How To Manage A Remote Team [3 Key Activities]

How To Manage A Remote Team

Remote work has been on the rise for a long time, but 2020 gave extra accelerant to the remote work fire. Almost every company in the knowledge work economy, and almost every team leader was forced into a remote work experiments that have lasted for months, and many are still going on. More and more leaders are asking “When are we coming back to the office?”

We’re not. At least not all of us, all of the time.

It’s unrealistic to expect that everybody, having sampled a massive work-from-home movement, will willingly come back to the same eight hours a day, five days a week of office life that we had before. At the same time, we crave in-person interaction, and we’ll want to see our coworkers again. On top of all of that, an interesting finding by Gallup suggests that people are most engaged when they have an office to go to but stay away from that office and work from anywhere for two to three days a week.

And so leaders are going to have to adjust to leading their teams from anywhere as well.

In this article, we’ll cover three activities to focus on when managing a remote team. But before we do, here is a quick word about what they all have in common: they focus on the outcome, not the activity.

There are a lot of organizations that are installing spy software on employee’s computers and trying to track and manage how much time is spent in various apps or trying to snap regular photos using employee’s webcams to make sure they’re at their desk. These might yield some productivity gains in the short-term, but in the long-run these are almost guaranteed to yield distrust and disengagement.

So, focus on the outcome, not the activity. Then, learn to master the following three activities.

Set Objectives Mutually

The first thing you need to do is to set objectives mutually. There might have been a time when everyone was in the office, and looking over their shoulder was the easiest way to track productivity. And there might have been a time when you could just give orders and tell people what to do and exactly how to do it. But those times are over. The best bet is to work with your team to set objectives mutually.

Set objectives together.

Look at the broader goals or deliverables that your team needs to accomplish, and then develop smaller objectives weekly, biweekly, or monthly at the most. The idea is to find goals everyone feels serve the larger purpose but are also realistic in the minds of the people taking on those tasks.

In addition, make sure you agree on the intent behind those objectives. As people start working largely by themselves, without the ability to just check in down the hall when things change, they’ll need to understand the reasons why the objective is what it is so they can make changes on their own. And make sure you’re also shortening the time frames, as we covered above. There’s a lot of research that people work better when they work on short time frames, but because you’re planning on those corrections being made, it’s easier to coordinate the work when people are hitting shorter objectives and checking back in with their team regularly.

Track Progress Regularly

In line with shortening time frames, the second main activity is to track progress regularly. We know from decades of research that progress is a potent human motivator. However, the important thing to note about progress in a remote work context is that it’s much harder to see. You’re not seeing people every day, and those quick conversations and celebrations don’t happen as easily. So, as a leader, you need to find other ways to demonstrate that your team is making progress toward the objective and that individuals are making progress in their own larger career growth.

And especially in remote work, tracking progress and checking in means different things to different people. When a lot of people first begin to work remotely or begin to manage a team remotely, they double down on check-ins. And that’s great. However, over time, leaders have learned that different people need a different frequency of check-ins, so doubling down doesn’t work for everyone. They also want different mediums of communication for checking in and tracking progress. Some people want to video call every Friday afternoon, and others want to email you a daily summary of what they worked on and where they’re at. It’s up to you to learn who wants what and whether or not the chosen frequency and medium actually works.

In the same vein, use these check-in and progress conversations to communicate back to the team so that everyone knows how each other are doing and where the team as a whole is on the path toward accomplishing their objectives. High performing remote teams work out loud, with each individual communicating with everyone on the team to keep them informed. And as the team leader, you’re the one coordinating that communication.

Give Feedback Collaboratively

And the third and final activity you need to master is to give feedback collaboratively. This means that feedback is not just you telling them how well they are doing. Instead, it’s a broader conversation with feedback going both ways. When teammates are underperforming and need help to get better, the first thing you need to uncover is whether it’s a people problem or a process problem blocking their performance. Too often, we ascribe poor performance as a lack of skills or motivation when, in reality, it’s a lack of resources or lack of coordination with another department that keeps highly skilled, highly motivated people from finishing the task well.

So in order to discern the people problems from the process problems, don’t just talk—listen. Listen to their explanations of what is happening and consider what you can do to provide support. Listening even means being receptive to feedback your team may have about you and how you’re doing supporting them.

If you do have to give constructive feedback to teammates, make sure to include not just how you’re asking them to improve but also why it’s so important. Make sure you focus on the impact of their actions, not necessarily the actions themselves. People don’t want to feel micromanaged, especially when working remotely. And even well-intentioned leaders can be labeled micromanagers if all they do is focus on the specific actions people need to change. But if you outline those changes and give extra weight to how it will help the team, then people better understand why you’re giving them a specific prescription instead of continuing to let them work as they desire.

Great remote leaders set objectives mutually, track progress regularly, and give feedback collaboratively. And what all of these methods have in common is that they focus on the outcome, not the activity. If you are setting objectives mutually, then you are focused on the outcomes you’re asking people to achieve. If you’re tracking progress regularly, then you’re focused on how close we are to achieving it. And if you’re giving feedback collaboratively, then even when you mention specific activities, you’re still tying it all back to achieving those outcomes.

If you take all of it together—if you focus on the outcome, not the activity—you’ll find something amazing. You’ll find that people willfully engage in the activities without you needing to track them and bring the whole team closer to those outcomes than you ever thought possible.


About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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