Managing Remote Teams
The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in an era of remote working across wide swathes of the workforce around the world. Whole offices moved to work from home arrangements. There is no doubt that both employers and employees recognise the many advantages of this arrangement, including more time freed up by not having to commute, and less need for office space.
However, there are also downsides. Many people have found it difficult to manage working from home because of the demands of family life, or the challenges of being on their own for long periods. For managers, remote working has meant embracing the challenges of maintaining team ties without office conversations, and the difficulties of bringing in new team members.
This page discusses how to manage remote teams, or teams where at least some remote working is the norm.
When Remote Working is Normal
For many people, remote working and working from home is normal.
Freelancers and self-employed people often work from home. They do not regard this as abnormal. Plenty of tech support and similar work can also be done from home—and often is, especially with outsourcing arrangements. Remote working and hot-desking are also common in many client-facing businesses like recruitment or consultancy, where staff routinely spend time visiting clients, or embedded in client organisations.
It is therefore worth stressing that even before the pandemic, many businesses were fully remote.
This is a huge advantage in many ways. It means no overheads, and the ability to employ people regardless of geographical location, giving you access to the best talent from around the world.
However, since the pandemic, many more people have started to work remotely. At least some of these are likely to continue to work remotely, at least some of the time.
This is likely to lead to a situation where organisations run offices, and some staff may choose to work there full-time, or mostly full-time. However, others may only visit the office once a week, or even once a month.
This can be very challenging for managers.
Errors in Managing Remote Working
Two common errors in management arise from remote working:
Micro-management. Managers who are anxious about not being able to see what is going on often over-compensate by sending too many chasing emails, or phoning up every day ‘for an update’. This is a problem because employees feel like they are not trusted, which reduces their willingness to give a bit extra. It also means that they have less time to do the work.
Under-supervision. The opposite can also happen, where managers decide that they need to simply trust staff, and never speak to them or check in. This can be fine—but some people find this very difficult because they do not know how to approach their manager for advice or help without seeming very formal, or feeling like they are interrupting.
The key to this seems to be appropriate delegation—but also checking in on a regular, but not too frequent basis.
Managing Remote and Hybrid Teams
There are two aspects to managing remote or hybrid teams: managing the individuals, and building up a team.
Managing Individuals Who Work Remotely
The principles of management are the same whether or not you work on the same site as the person you manage.
In other words, managing individuals who work remotely is no different from managing someone who shares your office, or someone on a different site. You still have to give them the tools to manage their job, motivate them, delegate work appropriately, review their performance, and manage poor performance.
Crucially, you still need ways that they can reach you to ask for advice, or discuss difficult issues. That might be a regular meeting or phone call, or it might be a more informal ‘my door is always open/please just pick up the phone’ arrangement.
Making Yourself Available
If you are in the same office as your team, you are visible, and someone can ask for ‘a quick chat’. However, it is much harder for remote workers to know when their manager is available for a conversation.
It may therefore be worth having slots in your diary that are marked as ‘available for consultation’ or similar.
Your team will then know that they can call during those times, and you will not be in the middle of a meeting. There is, of course, a danger that everyone will try to call at the same time, so you could offer bookable slots.
You also need to be aware when you last spoke to each person you manage. If you have not spoken to someone in the last week, it may be a good idea to give them a call, as they may not be OK—and may be finding it hard to call you.
Building a Team of Remote Workers
Before you start to think about how you build a team from a group of individuals all working remotely, ask yourself: is this really necessary?
In other words, do you actually need a team? That is, do you need people who will work closely together, and have strong relationships, who rely on each other to get the job done?
Or do you simply have a group of people who work alongside each other in related jobs?
Our page An Introduction to Teams and Groups explains this distinction in more details, and describes different types of groups.
Most of us like a bit of interaction with our colleagues, and generally feel better if we know people at work. Indeed, there is evidence that having people we consider friends at work reduces sickness absence. There is also evidence that working remotely weakens these ties, and tends to mean that we trust our colleagues less.
However, there is a world of difference between being prepared to socialise with people at work and working as a team.
Building a genuine team, with close ties, is hard work. For remote teams, it should only be attempted if really necessary to get the work done.
Building Remote Teams: Building Relationships
If you are certain that you really need to build a team, rather than just foster some social ties, there are two important aspects.
The first is shared objectives.
Your team needs a ‘common cause’—and they need to understand and buy into that cause. This means that they must have shared objectives, agreed by everyone.
As a manager, you have to take responsibility for communicating and reminding people about these shared objectives. Group objectives often change and flex over time, so it is worth updating regularly, and bringing people together around their ‘common cause’.
The second aspect is relationships.
Our page Building and Maintaining Remote Relationships sets out the principles of building relationships with colleagues working remotely. It includes:
- Scheduling whole-team video-conferences on a regular basis;
- Taking time for social ‘chat’ during team meetings;
- Asking people how you can facilitate their remote working—and then doing it; and
- Checking in with colleagues, especially if you have not seen or heard from them for a while.
The key to building relationships is time. You have to put in the time—and when you are working in different places, it takes longer.
As a manager, it is important to model these behaviours, but also to encourage those you manage to engage in them too. For example, everyone can take responsibility for checking in with colleagues they have not spoken to in some time, and asking how to facilitate other people’s remote working.
You can also make opportunities for some social engagement among a group of remote workers. These might include, for example, running a book club via Zoom, or taking time to share ‘outside work’ information at the end of virtual team meetings. Collaboration tools like Slack can enable a social channel that may be used to share jokes or memes, though this is best kept for fairly small groups.
You can speed up the time required to build relationships by bringing people together in person.
This might be social or work-based, or even both. Perhaps a shared breakfast or lunch might be a good opportunity to engage both on a work and non-work basis.
However, be aware that in-person meetings may be difficult for remote workers, especially if they live some distance from the office, or have commitments at home. Also be aware that it is not reasonable to violate previous agreements to insist on attendance at meetings (see box).
An agreement is an agreement
This cannot be stressed too much:
If you agree a remote working arrangement with someone, especially if it is fairly rigid (e.g. working from home every Tuesday and Wednesday), it is not reasonable to insist that they attend the office on one of their home-working days.
YES, this may make it difficult to manage whole-team meetings, especially if you were not careful about what you agreed with different people.
NO, this does not mean that your employees are wrong or unhelpful.
This is no different from expecting part-time workers to come in on their days off. They may have commitments at home that they cannot break—and anyway, why should they? They are within the terms of the agreement that you made with them.
As a manager, you need to set expectations upfront, and manage the consequences.
Organisational approaches that can work include:
- A monthly, in-person, all-staff meeting that everyone is expected to attend. This might be on a particular day (e.g. the first Monday of the month), although this can be harder for part-time workers to manage. Varying the time and date may give more people the opportunity to attend regardless of which days they work, but makes it less predictable.
- Setting an expectation that everyone will be in the office on one particular day of the week (e.g. Tuesday) and fitting all part-time and remote working arrangements around that.
- Having hybrid team meetings, where people may be either in the office or working from home, but everyone will dial into the meeting at their desk.
The Importance of Trust
Good relationships build trust—and trust builds good relationships.
When working remotely, you have to trust your team members to achieve. However, it is worth articulating this trust. You can, for example, state that people have autonomy to do their jobs as they see fit, as long as they deliver the required outcomes.
Clear and open communication is an important part of trust. That is not just a matter of communication from manager to team members (and back), but also between team members.
As a manager, you can facilitate this communication by making it more explicit during team meetings, both virtual and in-person. For example, if someone lets you know that they will be late because they have had an emergency of some kind, it is worth saying that to the meeting, so that everyone knows that there was a problem, and does not assume that person is simply opting out.
Remember that for many people, trust must be earned (see box), and is also easily lost.
Two types of trust personalities
There are two types of people when it comes to building trust.
- Automatic trusters give you the benefit of the doubt until they find evidence that you are untrustworthy.
- Evidence-based trusters wait for evidence that they can trust you.
If you don’t know which type of trusters you are working with, it is safest to assume that they will all need evidence that you, and others, are trustworthy.
Introducing New Staff to a Remote Team
One particularly challenging aspect of managing remote teams and groups is introducing new team members. Not only do you have to take time to develop a relationship with that new person—and they with you—but the same applies to all the other team members.
We said before that developing relationships takes longer remotely, because you do not have so many chances to chat.
It is therefore worth trying to organise in-person meetings and gatherings early on in the process of on-boarding a new starter to a remote team.
The more face-to-face interaction that is possible, the easier it will be for your new starter to build the relationships they need to become part of the team.
Building Relationships Across the Wider Organisation
Research shows that one of the biggest issues arising from increased remote working during the pandemic was that teams closed in on themselves.
Interactions and relationships within teams worked quite well, but many people found it harder to retain the looser ties to other parts of the organisation.
As remote and hybrid working become more normal, organisations need to take time to ensure that barriers do not build up between teams and groups. Activities like whole-organisation meetings and socials are essential to break down barriers and build relationships. Individual teams and managers can also help by inviting people from other teams to join their team meetings to share information.
It cannot be stressed enough that communication is absolutely key in managing remote teams and individuals. This matters within the team, and across the organisation. As a manager, your most important role is probably facilitating that communication.