Dr. Claire Knight, Director of Engineering, Netlify, points out that many of the challenges of managing remote teams are actually the same as those as managing employees in-office. “A manager needs to be adaptable, empathetic, and focus on clear communication,” she says.
However, managing a remote team or a team made up of people who sometimes work in the office and sometimes at home requires a different strategy.
Knight shares insights that can provide some help and inspiration to adapt your processes to create a positive work culture and enhance the quality of your team’s work.
What new challenges does a dispersed team or allowing remote work raise for managers?
Knight: Some of the biggest challenges managers face include productivity, inclusivity and belonging, and bridging the gap between asynchronous and synchronous team members. One example of a common productivity challenge I’ve seen is the need to embrace customizable work preferences while maintaining deadlines and expectations. Further, building a strong team culture over remote interactions requires a lot more intentionality. There is a danger of isolation for remote team members, which can be compounded, for example, by being the only one in a specific time zone. For managers with some team members in-office and some remote, it’s important to avoid creating a divide between those types of team members.
What are the keys to overcoming the challenges of managing remote teams?
Knight: To overcome these challenges, a manager of remote employees should deploy various methods of communication to ensure employees are always in the loop with their teams. There is value in having structured check-ins (asynchronous or synchronous) where everyone knows their individual and team expectations, priorities, and goals. I suggest managers take a proactive interest in every team member’s responsibilities to ensure you have total visibility. Before performance problems occur, setting clear expectations and deadlines can ensure deliverables are made in a timely and accurate manner.
Offsites, should your company budget for them (and they should!), are also key to building strong remote teams and cultures. Having the ability to spend time together yearly or every six months for a few days can go a long way in making the other fifty weeks of the year run smoothly. And don’t worry about over-scheduling these offsites: leave space and time for people to get to know each other organically as people, not just co-workers.
Finally, don’t optimize for synchronicity. Asynchronous practices allow your team to have the focus times they need, and to operate individually as well as a team. While having people operating independently may feel out of your control, empowering them to make decisions on their own allows individuals to continue working when no other team members are available. This solves for time zones and working preferences. However, this practice only works when everyone is clear on the goals and constraints. Above all, respect your employees. You hired them, so treat them like adults and trust them to do a great job.
Is technology available to help with each?
Knight: Technology can certainly help in these situations. Exactly which tools managers should utilize will depend on the communication culture of the company, but there is a wide range available to suit any budget. Some of the ones I’ve had great success with include Slack, Zoom, Google Workspace, Notion, Donut, Survey Tools, and more. These tools support asynchronous working and time zones, easy collaboration across time zones and geography, tracking and documenting project progress, giving feedback, and managing schedules.
What are the advantages of using those tools?
Knight: Not only do these tools support workers in different physical spaces working together, but they also support the asynchronous nature of working across time zones and cultures.
For example, using an online calendar with working hours marked helps those arranging meetings to respect working hours for their colleagues. Chat tools can be programmed to notify employees only within their designated working hours. Zoom can record meetings for those unable to attend, and captioning can be used for those who prefer a transcript. This helps create an inclusive environment for everyone regardless of location and can be used to implement a healthy work-life balance. Using project management tools is also important so that anyone on the team (or stakeholders) can see how goals are progressing. The more anyone can have visibility on project progress, the smoother and faster teams can run.
Using technology to gather information and feedback can also help where people feel unwilling or unable to voice their concerns (or praise) directly. This, again, is an advantage regardless of where team members are located in the world. The more of a sense of how a team and an organization is running, the easier it is to address problems early and keep staff happy and engaged.
Do you have any final words of advice that will be helpful to managers?
Knight: Everyone focuses on time zones, but also keep in mind that there is likely to be cultural diversity. A good manager is culturally competent and works to accommodate these nuances. If you’ve never managed remote teams before, you’ll likely need to adjust your management approach. You may feel like you over-communicate. Embrace it! Provide information in a variety of ways, and you’ll get your message across, one way or another. People can then feel your presence, virtual or in-person, and you stand a better chance of achieving your goals through effective communication.