If you are reading this, you’ve been considering hiring remote workers for a while — and for good reason.
That’s how most now people prefer to work. To the point, that almost 40% will quit their job if the employer scraps remote work policy.
For entrepreneurs, this means two things:
Companies like Basecamp, Gitlab, and Toggl, among others, already proved that you can build a booming business outside the cubicle.
This guide lifts the curtain on the art and science of effective remote team management (with research-backed tips and practices from top teams!).
Before we dive into the discussion, let’s triple-check that you are “in it” for the right reasons.
Remote work removes the “physical” factor out of the hiring equation. This leads to multiple benefits:
But those benefits of remote work aren’t self-contained. They are a direct result of effective remote team management. Accenture found that only 40% of workers feel that they can be equally effective whether they were onsite or remote.
So to run highly productive remote teams, you need to create the right environment for them. And we'll show you how to manage a remote workforce as top organizations do!
Most new remote managers make the mistake of trying to impose physical workplace practices onto the digital workspace.
This approach doesn't work. Digital is a different canvas to draw on — with new dimensions and constraints. So you need to adapt the existing practices or set up new ones.
To help you with that, we've collected six proven strategies from remote work champs.
In 2020, the US National Bureau of Economic Research attempted to answer a fundamental question: How many jobs can be done remotely?
The short answer is a lot.
Unsurprisingly, functions such as IT, legal, education, management, business and finance operations, and sales among others made it to the cut.
Why is this so? Because these roles have:
What this research proves is that you can assemble a fully-functional organization and operate it 100% remotely. As long as your core business isn't tied to a physical component — like a hotel you need to staff.
This data should console the micromanager in you, doubting that “everything can be done remote.”
It can be. But pure feasibility doesn't equal successful implementation.
You still need to organize your teams for remote work.
There’s no shortage of management theories out there. But if there’s one thing most agree upon is that to run an effective team you have to:
When you manage a remote team, these premises stay the same: each person needs to understand what they need to do, how this should be done, and who is there to ask for help.
So your first task is to decide:
How you will work together (synchronous, group work) and separately (autonomous, asynchronous work):
How everyone will stay on the same page and update others on their progress when working independently:
When mulling over the above, it may be tempting to design clear-cut, rigid rules. But don’t rush with that. Good management is about helping, not hindering your team's efforts.
Take it from Gumroad, operated by a remote team of 25 with no deadlines or regular meetings. The company generates over $11 million in annualized revenue, growing at 85% year-over-year. How do they do it?
As Sahil Lavingia, founder and CEO, shares in a blog post, he strived to build a culture of high individual and public accountability.
Instead of setting quarterly goals or using OKRs, the team has one core goal (direction) — maximize how much money creators earn with their tool.
Gumroad has a public roadmap of features they plan to ship next and encourages their community to keep them accountable (setting expectations).
In day-to-day work, the remote team relies on written communication and project management apps to collaborate and work independently on assigned tasks (supervision and facilitation).
Sahil calls this a “Minimum Viable Culture” It may not be for everyone, but the long-term Gumroad remote team members admit that this way of work has helped them reach the highest levels of personal productivity, have a better work-life balance, and remain highly engaged years on end.
Remote work provides better the ability to concentrate and get to a “deep work” done (which can be harder in the buzzing office). But an endless flow of meeting requests, Slack check-ins, and email follow-ups can kill that flow.
So you need to teach your people how to communicate asynchronously — that is coherently express their thoughts in writing.
Writing things down forces you to structure your narrative, build better connections between ideas, and summarize the task/request in 2-3 short sentences (rather than drop a hint to it after 20 minutes of casual chit-chatter). Also, good async communication practices minimize blockers in teamwork. You don’t need to wait for a meeting to clear things up.
Jeff Bezos was a strong proponent of written communication at Amazon. He famously banned PowerPoint decks for business meetings and then said it was the “best decision we ever made!”
Bezos believed that presentations gave people permission to “gloss over” ideas and jump to premature conclusions. Whereas structured writing explored a wider range of correlations between ideas and better briefed the reader on the matter.
So how do you develop a better writing culture at your remote team too? Here are some quick techniques:
Finally, async communication isn’t just writing. You can (and should!) also show the face behind the words. When you need to break down a more complex concept, create and share short video memos with others.
A culture of written communication also helps effectively distribute knowledge among people who don’t share the same physical space.
Chats, emails, quick remarks during meetings get lost and forgotten. And this leads to endless repetition, a feeling of missing out on important contexts, or blockers in work.
As Basecamp co-founders wrote in the ‘Remote: Office Not Required’ book:
“[To manage a remote team effectively], you need everything available to everyone at all times. The problem of materials and instructions being out of reach is almost entirely solvable by technology. (The rest is a culture of good communication.)”
In fact, that was the initial rationale behind building Basecamp. The founders wanted to have a single space for storing all the communication, knowledge, and updates their team needed to make work happen.
Today, you have no lack of knowledge management tools for remote teams (more on that in a bit!). What you need to do is start setting up that infrastructure. This isn’t done in a day. But the sooner you start — the faster you’ll finish!
Like freelancing, remote work can get lonely and mentally taxing at times.
So you should encourage your people to not just talk shop, but also build personal connections with one another.
Cultivating connections and building a sense of “wholeness” is arguably the most challenging part of managing teams remotely. Research proves that:
Remote work lacks the "comradery" of the office space and makes it harder to create empathy and friendly vibes.
But it doesn’t mean that remote teams can’t be close-knit. You just need to create those opportunities for bonding and relationship building. How do you do that?
Gitlab practices a cool roaster of informal team building activities for remote teams:
Borrow some of their ideas. Or better yet — ask what your remote team wants to do.
Onboarding is the crucial stage where you either:
So think through what should happen after you hire a remote worker. Here are several pointers:
Want to become a true onboarding champ? Then borrow some ideas from Buffer, a fully remote company circa 2015. To onboard new remote team members, Buffer designed a “Buddy” system.
Apart from collaborating with HR, every new member gets assigned a:
Both help the newbie get settled in and productive in their role.
Tech plays a big role in remote team management.
Apart from connecting peeps (duh), remote work tools also bring structure and clarity into all the work exchanges — something we often lack in face-to-face encounters.
Remember: to manage a remote team effectively you need four things done:
Below is our curated collection of tools to help you power through each of these tasks!
As a remote team manager, your main goal is to set people up for success.
And this starts with explaining what success means for your company and how you define it within their role.
You also need to get more deliberate about communication and knowledge sharing. And that doesn’t mean doing more meetings. On the contrary, you have to cultivate an environment where everyone can work asynchronously (when they need to) and come together for less regular face-to-face catch-ups.
That’s the “secret” of effective remote team management, hidden in plain sight.
Elena Prokopets writes content for tech-led companies & software development businesses, marketing to them. Her empathy for the customer, expertise in SEO, and knack for storytelling help create content that ranks well and drives industry conversations.
Elena uses Xolo so she can focus on her solo B2B content writing business without stressing over the compliance and admin overhead.
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