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As more and more companies build remote teams, it's becoming increasingly important to know how to manage a remote workforce well.
Good news! Managing remote teams is not too different from managing in-person teams. Yes, you'll need to learn the specifics of leading remote workers but the core concepts of management remain intact.
A manager’s output = the output of their organization + the output of the neighboring organizations under their influence
While each company culture and remote work approach differs, this equation always remains true.
The most important thing to understand is that the individual work you do as a manager is not your output. If you have people reporting to you, your output is the output created by your team and associates.
Put another way, your job is to increase the output of your team and the teams you influence. In this article, we'll dive into the core management principles and practices you need to leverage to succeed in remote team management.
In this article, we'll dive into core management principles then we'll move our focus to remote-specific management practices.
1. Understand your output
As a manager of a distributed team, you must form opinions, make judgments, provide direction, allocate resources, and detect mistakes. These are not your output. Rather these are activities that can positively or negatively impact your team's output.
Think about it this way. You can increase your managerial productivity by increasing the speed at which you and your teamwork, improving the leverage of existing activities, or shifting the mix of activities from low to high leverage. One of the most common challenges of remote work is overworking, so always opt for increasing the ratio of output to activity over increasing activity itself.
Remember, as a manager your output is equal to the output of your organization + the neighboring organizations under your influence.
For example, if you're an engineering manager, you are primarily responsible for the pace of product development, releases, and bug fixes. You also have heavy influence on the output of product management, product needs engineering to build out their roadmap and customer support as many customers write in because of a flaw in the product.
Therefore, your output must be judged not only on the output of your team, but also product and customer support. The same is true for the team leaders of product and customer success.
Your output is also dictated by how many people you have on your team. The more output you have with fewer people, the higher your leverage.
Another way to think about this is hiring. You should only hire someone if they can be so productive that they raise the productivity of the entire team, or if they can act as a multiplier for everyone on your team. Either way, overall productivity should increase if you hire them.
Watch the video below to learn more about managerial leverage:
2. Set clear expectations
Managing any team–remote, in-person, or hybrid–starts with setting clear expectations. While each person has their own responsibilities based on their role, remote team members need a single source of truth to operate effectively.
Create a remote employee handbook. An employee handbook (or company handbook) is a written document outlining a company's mission, culture, core values, policies, procedures, teams, best practices, and any other information employees need to do their work.
While it may seem inefficient to spend time documenting everything ahead of time, the benefits of intentionally writing down your company's mission statement, processes, culture, and best practices are enormous.
If you've ever been asked the same question multiple times, you already understand and have a need for proper documentation. It's even more important when you're working in a distributed environment where everyone has differing work hours.
Ideally, a company with a remote-first attitude starts building its handbook from day one, using it to establish and write down its values to manage expectations on goals and working norms. Read our guide on the differences between remote-first and remote-friendly companies.
Creating a comprehensive handbook only becomes more difficult and more important as you scale. But don't worry if you haven't created one yet, the most important step is to start.
Committing to a handbook and instilling a culture of writing can feel like an impossible task. Think of it like any other product, it's never finished. It's an evolving entity that needs continuous iteration and the first version may not feel even remotely useful.
3. Understand the common challenges of remote work
There are common challenges associated with remote work that your team will run into. If you understand them, you'll have more empathy for your team when they happen and be able to mitigate them. Common remote work challenges include:
- Social isolation: If a team member is used to working alongside colleagues in an office, the transition to remote work can be jarring. Consider offering co-working space stipends or other programs to break up the monotony of the home office. Many remote companies even have in-person retreats in different countries to get the team together.
- More responsibility: Remote work requires a self-starter attitude. No one is there to keep you on task, you just need to get your work done. Think about the task-relevant maturity of each subordinate and whether you need to be more or less hands-off.
- Your team isn't always online when you are: This is particularly acute if you work in a truly distributed company. Always opt for async and written communication over real-time unless something would be better delivered in person.
- Productivity can drop: Without clear guidelines and goals, motivation can drop which leads to lower productivity. Think about how you can motivate employees. A good way to do this is to give employees autonomy over their day and train them on tasks that they need help with.
- Mistrust and micromanagement: If your company is new to working remotely, you might not trust your team to work productively which can cause micromanagement. Don't fall into this trap! There is nothing worse for employee engagement and morale than a micromanaging boss.
- Unreliable technology: Inadequate tools and technology can be a productivity and morale destroyer. Slow or unreliable Internet can make remote working impossible.
4. Focus on high-leverage activities
For every activity you perform, the output of your organization (and neighboring organizations) should increase. The extend of the increase is determined by leverage.
Leverage is the measure of output generated by a specific activity. The higher the leverage, the greater the output.
To maximize your team's output, you need to spend time where leverage is the highest. High-leverage activities affect many people, change a person's activity or behavior for a long time based on a short interaction, or impact a large group's work.
Leverage isn't always a good thing. High-leverage activities done well dramatically increase output, but high-leverage activities done poorly dramatically reduce it.
The art of management is selecting and concentrating on one, two, or three high-leverage activities and ignoring the rest.
5. Learn to delegate
Delegation is an essential part of management and a fantastic way to increase leverage.
But how do you know what to delegate? Given a choice, do you delegate activities you're familiar with or those that you aren't? Before you answer, consider that delegation without monitoring is abdication.
When you delegate, you are still responsible for the task's completion, and monitoring the delegated task is the only practical way to ensure that.
Given it's easier to monitor activities you know how to do, delegate activities you know best.
Don't confuse monitoring with meddling.
Your goal is to ensure the task is done as expected, not to do it yourself.
Review things as early as possible when the least amount of effort has gone into them. Review rough drafts, not final products.
How often you check depends on your subordinate's task-relevant maturity. Task-relevant maturity depends on their motivation, readiness to take on responsibility, education, training, and experience related to the task at hand.
People have high maturity in one job but low in another. Likewise, people can have high maturity at a certain level of complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity, but if the pace accelerates or roles change their maturity can drop.
As the Harvard Business Review explains, employees often look to their manager for cues about how to respond to sudden shifts or crises.
When maturity is low (or when a crisis happens), the most effective approach is to provide detailed instruction about what to do, when, and how. As maturity increases, the most effective style moves from structured to one focused on two-way communication, emotional support, and encouragement.
When maturity peaks, your involvement should be minimal and focused on ensuring the objectives that are set are correct.
In short, as task-relevant maturity goes up, monitor less often.
But never forget that you always need to monitor work closely regardless of their task-relevant maturity. The presence or absence of monitoring is the difference between delegation and abdication.
6. Hire managers of one
In fully remote companies, your team members need to be managers of one.
A manager of one is someone who sets their own goals and executes against them. They don't need direction or daily check-ins. They do what a manager does – set the tone, assign work, and determine what needs to get done – but they do it for themself.
These people free you up from oversight. They set their own direction and when you check in with them, you're surprised by how much they've done.
By definition, managers of one have high task-relevant maturity.
Your job as a manager is to keep your involvement minimal and to focus on ensuring that the objectives that they set are correct.
7. Optimize your most valuable resource, your time
A great deal of your time as a manager is spent on allocating resources: manpower, money, and capital. Don't forget about your most valuable resource, your time.
Time is the only truly finite resource.
To ensure you are focused on high-leverage activities, you need to review how you spend your time. Spending time well will have a massive impact on your long-term success as a remote manager.
To better manage your time, follow these steps:
- Identify the limiting step: Determine what is immovable then plan more flexible activities around it.
- Batch similar tasks: Everything requires mental set-up. Working efficiently relies on grouping related activities.
- Build to forecast: Schedule work that is not time-critical between the limiting steps of your day and say no to tasks that'll overload your system.
- Say no earlier: Stop work before it reaches a higher-value stage.
- Allow for slack in your schedule: One interruption shouldn't kill your day.
- Carry a raw inventory: In the form of projects that don't need to be finished now, but would increase your team's productivity over the long term.
- Standardize: But continue to think critically about what you do and the approaches you use.
8. Do everything you can to prevent starts and stops in your day
Study after study after study has shown remote workers are more productive than their in-office colleagues. Many people attribute productivity gains to the time saved commuting and the avoidance of office distractions.
If you've ever worked remotely, you know instant messaging can be as, if not more, distracting than an office. The real benefit of remote work is how it unlocks hours of uninterrupted time to focus on deep work.
Deep work, a term coined by Cal Newport, is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. This distraction-free concentration pushes your cognitive abilities to their limit and creates new value, improves skills, and is hard to replicate in our world of instant satisfaction.
The reason deep work is important is that it reduces attention residue. When you turn attention from one topic to another, the original topic leaves a residue that reduces cognitive performance for a non-trivial amount of time. Attention residue is based on research pioneered by Sophie Leroy, an Associate Professor of Management at the University of Washington.
Attention residue can have a profoundly negative impact on knowledge worker productivity. The most high-value work you can do–coding, writing, design–is cognitively demanding and requires long periods of uninterrupted deep work.
Uncontrolled interruptions are inevitable and most frequently come from subordinates and people outside your team whose work you influence.
One of the most important skills to learn in remote management is forcing frequent interrupters to make an active decision about whether the issue can wait. Block out your calendar with a note that says, "I am doing individual work. Please don't interrupt me unless it can't wait."
Understand that interrupters have legitimate problems. That's why they're asking you.
To reduce interruptions, look for new ways to batch them into an organized, schedule form such as schedule team meetings, one-on-ones, or office hours. These can be held in real-time on video conferencing software or asynchronously.
If held regularly, people will batch questions instead of interrupting you whenever they want.
9. Leverage asynchronous communication
Asynchronous communication happens when information is exchanged without the expectation of an immediate response. Messages don't require the recipient's immediate attention, so they can process the information on their own time and respond at their convenience.
In contrast, synchronous communication happens when information is exchanged and responded to in real-time. It requires team members to be present at the same time and/or space.
Not only is async communication a great way to enable deep work, but it also leads to more engaged employees who have lower stress levels and a reduced risk of burnout. Overworking is one of the most cited challenges of remote work and async work can be a great way to prevent it.
The need to be online at specific hours on specific days means that employees don't have control over how they structure their workdays and never-ending virtual meetings mean people often have to work longer hours to get their work done.
10. If you need to have a synchronous meeting, make it count
Meetings often feel like a waste of time, just something you endure before you get back to your real job. If you do want to have a synchronous meeting, make the time you invest count.
In fact, meeting attendance should be optional if you are working remotely. Assume people won't be available and record all meetings. Recording meetings reduces FOMO and allows key individuals to catch up on what was discussed if they were unable to attend.
Writing up minutes and sharing them provides additional context and makes the decisions easier to find later. Words are easier to search than videos.
Meetings are nothing more than a medium to do managerial work. You can do any of these activities inside or outside of meetings. Just choose the most high leverage medium for what you want to accomplish. The one that produces the most output for the least amount of work.
Meetings tend to fall into two categories:
- Process-oriented: These meetings take place on a regular cadence and are designed to promote knowledge sharing and information exchange; and
- Mission-oriented: These are ad-hoc meetings designed to solve a specific problem by making a decision.
To maximize efficiency, infuse process-oriented meetings with regularity. Attendees should know how the session will run, what matters will be discussed, and what the goal is.
By doing this, you ensure that the meeting has minimal impact on output as people can plan their day around them.
Watch this video to learn how to run effective meetings:
11. Have regular one-on-ones with direct reports
One-on-ones are fundamental to management, even in a remote environment.
For background, one-on-ones are a meeting between you and a direct report and are the primary way of maintaining and deepening your relationship.
The purpose of one-on-ones is mutual teaching and information exchange.
You teach your team members your skills, know-how, and suggest ways to approach things and they provide information about what they're doing and their concerns.
Schedule one-on-ones based on the job- or task-relevant maturity of each report. If your report is inexperienced in the specific situation, have frequent one-on-ones (once a week). Once a month is likely fine for experienced veterans.
Carve out at least an hour. One-on-ones done well are incredibly high leverage. The hour you spend together can impact your report's work for weeks.
Anything less than an hour tends to confine people to simple problems that can be solved quickly.
One-on-ones are the report's meeting. They set the agenda and tone. Not only does this increase your leverage (you don't have to create a plan for each report), it's almost a forcing function for them to think through what they want to talk about.
Your role is to learn and coach. When they stop talking about a topic, ask another question until you feel like you've gotten to the bottom of the problem.
Both of you should have a copy of the agenda and take notes against it. Taking notes promotes active listening and ensures that actions required by either party aren't lost. Consider using a hold file where you can both accumulate essential but not urgent issues to discuss in the future.
Encourage heart-to-hearts. One-on-ones are the perfect forum for getting at subtle work-related problems whether that be social interaction, work-life balance, or other issues. It's important to tackle these issues as soon as possible when remote working.
Finally, schedule one-on-ones on a rolling basis and set up the next one as the current one ends. This makes it simple to account for other commitments and avoid cancellations.
Read our guide on remote on-on-ones to learn more.
12. Learn how to motivate your team
Remote management is a team activity. No matter how well your team is structured, no matter how well it is managed, it will only perform as well as the individuals that make it up.
The most important task in remote management is to elicit peak performance from your team. You can improve performance by increasing motivation or capability.
When a person isn't doing their job, it's because they are unmotivated or incapable. To determine which, ask yourself: if their life depended on it, could they do it? If yes, they're not motivated. No? they're not capable.
For most of history, motivation was based on fear on punishment. If you didn't work, you didn't get paid. This worked because manual labor was readily measurable, departures from the norm were easy to spot, and most people operated in the lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy.
Remote work is knowledge work and people tend to operate in the higher levels of Maslow's hierarchy, so motivation by fear won't work.
For context, Abraham Maslow defined a set of needs that lie in a hierarchy. When a lower need is satisfied, the higher need takes over.
Under this model, creating and maintaining motivation relies on some form of dissatisfaction:
At the physiological level, one fears the deprivation of food, clothing, and other basic necessities.
At the safety level, the desire to protect yourself from slipping back to the physiological level is the main motivator.
At the social level, you are driven by your inherent desire to belong to a group whose members possess something in common with you.
Think about it this way. Physiological, safety, and social needs motivate people to show up to work, but it's really the final two levels of Maslow's hierarchy (esteem and self-actualization) that motivate them to perform once there.
Our need to keep up with or emulate others is what drives us at the esteem level. It's why people feel the pull to keep up with the Joneses.
But like the other levels, once goals are met, keeping up with people stops being a good motivator.
The final level of Maslow's hierarchy is self-actualization. It stems from the personal realization that "what I can be, I must be". Once motivation is based on self-actualization, the drive to perform is limitless.
Some people–not the majority–need to achieve in everything they do and will self-actualize without external input.
For everyone else, management needs to foster an environment that promotes self-actualization by setting objectives high enough that they stretched the outer limits of each person's abilities.
You can learn more about how to motivate your team with this video:
13. Train your employees
Poorly trained employees, despite their best intentions, produce inefficiencies, excess costs, and unhappy customers.
Many managers feel that training is best left to human resources. The best managers strongly believe that training is their job.
It's generally accepted that motivating employees is a key task for any manager and one that can't be delegated to others. So why shouldn't the same be true for training?
Training is one of the highest-leverage activities you can perform.
Imagine you invest fifty hours picking the right tools for your virtual team and creating a series of videos for your ten-person team to learn how to use them.
Next year, those ten people will work a total of about twenty thousand hours. If that paper results in a one percent improvement in team productivity, your company gains two hundred hours of additional productivity as a result of your fifty hours.
Now imagine if a hundred or a thousand people watch the videos...
For training to be effective, think of it as a process, not an event. Employees should be able to count on it being scheduled, rather than a rescue effort designed to solve a problem.
There are two types of training. The first is focused on teaching new employees what they need to do their job, the second is designed to teach new ideas, principles, or skills to existing team members.
After you deliver training, always ask for anonymous feedback. Prompt people for numerical ratings and pose open-ended questions. Study their responses but understand that you'll never please everyone.
If you receive feedback that the content is too detailed, too superficial, or just right in about equal balance, you're on the right track.
Training is hard and your first attempts won't be good. Even if you're great at your job, you'll be amazed at how much you don't know.
It takes a lot more knowledge to teach than to do, but guess who learns the most? You and that alone is worth the effort.
Learn more about how to train employees by watching this video:
14. Use money as task-relevant feedback
Money is vital at all levels of Maslow's hierarchy. People need money for food, housing, and insurance. which form the base of the pyramid. As they move up, money becomes a proxy for worth.
To determine the role money plays for someone, think about whether the absolute amount of a raise is important or whether it's the relative amount. If the absolute amount is significant, the person is motivated by physiological or safety needs. If it's relative, they're driven by self-actualization.
Money has become a measure rather than a necessity.
Another thing to think about is that as compensation increases, each incremental dollar provides less utility. Most knowledge workers are paid well enough that money doesn't have a material significance to them, but not well enough that it has no significance.
You need to use money as a way to deliver task-relevant feedback.
Base a portion of a person's compensation on performance. As total compensation increases, the bonus should grow to make up a significant portion of it. If the absolute dollar amount makes little difference, the bonus should be as high as 50 percent.
You need to balance:
- The significance of the team's versus the individual's performance
- The period the bonus should cover; and
- Whether the bonus is based on solely measurable objectives or a mix of subjective and objective metrics
Compounding these issues is the fact that cause and effect are usually offset from each other, often by a long time, but the bonus needs to be paid as close to the work as possible so people understand why they received it.
Watch the video below to learn more about how to use money as task-relevant feedback:
15. Understand the importance of promotions
Promotions are vital to communicating the value system of your company and must be based solely on performance. That is the only way to ensure performance is highlighted, maintained, and perpetuated at an organizational level.
But what about the Peter Principle, which describes the tendency for organizations to promote employees until they reach a level of incompetence?
There is no alternative.
when a person receives more training or becomes more motivated, they will exceed the requirements of their position and must be promoted to a new position.
In the new position, they'll only first meet requirements. As they gain more experience, they may again exceed requirements and be promoted, then the cycle repeats itself.
People fluctuate between meeting and exceeding requirements throughout their careers. If you don't promote them when they exceed requirements, you're not creating a great place to work. People will get bored, performance will worsen, and you'll indicate to your team that performance isn't what is valued.
When a person is promoted into a position that is too difficult for them, the solution is not to fire them. Recycle them into the position they did well before the promotion.
You know they can do the job, they'll be excellent candidates for another promotion later, and the second time they'll be more likely to succeed.
16. Use performance reviews to increase performance
Performance reviews are the most important form of task-relevant feedback you can provide and the truth is most managers do a poor job.
How you assess performance, deliver the assessment, and allocate rewards like promotions, dollars, and stock options will positively (or negatively) influence a report's performance for a long time.
Another way to put it is that performance reviews are incredibly high-leverage.
The fundamental purpose of a performance review is to improve a report's performance by focusing on their:
- Skill level: To determine what skills are missing and how to remedy them; and
- Motivation: To increase performance at the same skill level.
Reviews represent the most formal type of leadership. It's the only time you are mandated to act as judge and jury, you are required to make a judgment and deliver it to a fellow worker.
One of the most common mistakes is to provide detailed feedback to poor performers but little feedback to top performers.
This is backward.
You should spend more time trying to improve the performance of your best people. After all, these people account for a disproportionate share of the organization's performance. If they get better, the impact on group output is enormous.
You must make an effort to suggest ways for them to improve performance.
Not only is it incredibly high leverage, but it's also what the best people want. There is always room to improve and top performers crave feedback.
Watch this video to learn how to perform a robust performance review:
17. Embrace cultural differences and viewpoints
One of the biggest benefits of working in a remote team is that your colleagues are spread all over the world and will likely be from a mix of language and cultural backgrounds. This diversity can help you make better products, reach new markets, and expand how you see the world. But it also has its challenges.
The obvious challenge is varying levels of language proficiency, but there are also subtle cultural differences that need to be understood. Managing an international and remote team where people have different perspectives and attitudes toward work means embracing these differences and not trying to make people fit into your way of working and thinking.
The way people work and what they expect from a workplace tends on where they grew up and where they live.
You need to be aware that people may have different languages abilities. Misunderstandings can happen. Do your best to write and speak clearly with simple words. If you need to communicate important information to non-native speakers, do it in writing. When you talk, people only have one chance to understand you. When you write, people can read at their own pace, re-read bits multiple times if necessary, and look up words they're unfamiliar with.
One of the best ways to overcome cultural differences is to set a strong and unique company culture that clearly articulates how your team works together. This will help people from different cultures come together and understand how they should communicate with each other when at work.
18. Invest in the right tools
Remote work technology has exploded. Everyone and their dog used Zoom during the global pandemic and there are now tools for everything from remote team management to tracking employees' productivity and engagement.
At Himalayas, we've found that it's better to use the right tools and use them well rather than having a load of tools. At the end of the day, the important thing is the processes you build around the tools, not the tools themself.
For example, we use Linear to manage our software development. Everyone knows to put bug fixes, design improvements, and new features in Linear and it's easy to log in and see where something is up to.
For design, we use Figma. Much like Linear, everyone knows where to give feedback on designs where to find designs, and what is being worked on.
No one needs to waste their time on low-level project management tasks like giving status updates or daily check-ins. The same goes for our collaboration and communication tools. We have no internal email and use WhatsApp to communicate.
This means nothing is ever lost in someone's inbox and everyone always has access to the information they need. Freeing us up to focus on high-leverage activities.
Other popular tools include Microsoft Teams, Slack, GitHub, Zoom, HelloSign, Help Scout, Coda, and 1Password.
19. Invest in onboarding new employees
Onboarding new remote employees well has a number of long-term benefits: better employee retention, increased productivity in less time, reduced anxiety, and it sets expectations. First impressions really matter, studies show that 90% of employees make the decision to stick around long-term within the first six months.
Think of onboarding as an investment in the long-term success of remote hires and the company.
Read our post on how to onboard remote employees.
20. Focus on output, not hours
Knowledge work isn't like manual labor, more hours in does not equal more output. Give people time to relax and unplug if you want to increase employee engagement and productivity. Overworking is one of the most cited remote work challenges. If you want to attract and hire talented remote employees, you need to value work-life balance.
Emphasize work-life balance, independence, and accountability.
If you don't promote work-life balance, people tend to overcompensate not being in the office and working constantly. If you don't value independence, people will wait for the answer instead of finding the answer themselves. And if you don't value accountability, people will worry that others won't keep their word and insist on synchronous communication.
Looking for a remote job or to hire remote employees?
If you've made it this far, there's a good chance you're either looking to find a remote job, already working remotely, or looking to hire remote employees.
Either way, we'd love to introduce ourselves. We're Himalayas, a remote job board, that is focused on providing the best experience for remote job seekers and employers.
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