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Best Management Practices for Supporting Remote Workers

With remote work gaining traction across companies around the world and employees vying for more flexible working conditions, it’s tempting to think managing a remote team is easy. While it doesn’t have to be difficult, it will take more than setting up employees with a laptop and a WIFI connection and hoping the work gets done.

Healthy, sustainable remote teams start with committed managers who take the time to develop strategies to connect with their teams. In this article, we unpack the basic steps to making remote management work for you.

Invest time and money into a good set up

Providing a safe and productive work space should remain a company responsibility whether your employee is working remotely or in an established co-located office. Not only does this ensure everyone is protected and your employee’s wellbeing is being looked after, but it also means that everyone can actually do their work.

Creating functional remote work spaces goes beyond providing a spending allowance for home offices or granting access to the internal intranet. An investment in remote work needs to include infrastructure and policy to support communication and collaboration as well as a straightforward workflow. If you have hybrid teams, this needs to extend to both remote and co-located employees.

“A lot of companies have a work from home policy now – that’s fairly ubiquitous,” says Wes Jossey, management coach and co-founder of the organisational development company, Eager Labs.

“But they’re not necessarily putting in the infrastructure to support that.”

Lisette Sutherland, author of Work Together Anywhere and creator of Collaboration Superpowers, a resource centre, podcast and workshop series for remote teams agrees.

“The biggest thing that I see is that people are having problems with their infrastructure,” she says.

“For instance, conference rooms still have those really old school spider phones in the middle of the conference room tables, videos aren’t getting turned on. People are still using this 1980s technology even though it has gotten better.”

If you’re transitioning from a fully co-located team to incorporate remote workers, set up can seem like a daunting task. But Lisette is adamant it doesn’t have to mean a huge office overhaul. Despite modern office trends, you don’t need call booths or high tech conference rooms to make remote teams work. Think about the specific requirements of your organisation and cater to them.

“I always say start small,” she says.

“Start just by getting people a noise-cancelling headset if you work in an open office space and there’s no place to go.”

From there you can incorporate more equipment in response to need.

Sometimes the problem isn’t with the technology but rather a policy that perpetuates old practices and doesn’t enforce new ones.

“When somebody is working from home, and you’re dialling into a video call, is everybody just huddled around a laptop?” Wes asks.

This set up not only makes the remote caller feel left out but makes it far more difficult to hear everything that’s being shared in the office. If everyone dials in on their own computer, regardless of where they are, it equalises the experience. The best thing is this doesn’t require purchasing any more equipment but will completely change the entire experience for everyone. It’s not about having the latest tech, but being smart about how you use what’s in your reach.

Similarly, we’ve discovered low-cost items like lamps can enhance our video communication by eliminating backlighting.

“If I’m at home I always have [my lamp] on so it lights up my face,” says our co-founder Tim Burgess. “So that people can see [my] expressions.”

The key is to make changes thoughtfully, taking into consideration the needs of your team rather than rolling out companywide equipment requirements which may not be necessary or meet the needs of all employees.

Internet connectivity is another big consideration.

“Whenever you’re talking to somebody, and they drop out or that thing where it starts moving really quickly because it’s trying to catch up audio. All that stuff is killer,” Tim says.

It’s a good idea to have employees test download and upload speeds where they work or set requirements around WIFI plans to avoid internet complications where possible. We provide telecom allowances for each of our employees to cover costs and set a standard across our entire team.

Centralise documentation

In addition to setting up a physical workspace, remote teams need to spend time formulating their online workspaces.

When coworkers and managers are working in different locations and potentially different timezones, it’s imperative that there still be a way to collaborate and check-in.

“People need to be able to work out loud,” Lisette says. “[We need to] make our work observable somehow to our team members, so people know what we are working on.”

This is particularly important for collaboration and project work. If all files, communication and assets are in a centralised space, coworkers can fulfil their roles without slowing down to due to a back and forth.

There are plenty of apps and software programs to choose from, but Google Drive or Dropbox can work just as well.

Create a team agreement

Lisette recommends setting up a team agreement early on which outlines how you’ll communicate within your team.

“Everyone has really different styles of how they like to work,” she says. “There are going to be some people on your team that are phone people some people are email people some are instant message people and if you get all of those people trying to talk to each with their favourite mediums it just becomes a mess pretty quickly.”

By creating an official agreement, you aren’t making assumptions or placing unrealistic expectations on your team. Instead, you’re providing an opportunity to establish the kind of workflow that will work best for your team.

The team agreement can include anything you deem helpful. The idea is simply to reduce ambiguity around the ways in which you’ll communicate.

You may include the mediums you’ll use, the expected timeframe for responses, core work hours or other specific requirements like always adding an agenda before a meeting or how you’ll structure email subject lines to convey how urgent the response is.

 “All of these things are pretty easy when you work in an office,” Lisette says. “You kind of have to make them explicit when you go remote.”

Tim adds that getting the whole team involved with the creation helps too. He says even if one person doesn’t agree with something, seeing that the rest of the team does makes it easier to commit to. 

With an agreement in place, the avenues of communication are clear.

“It’s very clear for [the team] how they’re meant to interact,” Tim says. “And also, what [behaviours are] breaching that or what’s supporting that.”

The agreement can, of course, be updated to reflect changes in the team’s preferences or to include new apps or means of communicating as they arise.

Develop (or copy) an effective feedback strategy

Like many other areas, giving feedback in a remote setting requires a little more intention than if you are co-located with your entire team.

When much of your communication is written, and often asynchronously, it’s very easy to have misunderstandings, tone issues and feel distant from the human on the other end.

“There are all kinds of things that you would normally do in person, but then when we go remote, we somehow forget,” Lisette says. “You miss out on so much without seeing the person.”

That’s why Lisette is a strong advocate for video calls. She encourages anything that will bring a human quality to communication. This includes using actual photos of your face as display pictures rather than avatars or cartoons and sending videos with instructions rather than wordy ramblings.

“Just being able to see each other even in a picture on your slack groups will tone down how people will respond to you and treat you as a human,” she says. “[Which is so important] when you’re trying to build empathy online.”

Lisette uses a non-violent communications strategy called the feedback wrap. Its goal is to deliver facts with context.

“You start with your context, where are you what’s going on. [For example] I’m in a really crowded airport right now, it’s 6am, and there’s a screaming baby next to me,” Lisette says.

This helps the other person to visualise you and where you are coming from.

“Then you state the facts – ok we said the report was due Friday, it’s now Monday, and I still don’t have the report. Then you get to say what you feel – I feel disappointed and then you get to say ok what are the next steps for moving forward.”

It’s just as essential to formalise positive feedback and celebration. We have a slack channel dedicated to shouting out any small or big moments throughout the week. We also have a weekly Type Form calling on updates and shoutouts from each team member that is integrated into the slack channel at the end of each week.

“I think particularly if you’re trying to bond a team or multiple teams then celebrating their joint successes is a great way to do that,” Tim says.

Go out of your way to build trust

While Wes makes the point that all managers need to be intentional about developing trusting relationships, he does admit it requires some extra thought when you’re not co-located.

“[Trust is] harder to form when you’re not literally sitting across from somebody,” he says.

“Because it’s easier to miss things. It’s easier not to see somebody’s body language – it’s easier not to see somebody come back from a meeting and have their shoulders slumped down and be frustrated.”

Remote managers need to develop strategies to check in with remote employees to build rapport and establish a trusting relationship.

“I think especially when you have remote workers, you need to be very intentional about understanding exactly how [each employee] works,” Wes says. “Because you’re different from your colleagues because you’re a unique person and you have unique motivations.”

By experimenting with different methods and prioritising finding what works for each employee, you’ll be more likely to develop a stronger bond.

“It’s just about what helps to generate those bonds, and what helps to simulate that?” Wes says.

“Do [they] want to simulate the coffee chat? I know remote managers who will literally go to Starbucks at their different locations and come back and have a Starbucks while they are talking [to their employee] as though they had gotten a Starbucks together.”

Trust comes from how you work together too. This could mean committing to your team agreement, which might include replying within a specified timeframe, never working on your computer at the same time as talking on video chat or being on time to meetings. But it’s also about developing management techniques that work when you’re not sitting in the same office.

“You need to be able to pick up on written cues a lot more because a lot of communication happens over chat,” Wes says.

“You need to be able to look at video chat where you’ve got 6 people up on the screen and watch all their different body language in a way that’s really different to if they were all sitting there in the same room.”

Be intentional about team building

Working remotely doesn’t have to be isolating. With a bit of effort and commitment, remote teams can develop deep connections with their colleagues despite being separated by vast distances.

“Fun is a super important component of teamwork,” Lisette says of the importance of team building.

With remote teams, you can’t leave it to chance that your employees will bond incidentally. There’s no 10am walk downstairs to the lobby café, no Friday work drinks, staff lunches or the general daily chatter that rises and falls in waves throughout the workday between desk mates.

To bond a remote team, companies need to be intentional about providing opportunities for engagement and employees have to be willing to show up.

At ShieldGEO, we use a tool called Know Your Team, which asks three questions a week, some practical, some funny, some intended to draw out stories, to everyone in our team. We’ve recently integrated this to slack so we can comment on each other’s answers, developing conversations across our teams. Each timezone has a daily or weekly non-work-related call for the sole purpose of connecting with colleagues and hearing about their days.

We’re also big advocates for team retreats after the success of our Thailand trip earlier this year.

Commit to making it work

“What I learned from writing the book is there’s no one right way,” Lisette says. “And that it’s not rocket science.”

The biggest thing is having the desire to make it work and the commitment to follow through. It may require some trial and error and a change in mindset to think about things that usually come naturally, but it’s worth the effort to create a healthy and sustainable remote team.

 – Bree Caggiati 

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