Remote teams are well on their way to becoming the norm in modern business. With global interconnectivity eliminating the distance between everywhere and everywhere else, the 20th century office model is quickly going the way of the fax machine. While it may sound strange, it’s likely that the concept of “going to work” will soon be as irrelevant as it was in our not-too-distant past. Therefore, knowing how to adjust to this new paradigm is a must for new entrepreneurs.
Here at Business Republic, we like to think we have a pretty amazing remote team dynamic, with employees living and working everywhere from California to India to the Philippine Islands. That dynamic is no accident. It requires assembling the right team, and it’s only possible with competent, mindful management. Managing a remote or virtual team is very different from managing a traditional office, as we’ve been forced to learn in helping to pioneer it. With little literature out on the topic, our experience has been our best teacher. Through it, we’ve discovered these 5 key concepts to remote team management:
1. Don’t Herd Cats
Before the Internet, the traditional office was a necessity in order for employees to be able to communicate and work together efficiently. It also became a way for management to constantly “keep an eye” on their employees, like wardens in a prison made of cubicles. While the efficacy of this approach is debatable even for an old-fashioned office, it’s not even a possibility for a remote team. If your virtual employees are goofing off at the water cooler, you’re never going to know- partially because they’re miles away, but mostly because there’s no water cooler in the first place.
In Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the founders of Basecamp argue that excessive oversight is a fool’s errand. They liken the effort to control your employees’ every movement to herding cats: as pointless as it is impossible. Instead, the remote manager’s job is to verify results, not monitor the process. All that matters is what comes back, and that it comes back by the deadline you’ve given.
With this approach, communication is clear and precise, but it’s succinct. A remote manager doesn’t need to know how long an employee’s lunch break was, or offer any instruction as to how they manage their time. They only need to know what they’re expected to produce and when. What they do in the meantime is their decision- a liberating, modern approach to management that sees employees as adults capable of more self-management, and attracts self-motivating people.
2. Clear and Consistent Communication
Since remote management allows such freedom and independence for employees, it becomes more important to communicate effectively. Instructions have to be almost excessively clear and explicit, but they also have to be to the point. Brevity and clarity have to rule the day, as your team needs to know exactly what they’re expected to do, without being able to pop by your office or be shown in person.
At Business Republic, we use Gmail, Slack and Skype. Gmails are for the day-to-day communication, and the central hub through which projects are assigned, tracked, turned in and modified through Google Docs and Sheets. To make emails more efficient, we have a standard language of subject lines that automatically clarify their intent. Our “EOD” (End of Day) emails are summative, while “Action Needed” in the subject line makes it clear that whatever’s in the body has to be addressed as soon as possible. By keeping it clear from the subject line, our email communication is faster, more clear, and more effective.
Slack is our messaging app for quick, spur-of-the-moment or minor questions and clarifications. This allows us to carry a running conversation with remote employees in between emails. Again, it’s concise, it’s smooth, and it’s functional above all; not a second is wasted, and our team can work together as efficiently as a group of people sharing a physical space. When we need to have meetings or a live dialogue, we simply use Skype- no airfare or conference room required.
3. Organized and Efficient Systems
Since a remote manager doesn’t directly guide the course of their team’s work, it’s imperative to have the most self-sustaining systems and procedures in place. They can take time and a great deal of thought to build and perfect, but clear and organized procedures replace the need to “manage” in the traditional sense by acting as a standing guide for employees.
Your systems and procedures are the support infrastructure that keeps your team on track. Therefore, they’ve got to be as simple and reductive as possible, while also being intuitive. At Business Republic, we write out all of our procedures for every task in detail. We create shared documents on Google Drive, create short tutorials on ScreenFlow, and use LastPass to keep everything cohesive and secure.
It’s a relatively short list of tools, and there are many great remote management resources like Basecamp and Asana, with different variations on the same features. Whatever you use, all that matters is that it enables each employee to access their work quickly and complete it smoothly.
What you put into these systems will determine what you get out of them. It can be pretty time-consuming to establish your procedures at the beginning; for instance, a task that only takes a team member 10 minutes to complete may require an hour’s worth of work to describe and write into the systems. It’s less efficient on the manager’s end, but the net gain in efficiency by the team is well worth the effort. As your employees become more familiar with your systems, they can also be invited to suggest modifications that will increase their efficiency even further, perfecting the workflow collaboratively.
4. Create a Strong Culture
What holds a great company together and attracts the best and brightest is its office culture. But without an office, it takes a more conscious effort to establish and maintain that culture. Companies like Airbnb and buffer.com have perfected this art, and as a result people flock to work for them. Just by reading the emails of a company with a great culture (remote or otherwise), you can get a sense of how upbeat and uplifting the attitude is.
Great attitudes among team members is no accident; it’s the product of conscientious culture management. Positivity, mutual supportiveness, inclusiveness and encouragement can be shared just as easily (if differently) through an email or Slack message as in a physical meeting, if you take the time. Learn to recognize the difference between efficient communication and communication that’s terse or impersonal. Take the time to foster good culture not as an aside, but as an integral part of your management strategy.
You’ll soon find what we found- that your own employees will draw more and more talent your way, because of the happy experience they’ve lived firsthand.
5. Honest and Abundant Praise
Part of your business’s culture should involve your making time for praise. Somewhere between absent-minded pats on the virtual back and insincere flattery lies the genuine expression of your appreciation for great work. That appreciation creates a feedback loop in which team members, feeling appreciated, want to give their best for more than just monetary gain.
The art of effective praise is detailed in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Honest praise and well-earned rewards have an exponential effect on motivation and work quality that will be reflected in your team’s productivity. While some managers see praise as something to be held back, in my experience it’s best to let loose with it, so long as it’s sincere. A good manager doesn’t need to be reserved in order to maintain their authority. They need only be honest.
In the end, good managerial policies and practices are all that you need, even without your hands on the reins of a physical team confined to an office space. You’ll discover which employees thrive under more or less supervision and guidance, which ones have the attitude that supersedes all experience or learnable skills, and how to best motivate each individual.
Take the time to get to know your team personally. Without seeing them or having those interstitial water-cooler moments, it takes a mindful effort to build human relationships with them. Building those relationships is important, and not a detraction from your efficiency. In fact, strong interpersonal relationships will breed loyalty and motivation more than anything. With the right approach, that’s just as doable online as in the office.