6 changes leaders need to make to get better at managing remote teams

Managers need to modernize their overall approach and daily tactics to succeed in leading teams that include people working from home, these experts say.

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Workers want remote work opportunities but employers are still navigating the new reality of office life during a pandemic. Whether your company has 20 remote workers or 200, it's worth taking a moment to measure how well leaders are leading teams that include in person and remote workers. 

James Lanier, an HR consultant and business unit director for UnniCo, an international process improvement and consulting company, said that managing employees in-person requires a completely different set of skills than remote management. 

"Many companies do not realize that their new working arrangement is unproductive because they have simply sent staff home, rather than giving employees and managers the proper training or resources to successfully work remotely," he said.  

In addition to the skills gap, there is anxiety about change. Eden Cheng, co-founder of the software company PeopleFinderFree, said many managers are unwilling to implement a remote work model or even flexible schedules because of their fear of losing control of their staff. 

"They fear that they would either be unable to effectively manage their workforce and guarantee productivity or they are simply hesitant because of all the extra legwork that would be required to establish an effective remote system," she said.

SEE: Asynchronous working is more than just working from home (TechRepublic)

Finally, the other difficult dynamic is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Danielle Tabor, chief people officer at Emburse, an expense management platform, said this is due in part to the fact that there is no one definition of "what employees want." Some people want to be full-time remote, some want to be in the office and some want a mix of both options.

"Companies must realize that because of these differences, the best thing they can do is be flexible and sensitive to individuals' needs, especially given the upheaval of the past year," she said. 

The future of work will undoubtedly be a mix of people working from home and people working in-person. These six tips will help leaders evaluate the current state of work and identify specific changes to improve remote management skills. 

Measure what's working and what's not 

Matthew Stegmeier, a senior consultant specializing in remote work at Stegmeier Consulting Group, said managers should not assume that things are going smoothly and everyone has figured out how to work remotely effectively just because teams have been working remotely for the last 17 months.

"Now is a perfect time to take stock of what is working well and what still needs some tweaking," he said.  

He suggested that managers should spend time with their teams and in one-on-one conversations to discuss work styles and communication preferences.

"Getting a grasp on how direct reports desire to be communicated with and actually respecting these wishes where feasible is a great way to show remote team members that they are trusted and valued," he said. "This also helps prevent work from home burnout, Zoom fatigue, and keeps team members from feeling they're being micromanaged."

Reassess management assignments

Part of this analysis should include looking at which managers are managing remote employees. It may be time to make some management moves. Lester Mclaughlin vice president of operations at Blue National HVAC, a servicing company, said the more experience a manager has, the more willing and able he or she should be to manage remote workers.

"Experienced managers know that regardless of whether people are in front of you or working at home, at the core of management is all about understanding people's priorities and goals, and ensuring that they align with those of the company," he said. "They're not fazed by the fact that this is done remotely instead of in person because the core principles are the same."

On the other hand, more experienced managers may be more set in their ways than someone who is newer to management, according to Tabor at Emburse.  

"They may have more preconceptions to overcome, whereas someone from the newer generation of managers have come to the workplace with different ideas about work-life balance and flexibility," she said. "Overall, it's more to do with the manager's attitude and approach to remote work."  

SEE: Home vs. office: Why there's such a disconnect between workers and employers (TechRepublic)

Vanessa Black, head of people, programs and engagement at Tanium, suggested that organizations consider these questions when helping leaders develop remote management skills: 

  • What are the expectations of remote team managers?  
  • What training and development is available to help them bridge the skills gap? 
  • What channels for feedback and support are available? 
  • Where do they go with questions? 

Shift to managing by objectives

Once a company has identified people with the most potential to manage distributed teams, the next step is to consider a leader's overall approach to the work. Shaun Heng, vice president of growth and operations at CoinMarketCap, a price-tracking website for crypto assets, said that two keys to building trust between remote workers and managers is the right management style and a great project management tool.

SEE: One company's virtual reality approach could end the debate over working from home vs. at the office (TechRepublic)

Heng likes Trello for real-time visibility from all angles on all projects and an objective-based management style. That means evaluating performance based on work completed, not time spent in the office. 

"As long as the staff is delivering on time and up to standard, there's no need to know every move they're making," he said. "It also frees people up to take care of their personal life on work time without asking, which the pandemic has shown is essential."

Invest time in building relationships with employees

Another important shift is recognizing the importance of building social capital with team members. This means getting to know team members and talking about topics beyond deliverables and deadlines. Cheng of PeopleFinderFree said that the last year has shown that while managers are critical to the success of an organization, most of them were sorely lacking the necessary skills needed to effectively lead teams in any environment.

"Managers are now realizing that they now need to place more emphasis on the relationships and the overall mental wellbeing of their teams, in order to ensure that project speed and quality remains uncompromised," she said.

This means managers need to improve communication, empathy and relatability as well as being more open and understanding with their teams when it comes to workflow. 

Update daily management tactics

Once the right training resources are in place, leaders have to think about the tools they use on a daily basis to track progress. Raphael Allstadt, CEO and co-founder of the asynchronous video company tl;dv, said office-first managers need to adopt better ways of managing to become great remote managers. He suggests implementing these core management principles: 

  • Trust the team to deliver the results on their own terms 
  • Prioritize async ways of collaboration over real-time, synchronous communication
  • Avoid micromanaging
  • Offer support to achieve clear goals that can be measured objectively

"All these are goals that office-based managers should follow, too, but it's just so easy to not follow when your co-workers are one tap on the shoulder away from you," he said. 

Set clear expectations

Inefficient communication, absence of metrics, and lack of leadership development are barriers to remote work options, according to Lanier of UnniCo.  

"After clear expectations are set with deadlines, companies must create a system for check-ins for milestones and open the lines of communication for any mishaps along the way," he said.  "This type of structure empowers employees to prioritize the tasks they've been given while reducing the need for managers to constantly check up on an employee to get the job done." 

Building this environment of trust can help all employees whether working from home or in the office, he said.

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By Veronica Combs

Veronica Combs is a senior writer at TechRepublic. For more than 10 years, she has covered technology, healthcare, and business strategy. In addition to her writing and editing expertise, she has managed small and large teams at startups and establis...