Remote Management: How to Get Started

🙋‍♀️ This is a cross-post from my newsletter, Leading by Design. If you liked the post below, consider subscribing! I post one issue per month.

According to TIME magazine, the coronavirus outbreak has become the world’s largest work-from-home experiment. All of a sudden, companies around the world had to make the abrupt switch to remote work, even if it wasn’t previously considered an option. It was either adapt or go bust.

Naturally, this sudden change affected managers across different industries, sometimes in an erratic way. Forget toilet paper hoarding - bosses around the world have started panic-buying surveillance software to ensure that their employees stay glued on their screens while working from home. The pillar of manager-employee trust crumbled as soon as the pandemic started.

However, it doesn’t seem we’re going back to the office anytime soon. An extended period of switching between “normal” life and lockdown will get us through the end of the year, and most probably during 2021 as well. Now is the time to invest time and effort to help yourself and your team to switch to remote work.

Co-located vs Remote Management

Here’s a fun fact: I’ve never been a co-located manager. In fact, I haven’t worked in an office since 2009. Being a remote manager is all I know. And not just that - for years, I was managing a co-located team remotely! That’s like setting the management difficulty level to Extra Hard.

The difference between co-located and remote management is not extreme: managing a team is managing a team, after all. But as a remote manager, you have to make sure you focus on a different skillset and be intentional and deliberate. You cannot afford not focusing on trust, communication and documentation.

Commit to it

Switching to remote work, even if you plan to go back to working in an office eventually, requires commitment from you as a manager and your organization as well. The switch won’t work if you don’t dedicate time and budget to make sure people have the means they need to do their best work. Communicate the change to the team honestly and directly, create a transition plan and be prepared to account for people that won’t like the change.

If you plan to return to an office environment later, avoid leaving crucial decisions and difficult conversations for “when you go back”. Make sure your team members have the equipment and software they need to work remotely without compromising their family’s and their own mental health. Even if they’d like to return to the office eventually, make sure to coach them on how to better work and communicate while working remotely. By all means, don’t be the first one to go back to the office - people look up to you for guidance. Don’t be surprised if your team starts trickling back to the office if you, as their manager, decide to work there full-time.

Focus on building trust

Don’t let your trust to your team waver just because you don’t see them typing away in their workstations every day. When you start wondering if people really work and you feel the need to check up on them regularly, ask yourself: is this needed, or am I just reacting to the loss of control? Give people the flexibility to manage their day as they see fit. Mid-day grocery store runs are OK. Extended lunch breaks with their family are OK. Your employees are adults, and your job is to communicate the priorities and get out of their way while they’re doing their work.

A telltale sign of a bad remote manager is the need to check on their people at all times, shattering their productivity and creating resentment. There’s no valid reason to make them install surveillance software in their machines to check if they spend their days glued to their screens. There’s no reason to hold two different check-in meetings during the day to make sure they make progress. Remember why you hired them.

Switch to asynchronous, written communication

A significant change: when you’re managing remotely, you have to default your communication to writing, both synchronously (e.g. chatting on Slack) and asynchronously (e.g. design documents, meeting agendas). Switching to write-first can be problematic for teams that use ad hoc face-to-face meetings as their primary tool to make decisions and move forward.

However, when you try to replicate the office environment when working from home, you’ll only succeed in draining people’s energy and focus. “Zoom fatigue” is the reason why you feel more tired at the end of a long remote working day. Trying to discern information in a multi-person meeting over a spotty Internet connection is enough to make you want a stiff drink right afterwards.

Practice having fewer video meetings and holding more asynchronous discussions directly on your deliverable, either it is a legal document, a design mockup or a code file. All modern workspace tools offer discussion functionality - make it work for you.

Document everything

More often than not, the bulk of a team’s collective knowledge resides in certain people’s heads, where it stays until it’s time for the team to get together to solve a problem. However, when you’re a remote manager, you can’t afford to keep your team knowledge siloed. Important information shouldn’t be kept in people’s heads.

Now is the best time to get your team into documenting everything - your employee handbook, role descriptions, career ladders, meeting notes, important decisions. The aim is for your team to know where to get the answers they need, without having to ask you or more senior colleagues. Create a centralized repo of team knowledge and urge your senior team members to offload the knowledge they’ve accumulated throughout the years. Doing this will also make it easier to onboard (remotely!) new people to your team.

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