While many things in the business world are unknown today, one thing is certain: Remote work is here to stay. Yet leading a remote team is not as straightforward as simply setting up a few Zoom meetings. Successfully managing a remote team requires a creative mix of fundamentals and out-of-the-box thinking.

The trend toward remote work has been building for many years, long before COVID-19 made it a necessity. And the rapid development of effective online communication and project management tools has made remote teams both possible and practical.

At the same time, managing a fully remote team entails challenges that make traditional management tasks more difficult. We offer some guidelines to avoid common pitfalls and maximize creative techniques for successfully leading a remote team. 

The Importance of a Flexible Management Style

When it comes to successfully leading a remote team, flexibility and creativity are paramount.

In some instances, techniques for managing an in-person team may translate fairly easily to managing a remote team. For instance, weekly one-on-one check-ins with your team members can be just as fruitful over videoconference as they are in person.

Other times — especially in times of uncertainty — tried-and-true management methods may not translate successfully to a remote setting. A manager concerned about productivity in a remote setting may unintentionally undermine that productivity, as well as the trust of their team, if their management techniques are perceived by team members as micromanaging.

A successful leader won’t be afraid to respond to warning indicators and feedback from team members by trying out new, less-traditional management techniques that may prove more effective for a fully remote team.

Here are just a few quick examples of ways in which you can adapt your management style to meet the changing needs of your remote team. For example:

  • If your team seems to be struggling to stay motivated, consider fostering a check-in culture. Schedule short, daily check-ins. Create multiple chat rooms where your team can socialize. And encourage your team members to check in with each other as well. 
  • If you are used to closely following your team’s day-to-day workflow, focus on results instead of activities. Breaking down projects and tasks into smaller, more frequent deliverables will enable you to track progress without micromanaging.
  • If your team seems to be struggling to stay motivated, consider increasing the number of check ins. Schedule short, daily check-ins. Create multiple chat rooms where your team can socialize. And encourage your team members to check in with each other as well. 
  • If your team is experiencing “Zoom fatigue,” set aside meeting-free times. Devoting blocks of time — for example, Friday afternoons or every day from noon to 2pm — can give your team time to focus on their deliverables without interruption.
  • If members of your team are suddenly missing key deliverables or deadlines, address performance issues proactively instead of waiting for a cyclical review cycle. And allow your employee space to explain unexpected issues, professional or personal, that may be undermining performance.

Long-term success may require trying out several different ideas, as well as scaling techniques up and down frequently, to discover the methods that work best for you and your team.

Relationships still matter

While there are many benefits of remote work, working from home has drawbacks as well. According to a recent study by Harvard Business Review, lack of interpersonal interactions with co-workers has been one of the most problematic outcomes of the COVID-19 shutdown.

The antidote, according to Margaret Andrews, an instructor at Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education, is to invest in relationships. As she notes, “social time is not wasted time.”

When we’re working remotely, we don’t have chance encounters while waiting for the elevator, walking to the parking lot, getting coffee, or getting to the meeting room early—so when we’re working remotely, we need to build in time to build relationships, to really get to know other people beyond what they say in a meetings.

Margaret Andrews

Managers must think strategically about how to build interpersonal connections into the day-to-day rhythm of the remote team. 

Andrews suggests starting with a three-fold approach:

  1. Schedule regular one-on-one meetings with your direct reports that allow you to check in, both personally and professionally. Be sure to listen carefully for signals that they might be coping with stressors (either personal or work-related) that may not be immediately obvious. 
  2. Conduct regular weekly team meetings that begin with a few minutes of time to socialize and catch up. For newer teams, focused relationship-building activities can help the team get to know each other.
  3. Facilitate remote social events to promote and encourage teamwork and interpersonal connections. Virtual happy hours, birthday celebrations, book clubs, and game nights can help your team build those critical relationships from the comfort of their home office.

Communication is Key

Developing effective communication skills is always a critical part of a successful management strategy. Yet adapting your communication skills can be a major challenge to managing a virtual team.

The good news is that there are a plethora of highly effective tools to help you facilitate remote communication techniques. The first step is defining the needs of your team and selecting — and tailoring — the right tools to meet those needs.

An often overlooked—yet potentially more critical — step is documenting and enforcing how each of those tools should be used.

Be sure your team knows what types of conversations are more appropriate for instant message, email, or videoconference.

It’s also important to document the process for managing and communicating workflows to avoid excessive commitments that can overwhelm your team.   

All members of an organization should understand how tasks are generated, assigned, communicated, and prioritized. An agile project management software should help you facilitate this process by allowing a shared visualization of the workflow across projects and teams.

Empowering your team to communicate openly about their commitments and to flag conflicts gives you time to step in before they become overwhelmed.

An equally overlooked communication challenge for remote teams is ensuring that all voices are heard.

For Andrews, this means making sure that everyone speaks and contributes in team meetings.

The whole point of a team — and a team meeting — is to get unique information and perspectives from each member of the team. If some people are not talking during the meeting, or only minimally contributing (e.g., agreeing, acknowledging), you don’t really know what they’re thinking.
Make it a norm that everyone speaks, everyone participates. Ask open-ended questions that encourage more expansive answers. Have people play ‘devil’s advocate’ (i.e., argue against an idea). Make sure everyone is active, participating, and contributing.

Margaret Andrews

Setting Expectations for Success

The bottom line is that your success leading a remote team lies in your ability to clearly and creatively define and communicate your expectations.

Be clear about your definition of success.

Your team will respond positively if your expectations are realistic and clearly defined, especially during times of uncertainty.

Conversely, constantly changing your definition of success or frequently and unexpectedly raising your expectations can easily undermine morale and diminish productivity. 

Define — and model — the appropriate work-life balance.

When working from home, it can be difficult for both yourself and your team to know when work ends and private time begins. And the ubiquity of cell phones and instant communication tools adds to the inability to truly disconnect. 

A successful manager will clearly delineate a framework around an appropriate work-life balance — such as noting an acceptable range of working hours and response times — and then stick to that framework themselves.

Celebrate your team’s successes!

Even if you can’t take your team out for a celebratory lunch, you can still find ways to make your remote team feel appreciated. For instance, a company-wide “press release” or some other public recognition of an important milestone will go a long way to boost your team’s confidence and morale.

Thinking creatively about how to communicate and celebrate your remote team’s successes will help you inspire their confidence and build their trust.