Managing a remote team: Tips and best practices

Managing a remote team: Tips and best practices
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Teams collaborating face-to-face interact naturally without thinking about it, including in whiteboard sessions, impromptu desk chats, and lunch runs. But when your team is working remotely, you’ve got to find ways to encourage the same level of collaboration and communication without hurting your team’s productivity.

It’s a tough needle to thread, but these tips for managing a remote team can help.

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Encourage asynchronous (async) communication norms

Remote work managers should set expectations among remote workers that most communication should be asynchronous (async) unless absolutely necessary.

In synchronous communication channels, all parties expect immediate responses. These include in-person meetings, Zoom calls, and some in-person and online chat conversations. Participants expect delayed responses in async conversations on channels including email, Hangouts, Slack, texts, and project management platforms like Asana.

There are several reasons async communication is perfect for remote teams. First, encouraging workers to replace calls with messages alleviates “Zoom fatigue.” Second, async communication facilitates collaboration across time zones (which we’ll get into in the next section).

It’s also one step towards a more inclusive remote work environment. When workers expect immediate responses less often, it levels the playing field between workers with flexible schedules — including those caring for children and elderly parents — and 9-5 workers.

Of particular interest to us at Clockwise is that async communications fosters deeper focus.

According to the authors of three productivity bestsellers — Deep Work, Indistractable, and Make Time, synchronous communication is one of the mortal enemies of team productivity.

Constantly responding to each ping from every platform turns everyone’s working hours into countless opportunities for conversation, essentially “meeting-izing” the entire workday.

This constant distraction can take a serious bite out of your workday, and put a damper on your focus and productivity. The average worker checks their email inbox or messenger service once every six minutes.

Getting out of the habit of reacting to every incoming message immediately gives workers the long stretches of uninterrupted time needed to do the kind of work that moves the needle for an organization. Cal Newport calls this “deep work.” The “number-one benefit” of asynchronous communication is “the ability to build large stretches of uninterrupted Focus Timeaccording to Writer Blake Thorne.

Give each (communication) channel a purpose

Setting clear expectations for communication is a prominent theme in managing remote teams. During the pandemic, many of us added new communication tools left and right. Jared Ponchot, Creative Director at Lullabot (a fully distributed company) recommends that remote managers assign a designated purpose to each communication channel.

Instead of letting each worker decide how to use each channel, establish guidelines from the outset. Perhaps you use different channels in Slack for synchronous versus async conversations. For example, at Clockwise we use the prefix “fun_” before channels to differentiate them from channels where we discuss pressing work-related matters. Like Buffer and Hipchat, we also have a channel dedicated to sharing music. Automattic teammates discuss shared interests on dedicated microblogs. These channels encourage social interaction and help workers get to know each other, replacing the water cooler talk of the office.

“When remote workers have a game plan for how to best get in touch with teammates for each situation, everyone can avoid wasted time, frustration, and missed connections,” Ponchot writes.

Miri Rodriguez, Global Head of Internships at Microsoft and Author of Brand Storytelling: Put Customers at the Heart of Your Brand Story recommends creating spaces for team members to spend time together having fun via “virtual morale” activities. From “quarantinis” to Xbox online tournaments, it’s important that the team bonds over lighthearted activities. Team building doesn’t have to be all about problem-solving and developing communication skills. Simple get-togethers can do wonders for teamwork.

Promote a culture of documentation

A remote environment is fertile ground for silos, a.k.a. the bane of collaboration. An organizational or knowledge silo forms when an individual or team avoids sharing information, processes, or tools with another individual or team within the same organization. This “silo mentality” can cause all sorts of trouble across the company, including misalignment, duplicate work, a decline in customer satisfaction, and a toxic company culture. Let’s not forget that if a team member leaves the company, they could leave a gap in knowledge that disrupts things.

It’s easy to see how remote work can give rise to, or worsen, the silo mentality. When team members don’t have the convenience of in-person, face-to-face interaction, holding onto knowledge is easier than sharing it.

The solution, then, is to facilitate knowledge sharing among your remote employees. That’s where documentation comes into play. Documentation includes SOPs (standard operating procedures), team wikis, human resource documents (e.g. employee handbook), and more. 

The idea is simple: When someone has a question, they can turn to the documentation for clarity — instead of having to track down the right person with the right info. This cuts back on back-and-forth communication, supports new hires during onboarding, and increases standardization and alignment across the virtual workspace.

As a manager, there are a few things you can do to actively build a culture of documentation at your organization:

  1. Establish what tool you’ll use to record and store your documents. (Hint: Our favorite tools are below.)
  2. Create frameworks or templates for the kinds of documents you need — these can provide a helpful starting point for someone who has never written an SOP, wiki, or other type of documentation before.
  3. Update documentation on a regular or as-needed basis, ensuring they remain living documents.

Prioritize mental health

The remote environment affects the mental health of employees in many ways. Improved work-life balance, greater autonomy, and higher productivity are a few of the potential perks of a remote workforce. But there are downsides, too.

For one, it becomes easier to overload remote team members with too much work. In a piece for The New Yorker, Cal Newport comments on the “social cost” of asking an employee to take up a task, when communicating face-to-face. That social cost encourages us to be more thoughtful. He writes, “In a remote workplace, in which co-workers are reduced to abstract e-mail addresses or Slack handles, it’s easier for them to overload each other in an effort to declare victory over their own rapidly filling in-boxes.”

To protect the well-being of remote teams, it’s so important to familiarize yourself with the status of each person’s bandwidth — to know how much they can handle at any given time. Our favorite tools for this are in the next section below.

Leadership advisor Niamh O’Keeffe recommends implementing virtual coffee breaks. They promote team bonding while providing a nice mental break that can enable workers to recharge and ultimately increase their productivity.

Encouraging workers to take time for virtual coffee breaks “promotes the social and emotional health of the team and encourages the team’s social cohesiveness,” O’Keeffe told Forbes. “Leaders need to encourage informal bonding time and recognize that a lot of idea sharing, innovation and problem-solving takes place during informal time.”

Next up, let’s talk about some tools to make your day-to-day easier as you manage a remote team.

Must-have tools for remote managers

You know the basic necessities when it comes to managing remote workers: a video conferencing tool for your team meetings and one-on-ones, a team chat app like Slack, a project management software like Asana, and so on. In this section, we’ll cover other collaboration tools you might not have thought of.

For stress-free scheduling
When it comes to tools for managers of remote workers, we obviously recommend Clockwise, an intelligent calendar assistant that uses AI to significantly improve your calendar. It helps you carve out the Focus Time you need to get real work done by moving your meetings to the least-interruptive time possible. It also enables you to spend less time scheduling and makes your life easier through integrations with Slack and Zoom. If video calls are a regular part of your schedule, Clockwise is a must-have.

For better communication
Another way to avoid wasted time, frustration, and missed connections when managing a remote team is to use the Clockwise + Slack integration. Let’s say you wanted to message someone who has different working hours due to their child care schedule or their time zone. Clockwise integrates with Slack to show different emojis based on their working hours, meetings, and out-of-office schedule. One glance at someone’s Slack status will tell you immediately whether or not they’re available to respond to your message. And, thanks to the integration, you and your team members don’t need to manually update your statuses yourselves — Clockwise will see what’s on your calendar and update your Slack status automatically to ensure full alignment.

For async communications without all the typing.
Loom is a video messaging tool that lets you record video and audio clips, a must-have for remote team members. Loom comes in handy when typing is taking too long or you need to share your screen. It’s also a great asynchronous alternative to video conferencing. 

For daily check-ins without micromanaging
Having your employees take time to prepare an async status update helps ensure everyone is making progress on the right goals. Ponchot recommends Todoist and Weekdone. Some managers at Clockwise use DailyBot. Daily check-ins also help keep everyone on the same page on tasks and projects.

For knowledge sharing
Notion and Slite are our top recommendations if you need to create a centralized knowledge base for your remote workforce. Both apps are powerful platforms that let you build collections of living documents that team members can refer back to as a single source of truth. On the topic of knowledge sharing, we also want to make another shoutout to Slack. Team channels are a great way to promote transparency and say goodbye to knowledge silos in your organization, as opposed to email and one-on-one direct messages.

For remote work culture
When you’re social distancing from a home office, you might feel disconnected from your co-workers. Or you might feel like your work goes unacknowledged. This feeling of isolation is preventable. It helps when the whole team makes an effort to recognize each other’s accomplishments and point out the good work getting done, both at the individual and group level. Even a quick shoutout on Slack or a thank-you email can make a big difference. There’s nothing that energizes a team more than feeling that they worked together to accomplish something.

We recommend Disco for remote culture/employee recognition and rewards. It makes it easy for anyone to give colleagues praise and recognition for their contributions and accomplishments within Slack. Disco tracks points based on who’s giving and receiving kudos. Disco will also nudge workers to recognize each other with prompts like, “Who lived the company’s values this month?” Disco also makes it easier for leaders to write and send out weekly Pulse surveys and displays the data in a dashboard.

For mental health
Leon is a wellness intelligence platform that helps you support the well-being and performance of your remote teams. One way it does this is through Growth Windows. Every week, team members answer check-in questions that revolve around health, resilience, and culture. Leon analyzes their responses and creates a report that gives managers insight into who needs support, who needs to be challenged, and who’s on track. Plus, Leon offers “playbooks” — suggested strategies based on their team’s needs. For example, if Growth Windows reports that your marketing team is approaching burnout, you can search actionable methods to address that now.

Going forward

When it comes to remote work success, the key is to maximize collaboration while minimizing distractions. Encouraging communication to be asynchronous when possible, giving each channel a dedicated purpose, promoting documentation, prioritizing mental health, and getting the right tools in place for remote team management should help your remote team thrive. Read next: Remote desktop software you need in 2022.

About the author

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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