Managing a remote team requires a different strategy from in-person leadership. Here are eight ways to get the most out of and be there for your remote team.
- When you're managing a remote team, neither a hands-off strategy nor micromanaging creates productive employees.
- The success of a teleworker is best measured by work produced rather than hours worked.
- Virtual managers should take responsibility for knowing if employees are sick, stressed, or in need of extra training or help.
So many managers feel completely out of their depth now that they have to supervise employees who are working from home. Some of them figure out of sight is out of mind and simply ignore their staff – and then wonder why the work isn't getting done. Others turn into helicopter managers, hovering and micromanaging and interrupting their employees so often during the day with phone calls, emails, and texts that it's a wonder anybody can do any work at all.
When the pandemic hit, employees who never expected to work from home became telecommuters overnight, and managers who had no training in supervising remote workers became hamstrung.
Managing remotely is a bit like performing laparoscopic surgery. The surgeon has to observe the organ or tissue using a tiny camera inserted into the body – without being able to touch the tissue. It's a procedure of precision, and it's considered "minimally invasive."
Likewise, a manager who is working from a home office and supervising a bunch of employees who are set up at their kitchen tables in many different locations has to observe from afar, know what's going on in each of those kitchens, and still be minimally invasive. With that in mind, here are eight tips to help remote managers supervise employees effectively.
1. Don't hover.
Out of sight shouldn't mean out of mind, but it also doesn't mean you should hover. Some managers fear that if they can't see their employees, those employees won't do any work. They're sure that if a subordinate doesn't respond to an email within a few minutes, that means she's off watching Netflix instead of working at her desk.
Sure, some employees goof off when the boss isn't watching. But that's true whether they're working at headquarters or in a spare bedroom at home.
The solution is threefold:
- Trust your employees. You know them; you trained them; you gave them their marching orders. Why would you suspect them of slacking off just because you're not working beside them?
- Make your expectations clear. The employee who knows exactly what you want from him is much more likely to deliver that than one who has to guess.
- Communicate with each employee regularly at set times – not randomly throughout the day.
2. Pay attention.
Don't ignore remote employees. Just as bad as micromanaging is undermanaging. How would you like it if you were working at your regular office and you saw your bosses in person every day but they never said "good morning," asked about your progress, or acknowledged your hard work?
If you don't make a point of checking in with remote employees, they will feel just as ignored. Left on their own, they will do what they want – not what you want – and they could believe that you don't consider them or their work important enough to bother with them.
Make the rounds regularly and consistently so every employee hears from you. Get everyone together on Zoom for a quick group check-in every morning or every week, depending on how your team works. Let your employees know you care enough about them and their work to take some time out of your busy schedule to say hello.
3. Ditch the timeclock.
Watch the production reports, not the timeclock. If you're used to having your employees sit at their desks in the office 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day with a one-hour lunch break and limited trips to the restroom, you'll have to get used to something else now that they're working at home. Home-based workers will surely throw a load of laundry in every now and then during the workday, be interrupted by a child who needs some help with a virtual school assignment, take the dog out for a quick walk, or even take a nap on a cloudy day.
So what? If they do their work well and completely, meet their deadlines, and are available for all scheduled meetings, does it really matter if they work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or if they put in their hours as needed to do what they need to do? If someone can knock out an assignment in 20 minutes instead of taking an hour, does it really matter if she spends the extra 40 minutes teaching her kid how to find the perimeter of a rectangle? Working parents, in particular, seem to have two jobs now that they're working from home, especially if their children are taking classes from home.
Working from home comes with different challenges from working in a structured office. Even if the boss isn't flexible enough to allow employees to tweak their schedules as needed to respond to family and household needs while they're at home, those employees are going to do it anyway. It's inevitable, so you might as well embrace flexibility.
4. Be productive, not busy.
In a traditional workplace, a manager spends much of the day meeting with employees, explaining instructions, coaching, answering questions and brainstorming with staff. When everybody's off working on their own, the manager might find that he needs to spend less time doing some of those tasks.
That can make a manager anxious. Some believe if they're not busy, they’re not doing their jobs. So they create unnecessary work so they'll look busy or feel busy or can say they're busy. That practice often spills over to the employees – who really are busy.
Some managers also suffer anxiety from not being able to see if their employees are busy. But unless you want to set up the small business version of a nanny cam in each employee's home, you have to let go of the notion that "busy" equals "productive." That's a bad mindset, and not only because your employees will resent it – it's also a sign that you don't trust them. It's a classic example of micromanaging.
You decide: Do you want a culture of busy-ness or a culture of productivity?
5. Create an online culture.
Carry the culture of your workplace over into your employees' remote workspaces. When employees are working in their guest rooms, they miss the office buzz. They miss catching up with each other when they walk to refill their coffee cups. Managers miss that too.
But the way to re-create that with a remote workforce is not to interrupt your employees 10 times a day to ask what's up. Instead, schedule group coffee breaks using Zoom or another virtual platform. Create a group chat on text or Slack and ask everyone to post something personal once a day – about a birthday or a child's award, for example, or a cute video of the employee's cat, or a close-up photo of a hummingbird drinking from a worker's backyard feeder. Have the same small talk you would have in the office, just virtually.
Happy employees are productive employees, and part of what makes people happy are the friends they have made at work. Keep your staff bonded by allowing some time for them to catch up with each other. To preserve your company's culture and to help retain your valued employees, you have to build in human interaction between employee and manager and among teammates.
6. Reach out.
Ask employees what they need. For instance, some might need training with the online platform your team is using. Others might struggle with working in a house full of children who are taking their classes online.
Not everyone likes or is good at telework. But if remote work is the temporary normal for your business, your job as a leader is to help employees get comfortable, competent and productive with remote work.
Be proactive on this one. Don't wait for employees to come to you with their problems and requests. Go to them. Ask them to tell you. Make it safe for them to ask for help. Many employees are reluctant to identify themselves as anything less than up to speed with a new system. Repeatedly offer them opportunities to make their needs known.
Some managers have virtual "office hours" like online college professors do. They're available by phone or Zoom for a few specific hours each week, and employees can "drop in" if they want to talk or ask for help.
7. Be a friend.
Don't limit your employee check-ins to shop talk. Ask employees about their health, their families and their stresses.
One manager I know discovered that an employee had COVID-19 during a call. The person said she was fine, but her voice and energy were off. The manager pried a bit further, and the employee told him what was going on. Then the manager adjusted that employee's workload and checked in every few days to ask what he could do to help her.
Ordinarily, a manager wouldn't intrude on an employee's personal business. But these aren't ordinary times. Managers need to take responsibility to check in on their staff. Some might need help, and others simply might want to talk. Be there for your staff.
8. Take breaks.
Give yourself and your staff permission to take breaks during the day. Working on a computer from morning until evening can be exhausting. Participating in Zoom meetings for hours a day wears people out. Typing up what you used to be able to communicate by talking to people takes much longer.
Remote working can lead to burnout. It used to be that working in a traditional setting burned employees out faster than telework did, but the new pressure to learn technology, to do more with less, and to separate work from home life has changed that dynamic.
Encouraging staff to build breaks into their daily schedules – true breaks, away from work and family obligations – can help ease anxiety and exhaustion.
Managing employees remotely is a very different job from managing them in person. Embrace the changes in the way you need to manage now and in the way your employees are working now, and you'll see more efficiency, greater productivity and reduced stress.