You may be excited to take on your first remote team members– maybe an existing employee is going remote or you were hired to manage a fully distributed team– but are you familiar with the challenges that come with it?
According to prolific angel investor and found of AngelList, Naval Ravikant, remote work is the future we all must get ready for:
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as Klajnerok found out after he posted the original list (he’s since created a Twitter group with the complete list of distributed companies
On top of that, 51% of on-site workers say they want to work remotely with 43% of U.S. employers saying they plan on offering more opportunities for remote work next year, according to a Condeco
Modern Workplace report, so remote will only continue to grow.
Today, we’re here to guide you through this change, whether you’ve already hired your first remote employee and need a tune-up, or want to better understand what it’s like before you start hiring remote workers.
The rise of remote work might be unavoidable, and you should want to take advantage. Allowing remote work can benefit not only your employees, but you as a manager and the organization as a whole.
Not only do remote workers tend to enjoy what they do more and find remote work less stressful in general, but they’re more willing to put in extra hours as a result. However, that’s just one of the potential benefits of remote work for employees, managers, and companies alike.
The MIT Sloan School of Management’s Executive Education Department reported in their
Quality of Life Survey that when an employee has a supervisor that’s open to flexible (i.e. partially remote) work, that employee is more likely to stay with the company.
MIT’s Dr. Peter Hirst of the same department used those findings as inspiration to pilot a flexible work program, with the goal of changing the way his team perceived remote work. He wanted to see what would happen when the team’s perception of remote work was changed from a rare privilege to a common opportunity any on the team could take advantage of.
The results speak for themselves:
90% reported their family and personal life improved. 85% said that their stress was reduced. 80% said that their morale and engagement improved. 62% felt more trusted and respected. And 93% even believed that collaboration was better than before.
Better perceived morale, engagement, trust, retention, and collaboration all came as a result of the opportunity to work remotely, in addition to the personal improvements on the employee side.
Remote work is about more than just the advancement of technology, it’s something that has the potential to help the way we work, manage, and lead.
It’s not all positive, though. Remote work has its own set of challenges.
The Challenges of Managing Remote Employees
While there are great potential benefits of allowing remote work on your team, there’s a problem:
most founders and managers still aren’t familiar with the challenges of managing remote employees.
Remote work is different from the typical work structure in a few big ways. And while there are big benefits, there are also new and unique challenges with both
hiring and managing remote employees that managers never see coming.
According to Buffer’s
State of Remote Work report, these are the major challenges with remote work in general:
Without any prior experience working remote it can be hard anticipating the challenges your remote employees will face.
Here’s a bit more on some of the major challenges with remote work to help you better understand what your
remote workers are going through: 1. Loneliness and isolation
Without a doubt, this is one of the top three challenges all remote workers face:
Regular human interaction can be easy to take for granted, until you don’t have an office full of people to be around every day.
Socializing and being around others is core to how humans involved. Not surprisingly then, it’s a huge health factor that impacts not only our psychology but even our physical health.
Neuroscience report found that when researchers removed the mice from their typical highly social structure and put them in isolation away from the group, their brain cells showed signs of social interaction atrophy. In other words, when they were separated from their social structure, their brain cells started dying off.
Isolation and loneliness in humans are just as detrimental. Prolonged isolation can in extreme cases result in things like
anxiety and depression.
As their manager, be aware of this. Do what you can to engage them socially with the rest of the team whenever possible. Also, encourage them to get out of the house, whether going to a coffee shop or co-working space to work, or getting out to go to events or meetups in their area.
2. Communication issues due to a lack of non-verbal cues
Communication is an obvious challenge with managing remote employees, but some of those communication-related challenges aren’t so obvious. Yes, you lose some of those hallway conversations, and quick in-office chats, but it goes deeper than that.
When you don’t have enough face-to-face communication, it can become difficult to sense intent in messages between you and your employee. It’s harder to understand a message when it’s only text, or you don’t know them as well as other, in-office employees.
The philosophical concept
Hanlon’s razor, coined by author Robert J. Hanlon, says that we should “assume ignorance before malice,” when communicating with others. It’s based on thousands upon thousands of years of primal programming that causes us to assume something is a threat by default for the sake of survival.
The problem is, that natural defense mechanism doesn’t help us much in a modern workplace. When you’re messaging an employee, they’re liable to assume negative intent when you say something they could take as a “threat” (such as when you offer a critique, feedback, ask a question, etc.), and the same goes for you.
Without any of the non-verbal cues to discern intent from what we see and hear, communication issues can easily arise.
Imagine trying to make an important decision with only 7% of the information. Yet, we do that every day with chat and email with your remote team members.
This is why as a team here at Lighthouse, any prolonged conversation on Slack becomes a phone call. It’s saved us many misunderstandings and quickly helped us move forward aligned and understanding one another.
3. Feeling left out
The feeling of being left out– of company celebrations, consideration for a promotion, and your opinion in general– is more common among remote employees than those on-site.
When you work remotely, you miss out on so many opportunities to connect with your colleagues and managers, from the small– running into each other in the office– to the bigger– Friday happy hours a block from the office.
More than just that, though, you also feel like your teammates don’t hear you the same. You can often feel like leadership doesn’t take notice of you the way they do those working in office.
A survey of remote employees by job search site
Indeed found that 37% of those surveyed believe that working remotely can lead to reduced visibility and less access to company leadership.
* E d. note : This and other challenges are often less of a problem for fully distributed teams, because everyone, including leadership, understands the challenges of remote work. Because everyone is remote, it’s easier to develop healthy habits and recognize issues.
Another study recently reported in
HBR of eleven-hundred employees found that remote workers feel more left out:
Study authors Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield remarked:
“Unless we take extra measures to build trust and connection with [remote] colleagues, we pay dearly for doing so. A lack of close contact with people inhibits the formation of trust, connection, and mutual purpose – three ingredients of a healthy social system.”
As with all of these challenges, managers have the power to counter this by taking steps like
building trust and rapport with their remote workers by making time to get to know them, and having dedicated, regular 1 on 1s with everyone weekly. Understand the challenges with managing distributed teams
These are just a few of the most common challenges with managing remote teams. Understanding these unique challenges and working through them will improve engagement, productivity, and cohesion across your entire team.
I worked with a largely remote team when I ran product at KISSmetrics, and now, the Lighthouse team today is fully remote.
In the next section, I’ll talk about many of the lessons I’ve learned and advice I’ve collected along the way that helped me better manage, motivate, and retain remote employees given these unique challenges.
11 Essential Tips for Managing Remote Employees
Remote management can feel like a totally different challenge than managing people you work side by side with. Things that work in an office don’t always translate exactly to remote employees.
Use these tips to be more conscious of the unique approaches you should take to managing remote employees.
1) Make time for small talk.
When managing remote employees, it’s easy to just talk about what needs to get done and jump off your call, end your chat, and get back to executing. And in some cases, that’s exactly what you should do; if you’re on a tight deadline, fighting a fire, or just having a quick standup meeting that makes sense.
However, if that’s all you do, you’re really missing out on a critical part of management.
You must Rapport is what will help you work through problems each team member has, trust they can come to you with things important to them, and give you the benefit of the doubt when you make a mistake or an unpopular decision. build rapport with *every* member of your team.
Rapport does not come from doing and talking about work.
Rapport comes from getting to know them as a complete person.
Ask them what they’re into, about their family, and where they’re from. Demonstrating that you care is important to them and essential for you to truly understand their motivations. Taking the time to do this will also make them like working for you more.
Remembering what you do learn about them, especially for people you only see a couple of hours a week on calls, can be hard. Apps like
Lighthouse can help you keep track of those details as you learn them. You can also get more ideas for how to build rapport with your remote team members here.
2) Use video as much as you can.
Research shows more than half of human communication is
nonverbal. When you don’t get to see someone in the office every day, having any type of visual clue to what someone is thinking is essential.
Whether you’re gauging their reaction to a change in plans, or just trying to judge their overall mood that day, video tells you way more than an audio-only call, or especially chat will ever reveal.
With so many free and inexpensive solutions for video chat (like Skype, Google Hangouts, and
Zoom), there’s no reason not to switch to video whenever you can.
If you have connectivity issues, fix it. Don’t let it be an excuse for more downstream problems. See if your company can help cover the cost of better internet/more bandwidth for your employee, or encourage them to work somewhere they can more reliably take calls.
Most importantly, trust your instincts when you see something might be wrong. Ask in a call, or make time to ask about it. Those non-verbal clues you see on video are your opportunity to fix problems when they’re small for your remote employees.
3) Have longer one on ones.
Since you don’t have all those moments in the office to build rapport and talk about issues ad hoc, make up for it by setting aside more time for
your one on ones with your remote employees.
when it’s, “open door policy” fails “call me at a time that works….without our time zones conflicting….when I might be at my desk…but you can’t see for sure.”
If you ever forget to update your availability on Skype, MS Teams, Slack, etc, realize that your remote employees have no idea when your door is actually
The best way to handle this is to
give remote employees a full hour every week on your calendar for one on ones. This ensures you can cover a variety of topics and really dive into issues that aren’t covered because they’re not in the office for ad hoc discussions.
Listen to the Building Remote Teams Podcast:
I was recently interviewed by Jevin Maltais of the
Building Remote Teams podcast, where we talked about the value of one on ones for remote teams and how to make the most of them.
You can listen below for the full episode (
Or the full transcript with show notes here):
Come with a variety of remote-specific questions
Because of the unique challenges that remote employees face, it’s important to have questions on hand that help dive into some of those issues that they might be dealing with.
Chances are, remote work has made them become more and more isolated and they don’t have many people– if anyone– to talk about this stuff with.
Here are some great
remote-specific 1 on 1 questions to ask:
What’s your favorite part about working remote? (Understand what drives them) What’s your daily routine like for working? Do you feel included in our team decisions? Why/why not? How are the tools we use as a team working out for you remotely? (i.e. Are they handicapped by poor audio on hangouts or struggle using any tools the team uses?) Which of your coworkers do you wish you had more of a connection with? How do you think that would help? You visit the office X times a year. Do you feel like that’s too much, not enough, or just right? How could I better support remote staff like you?
Want help making the most of your one on ones and automate some of the manual work around agenda setting, follow-ups, and prep? Then sign up for a free trial of Lighthouse here . 4) NEVER cancel a one on one.
One of the fastest ways to build resentment on your team is regularly
canceling one on ones.
They’ll probably agree if you ask, but that’s more about a power dynamic between manager and report than they really didn’t want to talk. There is always more to talk about even when your team members sit next to you.
Remote employees miss out on a lot of things going on in your office. They also miss out on the kinds of information that would naturally spread across an office related to other parts of the company and brief announcements.
One on ones provide an opportunity to make up for that as well as handle all the little things that build up over the course of a week. With so much to cover, you simply cannot afford to miss one for these team members.
Pick a time that always works for you for your remote 1 on 1s and make them sacred on your calendar. If you absolutely have to,
reschedule it, but never cancel. 5) Use animated gifs and emoticons to convey emotion.
Given that so much of communication is non-verbal, it’s hard for words alone to convey how you feel about something. Especially in work, words can come across more aggressive, or not as impactful as you may like.
If someone did great work, or there’s a good team win, find a gif at a site like
giphy.com and send it with the message praising them (you are reinforcing good behavior, right?).
Watch how much better a reaction you get than when you just email, You can get a similar effect if you want to diffuse an email by putting an emoticon at the end to show you’re not too serious. “Good job.” 6) Balance schedule inconvenience.
Once you start adding remote employees, it won’t be long before you have people across many time zones. That can make meeting scheduling a real challenge. Often times, you will get one person that always has calls at awkward times for them.
At KISSmetrics, we had a designer in Australia. When it’s 8am there, it’s 3pm in SF (our main office) and 6pm on the East Coast (where a lot of the team lived). It always made calls challenging since his day was just beginning when many others were anxious to end their day and eat dinner with their families.
As product manager, I tried to schedule some of my calls with our designer for late at night. 10pm here in San Francisco is a nice 3pm in Australia. It had the desired effect of making calls easier to schedule and I know he appreciated not getting asked to wake up early for another call.
You show a lot of solidarity if every once in a while, team members in your main time zones accommodate your outlier. It will help your team
remember the sacrifice their teammate is regularly making and help them empathize more with the distant, remote person. 7) Remember their career paths, too.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of your remote team members as mercenaries helping you get things done. If you hire them as employees, treat them like any other employee, not a freelancer/contractor.
Just like the people in your office, your remote employees have goals and aspirations. Ensuring they make progress on
their goals for growth and understand the career paths available by being remote avoids confusion or frustration. ( Remember: you can grow people without promotions.)
If you follow through on the recommendation to have an hour for one on ones with your remote employees, you will have plenty of time to
talk about their career development during that time.
[ Ed note: You can use an app like Lighthouse to collaborate on their goals and growth so you can circle back as necessary and always remember what matters to them.] 8) Build a culture of adding people on calls.
It’s easy to have discussions and pause and say,
“Sam should be involved.” If Sam is in the office you will likely grab them and bring them into your meeting, but if Sam is remote, that often gets forgotten or quickly passed over as not worth the hassle.
As a leader, set the example. When situations like that arise, you should
go out of your way to get the remote person into the meeting. If you would have interrupted someone in the office, then it’s worth bringing them in, or waiting until they’re available.
Whether you convey that it doesn’t matter or that it is important to loop in your remote team members, the rest of your team will
follow your lead.
You can make this easier by having the right tools at your disposal (the same software on everyone’s computers, hardware in conference rooms, etc) to reduce the friction of looping someone in.
Swag for the whole family is a crowd-pleaser that gets shared. 9) Send swag for your remote workers
and their whole family.
Especially if you’re a Valley company, you can take swag for granted. However, it’s easy to forget about how little swag your remote coworkers have as you sit in a sea of t-shirts by your desk.
In my experience, the moment remote coworkers get their
swag is a big deal; getting to work for a company that is exciting, cutting edge, and has cool swag is part of what likely convinced them to join your company instead of something locally.
Send whatever swag you have, so that your remote employees have them, too. They’ll feel more connected to the team and not forgotten by the main office that may have people on video wearing swag all the time.
Bonus points to send the right sizes for their husbands, wives, and kids. There’s a good chance the family will wear them and next thing you know your swag is on their Facebook and Instagram showing off your awesome company (like my old coworker who lived in Ohio, pictured above).
10) Get together face to face at least once a year.
Nothing beats getting everyone together face to face.
You’ll always get at least a few,
“wow, you look different than you did on video” and other funny reactions. More importantly, though, you’ll build more rapport in a few days of teamwork in person than months of remote efforts.
KISSmetrics did a summit once a year when I was there, and many fully-remote companies like
Buffer actually travel as a team to exotic places like South Africa.
These gatherings may be pricey at times, but they really pay off long term.
The energy from these gatherings is always high and provides a unique opportunity to have big discussions around culture, vision, and the company or team’s future that would be difficult to do with people spread around the world. It also allows for team bonding that you just can’t create on a video call.
11) Make whiteboarding and ideating remote-friendly.
A final remote best practice is to shift brainstorming of all kinds to being digital.
Think about the spaces, the conversations (often unscheduled– see what
Steve Jobs called “Collisions”), and the processes typically involved in ideating within a typical office and imagine how you can create a similar environment online.
Remote employees are at a clear disadvantage when it comes to sharing and bouncing ideas off their team members. However, there are things you can do to make this easier.
Tools for taking brainstorming online
Digital tools for whiteboarding and ideating have a long way to go, but there are several that are effective replacements– or additions– to your brainstorming process.
Head of Remote at AngelList,
Andreas Klinger, asked his following on Twitter what tools they prefer for whiteboarding and ideating remotely.
These are the tools most commonly mentioned:
For general brainstorming,
Google docs was another common suggestion mentioned for its simplicity, reliability, and familiarity. If you’re budget-conscious, the best part then is that your company probably already has access to it if you use Google Apps for email.
And if you want to go lower tech, these can also be worth trying, though your results may vary depending on camera quality:
Whatever you decide to use, keep in mind that extra effort needs to be made on your part as manager to help improve the quality of your brainstorming sessions.
By investing in improving your partially remote team’s whiteboarding, ideating, and other brainstorming processes, you’re able to improve the flow of innovation by removing that key challenge of not having your remote team members in the office.
Tips for Motivating Remote Employees
When you want to
motivate or congratulate a team member, if they’re on-site all you need to do is walk over to their desk and let them know how awesome they are.
However, for remote workers, it’s a little more difficult– and way less effective– to express the same kind of
praise or motivational message through a one-line message in chat or email.
While motivating your remote team members is more difficult, there are things you can do– outside of regular one on ones– to let them know what a good job they’re doing and motivate them to do their best.
Here are a few tips for motivating your remote employees:
1. Use the power of gifs
As we talked about earlier, chat robs us of important auditory and visual cues that help us draw meaning from communication with another person. That makes chat the worst for effective communication.
Unfortunately, while you might have regular one on ones, your main form of communication for your remote team members is probably chat.
Fortunately, your friend and visual communication tool the gif is here to help, filled with virtually any emotion you’d want to communicate:
If you communicate primarily over Slack, you can use their
Giphy integration to make it easy to drop a quick gif in when you want to praise, congratulate, or spark some other emotion.
The right emoji can turn a simple “good job” into an enthusiastic singing of their praises that makes them smile and feel good the rest of the day.
2. Get creative with group gatherings
It’s hard, if not impossible, to replace group gatherings for remote employees. However, if you get creative, there are things you can do to help them feel more included.
Recently a friend shared with me something he did at his last company to make remote employees feel included:
“When the office went out for drinks to celebrate… every other satellite office/remote person was given a celebratory budget and practically forced to go out/stop working at the same time.”
Similarly, you could try a synchronous pizza party or similar celebration where each person joins from their computer at the same time and gives a toast.
Ultimately, it’s up to your creativity. Experiment with what you think fits your culture and engage your team for ideas and feedback on what they like and don’t like.
There are more ways to connect remotely than ever before and all it really takes is a small effort now and then to show your remote team members that you care.
3. Set up an employee development plan
One of the best ways to offer consistent encouragement and motivation for your remote team members is to set up a development plan with them during your regular one on ones.
Research by Deloitte found that a key driver of retention in Millennials is mentorship:
“Those intending to stay with their organization for more than five years are twice as likely to have a mentor (68%) than not (32%).”
Keep in mind, you do not need to be the mentor for your own team. Instead, use this as an opportunity for them to get to know some of their peers.
When someone wants to learn about an area of your business or build a new skill, ask yourself who at your company is an expert in that area. Connect them for a call, and while your work is largely done, they’ll just be starting a new, healthy relationship with another person at your company.
Meanwhile, beyond mentorship, Millennials want training and development opportunities more than anything else, as
Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends report found. This growth is even more important to them than flexible hours or cash bonuses:
By having regular one on ones with your remote team members and regularly supporting and checking in on their development plans, you will keep them motivated to move forward with their work and stay at your company long-term.
How to Identify Good Remote Employees
Chances are, your first remote employee is an existing team member that’s asked to transition to partly or full-time remote, whether due to preference or some personal life event. Then again, they could be a new hire, or you’re a founder building your first remote company.
For those with an existing office, you may find that your first remote employee leads to a cascade of requests from other members of your team for the opportunity to work partly or even fully remote, too.
So far, we’ve touched on nearly a dozen tips you can use to better manage your remote employees.
The truth is, though…
remote work isn’t a good fit for everyone.
Many people believe they’d be more productive if they had the freedom to work from home. FlexJobs’
6th Annual Work Flex Super Survey found that 76% of employees believe they can get more done remotely due to the frequent distractions from colleagues and general office busyness.
The truth is, though, that some
need the structure of the office to keep focused. According to Avast’s 2018 Mobile Workforce Report, 46% of respondents say the greatest downside of working remotely are the distractions, a point many don’t anticipate when moving to a partly or fully remote workweek:
how can you know if someone is a fit for remote work, whether it’s a current team member, or new hire?
There are a few things you can do to gauge how fit for remote work someone is, or to establish the kind of culture where remote work is more dependable.
1. Use Task Relevant Maturity to judge their abilities and your communication needs
Working remotely requires a degree of trust that working in an office does not. In an office you:
Can turn to someone and ask for help instantly. Know when someone arrives at work and when they leave. See if they look visibly happy, frustrated, tired, sick, or excited.
While you may plan to apply all the lessons we wrote here today to be a successful manager of remote employees, it’s still on the employee to do their part.
As you work to build skills in managing remote workers, it’s very helpful if the first few people working remote are very skilled in their primary work. This means that their
Task Relevant Maturity is high for the tasks you’re assigning.
By giving them tasks you already trust them to do well, their transition to working remotely can go much smoother:
They’ll need less hands on coaching and assistance. You can check in must less frequently while still getting quality work.
This gives you and your team member more time to get acclimated to working remotely, without compounding it by them struggling with the tasks they have to do.
Over time then, as trust builds, and you work out any problems with your remote work management habits, you can let them work on lower Task Relevant Maturity tasks; at that point, you’ll have established how to communicate and check in together, while supporting the unique needs of remote workers.
Meanwhile, if an employee wants to work remotely and they’re taking on a lot of new responsibilities and tasks, it would be wise to ask them to postpone until they start to develop some mastery in those areas first.
2. Look for trust signals with new hires
When hiring a new remote employee, look for signals that suggest they’re trustworthy. Small actions can provide signals of whether they’re a good fit for remote work:
Did they show up on time for the interview? (Whether in person, or on time for the call) How did they communicate throughout the process? Did you have to followup or were they sending notes, too? Did you ask for anything during the interview? Did they send it? How are their communication skills? Have they worked remotely before? What did they learn?
If they show signs that they’re dependable right out of the gate, there’s a much higher likelihood that you’ll be able to trust them with remote work.
This is why companies like Automattic (listed in Artur Klajnerok’s tweet earlier about large distributed teams) have people do test work before they hire them.
From a post on their process:
Trial projects help both of us to determine mutual compatibility and let us evaluate your work, communication, and effectiveness. This work is paid, part-time, and designed to last between two and eight weeks, for a total of around 40 hours of work. This is very flexible, and we’ll craft it to work with your schedule
There’s no better way to see if people can handle your company’s remote communication style than having them work on a project with you. And best of all, it lets them evaluate your company as well.
a test project is a great way to make sure someone is a fit, and to build trust even before their first official day. If they’re proactive in communication, actively asking questions, and fun to work with in the test, you can trust they’ll be that way full time for you as well. 3. Establish a culture of ownership and accountability for managing remote teams
If existing team members are shifting to remote, trial projects and identifying trust signals may not help. Instead, you need to make sure you invest in establishing a culture of
ownership and accountability.
When you say you’re going to do something, do you come through? Do you trust them to get the job done, assuming they’re prepared to handle it on their own? Do you hold them accountable for the results?
The best place to start here is always
with you. You’re the example that your team will look to emulate. The better you work to establish this culture of ownership, the easier the transition will be for your team members moving remote to also be accountable.
Most importantly, if someone is not particularly reliable in your office, there’s very little chance that improves remotely. Instead, as the report from Avast showed, they’ll be one of the people struggling working remotely.
When you consider people for remote work, you need to be sure you have full confidence in their accountability, work ethic, and skills. Especially as you develop your remote leadership skills, you want to have people you would give the benefit of the doubt in their work and output.
Remote is the future – Are you ready?
There’s a lot about managing remote teams that’s exactly the same as managing those on-location. However, it’s a mistake to assume that a remote employee is the same as one working in the same office as you.
Remote employees are faced with unique challenges and you have to understand those challenges to effectively manage your entire team.
Implementing these tips is an investment in not only your team, but in you as a manager. The better you understand the needs and
challenges of managing remote employees, the better manager you’ll become– and the better prepared you’ll be for a world where remote work is quickly becoming the norm.
Then Want help managing remote employees on your team effectively? sign up for a free trial of Lighthouse.
We help managers at great remote companies and those with global offices like Automattic, Wayfair, and Ag Leader.
Start your 21-day free trial now here.