When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, nearly all knowledge workers shifted to remote working full-time. While meetings were shifted online and memos went out to ensure all employees had the necessary equipment from IT for their home office setups, this new style of remote work was seen as only a temporary change. Years later, as remote teams and hybrid working arrangements become increasingly common, some managers are finding that their previous leadership techniques are no longer serving them when managing remote teams.
Before the pandemic, nearly a quarter of the workforce in the United States worked from home at least a portion of the time.1 So while the challenges of managing remote employees are more prevalent than before, they're not entirely new. When it comes down to it, effectively managing remote teams relies on many of the same tenets and hard skills as in-person management. What needs to shift is the manager's frame of thinking and approach to handling a diverse group of employee needs and expectations.
Challenges to managing remote teams
Middle managers, those working below the executive team but above senior-level employees, are faced with some of the biggest challenges brought on by the shift to remote work. Not only do they have a team of workers to keep productive and happy, they must do so while implementing the wishes of their own bosses– two groups whose perspectives on work and experiences within the company are likely to vary greatly. But with the right perspective and intention, managing remote employees doesn't have to be a struggle.
Tips for managers of remote workers
Micromanagement, confusing expectations, disconnectedness– these are some of the most common complaints among remote workers. Review the following advice to adjust your approach to managing remote teams and keeping team members happy.
So many issues in work and in life come down to miscommunication. One of the reasons remote work exacerbates these issues is because of the loss of information that's gleaned in-person through body language, chats at coffee machines, ad-hoc collaborations and more. Whenever you have important updates to processes, responsibilities or expectations, it's helpful to provide the information in more than one format. Consider sending out important information in an email or PDF and scheduling video chats to follow up the announcement to provide an opportunity for discussion. If you feel that your messages aren't getting through to your remote team, consider adjusting your methods, or asking them directly what could help.
Schedule regular check-ins
Daily or weekly team meetings become a must when you have an entirely or partially remote team. The consistent meetups help not only to keep everyone on the same page with projects and responsibilities but also steadily help to build familiarity among remote team members. Just like when in the office, it's important to keep these team meetings succinct and make sure they serve a purpose. Encourage team members to bring questions to these check-ins so that discussion is facilitated naturally.
Set expectations early and often
Should remote team members always have cameras on or is it okay to have them off? Should appointments be noted in Outlook calendars or just Slack status? Are hybrid remote employees expected to make up days they miss in-office? When you're in person in the office it's easy to pick up on some of this information by observing others' behavior or seeing longer tenure employees navigate challenges. When managing remote teams (and especially when onboarding remote workers) however, it's critical to clearly state your expectations. Getting back to issues of communication, it's also helpful to set expectations for your communication methods through consistency. Should remote workers expect to hear from you about urgent issues through email, Slack, or a phone call? What's the best way for team members to get in touch with you when they have a problem? Setting these sorts of expectations will help you just as much as your team.
Demonstrate flexibility and act with empathy
The appeal of working remotely isn't just about not being at the office, it's about the total work life balance gained by disrupting a routine that's constrained workers for decades. It's important that individuals put in charge of managing remote teams approach their duty with the understanding that their employees aren't lazy introverts but are people with busy lives. Workers with kids at home might not feel comfortable having their camera on with a fussy child on their lap. An employee with health issues might rather not announce to the team every time they have a doctor appointment. When you act with your employees' best interests in mind, they'll respond similarly.
It's all about trust
Remember that one of the key ways to effectively manage remote employees is to operate with trust. Trust is the backbone of positive work environments and can help managers avoid micromanaging or disrupting an employee's life by making them feel as though they have to be online every minute of the day. It's consistently been shown that when employees feel trusted by their managers, they are more productive, produce better outcomes and are more engaged.5
Benefits to remote teams for employers
If you're reading through page after page of advice on managing remote teams and thinking, "But how do I get my executive team on board with my remote employees?" this section is for you. As a member of middle management, you also need to negotiate the concerns and directives from your own bosses. If your executives are doubting the efficacy or advantages to allowing employees to work remotely, use the information below to advocate on behalf of your remote team.
Listen to your workforce. 71% of knowledge workers who are unhappy with the level of flexibility in their current roles are report that they're open to finding a new job in the next year while the number is slightly lower at 57% for those who feel satisfied with the level of flexibility at their workplace.2 Remote work options and increased work life balance have become critical to employee retainment. Plus it's worth considering who remote working is most important to: women, working parents and employees of color.2 Creating a workplace–whether that's a remote environment or office setting–that's inclusive and inviting to these workers can help improve your firm's diversity tipping off a domino effect of positive gains.
All on its own, improved employee retention and reduced turnover from allowing remote teams can save businesses money. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that a firm can save $11,000 for every part-time remote team member.3 Other more tactile savings come from real estate as a fully remote team doesn't need an office and staggered in-office days for hybrid or part-time remote workers means fewer desks and less square footage. Further, no office means no utility costs, security and other in-person necessities. IBM, Aetna and Mckesson all have reported millions in savings from reduced real estate costs due to more employees working remotely.3
When firms aren't confined to hiring within so many miles of an office location, the pool of potential applicants becomes much bigger. Remote teams allow collaboration to happen between the brightest workers across the country. Remote working also could help facilitate a return to office by vulnerable populations who struggle with in-person work like employees with disabilities, employees with children and others. People of color, women, and working moms prefer hybrid or fully remote work arrangements more than other workers meaning opening your business up to remote teams could also help make your firm more diverse and attractive to these groups.
A loss of productivity is one of the most common fears of companies shifting to a remote working setup. But studies consistently show that productivity of remote teams isn't at risk of dropping. Workers with increased flexibility also are likely to report higher employee experience and satisfaction scores and happier employees tend to lead to improved output.3,4 In one study from Stanford that examined remote work and productivity over two years, remote workers were found to be 13% more productive than workers in the office. This could be because remote workers spend less time commuting, they could be less distracted, and they're likely to lose less time to appointments and errands since they can work away from home and don't end up taking full or half days off.3
Trying to be a better manager for your remote team?
Marquette University's online Master in Management is a graduate business degree for professionals looking to improve their people management skills to become effective and motivating leaders. Schedule a call with an Admissions Advisor to learn more about the program and how you can broaden your career opportunities with Marquette.
- Retrieved on December 5, 2022, from forbes.com/sites/brentgleeson/2020/08/26/13-tips-for-leading-and-managing-remote-teams/
- Retrieved on December 5, 2022, from futureforum.com/research/the-great-executive-employee-disconnect/
- Retrieved on December 5, 2022, from slab.com/blog/financial-benefits-remote-work/
- Retrieved on December 5, 2022, from futureforum.com/research/future-forum-pulse-summer-snapshot/
- Retrieved on December 5, 2022, from hbr.org/2017/01/the-neuroscience-of-trust