After more than a year of working remotely, managers could benefit from a refresher on what it takes to be a great manager from a distance. That’s because managing a team remotely is not as intuitive as it seems, and requires intentionality and effort to be successful. Otherwise, the perk of working remotely could have the opposite of its desired effect.
As companies weighed whether or not to return to the office, the decision to remain remote or transition to a hybrid environment was supposed to heighten employee satisfaction and contentment. Companies hoped to entice employees into loyalty and increased retention with the option to remain at home sometimes or always, and the purported work-life balance that came along with it.
But instead, the opposite has happened: Employees are leaving their current employers in droves. The New York Times reported that nearly four million Americans left their jobs in April 2021 — the highest number on record. Critics point to bad management for poor employee retention, echoing the familiar adage that “employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers.”
While leading a team has never been easy, managing remote employees presents its own unique challenges. And managers have been left wondering, “How much communication is too much?”; “How can I train and onboard remotely?”; and “Does performance management need to change for remote employees?”
For remote managers hoping to answer all these questions and more, here’s everything you need to know to make remote work successful for both employees and your company.
What Successful Remote Managers Do Differently
While effective remote managers have learned how to adapt processes for virtual teamwork, they also embody some similar traits. Read on to learn what successful remote managers do differently.
1. They trust their employees.
Great managers don’t micromanage, and this is especially true on remote teams. But unfortunately, this detrimental practice is all too common. Some managers try to make up for the lack of in-person supervision by keeping close tabs on how team members are spending their time.
However, while this may feel like one way to ensure employees are staying on track, the opposite is actually true. Research conducted over a decade and published by Harvard Business Review found that “when employees don’t feel trusted, workplace productivity and engagement often suffer.” Conversely, “employees who do feel trusted are higher performers and exert extra effort, going above and beyond role expectation.”
So you need to trust that you’ve hired talented professionals who know how to do their jobs and do them well. In place of micromanaging, use productivity and collaboration tools, like Trello and Slack, to stay in touch and keep track of employee project progress. Being able to measurably set goals, priorities, and milestones and see that employees are meeting them further reinforces trust in the manager-employee relationship.
2. They demonstrate psychological safety by being vulnerable.
In 2015, Google set out to understand what makes teams successful, and published the findings of their research in a blog post entitled The Five Keys to a Successful Google Team. They discovered that among top-performing teams, the number one commonality was psychological safety, a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson in her 1999 paper Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior on Work Teams, which she defined as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
Psychological safety, much like trust, is developed over time and with experience. But there are some practical steps leaders can take with their remote employees to set the tone for a psychologically safe work environment, like asking for input.
“One thing you can do to [promote] psychological safety is to actively elicit [your employees’] opinions,” advised Michelle Stinson Ross, Marketing Director and cofounder of Mindful Appy, a company that helps organizations understand the emotional impact of their business decisions on both employees and customers.
Seeking input may encourage employees to speak up who are unlikely to do so on their own. Stinson Ross pointed out that by soliciting their team members’ opinions, managers are also demonstrating vulnerability — another key pillar of establishing psychological safety.
“Saying, ‘I need to hear from you. I don’t have all the answers, and that’s why we’re here, working together as a team,’ is a powerful message of vulnerability to your team,” she said.
3. They are intentional and disciplined.
Effective managers of remote employees are efficient, intentional, and disciplined with their time — and, importantly, that of others. Debbie Nathanson, executive coach and HR strategic business partner and consultant, said the need to support employees and keep track of goals, progress, and results means remote managers must find smart ways to stay in touch.
“That requires a bit more discipline,” said Nathanson. But note that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. “Whether it’s a daily check-in each morning via an instant messenger like Slack or Microsoft Teams, a status update that happens through collaboration or project software, or a regularly scheduled meeting that you have the discipline not to cancel or reschedule, it’s about finding a method and sticking to it,” she said.
Staying committed to your employee check-ins is essential as a manager of remote employees because the opportunity for impromptu conversations is not a possibility. Emily Goodson, founder and CEO of CultureSmart, an HR consultancy focused on culture and engagement, said this is especially true when it comes to employee development discussions, which are vital for understanding an employee’s goals and career aspirations. “Great remote managers are intentional about their time with direct reports, and they think of one-on-one career conversations as sacred,” she said.
That’s because great managers understand the impact of career mentorship. And for good reason: LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report found that employees who feel their manager and organization are invested in their learning and development are more likely to be engaged at work, and more likely to stick around for the long run. To be exact, 94% of employees surveyed said they would stay longer at a job if it invested in their development, according to the report.
5 Essential Tips for Managing Remote Employees
In addition to demonstrating the previous traits, managers who excel in leading remote teams also rely on a handful of tried-and-true tools and processes to ensure productive, collaborative work. Whether you’re a first time remote manager or seeking to improve your post-pandemic remote management skills, these five tips are crucial for making remote work work.
1. Communicate effectively with remote employees.
According to a 2018 report by CultureWizard, a global diversity consulting firm, 84% of employees say remote communication is more difficult than that done in person. But when approached strategically and with well-articulated expectations, communication with your remote team members can be done clearly and effectively. Here’s how to best communicate with your employees when they work remotely.
- Use tools! Exclusively relying on email is inadequate. At a minimum, your remote employees should have access to video conferencing (like Zoom or Microsoft Teams), instant messaging (like Slack or Google Hangouts), and email.
- Set expectations around responsivity and communication mediums. Goodson recommended providing an “operating guide” that outlines what communication tool to use and when. “Sharing these [expectations and guidelines] up front can help foster meaningful communication long-term,” she said. For example, managers could send their staff a message that says something like this:
I wanted to take a moment to share our communication guidelines so we’re all on the same page. Our team is currently using three main methods of communication: email, Slack, and video calls. Let’s stick to Slack for everyday back-and-forth communication and questions. Email is better reserved for formal messages or client communication. And we’ll continue using video calls for group meetings, one-on-ones, and client calls. If there’s another tool you think we’d benefit from, I’m happy to chat further about anything that will support our communication.
[Insert Your Name Here]
- Learn employee communication styles and preferences. In order to ensure alignment on remote teams, managers should spend one-on-one time with employees to discuss work style and communication preferences. “Getting a grasp on how direct reports desire to be communicated with and actually respecting these wishes where feasible is a great way to show remote team members that they are trusted and valued,” said Matthew Stegmeier, senior workplace consultant at Stegmeier Consulting, a firm that helps companies manage cultural and physical workspace change. Balancing employee preferences with organizational needs helps ensure that work is productive, and also serves to strengthen the relationship between the employee and their manager.
2. Track productivity through outcome — not hours.
The most successful remote teams measure performance by outcomes, not hours. But to do so, employees need to have established goals in order to meet performance expectations.
Nathanson said well-defined goals aid managers and employees in building trust in the relationship, as well as providing a practical tool to help employees prioritize their workload and projects. “Spending time crafting short-term, monthly, and quarterly goals helps the employee understand what needs to be done, and gives the manager a glimpse into any obstacles that may be present,” she said.
Managers can use performance management software like Lattice to set short- and long-term goals. With Lattice, you can easily track progress in real time and spot trends in employee performance in the long run. And collaboration or project management software, like Trello, Asana, or Monday.com, gives managers full visibility into project progress, deliverables, timelines, and stakeholders. These practical tools provide managers with transparency and clarity into employee progress and performance, so they can comfortably grant their team members the autonomy to complete their work as they see fit.
3. Optimize training and onboarding for remote team members.
Onboarding has long been an important part of the employee experience. Aside from the hiring process, which is necessary to perfect in its own right, onboarding is the first chance an employer has to demonstrate a welcoming company culture and display their organized and people-forward practices.
Through onboarding and training, managers give employees the tools and information they need to succeed in their new roles. New hires are set up with access and accounts, introduced to coworkers, and taught how the team functions. The first year is the most risky time for employee turnover: According to the Work Institute’s 2017 Retention Report, about one-third of all turnover occurs within the first year. So making a positive impression during onboarding is essential for increasing retention.
A strong onboarding program is important for on-site and remote employees alike, but remote onboarding presents distinct challenges to that done in person. For example, understanding team dynamics and building relationships can be tricker remotely because face-to-face interactions offer physical cues that signal boundaries and preferences, which remote work lacks by definition.
To ease the transition into a new company and make employees feel welcome, managers should set aside extra time for regular check-ins with remote employees during the onboarding and training process. In addition, managers can make the transition to the new hire’s new role as smooth as possible by doing the following key things:
- Provide the required Human Resources forms, like I-9 employee verification, W-4, and state tax withholding.
- Deliver necessary office equipment and supplies before the new hire’s start date.
- Send them the payroll schedule and get their direct deposit information.
- Share the company handbook and remote code of conduct.
- Ensure the new hire is set up with an email account and that they have access to applications like Microsoft Teams or Slack.
- Host a virtual team lunch via video conferencing to introduce the new employee to their coworkers.
4. Share expectations.
Clear, written expectations make remote work satisfying and successful. Beyond providing a roadmap to success, expectations in the workplace help keep employees stress-free and engaged. A 2019 Harvard Business Review article made the link between the stress caused by unclear expectations and an employee entering flight-or-fight mode, a heightened physiological state of being that, among other consequences, affects an individual’s ability for long-term thinking and strategy.
Managers of remote employees benefit from outlining personal and organizational expectations in writing for the following parameters:
- Working Hours: If maintaining a strict 9-5 schedule isn’t integral to the nature of your work, consider allowing employees the flexibility to get their work done during the timeframes that are best for them. Outline availability expectations and then trust employees to get the job done.
- Availability Expectations: Be up front about how available and responsive employees need to be. For instance, if employees are welcome to grocery shop in the middle of the day but expected to bring their phone along and respond to Slack messages, make this clear.
- Communication Mediums: Be explicit in how you’d like communication tools and mediums to be used. See the sample memo in the communication section earlier in this article for a detailed example.
- Video Call Etiquette: Etiquette will vary company to company, but basic best practices include requesting that employees mute their microphones if they’re not speaking, and asking them not to take video calls from public spaces, like crowded cafes.
Once managers have documented and conveyed clear expectations, they must model these same expectations themselves. For example, say an employee works for an organization that preaches work-life balance and disconnection, but their manager regularly sends late-night work-related emails. The organization's messaging on preventing burnout falls flat when the manager is modeling behavior that directly contradicts with the stated expectation.
5. Use a comprehensive performance management system.
Performance management gets a bad rap when conflated with performance reviews, which only makes up a part of the practice. There is some merit to this criticism, though. In order to equip employees with the knowledge, feedback, support, and tools they need to excel in their jobs, performance management must be a holistic practice that includes performance appraisals, but also one-on-ones, regular feedback, and everyday praise. It’s these components all taken together that truly make performance management effective, as without regular performance-related conversations and feedback, expecting an employee to meet expectations is unreasonable and unfair.
“Because remote employees operate with no direct, in-person employer oversight, performance management is essential,” stressed Goodson. “I would recommend monthly or even biweekly one-on-ones with employees to create goals and expectations together,” she said.
For managers of remote teams, the right performance management tool can make all the difference. Lattice makes it easy to optimize one-on-ones, collaborate with employees on goal-setting, and give and receive feedback. Our robust analytics suite lets you understand how your employees are performing in the moment and over time, so you can become a better coach, manager, and leader to your team.
Contrary to popular belief, the most complicated part of managing a remote team is the management piece — not the fact that you’re occupying different physical spaces. Strong leadership will shine through whether employees are remote or on-site, but managers who learn to supplement their management skills with remote-specific ones, like providing clear and documented expectations and getting smart about communication, will build satisfied, effective teams that consistently perform at the highest level.
To learn more about how Lattice can help you excel in leading remote teams, schedule a product tour today.