team-chat app, and an IM. Or send an email and then ask via DM whether they received it.

  • Respect everyone’s work-life balance. Agree with co-workers on until what time it’s acceptable to send messages and expect a response. When your team is spread across time zones, be mindful of those, especially with intrusive methods like phone calls.

  • Keep people in the loop. Record team meetings for those who couldn’t attend. Record them even when everybody is attending. It relieves everyone from having to take notes!

  • Take facilitation seriously. Online meetings can be as good as in-person ones provided they are well-facilitated. And, facilitating an online meeting well poses extra challenges because many of the techniques used in in-person meetings are impossible. The Liberating Structures site is an extensive collection of facilitation techniques, and people like Judy Rees and Lisette Sutherland are doing great work researching and advocating online facilitation and collaboration tools and techniques.

How to Collaborate Effectively When Your Team Is Remote

When you are in the same space, collaboration can be as simple as sitting at a desk together and hashing out something together. A design, a presentation, a document, source code. If you can do it alone, you can do it together.

When you are in different locations, it becomes a little harder. Although video-conferencing tools do allow you to share your screen, drawing on a piece of paper doesn’t quite transfer to the online environment. Or does it?

You’d be surprised at how many tools exist that support online collaboration: working with multiple people on the same document, whether that is a piece of text, a drawing, or source code.

Think you can’t brainstorm or do a retrospective online because you need stickies and sharpies? Think again. There are plenty of online tools that facilitate retrospectives and give everyone on your team space to place stickies, write on a virtual whiteboard, and more.

As you can see, collaborating in a remote team takes a lot of tools, and it can be a challenge to keep everything organized and synced. When it comes to software releases and task and project management, Plutora is your “go to” solution. It integrates all your favorite software development tools. What’s more, it keeps everyone on the same page with their features for remote teams.

How to Create and Maintain Social Connection When You’re Apart

A distributed team doesn’t run into each other and doesn’t have a break room. Team members can’t spontaneously goof off, throw a birthday party, or celebrate major and minor achievements.

Or can they?

Of course, they can, although I’ll admit that spontaneity can be a little harder. After all, shouting across an office floor works much better than shouting in a team chat channel.

  • Having coffee, lunch, and dinner together is totally an option. Okay, everyone will have to bring their own food, but nothing’s stopping you from using video conferencing to break bread together. And time zones don’t need to be an obstacle. I’ve had dinner with people in Canada, while they, of course, were having lunch.

  • Prefer working in the company of others to feel connected? What’s stopping you from pairing up and both of you keeping video and audio on? Lisette Sutherland has been doing this for years. Teams spread over multiple offices can also use monitors and webcams with audio on to provide a look into and listen to what’s going on at each other’s locations.

  • Have meetings specifically to have fun as a team. All business and no play never got anyone to stay. Ever been to a virtual dance party? Pick someone as the DJ, start your video meeting, and rock away.

  • Have a virtual office like Sococo. I’ve used it for an online conference, and it gave attendees an opportunity to socialize when not attending presentations. Sococo allows teams to see who’s in at a glance, knock on doors to start a conversation, hang out in a break room, and more.

  • Announce when you’re about to head out, for example, to visit a client, and invite anyone who feels like it to join you for a call while you’re on the move. It adds a bit of serendipity to your social contacts.

And Yes, Do Meet in Person, or Not Quite

Another key factor is to ensure that your team does get in-person time at least once or twice a year.

Just bear in mind that you will have to do a lot more. Meaningful connections don’t happen automatically, and in-person meetings can and do fall flat on their faces.

So, find ways to create shared experiences and build rapport throughout the year. You can do this with online shared activities and by sharing separate experiences around a common theme. That’s a great way to “get together” without getting together in person and having to fork out big sums of money for travel.

The people at Trello have found a great way to do that with “choose-your-own” company adventures.

I’ll bet that your colleagues and team can come up with a ton of similar ideas when prompted. Because, as any designer will tell you, constraints do not limit, but actually stimulate creativity. Just keep asking, “Given these constraints, how can we make it work?”

And, of course, you can always take inspiration from the many companies that have made fully remote teams work for them.

As Everything Changes, Everything Stays the Same

You made it.

Kudos to you. You’ve taken in a lot of information.

Most importantly, you know that you’ve got this.

You now know that the key to managing remote teams is to keep doing what savvy managers do to help their teams be successful: work on trust, foster communication, establish boundaries, get your team to agree on how they want to interact and work together, to name a few.

You also have a slew of new tricks and tools up your sleeve to virtually reduce the physical distance and help your team do exactly what a successful team does: collaborate, communicate, build connections, grow trust, and thrive.

So go check them out.

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