How to Manage a Remote Team

The secrets of managing a remote team from a manager with over 10 years of experience.

Remote Teams

Ask yourself everyday: is what I am about to work on helping me achieve my long-term goals?

Far too many people have created jobs for themselves during this pandemic vs. prioritizing working on their businesses, and on themselves. Many people have just assumed that working from home is the same as working in an office, but it is not.

The reality is working remotely is working in isolation, and you will drive yourself and your team crazy if you just create busy work for the sake of creating busy work. You have to take responsibility for how you prioritize your time and effort when working remotely, as well as to research and understand the best tools for resolving communication issues.

For example, some people use a linear process for how they manage tasks. In fact, most people do this without realizing it. They reply to emails or messages in the order they are received. They start from the beginning over and over again without any consideration for timeliness, priority, importance, or productivity.

If you do this, you’re acting like a robot, and you’re creating more work for yourself. You’re not allowing yourself to prioritize or be creative. In fact, getting stuck in your own obsessive and compulsive processes prevents you from being creative and seeing the big picture of what needs to be done. Working from home is an opportunity to focus on the big picture, and not get lost in micro tasks.

While it is fine to have processes and systems for how you do your work, you cannot get stuck in them. If you’re still using the same systems you were using in 2019 in 2021 during a pandemic when almost everyone is working from home, then you need to take a step back and upgrade your processes to accommodate for today’s reality.

There are so many managers trying to duplicate in-person working conditions remotely. This is a huge mistake.

If you’re a manager hosting 8-hour Zoom meetings every single day, or even holding daily meetings for more than an hour per day with your team you’re not working effectively, and your team is suffering because of it.

Video calls suck. There’s something weird about the latency and delay in visual queues and speaking during video calls that is just unnatural, draining, and exhausting. Video calls take energy without the endorphin boost of in-person face-to-face interaction.

The first remedy is stop having so many meetings.

You need to adopt an asynchronous mindset. Most remote work does not happen in real-time. Most work happens between interactions. If you’re interacting all day, then you’re not actually giving you or your team any time to actually do any real work. You’re just having meetings to have meetings and you’re not actually achieving any objectives aside from appearing busy. In some cases, this is how people convince themselves that they’re working, when the reality is they’re not. DO NOT DO THIS.

Asynchronous communication is when you communicate in a way where you do not expect an immediate response back. This means taking time to thoughtfully craft what you have to say, and clearly defining context. It is more like sending a letter, or an email, vs. having a real-time conversation. Spend more time articulating priorities, goals, and objectives asynchronously, and less time having real-time conversations.

Unfortunately, social media and modern communication tools have convinced us all that real-time communication is the only way to accomplish anything; but it is not. In fact in many cases much like real-time video calls, it is a waste of energy. You’re better off taking time to thoughtfully write a detailed message that clearly articulates what you want someone or your team to do, and then send it to them. If they have any questions then you can simply wait for a thoughtful response back without assuming you will have an immediate response.

The second remedy is to pick up the phone and actually talk to people.

Phone calls don’t require the same level of commitment as video calls and are not as draining. I can walk my dog and talk on the phone; I can drive while talking on the phone; I can pace around my living room like a crazy person while talking on the phone. Phone calls have less latency; they’re more natural; and you can multitask without having to worry about how you look, or being in front of a computer or camera. Learning how to have effective phone calls is an extremely productive remote working hack. Turn your camera off. Just talk to people if you don’t need to share your screen. A 20-30 minute phone call is more than enough to convey complex information or solve complex problems. A simple phone call can easily prevent miscommunication that happens over just text.

Next, ask yourself: is this meeting necessary or could this be an email or message on Slack?

Often, video or phone calls aren’t even necessary. Using an asynchronous method of communication, especially when there is not a sense of urgency, should be the default way to communicate remotely.

On the flip side, no face time at all, and only using email or Slack and never talking on the phone or video calls is equally as harmful to your team. A weekly or bi-weekly or even monthly video call with the entire team for an hour or two is a good morale booster. However, these meetings should be fun, collaborative, status-based, and objective-based. Video calls should be used strictly for “show and tell,” presentations, team-building, vision-setting, big picture, or just fun.

For detailed work, 1-on-1 or small group text chat is the most effective, or a phone call. When I have a direct report that I’m managing I usually manage them directly in a private or direct message. It is extremely counter-productive when you’re trying to get work done with a single person, and you’re using a channel or chat with multiple people who can read it, and randomly start jumping into the conversation out of context because they think you’re talking to them when you’re not. DO NOT DO THIS.

Direct Message the person you’re working with, and if there’s something the rest of the team needs to know after that conversation, summarize it and post just that summary in the group chat asynchronously. Use group chats for async messages and status updates, not 1-on-1 conversations.

To be an effective remote team manager you also need to understand some basic human psychology when it comes to text communication. There’s a very strange phenomenon that happens with text on a screen that we all experience and it can often cause significant harm and miscommunication.

You know when you’re in a really bad mood, in the middle of a thought, and you get a message from your significant other, perhaps a family member, or even a co-worker, and you immediately reply in a bad mood without considering the context of what the other person is saying? This happens all the time. It’s something everyone does. When we read text on a screen, we interpret it based on how we feel at that moment, not in context to what the message actually says. Our feelings cause us to immediately blame the messenger, and take the message out of context.

Where this gets incredibly dangerous is when someone is in a bad mood, they’re going to reply in a bad mood, and they’re going to assume the other person sent their message from a similar bad mood (when they likely did not). All tone, perspective, and context is lost. So many interpersonal relationships and communication suffers from this phenomenon, and it absolutely happens between co-workers, and remote teams on a regular basis. This is why hopping on the phone regularly is so important to be able to hear and understand the tone of the person you’re talking to. Context matters. Tone matters.

If you’re physically in the same room together you can visually see when someone is unhappy or distressed by their facial expressions, posture, and tone. None of this information is available via text on a screen.

It’s for this exact reason my significant other and I do not discuss feelings, or express complex information to each other via text message. We use texting exclusively for status updates and reminders (“Hey, I’m running 20 minutes late.”), or positive interactions like sending each other a 💜 emoji. We don’t discuss plans; we don’t talk about friends or family or important contextual information. We call each other and actually talk on the phone so we can hear each other’s tone and have more context for what we are discussing. We also seem to remember things better when we actually talk about them, vs. a string of text messages.

The same is true for work. If someone is being rude, short, or saying things that you do not believe they would normally say to your face, then stop using text to communicate and call them. You have to break the cycle, get more context, and have a more human connection with someone in these moments. More text messages always make this problem worse. When a conversation starts to spiral and both people obsessively start arguing back and forth over Slack or text messages, the only solution is to break the cycle and have an audio or video call to resolve the problem. You have to get more context, and the only way to achieve that is through a more human connection with tone.

If one party is unwilling to talk, then just end the conversation entirely and revisit it when both parties are free to talk it out.

What do you do when miscommunications happen?

When miscommunications happen between team members there’s really only one solution. As a manager, it is your job to get both parties on a call or video to discuss what happened. In some cases, this can be resolved with a group chat. But a short call or video conversation is typically more effective. As a manager, your job is to be a leader and hear both sides of the debate and mediate a solution or compromise between the two parties. Most of the time, miscommunication occurs between team members when working remotely because they’re missing context that usually wouldn’t be missed if they were in the same room together. Although, honestly this happens even if you’re working in the same office, but it happens more when working remotely.

Half of a manager’s job is resolving miscommunications between teams or team members. These conversations typically require tone or even video to be able to read facial expressions and body language. Especially if you suspect one party is not being fully honest.

Let people make decisions on what they need to do their job.

Lastly, this is more of personal pet peeve than anything else, but don’t pick other people’s tools. It is fine to have shared collaborative project management or communication systems that are standard that the whole team has to use. That’s fine, but when it comes to specific tasks I have never felt more frustrated or stifled in my life than when I was working a job or project and the person managing me wouldn’t let me use the proper tools for the job. This is like telling someone to only use a hammer when you really just need a screw driver. Or telling a graphic designer they can’t use Photoshop, and have to use MS Paint.

Autonomy is required for remote work.

You have to encourage and promote those who are able to work autonomously, and teach and coach those who struggle to work on their own. This means giving the people reporting to you the freedom to do things in the way they know how, even if you know another way, or don’t agree with their methods. What matters is the end result, not the path the other person chose to get there. Let your team do what is necessary, and trust them to get the job done. If they make a mistake, correct them until they get it right. If they do a good job, positively reinforce them. You don’t always need to understand how someone else does something as long as the end result meets quality standards and objectives.

When it comes to working remotely you really need to see yourself as more of a coach and mentor when leading a team, and less of a micro-manager.

Let people use tools they know how to use, and support them in whatever way they need to succeed. Your job is to support your team in getting the tools, budgets, or resources they need to do their job. You don’t need to understand why someone is using the tool or software they want to use, all you need to know is if it will help them achieve the goals and objectives of whatever you’re working on together. Focus on the end result, and do not try to micro-manage how people work.

The key to remote work is giving others autonomy, and enabling them to make their own decisions. The role of a remote manager is to support, coach, and define clear objectives and vision. Your job as a manager is to define priority, manage by priority, and clearly define and articulate what the priorities are for your team. Then give them the space, respect, support, and freedom to actually do their job.

I’ve managed teams remotely and globally for over 10 years now.