3 Tips for Overcoming Remote Team Leadership Challenges

3 Tips for overcoming the challenges of being a manager in a remote team

This post is part of the “Remote Work Month” series on our blog. In it, Whitney Yadrich talks about the challenges of being a manager of a remote team and how to overcome them.

As a Team Lead at 10up, a distributed agency focused on content management, I am frequently asked what it’s like to work remotely. If you haven’t worked on a distributed team before, the reality is: it’s a lot like working in an office, except the commute is shorter.

In Tina Fey’s book Bossypants, she says, “In most cases being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way…. Contrary to what I believed as a little girl, being the boss almost never involves marching around, waving your arms, and chanting, ‘I am the boss! I am the boss!’”

My team was hired because they’re good at what they do; maybe the best at what they do, since geography was removed from the qualifying process. I was hired for that same reason. So, we lean on each other to turn our geographically scattered group of talented individuals into a collaborative, unified team.

That said, it takes more than good intentions to succeed. 10up empowers us with a set of well-defined processes and tools to keep everyone on the path to success, and the following tips can help you overcome remote team leadership challenges:

3 Tips on how to overcome the challenges of being a leader in a remote team Click To Tweet

Create a distraction-free workspace.

Your workspace, whether a cubicle or a guest bedroom with a tiny, adorable dog at your feet, should be a focused, stable working environment, enabling you to “close the door” on distractions. And while I can work from anywhere in the world, I’m most successful (as are my teammates) when working from an established home base with reliable wifi and ample privacy. I’ve created a structured home office: a workspace that keeps me focused and productive throughout the day. While I may find myself tackling tasks at the local coffee shop periodically, an organized home office always sets the stage for remote success. And when my team sees me working in an established, distraction-free environment, they are likely to do the same.

Communicate well. Communicate often.

Zoom | 3 Tips for overcoming the challenges of being a manager in a remote team

“But since you work from home, don’t you miss seeing your team?” The answer is: I see my team everyday thanks to video conferencing. We use Zoom for face-to-face interaction as much as possible. If a talking point is longer than a tweet, it’s often easier to set up a video call and work through challenges verbally. Even though some days consist of back-to-back meetings with my team, it’s important to always look presentable on video calls (at least from the waist up).

My philosophy is video for communication; chat and email for confirmation.

Email is an effective communication tool to document those important “boss” announcements like process changes and company directives. It’s also a beneficial way for team members in other time zones to keep track of correspondence. If the email I’m sending isn’t urgent, I often use “Don’t Read This Until Tomorrow” in the subject line. That way, team members don’t feel obligated to respond after hours, which helps establish a healthy work/life balance.

HipChat | 3 Tips for overcoming the challenges of being a manager in a remote team

Our most used method for communication is HipChat: a chat service that acts as our virtual office space, helping us feel connected as a team while keeping us productive. We use it daily to facilitate quick conversations between individuals (1:1 chats) and groups (mini chat rooms dedicated to specific projects or hobbies), securely share links and files (and the occasional, amazingly well-timed animated GIF).

To keep all projects on time and on budget, we use Basecamp and JIRA for task management. Each tool is connected to Harvest, an online time/budget tracking tool. At any point during the day, I can run a Harvest report to see how my team’s time and project budgets are being spent. I also manage a Google Sheet (one of the many useful tools within Google Apps that we rely on daily) that details individual projects, weekly budgets, and key priorities. This is usually filled out before the weekend, so that people in other time zones can begin their workweek without blockers (me), and access key project direction from one place.

I also keep a simple private blog. In addition to our company-wide internal blog, we also have an individual team blog where we share announcements, how-to’s, and other fun information that doesn’t necessarily relate to all 125+ employees in the company. So when I hear “Whitney, I forgot how to track time in [insert situation]” I simply send a link to a particular blog post explaining that process.

Establish and nurture relationships.

Employees tend to stay with companies longer when they mesh well with their co-workers and feel connected. In a distributed environment, the importance of a good group dynamic cannot be understated. When the quality of intra-team relationships are high, so is the quality of our work.

At 10up, we prioritize weekly one-on-one video check-ins between employees and their direct managers. It’s an effective way to regularly review tasks, identify and solve challenges, provide consistent and timely feedback, and build relationships. We also have weekly pod meetings between myself and all of my direct reports, which gives us time to collectively learn, distribute (and discuss) company news, and socialize.

In a distributed workforce, “company culture” isn’t something that can be forced upon a team, especially when they can silence you with the press of a power button. It can only be encouraged, and as the group leader, it starts with me. I am always conscious of celebrating our differences, addressing our conflicts, embracing our similarities, and understanding each other’s boundaries.

It helps to remember that the people “inside your computer” are real humans; take time to learn more about them. Every year, 10up organizes social meetups for individual teams, plus a full company summit, to connect with peers offline and strengthen relationships. During 10up’s annual team meetup last year, I made vegan pancakes with Bisquick and “veganaise” for one of our Senior Web Engineers. I also know that one of my team members just painted his unborn child’s nursery, while another is growing potatoes and jalapenos in his backyard.

Hiring talented people is just the “first part”. The tools and processes available to me are the means by which I can set them up for success and build enduring relationships. Once the stage is set, I work alongside them, continually supporting and validating their progress, while showing I trust them to produce quality work, as they have grown to trust in me.

If you’ve liked this post, you may also enjoy Belle Beth Cooper’s take on how to overcome the most commonly overlooked problems that bring remote teams down.