A recent virus (heard of it?) accelerated a well-established — but gradual — trend towards remote teams.
What used to be the future is a sudden, present necessity to which some companies are still trying to adjust.
Fortunately, the path to good remote team management is fairly well beaten.
Just ask our team! From a couple building a bit of software together in our home (with one virtual assistant), we’ve grown to a remote team of two dozen developers, support staff, creatives, and marketers across four continents.
I’ve been writing plenty about what it’s like to be on a remote team, but for those managing one — you can do this, too.
Here are a few general principles that apply to any business running remotely, learned over several years’ worth of triumphs and failures. One theme runs through it all: trusting and empowering the people you can’t see.
Let Go Of The Wheel
"Working at WebinarNinja, you feel one thing above all: trusted. The founders and team leaders have no interest in micromanagement. You can apply your talents and passion knowing that you are trusted to contribute your best work, your best way." - Conor, Copywriter
There are managers who still cling to the notion of “monitoring” employees physically, as if proximity affects productivity.
While the efficacy of this approach was always debatable at best, it’s not even a remote possibility (see what I did there?) for a location-independent team.
Early on, we learned a great deal from Remote: Office Not Required, by the founders of our favorite remote team management tool, Basecamp. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson helped pioneer the notion that intense oversight is wasted effort. Instead, the remote manager’s job is to verify results, not monitor progress.
To put it more bluntly, all that really matters is what’s produced, when. As for how, it’s irrelevant, unless there’s some serious lack of efficiency that your systems (more on those below) didn’t anticipate.
Whatever happens between the assignment and the result mostly doesn’t matter.
This approach is empowering; it sees employees as adults capable of self-management, and allows the self-motivated to flourish. It’s democratic, optimistic, and way less stressful.
Divide to Unite
“Even though we’re a remote team from all parts of the world, it feels like we’re all together in one office. Communication between everyone is very clear...we all handle our tasks effectively.” - James, Developer
“Even though we belong to different teams it's very clear that we are all united in achieving our common goals.” - Irina, UX/UI Designer
Splitting up the team and the work into the most bite-sized portions is essential.
This allows you to ensure that no one has to waste a second on anything that isn’t directly relevant to the tasks they’re trying to accomplish. This can seem a bit...regimented, at first, but you’ll find that it pays off once you establish a rhythm.
Key to this is a combination of good project management tools, and selective video conferencing.
We manage most projects on the aforementioned Basecamp, but our teams are free to utilize their preferred apps. For example, our content team uses Trello to manage blog posts and Buffer to manage the social media schedule, because that works for them — and that’s all we need to know.
We hold weekly video conferences with each sub-team (marketing, content, support, etc.), almost never for more than an hour. Once a month, we hold an “All Hands” conference, mostly just to sing each other’s praises for office-cultural reasons (more on that below).
Otherwise, each team operates in a fairly decentralized way, meeting as little or as often as they prefer, and tackling projects however they see fit.
We create mini-teams and set them free, checking in regularly to ensure the sausage is being made. The result is a million little projects happening in a self-contained, nearly self-regulating way, all adding up to a pretty efficient whole.
“Everyone knows their role, what to do and how to do it. You don't need to waste your time on things that are unnecessary — like having a lot of ineffective discussions about nothing 🙂 We have straight plans and goals and can focus on them with our great team.” - Evgeny, Developer
Every second your managers put into constructing self-sustaining systems multiplies the team's overall productivity.
Keeping your G Suite organized with assets easy to find, keeping written SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) for all regular tasks, and making sure everyone has the necessary permissions to execute their orders takes time — but it’s worth it.
It can feel daunting at first; a 10-minute task might take an hour to systematize. It’s a drag on the managers’ end, but the net gain in efficiency is undeniable. Ultimately, employees will step up and make suggestions for improving various systems, and that’s a good thing. But the managers have to establish a baseline. A great place to start: check out Venngage's remote policy templates.
To make doubly sure our employees don’t run into any “blockers” that would keep them from doing their work until the next time we interact, we use LastPass to give everyone access to company assets in a secure way.
Watch Your Words
"There is so much positive communication and cooperation, so much 'can do' attitude." - Irina, UX/UI Designer
"Everybody is nice and friendly. This makes a positive work environment." - Anna, Customer Support
"Everyone is approachable. I'm glad I can ask questions and get answers." - CJ, Customer Support Manager
Without a physical office, it takes a more intentional effort to establish and maintain anything resembling a culture. But culture is key to any team, remote or not.
Crucial to day-to-day office culture is command of your written language. Without all the micro-communicative benefits of in-person interaction, every word can be taken the wrong way. Text has a tone, intended or not. Pay attention to the phrasing of your emails, Slacks, and internal posts.
If you’re not making a conscious effort to avoid being terse or cold in your daily written communications, a frost can come over the team.
Nothing is more unnerving for employees than feeling like their managers are inscrutable, so be more scrutable than you think you have to be.
"The best thing about working at WebinarNinja is that your work is noticed and appreciated. Boosting team members' good work in front of the whole team gives us motivation and reminds us of how great the team is, even if we don't know each other personally." - Irena, Marketing
Sincerely expressed appreciation has a compound effect.
To ensure you’re getting the best from everyone, use your online forums to publicly celebrate every win, every creative solution, and every bit of initiative shown by employees. For people trusted to do their best without anyone physically looking over their shoulder, this can sow invaluable loyalty.
In looking over your messages to the team, you should see an abundance of gratitude, support, and appreciation. It may seem excessive, but when you’re not physically together, an “appreciation deficit” can develop in the absence of the offhand back-pats and commendations that last only seconds in real life, but have a long-term impact on morale.
If running a remote team is a new experience for you, the best advice we can offer is to think of it as one big trust fall. With systems in place, abundant communication, and a culture that keeps the right people around, you may find that what your team delivers from afar is even better than what they produce at the old-fashioned office.
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