In many ways, managing remote employees is just like on-site management. Your job is to nurture, guide, and support your employees – and if you do your job right, both the organization and the people on your team grow.
However, while you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, there are a couple key techniques that are specific to remote management. To learn how to supervise across time zones and even cultures, check out my six major tips.6 major tips on how to manage remote employees Click To Tweet
1. Use different communication methods strategically
Since it’s so easy to miscommunicate when you’re not physically in the room with someone, make sure every interaction you have with your reports is delivered on the right platform.
Here’s a general guide to which medium works for which purposes:
- Email: short, neutral exchanges of information
- Chat: informal talk; group discussions; general announcements
- Skype: long, detailed, or potentially difficult conversations
- Phone: long, detailed, or potentially difficult conversations (if you can’t Skype)
Wondering what the rationale for my system is? Email is most vulnerable to being misinterpreted since you’re missing all the context from tone-of-voice, body language, and facial expressions. So, you want to reserve email communication for objective discussions.
Chat platforms are every remote team’s best friend. You should use them to share general news (more efficient than sending a mass email and then getting individual replies), talking about stuff as a group, and socializing and getting to know each other (more on that in a bit).
When you’re about to have a fairly in-depth, lengthy, or emotional meeting, you should always turn to Skype. It’s far more productive to video-chat with your employees for 45 minutes than type messages back and forth for two hours. And if you’re giving someone critical feedback or bad news, having that face-to-face element (which feels warmer and more human) is vital.
When you can’t video chat, for whatever reason, calling someone is your second-best option. You can’t see their face, but at least you can hear them.
It can also be helpful to run your messages through a tone analysis tool, like the Tone Analyzer. This app will warn you if you sound rude, curt, or annoyed.
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2. Promote internal bonding
Does your team have watercooler moments? By that, I mean spontaneous conversations between co-workers about random (usually non-work-related) topics. These are far from a waste of time; on the contrary, they help synchronize the team, defuse messages and ideas across the organization, and can even jump-start some super productive discussions.
Watercooler moments tend to happen naturally at traditional offices, where employees can gather in a break room, office kitchen, eating area, and so forth. As the manager of a remote team, it’s important that you drive these watercooler moments–or they probably won’t happen.
If you have a Slack, Basecamp, or HipChat account, start or encourage a couple “fun” channels, from #random to #currently-binging-on-Netflix. If these channels are slow, try to catalyze some activity.
In addition, schedule time during meetings for team members to talk about personal stuff – maybe everyone shares a detail about their day or mentions a small triumph from the last week, etc.
Knowledge sharing sessions are another fantastic way to promote internal bonding. Does one of your workers know a ton about wine? Have her give a short presentation on how to choose your next bottle. Is a different employee a master at calligraphy? Ask him for a 15-minute intro.
These demos will allow your employees to share their passions with each other, generating lots of relationship-building conversations. Plus, they’ll send the message that you care about your employees as people, not just sources of profit.
3. Set clear expectations
Remote work, by definition, is far less structured than on-site work. And while that has huge bonuses, it also means that you’re going to need to provide more structured expectations.
Ideally, the first in-depth discussion about what you’re looking for would take place during onboarding. But these discussions should continue throughout each employee’s tenure–anywhere from once a month to once a week.
Each team member should have no doubts about:
- What he or she is supposed to accomplish in the next week
- More broadly, his or her general goals for the next one to three months
- Which tasks or projects he or she owns
- Whom to go to with issues
- How many hours per week he or she is expected to work (if applicable)
- How much work he or she is expected to complete each week (if applicable)
- Your level of availability (when, where, and how he or she can reach you)
- His or her requisite level of availability
If you don’t feel confident that your employees do know all of this information, either consider scheduling more frequent check-ins or identify the “information gap” (are you not being transparent enough? Are your expectations still unclear?)
4. Define the “Why”
In a remote environment, it’s easy to feel isolated. As a manager, you’re very aware of how each person’s work is building towards a long-term goal, but your employees don’t have the benefit of this bird’s-eye view.
The fix is simple. Tell them how their individual tasks and projects map to the organization’s objectives.Tell your #remote workers how their individual tasks and projects map to the organization's objectives. Click To Tweet
For example, when asking your copywriter to rewrite the company’s “Pricing” page, you might say, “We’ve seen this page’s conversion rate drop significantly in the last month – we need your skills to get people buying again.”
Once he or she is finished, make the connection again with something along the lines of, “Awesome job. This page is so important to our bottom line; your talent with words will hopefully motivate potential customers and spike the needle.”
You can also use Trello to literally write out your team’s big goals, then place individual assignments underneath.
To give you an idea, a high-level goal could be: “Increase monthly referrals by 20%.” A corresponding assignment could be “Call customers who gave us a five-star rating and ask for a referral,” assigned to one of your salespeople.
Visually seeing the link between what they’re doing remotely and the progress of the business will have a hugely positive impact on your employees.
5. Track progress
On a related note, you should implement a structured and consistent method for tracking progress – both for individual workers and the team as a whole.
Unsurprisingly, we like using our remote worker software (there are many options available) to do this, as it allows us to automate a large portion of the process and focus on getting things done. But there are many other ways to deal with this.
For example, you can also ask everyone to send you a daily three-bullet summary of their completed tasks. You can even automate this process with a product like IDoneThis: it gathers your team members’ replies to “What did you get done today?” and puts them in a handy report for everyone to read.
Alternatively, have people send in a short screencast of what they accomplished. This practice is quick, easy, and often more effective than trying to explain something in writing.
If you want to be really informal about it, considering having a channel or room on your chat platform dedicated to tracking everyone’s progress. Imagine one of your developers just finished finding and getting rid of some redundant CSS on your site. She goes to the “Completed” thread, writes up what she did, and tags you (and anyone else who’s involved.)
Not only will this serve as an invaluable archive of what’s getting completed, but it’s also a great way to give employees a sense of public recognition.
No matter what time tracker you choose, the burden should always be on the employee to get it done–not you.
There are two reasons for this. Your employees want freedom and independence (which you know because they’ve chosen to work remotely). So, by asking them to take the responsibility for measuring their progress, you’re empowering them.
The second reason is purely pragmatic. As a manager or founder, you’ve got a ton of other things fighting for your attention and energy. You need to focus on the processes that absolutely can’t happen without you.
(Of course, you should still be active in responding to progress with feedback, advice, and further directions.)
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6. Be transparent
To improve the speed and quality of decision-making, you should strive to be as transparent as possible with your team members. The more they know, the easier it will be for them to act autonomously.
First, consider having regular “town hall” meetings with your reports to discuss the status of the company, pending decisions, any recent changes, revenue and financial updates, and so forth. These types of meetings can make managers nervous – after all, traditionally companies don’t give their workers any “non-essential” news. But the benefits of being open far outweigh any potentially negative consequences.
Second, put your conversations out into the open. Giving all of your team members access to the same information improves their ability to think and act as a single unit (which is especially critical considering they’re distributed). It also means you won’t face unnecessary bottlenecks.
For example, let’s say one team member asks you to clarify a project detail. If you reply via email, he or she’s the only one who can benefit from the answer. If, however, you use a team-wide platform everyone will be more informed.
The last tip is simply: Be honest! When you’re speaking with your team members, strive to be as authentic and candid as you can.
Feel free to ask questions or let us know your favorite tips for managing remote employees in the comments below.