Managing Remote Teams Best Practices

November 24, 2020

Managing a remote team is, in principle, very similar to managing a team in a physical location. In both scenarios, Motivation, communication, and performance tracking are essential. Yet, they can be especially challenging to deal with in a remote setting.

I've been working 100% remote with various design teams for the past six years, and I've learned a few lessons the hard way. One thing is for sure, managing a remote team will bring up the best and the worst of your leadership style.

Sadly, many managers think that to be productive while working remote, you need to be sitting in a chair, tracking your hours, also known as in-chair hours.

If they can't see how many hours their employee is putting in, they start feeling uneasy. So they start calling and bugging them to see if they are doing productive stuff rather than wasting their time on social media.

As a manager, micro-managing reflects a profound lack of trust in your employees and your management skills.

My mission is to help remote design agencies grow. So I want to share the five most important best practices of managing a remote team. These recommendations stem from what I've learned from some great managers I've had and my own experience as a remote design leader.

Over-Communicate

Default to Asynchronous Communication

Set Measurable Goals

Evaluating performance

Non-work related meetings

Managing a Remote Team Benefits From Over-Communication

Non-verbal expression plays an enormous role in how we communicate. Things like sarcasm and humor rely heavily on voice inflections and physical gestures that are very difficult to reproduce in written form.

When managing a remote team, you need to account for the limitations imposed by technology. Most of our remote communication happens through written words or via video-calls at best.

To make up for the limitations of our current means of remote communication, managers need to over-communicate.

By over-communicating, I don't mean writing an epic Tolstoi novel every time you shoot someone an email. Instead, try to be specific about all the essential details of your message and be succinct.

  • Under communication is:Team, I need the presentation for the sales meeting this week.
  • Over-communication is:On Monday 12th at 4:30 pm, we're going to have our quarterly sales meeting. Please send me the PDF file to my email by Wednesday the 9th at 8:00 am so I have time to review it and make all necessary adjustments.

These two messages are essentially communicating the same thing, but the second one is much more effective. When managing a remote team, be specific in terms of format, expectations, and times. It anticipates potential questions from the group. It's overall a much more effective way of communicating essentially the same thing.

Over-communication can seem time-consuming at first, but it will always save you time. If you are not specific about what you require from your team, they will get back to you with some questions. You will then have to spend more time answering, creating an unnecessary back and forth.

Default to Asynchronous Communication

Asynchronous communication is the practice of communicating without expecting an immediate response.

Asynchronous and over-communication work exceptionally well together for managing remote teams. And the benefits compound when you're working across multiple timezones.

When you don't expect an immediate answer, you're more likely to be extra specific in your messages to prevent unnecessary follow-up questions. Take the example of the sales meeting presentation above.

If I had just said:Team, I need the presentation for the sales meeting this week.

Someone from my team might ask me:

  • Do you need it in Keynote or PDF?,
  • At what time do you need it on Wednesday?
  • Can I send it on Thursday?
  • Should I send it over Slack or Email?

If they are proactive, they'll ask all of the above questions in a single message, but chances are they won't, and there would be further back and forth.

Managing a remote team across a wide range of timezones can exacerbate this situation. They could ask a question at a reasonable time for them that turns out to be midnight for me and vice-versa. This is not at all uncommon. There are 9 hours of difference between California and Europe, and at least 7 hours more between Europe and South-East Asia.

Map of Timezones - Wikipedia

Doist, the company behind Todoist, my all-time favorite to-do app, has an excellent article on asynchronous communication. Asynchronous Communication: The Real Reason Remote Workers Are More Productive

Set Measurable Goals

My favorite methodologies for setting measurable goals when managing remote teams are Key Performance Indicators or KPIs and **Objective and Key Results or OKRs. **

You can read more about KPIs and OKR in my article How To Define Your Design Strategy.

Regardless of the methodology you choose, managing your remote team through measurable goals helps you achieve three things:

  • Frees up your time By eliminating the need to assign new tasks to everyone. Instead, they will learn to be more proactive by figuring out what they need to do to reach their goals.
  • Gives you a straightforward way to measure progress Which is more objective than subjective appreciations like "Arthur is a team player because he makes everyone laugh."
  • Helps your team earn your trust By allowing them to take ownership of their goals and the best way to achieve them instead of having to fill up countless status reports and looping you in on every single thing they do.

Evaluating performance

To effectively manage your remote team, it's essential to evaluate their performance based on output instead of sitting hours.

You can't measure productivity based on hours. Our energy levels fluctuate throughout the day. We have to take bathroom breaks, get food, drink coffee, etcetera.

What you should be tracking instead of hours is results. Did they deliver on time? Are they producing good work? These are things you can objectively evaluate by setting up clear metrics.

Clear metrics give you a quantitative picture of what everyone does. Depending on how you set them up, you can have percentages of goal completion that you can use to identify areas for improvement and provide highly relevant feedback.

Non-work related meetings

Chitchatting by the coffee machine is not something you can do in a remote setting.Working from home can be very lonely. Extroverts have an especially hard time not being able to catch up with colleagues over coffee or grabbing a drink after a long day of work.

The lockdowns imposed to fight the spread of covid-19 have had an appalling psychological effect that, in many cases, is coupled with the anxiety produced by having to switch from 100% on-site to 100% remote.

Photo of lonely person starting at their computer screen - Photo by Phil Desforges on Unsplash - Ed Orozco Consulting
Photo by Phil Desforges on Unsplash
My recommendation is to set aside some time each week to have a non-work-related video call with your colleagues. Remote coffee or beer can have a very positive effect on the team's morale. Make it optional, and mind the timezones.

Believe it or not, all those spontaneous conversations contribute to your company's shared knowledge and create bonds that make everyone communicate better with one another.

Do you have any more recommendations for effectively managing a remote team? I'd love to hear them. Send me a message at ed@edorozco.com, and if I end up including it in the article, I'll credit you for the idea.

Further Readings

  • https://www.edorozco.com/blog/how-to-define-your-design-strategy
  • https://www.edorozco.com/blog/what-is-design-strategy
  • https://medium.com/@meetfelipe/okr-vs-kpis-what-is-the-difference-ffa54673fcf1
  • https://www.edorozco.com/blog/in-chair-hours
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