While remote work is a new way of life for a lot of companies right now, it hasn’t always been that way. There are many companies that switched to remote work a long time ago, and some that have been maintaining a balance of both remote and in-person work for a while. Not all industries lend themselves well to having remote employees but if yours does—or if you find your team working remotely at least for the moment—we can help.
We’re a 100% remote team and have always been, so we have our own experiences to offer in this post, but we’ve also rounded up some tips, advice, and practices that other remote companies use to manage their remote teams so you don’t just have to take our word for it!
Plus, at the end of this article, we list our favorite apps that we use to run and manage a remote team so if you haven’t heard of them and they seem like they could be a good fit for your business—you can try them out too!
Let’s get into the strategies you can use to manage a remote team.
How to Manage a Remote Team
First off, remember that you as the manager are the coach and the leader of the team. You should already have all the right people in the right positions to make up a well-rounded team and you just have to guide and motivate them to the end goal. You don’t play their position for them, you just give each person the tools they need—remote or not—to play their position to bring the win to the team as a whole.
One of the most challenging aspects of remote teams is the actual remote-ness of it all. It can be hard to work as a team when you’re not all in the same room together so you need to put effort into creating collaborative work environments even when you aren’t physically in the same space as one another.
This can be done in many different ways, depending on the type of work that you and your team do but some examples are:
- Having group team calls to actually have everyone meet face-to-face, even if it is through a screen
- Using collaborative documents that multiple people can access so your team can edit, comment, add ideas, and suggest new things
- Hold brainstorming sessions, either in face-to-face virtual meetings, in audio-only meetings or even in written forums where team members can spit-ball and bounce ideas off of one another
- Sending digital mockups, screenshots, or images that team members can markup and annotate digitally (find our app recommendation for this at the end of this article!)
- Sharing videos or screen-share recordings that team members can review and comment on
The goal is to create an office-like environment in the sense that you have a group of people working together, easily communicating and bouncing off of one another so you can not only grow as a business but also as a team. Teams that work better together do better work, and encouraging collaboration is one way you can build a team-friendly environment even if members aren’t in the same office space.
Don’t Micromanage: Trust Your People
This is a management style some leaders can fall into—especially when leading a remote team—that can be the downfall of their team—so don’t micromanage. Why? Micromanagement can be demoralizing.
If you insist on employees checking in constantly, or having monitoring software installed on their computers, that’s likely to be a fast track to demoralizing and even alienating them.
It can be especially tempting to go down this route if you’re used to managing your team in an office setting all day, seeing what they’re up to, and getting direct reports from them consistently—but understand that remote work is different.
Remote work is different from traditional 9–5 work in the way that there’s usually no set work hours. There might be set office hours (the hours in which team members are expected to be reachable by other team members) and those office hours might be around the normal 9–5, but work hours for remote employees don’t always look like 9–5, nor should they.
Automattic—WordPress’ parent company—has the right idea about office hours versus work hours listed right on their hiring page:
We care about the work you produce, not just the hours you put in.
Remote workers should be measured by output, not input—and you’re much better off setting expectations and deadlines for output than you are micromanaging input. So put your focus there instead of expecting your team to give you updates on their whereabouts multiple times per day.
Plus, if you’ve hired the right team members, you’ll also likely find that they don’t want to slack off or not get their work done or miss important deadlines. If you’ve hired the right people then they likely feel fulfilled by what they do and want to get their work done and pull their weight as part of the team. So trust that your team members will get their work done (within the expectations and deadlines you’ve predetermined) and be flexible with them. As Buffer, another remote company, explains:
Flexibility often suggests trust. Trust to get work done, trust to set your schedule, trust to work somewhere where a manager isn’t watching your every move.
So don’t worry so much about what your team is working on and where they are—focus on the output they produce and giving them the time, flexibility, and autonomy they need to get their work done.
Stay Connected & Make Communication Easy
Keeping communication up as a remote team is hugely important—and can also be majorly challenging. But, it’s something you need to put effort into so your team members feel supported, heard, and can get their work done.
For most remote teams, you need to maintain a similar kind of communication process that you would have if you were in an office—quick and easy. Just like you would physically pop your head into someone’s office or tap them on the shoulder to get their attention, you should be able to do the same thing but virtually.
This is why communication methods like email are usually too slow for remote work environments—you’re much better off with a company chat app. Slack is the top one in the remote work world, and it’s what we use for our company communication.
Chats enable you to ask and respond to team members quickly and easily, plus they’re not as formal as emails and there’s usually less outside “noise” (since people receive emails from non-work people and brands, too). So stick to a chat app and give everyone on the team access so everyone’s connected and can communicate with ease.
Check-In & Follow Up
Checking in with your employees is an important part of managing a remote team because it encourages conversation, connection, and collaboration in ways you sometimes can’t foster just through written chat communication.
There are lots of different ways you can check-in with your team, but most remote managers schedule certain times and days for it and they set a specific focus for each meeting. The main thing to remember here is to keep it consistent so your team knows when they’re expected to be available and what they’re expected to deliver so they can do both things successfully.
Here are some ideas for how to set up your team check-ins:
- Check-in twice per week, once at the beginning of the week to talk over what everyone’s working on and once at the end of the week to run through what got completed.
- Check-in once weekly to discuss what was completed last week and what’s on the agenda for the week ahead.
- Have a daily “standup” at the start of the workday so team members can share their main task of the day.
- Have a daily “check-out” towards the end of the day where team members can share their big or small wins of the day.
- Create a mixture of regular face-to-face check-ins and virtual check-ins. Try meeting up over a video call once per week and having a running check-out forum where team members are expected to share their wins of the day at the end of every workday in a group chat.
- Make some check-ins mandatory and others optional (this usually works best if you have a large team and/or a team spread over different time zones) so people don’t feel overwhelmed with check-in obligations. Record the non-mandatory meetings and share them with your team so any members who weren’t in attendance can catch up.
There are so many options and you can really tailor it to your team’s needs, but it’s important to keep it consistent so team members not only stay on top of their work but also to keep up-to-date with what’s going on in the company. It helps to foster collaboration and camaraderie—both of which are vital to any business.
As an example, Zapier is a 100% remote company and they have a large team, so they’ve got some pretty solid practices in place when it comes to checking in with their team. Here are some excerpts from their How to Manage a Remote Team Guide. If you’re running a big team, there are lots of nuggets of wisdom to pick up here:
Every Thursday morning or afternoon (rotating every week to accommodate people in different time zones), we get together for lightning talks, demos, and/or interviews. With over 300 people in seven major departments and even more smaller teams, it’s hard to see everyone on a weekly basis. These hangouts are a chance to say “hi!” to folks you may not normally see.
These hangouts are also a good chance to learn something new. Each week, someone inside the team does a lightning talk or demo on something interesting. We’ve had folks share their latest project, new teammates share fun facts about themselves and their backgrounds, and leadership members conduct well-being workshops through these hangouts.
Many teams do these weekly meetings as all-hands meetings. In a remote team that’s across many time zones, this becomes an exclusionary event. As a result, this meeting becomes more about camaraderie and showing off the work of the company. We record these so folks who can’t attend are able to catch up. But we’re careful to avoid core strategic topics which typically are discussed in Slack, Async, or a Zoom call that can make sure to incorporate all the relevant teammates for that decision.
As we’ve grown, it can be harder to know all your teammates. One easy way to mitigate that is to have folks on the team get paired up with one other teammate or two at random each week for a short pair call. We use Donut in Slack for this to chat about life, work, or whatever random thing seems interesting. Sometimes cool new product features come out of these, other times it’s just good fun. Regardless, it helps everyone better know their teammates.
People often ask, “how do you know if employees are actually working?” Any easy way we know is with Friday updates. Each Friday, every person on the team posts an update to Async about what they shipped that week and what they are working on for the next week.
That last paragraph really hits on employee productivity and how you can be privy to team members who aren’t pulling their own weight—implement check-ins! For Zapier, Friday updates are what keeps their team members accountable and also keeps managers in-the-know with employee productivity.
Hold Your Team Accountable
Just because you have a remote team, doesn’t mean work doesn’t get done. As we’ve mentioned, if you’ve hired the right team, slackers shouldn’t be a big worry for you but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still hold your team accountable.
Deadlines, schedules, check-ins, and follow-ups are all ways you can keep your team members accountable—both to you but also to the team members that rely on them to get their work done, too.
The big thing here is to set realistic deadlines, keep an empathetic schedule (be flexible if team members are swamped or taking vacation time or things crop up in their personal life), and manage expectations. You want to set your team up for success so be clear with your expectations and why you have those expectations, and make deadlines achievable so team members can actually meet them.
The Harvard Business Review conducted a study where they found that managers:
Cultivate trust by setting a clear direction, giving people what they need to see it through, and getting out of their way. It’s not about being easy on your employees or expecting less from them. High-trust companies hold people accountable but without micromanaging them. They treat people like responsible adults.
So don’t think that you have to be easy on your remote workers just because they’re not in the same office with you: In fact, hold them up to their potential and keep them accountable—both your team members and your business will be better off for it.
Expect Productivity Outside of 9-5
Just because your office hours are 9–5, don’t expect employees’ work hours to be 9–5. Some people work best outside of “normal” working hours so they should be encouraged to complete their work when they are most productive. For some people, that’s bright and early in the morning and for others, that’s late at night. Even for parents, it might be whenever they can get a spare moment to themselves. Expect your team members to get their work done, but don’t expect it to be done only between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm.
It’s also important to keep in mind that some team members might be available outside of 9-5 work hours, while others may not be. That doesn’t necessarily make them undedicated or unproductive employees, it usually just means they maintain a certain work/life balance.
What it comes down to is that as a manager of remote workers, you have to let your team members be the individuals that they are—especially when it comes to their work hours, routines, and availability. Set the expectations you need from them (like if you need them to be available by chat, email, or video-call during specific times of the day) but outside of that, expect them to do what works best for them.
Take this excerpt from Gallup’s How to Manage Remote Employees article:
Some remote workers feel isolated by working alone, while others feel liberated. Some love 24/7 access to work; others need to have a real boundary between office and home. Some do their best work in the middle of the night, while others keep strict office hours.
Accepting a remote worker’s method and reasoning helps managers coach to the individual on behalf of the company, promoting the corporate benefits that characterize off-site work. Individualization helps remote workers “feel cared for as a person,” which is a fundamental element of engagement.
As a manager, you’ll have to be perceptive towards each individual team members’ needs and routines, and if it doesn’t work for you and your business, you need to communicate that with the individuals not meeting your expectations.
The best part about being a remote team, after all, is that you don’t have to stick to strict 9–5 hours. In fact, some companies have the work-anytime-work-anywhere attitude embedded into their company’s core systems and processes so employees feel completely comfortable working when it best suits them.
As an example, Zapier outlined the remote working concepts that Arkency—a consulting agency that builds business software, trains programmers, and produces books and webinars—has built into their company: Anarchy, async, and remote.
What do these three things mean? As defined in Zapier’s article:
Anarchy means flexible work hours, choosing your own priorities and coming up with the initiative (we love that!). Remote means you are working from everywhere in the world—home, your coworking office, whatever. And async means all communication is not meant to be done instantly—we avoid meetings and long discussions.
And why does Arkency run their company like this? They told Zapier:
More than remote, we value async, which means work at any time you prefer. The whole process is constructed around it. Asyc/remote is part of our DNA. I think it’s now part of our lifestyle too. There’s a lot of freedom with such approach.
They’re proof that remote companies don’t have to operate the exact same way as traditional, brick-and-mortar businesses—you can take advantage of your remote circumstances to create a company culture that promotes freedom and flexibility for your team.
Inform & Involve Your Team
The Harvard Business Review shared some interesting information about companies that keep their teams informed and involved in future plans:
Only 40% of employees report that they are well informed about their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics. This uncertainty about the company’s direction leads to chronic stress, which inhibits the release of oxytocin and undermines teamwork. Openness is the antidote. Organizations that share their “flight plans” with employees reduce uncertainty about where they are headed and why.
Since remote workers have even less of an ear to the ground because they’re not physically around their coworkers and direct reports, you need to provide that information for them so know what they’re working towards and what to expect in the future. Gallup calls this “building lines of sight” and you need to be the one holding the flashlight, illuminating your business’ pathway, so your team knows where they’re headed.
Make a point to share updates, wins, losses, negotiations, and upcoming plans with your team in your check-in meetings and in company-wide emails. Obviously you may not want to disclose all of the behind-the-scenes details, especially if they’re not set in stone yet, but share what you can when it’s relevant and appropriate so your team sees the big picture as your growing business changes and evolves.
Don’t Have Unnecessary Meetings
This is something we’re seeing many businesses—both remote and non-remote—becoming more aware of. Meetings can be a huge time-suck and they can even get chaotic when there’s a lot of people on one call (too many cooks spoil the broth). So in order to respect everyone’s time—don’t have a team meeting when an email would suffice.
Now, we’ve just spent sections of this article explaining the importance of connection, communication, and camaraderie amongst a remote team, and a lot of that gets developed through video-call meetings. The trick with all this is to know when it’s better to communicate over your team’s written chat or in an email rather than a call. It’s equally important to keep calls between the people who need to be there the most. Finding the balance between having enough calls to maintain communication and collaboration versus few enough calls so people don’t feel like their time is being wasted is tough, but it must be done.
Elon Musk outlined three meeting-related productivity tips in a 2018 email to Tesla shareholders:
- Excessive meetings are the blight of big companies and almost always get worse over time. Please get [rid] of all large meetings, unless you’re certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case keep them very short.
- Also get rid of frequent meetings, unless you are dealing with an extremely urgent matter. Meeting frequency should drop rapidly once the urgent matter is resolved.
- Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.
As you can see, his stance is to keep meetings contained to only the essentials. The essential people needed, the essential topics covered, and only the essential frequency. If it’s non-essential, it doesn’t need to be a meeting.
Keep this in mind while you run your own remote team and define what’s essential for your business. Check-ins, team-building calls, and company-wide updates can all be essential things if they’re productive for you and your team. Just be aware and ready to shut down or cancel meetings if they start to become unproductive or unnecessary.
Respect Personal Time & Encourage Time Off
Understand what kind of time off your employees need. Generally, at-home workers take fewer days off because their work is more flexible and they can still work even when they’re sick, so set expectations for how you want employees to manage their time off. Do you want them to still work if they can when they don’t feel well? Or would you rather they took the time off so they don’t over-exert themselves?
Here’s how Buffer handles it:
- Teammates work with their managers to set their schedules and work hours; there are no team-wide schedules or expectations.
- As an organization, we focus on cultivating asynchronous communication practices so that teammates don’t feel that they need to be checking-in online all day.
- We do not track hours.
- If anything pops up and a teammate needs to take a day off of work, they are always given that day.
Open vacation policy (no set number of days per year). We encourage all employees to take the time they need for vacation, to pursue their own interests, to stay healthy, and to spend time with friends and family.
Invest in Other Ways
This is possibly one of the most fun and rewarding parts of managing a remote team: Giving back and investing in your team.
If you’re running a 100% remote team, you probably don’t have a physical office space. This is great because you’re dodging the costs associated with it which you could, in theory, put towards your team in different ways.
This might not be an option for every remote business depending on your financial priorities, however, it is worth prioritizing other ways to invest in your staff because it can build trust, promote productivity, and optimize your team’s happiness! Happy teams are more likely to do better work.
And because you’re a remote team, the sky’s the limit in terms of what you can do to give back and invest in your team. As Zapier says:
One of the beauties of a remote team is that because remote work feels like an experiment, everything else feels like it can be more experimental too. So go ahead and experiment! The biggest wins aren’t usually found in a post on the internet, but in what you discover on your own.
So make your own rules! Give back in a way that means something to your team. Make your own path.
Here are ideas of what some companies do to give back and invest in their remote workers:
- Buffer pays for co-working space memberships in their worker’s cities so they have a place to go work if they want to
- For their employees who don’t want to work out of a co-working space (or maybe there aren’t anywhere they live), Buffer provides a monthly stipend to cover the costs of food and drinks while employees work in local coffee shops (they even have a blog post about coffee shop working etiquette for their employees to use as a guideline for best practices)
- Zapier sets up their new employees with the tech they need to do their job—whatever kind of computer, whatever kind of phone, etc. Many companies also upgrade their team’s tech on a need-by-need basis—after all, it’s what they need to do their job!
- Some companies also compensate their employees for their home internet, office supplies, and furniture costs
- FlexJobs provides virtual fitness classes such as yoga and belly dancing for their employees
- They also send surprise packages delivered to their workers’ homes a couple of times per year!
- Doist provides a generous hardware/software budget so their team can try new tools and keep developing their skills
Many other companies provide lots of vacation time and out-of-work team-building events and meetups. Zapier gets their whole crew together a couple of times per year in different locations—here’s what they have to say about it:
We strive to bring the team together two times a year somewhere cool, from Vancouver to Minneapolis to New Orleans. In addition to the all-company get-togethers, departments hold their own retreats, and small groups of us might get together on an ad hoc basis throughout the year to coordinate the start of a major project or feature. Usually this is just one person jumping on a flight to visit another person or, if more than a couple of staff members live in close proximity (we have many teammates in Austin and Portland, for example), they’ll have impromptu co-working sessions. If this seems expensive, that’s because it is. But the great part is that you’ll likely have the money to cover this plus more since you don’t have to pay for a central office that everyone is working in.
Other teams meet up once in a while in their same city, some companies hold group lunches, and others just meet up for a virtual happy hour once in a while to hang out online. Buffer is super open about how they invest in their team, so check out their blog post on their remote team meetups here and their remote team company benefits here.
Companies and managers that support these things usually run better businesses—so it’s worth considering for your own, especially for a remote company where camaraderie is key and you need to put effort into cultivating it. As the Harvard Business Review says:
It may sound like forced fun, but when people care about one another, they perform better because they don’t want to let their teammates down.
So invest in your team. Put the money that you would be spending on a physical office space into the things that will make your remote workers’ lives better. At the end of the day, you’ll likely get way more out of investing in your human employees than you would by investing in an inanimate office building.
The Top 5 Apps We Use to Manage Our Remote Team
We’re no Zapier or Buffer—we run a much smaller team. That means the app stack we use to manage our remote team looks a little different from what theirs probably does, however, these are all great apps that we stand behind, and they’d all work for businesses of any size.
Slack is the gold-standard for remote team communication. You’re probably already using Slack or have at least heard of it but if not, it’s quick chat-like communication for business teams. There are so many features and it can integrate with a lot of other tools—it’s so valuable.
We couldn’t do what we do without Airtable—it keeps our remote team organized. It’s an essential part of team collaboration and communication and we couldn’t recommend it more. Check out our Airtable Review here.
Plutio is a project management app we use to establish company “sight lines” so team members have an understanding of what we’re working on and what we plan to work on in the future.
CloudApp is possibly the most essential company collaboration tool that we use. It makes communication easy—we can send screen-share videos or take screenshots and easily annotate them to explain projects or give feedback. It’s one of those tools that we’d be pretty lost if we didn’t have it.
Google Docs & Google Sheets
These are other collaboration tools we would be pretty lost without. Google Docs and Google Sheets are the pillars that make up our daily work. We can use them to easily work together on projects, have brainstorming sessions, give updates, and just generally get work done and keep the whole team in the loop.
At the end of the day, your business is made up of your people and it’s only as strong as your team is. The best way to have an effective team is to have effective leadership—and for remote managers, that can look slightly different than it might for traditional businesses.
So whether you already have a remote team or you’ve suddenly found yourself running your team remotely—or maybe you want to start hiring remote workers—put these remote management techniques into play and check out some of these apps to manage your remote company better. Good luck!