According to Gallup, 45% percent of full-time U.S. employees worked from home either all (25%) or part of the time (20%). In addition, 9 out of 10 remote workers want to maintain remote work to some degree. These workforce trends are clear: remote work, at least in part, is here to stay.
Managing a team can be hard, but managing a team remotely comes with its own unique set of challenges. But, if you’re adequately prepared, you can ensure your teams thrive no matter where they are located.
How Can I Be an Effective Manager Remotely?
To be an effective manager remotely, here are a few tips to help you lead your team.
Let’s face it, working remotely can feel a little isolating at times. According to a Cigna Study, “Remote workers are more likely than non-remote workers to always or sometimes feel alone.” This means people can belong to a team and have meaningful work to do but still feel disconnected from their team or organization while doing it.
The study also notes that “lonely workers say they are less engaged, less productive, and report lower retention rates.”
As a leader of a remote team, it’s important that you think deeply about how to build strong relationships that transcend the law of proximity to you or your peers. It’s not about the frequency of face time, but the quality of the relationships over time. Managing a remote team means you also have to be more intentional about building in space for developing deep connections.
When people have rewarding interpersonal interactions and connections at work, they typically experience higher levels of psychological meaningfulness. When you’re remote, it takes more effort to build those connections that make showing up at work each day enjoyable and meaningful – and something to look forward to. Having healthy workplace relationships that are built on mutual appreciation and respect can make people feel bonded and valued at work.
To strengthen your relationship-building muscle with your remote team, spend 1-1 time with your employees at least once or twice a month. Use that time to listen and learn – and create space for non-work-related discussion so that you can build a connection through stories, shared experiences, and authentic relating.
When it comes to helping your team develop relationships with one another, ice breakers or designated times for non-work-related connection and activities is another way for them to get to know one another. Your team’s belief that they can trust their colleagues and can count on them when they need them is critical to individual and team performance, especially when remote.
Provide and Accept Feedback
Feedback is an important catalyst for growth and development. It gives you insight into how you’re doing and where you might need to focus your attention. According to the employee engagement platform Peakon, 65% of employees say they want more feedback.
When you are managing a remote team, when and how you give feedback becomes even more important. Research by the Society for Human Resource Management suggests that employees who work from home often receive less feedback (both positive and constructive) than those in the office. When your team members don’t receive the feedback they need to grow, it can take a toll on their performance, sense of connection, and overall well-being.
Whether in person or remotely, we all want to be ourselves at work and without fear. As a manager, it’s important to think about how you give feedback when someone “fails.” If team members feel as though it’s not safe to fail or make a mistake, they may begin to withdraw from the organization.
A strong sense of belonging is a key hallmark of psychological safety. Your approach to feedback can foster psychological safety or extinguish it. Being able to try something and having the permission to fail without fear of the consequences to your job, future career or self-image is vital.
To improve your positive and constructive feedback delivery with remote employees, you want to first think about the culture within your team. Be sure you’ve invested in the relationship so that there is trust (think of this as relationship equity) and mutual respect between you and the team. If you don’t invest in relationship equity, feedback will be hard to give and receive for everyone on the team. You’ll also want to be sure that you demonstrate that feedback is bi-directional.
Bi-directional feedback is when you (the manager) are willing to receive feedback just as much as give it. This helps to develop the psychological safety needed to hear and apply the feedback. When you have trust equity and bi-directional feedback as a norm within your team, then you can spend your time in your 1-1s reflecting on what went well, what their strengths are, or share positive sentiments you’ve gathered from other stakeholders about their performance.
Consider also leveraging tools that allow for peer-to-peer recognition. Whether it’s a form they fill out that comes to you or a formal tool you purchase, it’s important to create channels to recognize good work from a distance.
Watch for Burnout
According to the World Health Organization, “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” This can result in feelings of exhaustion, negativity, or becoming mentally distant from their job and reduced personal efficacy.
When an employee has reached a level of burnout, they are 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job, 63% more likely to take a sick day, and 13% less confident in their performance.
As a remote manager, it might be difficult for you to notice burnout because you may only see them during scheduled 1-1 meetings or primarily communicate via email or chats.
According to Gallup, there are five primary causes of burnout:
- Unfair treatment at work
- Unmanageable workload
- Unclear communication from the manager
- Lack of manager support
- Unreasonable time pressure
To effectively prevent burnout from happening on your team, it will require a great deal of self-reflection and dialogue with your team. As a manager, you need to consider:
- Am I doing anything that might be perceived as unfair treatment at work?
- Are my employees able to manage their workloads?
- Where do I have the opportunity to provide more clear communication with my team?
- Am I giving each employee the support they need? How do I know?
- Are the timelines I give for work reasonable or unreasonable?
Pausing to reflect on these key questions will help you to better understand your team’s risk for burnout. Discussing this with your team will give you great insight into things you can do to better prevent it down the road.
In addition to the key questions and conversations you can have with your remote team, there is one powerful and practical tip you can employ. Every role takes mental, emotional, and physical resources to perform the job. “Breaks” and “logging off” are essential to step away and get the mental energy you need to complete a day’s work. Since remote employees work from home, they may struggle with unplugging from work, putting them at risk for burnout because they work and live in the same space.
When you are always “on” you deplete the energy reserves you need to carry out future tasks. It’s easy to disengage when you don’t have the psychological resources to move forward successfully. Your in-person employees might enjoy quiet time in the car or bus or chat with a family member on their way to work. Your remote employee might just get out of bed and jump right on the computer, missing out on those moments of rest and renewal.
Check-in regularly to ensure your team members are taking breaks and logging off as needed.
What is The Biggest Benefit of Managing Your Team Remotely?
One of the biggest benefits of managing a team remotely is that the talent you access could live (just about) anywhere. With such a broad talent pool to choose from, remote teams are more likely to have people from different geographic locations, which bring with it various dimensions of diversity and cultures that can enrich your team’s engagement and overall performance.
Research has shown that diverse teams tend to be smarter than homogenous teams and are often more creative. This dynamic has proven to be valuable as organizations seek innovative ways of doing things, and enhanced ways of supporting their diverse customer base (current or future).
Learning from people with different lived experiences and backgrounds can be an amazing growth opportunity for you as a leader. Developing yourself and your team as culturally competent individuals can help you become more culturally responsive as a team to one another as well as your customers.
As a leader of a remote team, you have better access to talent and improved ideas and dialogue that could positively impact the performance of individuals, your team as well as the bottom line within your organization.
What are the Challenges of Remote Teams?
Managing remote teams can definitely be rewarding but like anything, there are also a few challenges that managers face with managing remote teams.
Communication is essential in a remote environment. It ensures that everyone has equitable access to information so that they are informed and able to perform their jobs successfully. Whether you’re using a Microsoft Teams page, channel or chat, email, team newsletter, shared drive, One Drive, Slack, internal intranet, or more, the goal is for your team to stay informed.
Communication can become a challenge when there are too many communication channels or places where your team can access information. As a remote manager, think about where and how you’d like to communicate with your team. Identify a central location where all communication could be stored to add confidence that they will be able to find and locate the right information at the right time. Talk with your team about the best tools and methods for centralizing the team’s communications and co-design a solution that works best for the team.
Managing a remote team might put you in a position to manage a team that has members in two or more different time zones. As a remote manager, it’s your responsibility to think intentionally about the best times to schedule team meetings and 1-1s.
It’s also important that you are also very clear when communicating meeting times more broadly. It’s easy to default to your own time zone when scheduling meetings and say, “See you all at 9 a.m. tomorrow,” but that could leave employees swirling if they are not in your time zone. Pausing to add the time zone for all groups to your communication both verbally and written, will ensure that everyone on the team knows where they are supposed to be and when. It also demonstrates inclusion and awareness that everyone might be meeting at different parts of the day.
When you are remote, your office has the ability to go wherever you go. This can present a challenge for teams. Many remote employees have access to the office on laptops and phones, meaning they are ALWAYS online. It is easy to see a message come in late in the evening and feel tempted (or even obligated) to respond. The lack of boundaries between office time and out-of-office time can be a challenge for remote managers to wrap their arms around.
It’s critical that managers set clear expectations so that the employees do not begin to see every message as urgent, even when it’s 10 pm.
As a remote leader, it is important to model this by avoiding sending emails after hours (use the delayed delivery function) or writing “don’t respond until tomorrow” if it is something that has to be sent after hours. This will signal to your team that it can be handled when they are officially online during the next business day.
It might also be helpful to have an agreement with the team that if it is urgent, you will call them. That way, there is no anxiety or need to incessantly check email, giving your employees the time and the full opportunity to unplug as needed.
Overall, managing a remote team is a rewarding experience. By taking the time to think about the challenges that might come your way and the best practices for addressing them, you can set both you and your team up for success. You now have the tools. Good luck on your remote leadership journey.
Dr. Shanita Williams is a TEDx speaker, coach and the associate vice president of People Experience for Southern New Hampshire University. Dr. Williams uses intelligent listening techniques to solicit organizational feedback and partners with leaders across the organization to curate employee centric projects, initiatives and programs that help recruit, retain and empower talent. Her areas of expertise includes: culture, onboarding, feedback, employee retention, employee networks, and distributed workforce. She is the co-founder of the Feedback Mentality Group and author of "Feedback Mentality: The Key to Unlocking and Unleashing Your Potential."
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