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A Managers Guide to Leading a Successful Remote Team

Published on April 16, 2020

Mazin Melegy

There's much to be said about how quickly some of our teams have gone completely remote for the first time in their lives.  Though we've seen a significant number of thought leadership pieces specifically geared toward how team members can better manage their time working from home, we know that those managing a full team's productivity, will need to pivot their focus as well.  At the end of the day, we're all experiencing this New Normal as one, so priorities such as communication, adaptability and continuing to retain your valued team members are key to making sure you are set up for success. 


Having had several years of experience in working in a distributed team, we’ve learned a few things about how to manage teams effectively. It comes down to four key factors: productivity, communication, wellness, and collaboration. 


1 - Productivity: Results > Hours


The biggest mindset shift that you have to make in order to effectively manage a distributed team is this: you should stop worrying about what your employees are doing at any given hour of the day.


We’ve heard it from everywhere: people are convinced that employees working from home are doing their chores, taking care of their kids, or even playing video games. But take a step back and think more deeply about this: do you mind it when your employees do these things in the hours outside of 9-5? 


Trying to manage a distributed team like its an office will only lead to disappointment. The chief advantage of WFH is that it allows for a wider spectrum of hours to work. Don’t squander that advantage by trying to enforce a specific 8 hour window to get things done. 


To be clear, we’re not advocating for a video game policy. We’re simply saying that you have to choose where to spend your focus as a manager. Especially as it relates to COVID-19, there are employees juggling kids, parents, and other responsibilities. Rather than focusing on when they’re working, focus on managing the work.


Prioritize setting clear deliverables, deadlines, and milestones. For longer tail projects, predetermine a check in schedule and stick to it by setting recurring meetings. Over communicate expectations to employees, and have them commit to a project timetable. When it’s important to receive something by a specific time of day, make sure to say it up front. Use calendar tools if you must, or project management applications like JIRA or Monday. 


Remember, focus on managing the velocity of projects, not the hours of your employees. And prioritize communication about what you expect of your employees within specific time windows.


2 - Communication: Use Slack/Teams


If you are still primarily communicating through email, now is your moment to start using Slack or Microsoft Teams to improve the productivity of your team. 


Email was designed to emulate mail, with a system of one-to-one replies. But it suffers when working with more than one person, when teams are working on more than one thing, or when the nature of work shifts. 


Products like Slack work better for remote teams, because they allow for instant communication in topic threads, so your whole team is in the loop and can respond. It supports document upload, instant video communication, and lots of integrations that can make your team more productive. 


3 - Wellness: Be Intentionally Personal


One of the hardest transitions to WFH is the loss of daily interaction with colleagues. There are many moments throughout the day in an office setting that you can take for granted, like catching up with a coworker about their weekend or simply just seeing how someone and getting a visual gauge on their energy levels and emotional state. 


Working remotely can be tough on people who are naturally more social and get greater energy levels when they are around others. But there are ways to emphasize social interactions when managing a distributed team. 


First, take the time to chit chat before meetings. Yes, the conventional wisdom about efficient meetings says to keep them as short and productive as possible. But in a remote setting, it’s important to fit those social moments in; it keeps the team connected, and it reinforces the idea that everyone is working together, even if you don’t see each other at all times.


Second, don't be afraid to set meetings with the sole intention of being social. At C&L we have a meeting once every two weeks where we go over high level business strategy and updates, but then open the floor to the team to talk about big moments in their personal or professional lives. It’s lighthearted and fun, but it’s effective for us in keeping our team close. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t go overboard with this, but don’t ignore it either! 


Third, do your best to have your cameras on during work meetings. There’s nothing more impersonal and frustrating than a phone conference. Phone conversations don’t utilize screen sharing features, and they create conversations with less empathy. But every team I’ve worked with tends to avoid sharing their webcam during meetings. So if you’re a manager, encourage your team to show their face. It’ll improve the quality of your meetings and the quality of people’s morale. And don’t forget to lead by example! Switch that camera on. 


4 - Collaboration: Live Editing Tools are Key


Effective collaboration is almost certainly harder to manage in a distributed environment. Collaboration in an office setting is as easy as booking a conference room and grabbing a marker. It’s not so easy to work together when you’re in a video conference or Slack. 


There’s no one right way to do this, but at C&L we emphasize live editing tools like Google Docs or Figma to work together over screen share. Having the ability to collaboratively work on a document is a great way to simulate a whiteboard. Figma is primarily a design tool, but we’ve used it as a free space for sketching ideas even for non-designers. Screen sharing in Slack also enables users to highlight things on their coworkers screen, leading to easier collaboration and idea sharing.


There are tons of tools available for free or for low cost that you can try out with your teams. The key is to put collaboration meetings on the calendar, keep them small and focused, and work on the same document. You don’t have to limit your meetings to status updates. They can be productive too! 

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