Managing Teams Remotely: Was It Ever a Choice?

Before we get into the details of managing a remote team, the world that we’ve lived in since March 2020 means remote working has been forced upon us all – whether we like it or not. Most companies expected this shift to last only a few months and, as we know, this wasn’t the case.

What started as a temporary shift became far more permanent, with many companies embracing remote working and going remote first. More recently, we’ve seen some larger companies ​pushing back​ against this and insist that employees ​return to the office​ at least a couple of days a week.

Either way, developing your skills in remote team management is going to be valuable, no matter what type of company you currently work for. Even if you work for an office based company at the moment, you may not always be working there and are probably going to need to manage people who you don’t work next to physically every day.

We also shouldn’t forget that there are many companies that have been fully remote for many years already, so there is definitely precedent and examples of how to do things well. At the same time, they chose to be remote from day one, which enables a very different working environment and culture than the one the pandemic forced upon most other companies and workers.

Because of the pandemic, there are now broadly three types of workers:

  • Those who love remote working and are very suited to it, meaning that they enjoy it and perform well. It’s likely that even if their workplace mandates going back to the office, they’d leave and find another role.
  • Those who hate remote working and struggle with it. These people may have performed well but struggled with the transition for whatever reason and are looking to work in the office environment again as soon as possible.
  • Those who are somewhere in the middle, having adapted well to remote working but in the medium to long term, would like to split their time between remote and office working.

Knowing roughly where you and your team sit across this spectrum is really important because it will dictate how you manage them. Managing a remote worker who wants to be remote and already has the mindset and environment to succeed is very different to managing a remote worker who is counting down the days until they are back in the office.

Therefore, the first step in ensuring that you’re managing remote team members effectively is to have an open and honest conversation about their relationship with remote working. You can probably gauge what to expect (and therefore, prepare better) by looking at their history of working with the company.

For example, if you hired someone explicitly as a remote worker and they live nowhere near your offices, it’s probably fair to assume they aren’t too worried about spending time in a proper office regularly. Otherwise, they’d probably have applied for a role at a company that is far more local to them.

During this conversation, seek to understand a few things:

  • How do they find remote working? Do they enjoy it? Hate it? Somewhere in the middle?
  • Do they have the environment they need to work effectively at home? Is there anything they, you or the company can do to make things better?
  • Is communication between colleagues and across the company effective for them? Do they have all the information they need to perform well in their roles?

The answers to these questions can help you cater to their needs as a manager and ensure that you’re doing all that you can to make sure they can do their jobs effectively.

If someone is working remotely because of the pandemic, but still isn’t comfortable with it and wants to return to the office, then the conversation is likely to go deeper and explore more ways that you can support them. You should also escalate these instances to senior management so they can seek to understand how widespread this view is within the wider company.

Remote management vs. face-to-face management – what’s the difference?

The fundamentals of being an effective manager and leader are no different when you’re managing a team remotely compared to face-to-face. Of course, some things become more important and should be considered, but very little changes in terms of the fundamentals.

The aspects of being an effective manager are just as relevant to you whether you’re a remote first worker or office first worker.

Whilst there are very limited material differences in being an effective manager, there are some key areas that you should take more time to focus on when managing a remote team.

In summary, they are:

  • Building trust. This can be a little harder without time, face-to-face, particularly when social events and personal conversations/general chit chat are harder and less serendipitous. It’s also far easier to feel ​micromanaged​ by someone when trust isn’t as strong.
  • Communication. Written ​communication​ becomes even more important to get right because it can often replace that random, ad hoc 30-second conversation and is devoid of tone or context.
  • Performance outputs vs. time spent. Managing a remote team naturally means that you can’t ‘see’ someone working. Whereas in an office, many managers will feel that they can trust that someone is working hard because they can see them and are on the premises. Therefore, focusing on the outputs of someone’s work is key and very important to driving productivity in your remote team.
  • Creating the right environment. Companies spend billions (or, at least they used to!) on kitting out fancy offices to not only attract talent but also to ensure that their team could want for nothing and have a great office environment to deliver their best work. The same level of focus and investment needs to be put into the remote environment too.

Even if you’re reading this and currently manage all of your team face to face, these four aspects of being an effective manager are still really important to you. But if you’re reading this and are currently managing remote team members, take some time to think about these four aspects a little more than usual and think how you can do a better job with each of them.

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