10 Essential tips for Managing Remote Employees

Are you prepared to manage remote employees?

You may be excited to take on your first remote team members– maybe an existing employee is going remote– but are you familiar with the challenges that come with it?

According to Matthew Hollingsworth, the Director of Operations at We Work Remotely, remote work is the future:

“Now is the time for remote work to become the norm. We see hundreds of thousands of qualified people come to WWR each month looking for remote work and have seen the companies that embrace it leading the way in attracting the best talent.”

Hollingsworth is right. Remote work has grown by 140% since 2005, nearly 10x faster than the rest of the workforce. In fact, over 4.3 million employees (3.2% of the workforce) now work from home at least half the time according to Global Workplace Analytics.

Despite the growing acceptance, there are unique challenges to managing remote employees

The problem is, 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 managing and hiring remote employees that managers never see coming.

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 the Lighthouse team is remote.

Below are a few of the lessons I’ve learned and advice I’ve collected along the way that helped me better manage, motivate, and retain remote employees.

Photo credit: Blossom.io

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.

Often times, the biggest challenges are that things you naturally do in an office, don’t come naturally with your remote staff. 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 build rapport with *every* member of your team. 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.

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 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.

Trust your instincts when you see something might be wrong and take the 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.

Your “open door policy” fails when it’s, “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, HipChat, Slack, etc, realize that your remote employees have no idea when your door is actually “open.”

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.

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 the like?)
  • 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, “Good job.” 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.

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.

[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 them 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 the ROI is very high. 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.

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, Mural:

For whiteboarding, Miro:

For retrospectives, Parabol:

Google docs was another common suggestion mentioned for its simplicity, reliability, and familiarity. Your company also probably already has access to it if you use Google Apps for email.

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.

Remote is the future – Are you ready?

There’s a lot about managing remote employees 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 office.

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.

Want help managing your remote employees effectively? Then sign up for a free trial of Lighthouse.

We help managers at great remote companies and those with global offices like Automattic, Wayfair, and Zendesk. Start your 21-day free trial now here.


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