How To Manage Remote Work And Distributed Teams


If you’re going to get to grips with remote work as a manager, then it’s a good idea to understand the major differences between office-based teams and distributed teams. The good news is that it’s not harder to manage like this; it’s just different.

So, let’s take a look at the key points of how to manage remote work and distributed teams including outputs not inputs, defined work structure, structured meetings, device independence, effective communication tools, don’t use e-mail, define expectations, hire and onboard well, trust people, set clear boundaries, have some face time and make time zones work for you.

Start By Thinking About Outputs Not Inputs

 

You can’t begin managing a remote team while obsessing about hours put in at the coalface. That ends at the office door and to be fair, good riddance to it. Unless you enjoy being a glorified timeclock – then monitoring people’s hours is pretty much the most childish job in business.

However, you do need to be able to manage your team’s workload and ensure that stuff is getting done and that means focusing on what really matters – the work products that they create each day.

You want to ensure that you understand who will deliver what and when and hold them both accountable and responsible for getting the job done.

Define The Way You Want To Work Together

 

It’s a good idea to begin the way you intend to continue and that means if you have a clear plan for your remote work team, you can communicate that plan and help your team to support you in executing that plan.

We’d take a look at the following ideas:

  • What size is the team going to be? It’s worth remembering that whenever you have more than 7 direct reports, it becomes much harder to manage workload. So, maybe you need some supervisory help?
  • Will everyone work remotely (a distributed team) or just some people (a remote team)? Why will the people in the office need to be in the office?
  • Will you implement core hours of work, so that people can communicate with each other?
  • What kind of communication tools will you use to facilitate co-operative work? Slack seems to be the de facto standard now but there are other options from VOIP clients to Trello.
  • What sorts of meetings will you hold on a regular basis? What agenda do you want to use for these?
  • What are the outputs and performance measures that you intend to use to guide and drive the team?

It’s really useful to turn the answers into some sort of written document (or, to be fair, you might consider making a video presentation too). Then make that document available to everyone in the team at all times.

It’s much harder for people to wriggle out of what’s needed when you make it clear and they can refer to your documentation at any time.

Develop Structured Meetings

 

We know we touched on this in the last point, but you really do need to help people stay connected when they’re working remotely.

We’ve found that for some people a daily meeting is essential, and we’ve never known a distributed team that worked well without at least a weekly meeting.

Video conferencing solutions are best for meetings within remote teams – that way everybody remembers they’re dealing with real people and not faceless typing entities.

However, you need a structured agenda to make these meetings useful – you can’t just expect people to show up and wing it. Or very soon, people will stop showing up.

Make Meetings Available On Any Device

 

It’s no longer the age of the desktop in the office and people are going to want to access your meetings on everything from a smartwatch in the gym to their tablet at the coffee shop to their desktop at home.

Your objective is to try and deliver the same experience across all devices when you choose your meeting software.

Choose The Most Effective Tools For Communication

 

There are so many tools out there that can help you with communicating in a remote team, don’t implement them all but do choose as many as you need to get the job done effectively without overwhelming your team.

Think:

  • Instant messaging: Slack, Skype, Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, etc.
  • Storage solutions: DropBox, One Drive, GoogleDrive, etc.
  • Project management: Trello, Basecamp, Asana, etc.
  • Video Conferencing: Skype, Join.me, etc.
  • Calendars: Outlook, Google, etc.

There are plenty more categories to choose from depending on what you do as a team. It’s a good idea to solicit input from the team if you have the room to choose the solutions – they may know something you don’t about their usefulness.

E-Mail = Poor Team Communication

 

E-mail is still fine for communicating formally with clients and suppliers but it’s too slow and too formal for use within a distributed team. You can’t rely on people reading e-mails (particularly as their inbox overflows) and that means you want to focus on using the chosen communication tools for your project, instead.

Slack communication, for example, is instant and you can tell when things have been read and responded to at a glance. Documents can be passed around easily in Slack too – no need to mail them.

Set Out Your Expectations And Be Fair And Realistic

 

Yes, it’s true that remote employees are often more productive than office workers. That doesn’t mean that you can double someone’s workload if they work from home, though.

It is important to effectively agree with the person doing the work, what needs to be done and when it must be done by.

You want to check carefully for understanding (it’s very easy for people to say “I get it” when they don’t and when you can’t see them).

Once people know what’s expected of them, it’s fine to hold them to your expectations too – just as you would if they were in the office with you.

Hire The Right People And Onboard Them Well

 

In fairness, this is easier said than done. There are no “super interview or recruiting” tricks for remote teams. The best you can do is seek people with a track record of getting work done remotely and hope for the best.

However, you can onboard people with the right expectations of what needs to be done and train them in best practices for your team. This gives you the greatest chance of a person succeeding within your remote environment.

Trust People To Get Things Done

 

Micromanaging sucks in the office and remotely it’s the kiss of death for a working relationship. Every time that you get a slack notification it interrupts your workflow.

However, while you should trust people to get stuff done – it’s also OK to occasionally drop by unannounced in a virtual sense, of course, and see how they are getting on.

If someone’s feeling stuck they may not volunteer this information but could feel obliged to mention it if you ask directly if there’s anything they need help with.

Be Clear About Where Work Ends And Leisure Begins

 

The only way a remote team can function effectively is if they know it’s OK to log off and enjoy the rest of their lives. By all means, keep a core set of hours where people have to be online but don’t start hassling people 3 hours after those hours have finished and expect an instant response.

You have to be fair to people, they have to do their jobs and should not have to be available every time you want them to be.

Get Some Occasional Face Time

 

In real life, not over video chats. It’s OK for a team to work remotely for weeks or months at a time but every now and again bring them together and let them see that they are all real and all valuable as human beings.

It doesn’t even have to be in the office. Why not arrange an away day or a nice meal out? If you can time it with celebrating someone’s birthday or a big win – all the better.

Make Time Zones Work For You

 

If someone is in a different time zone, work with that to gain some additional flexibility in the way the team operates. Try not to drag them out of bed at 2 a.m. for a team call. That’s working against them, instead.

Conclusion

 

Managing a remote team is challenging but not as difficult as it might seem at first. If you use our 12 tips above you should find that you manage your remote work arrangements very effectively, indeed.

Nicholas Barang

Nicholas Barang is a veteran digital nomad. In fact, he was probably "digital nomading" before it was called that. He believes that anyone can make a free and independent life if they want to. He wants to help those who commit to finding their own path. And to cut through the nonsense told about this "lifestyle" by those in search of a quick buck. If you want to reach him you can send him an e-mail at nicholasbarang@gmail.com or to nick at nomadtalk.net.

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