Managing in a Remote Environment
How does one manage people in a remote environment? Remote teams are actually nothing new but have become mainstream since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. This has left many managers somewhere between scratching their heads and bewildered wondering how to engage, mentor and coach their people when they seldom see them face-to-face.
The answer is not rocket science but does require mindfulness. I’ve managed a co-located team for 7 years and a remote team for 15 years, and would like to share what I’ve learned, in the hope that it helps you.
So, what is different about having remote team?
With co-located teams, a significant amount of coordination happens informally while passing each other in a hallway, before and after meetings, while grabbing a coffee, etc.
Remote teams will tend to suffer from a lack of informal coordination. Here are some strategies to improve internal coordination:
Design a formal cadence of meetings, purely focused on coordination. Like any regular meetings, make sure they are short, have an appropriate cadence and involve just the right people. For example, at Kwela we have:
- A weekly project coordination meeting – focused on client project steps in the next 1-2 weeks (everyone attends, 15 min)
- A biweekly consulting meeting – focused on improving our service delivery practice and to facilitate mentoring between consultants (consultants attend, 60 min)
- A monthly all-hands meeting – focused on issues that affect the entire business (everyone attends, 90 min)
While electronic coordination is arguably important for any team, the reliance on it is most pronounced with remote teams.
Electronic coordination requires having strong organization-wide filing systems and guidelines, software, databases, etc. Modern software such as Microsoft SharePoint/OneDrive and Google docs allow people to collaborate on documents (often simultaneously) as if they were in the same room. No matter which system you use, you will need to ensure that:
- People do not work offline, or in their own file “fiefdom”. They simply must work in the corporate filing system. This is especially important with intermediate versions of documents as this is where coordination needs are typically highest.
- The system is effectively designed and policed (yes – policed, because from time-to-time people will be expedient, break the rules and gradually undermine the system). What one person saves must be quickly findable by others.
The personal touch
Remote teams can suffer from a lack of personal touch, which if left unattended can impact people’s sense of belonging and engagement over time. A few strategies that you can use to create the personal touch include:
Use the right medium for the issue
You may find that people working remotely (especially people working from home) tend to place greater reliance on text-based, asynchronous communication such as email and instant messages. You may even find that some people will not release their phone number. It is unlikely that relationships will be built this way, and it can even result in the escalation of conflict.
The antidote is to work extra hard to ensure that there is sufficient verbal communication, which must be role-modelled by the leader. This brings me to the next point:
You will need to maximize the use of technology such as Zoom and Teams to ensure that remote meetings are effectively run. You may find that some people will be chronically reluctant to share their video however, and I have noticed that some organizations explicitly tolerate this. It quickly becomes cultural and before you know it you have a bunch of dark squares on the screen holding a meeting, some of them only semi-present and distracted with other work. Unable to read body language, communication suffers, and the personal touch is lost.
My advice is not to tolerate this – insist that people attend meetings fully present, with camera’s ON.
Create some informal time for people to interact. At Kwela, the first 15 minutes of every week are called the ‘Kwefee’ (I think the name is self-explanatory). Although attendance is optional, everyone typically comes and discussing work is strictly prohibited!
Managerial conversations include goal setting, delegation, performance feedback, mentoring and coaching.
A lot of the questions we get involve this area – people ask: “but how do I do it remotely?”.
With respect to managerial conversations, managing a remote team is actually identical to managing a co-located team. Try not to fall into the trap that since you cannot walk into someone’s workspace that you cannot be close to your team – you absolutely can.
Use the technology available to you and be mindful about staying present to the team and how each individual is doing.
Russel Horwitz, Principal