What it’s like to manage a remote team

I have been managing the customer support team at my company for years, and I’ve done it entirely as a remote leader. What’s more, I do this at a company that is not fully remote, and during my time as a manager, many of my direct reports have been in-office while I’ve been thousands of miles away.

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If you feel surprised or confused, you’re not alone.

When I meet other managers and reveal all that information, the reaction is often surprise and confusion, and there are a lot of follow-up questions. I thought I’d answer a few of the most common ones here, to give other folks a sense of what this has been like.

(Tl;dr – it’s been great, and I’d highly recommend it, as long as you go in with the right attitude, expectations and support).

How do you know that everyone is working all day if you’re not there to supervise them?

This is by far the most common question I get when I tell people I’m a remote manager, and, respectfully, I think it’s somewhat misguided on a couple of levels.

First, it belies a common misunderstanding about what it means to manage people well. If your singular goal is to extract the maximum amount of productivity from every person on your team, every minute of the day, you’re not thinking about management the right way. Good managers guide, support and empower their direct reports to do their best work. That requires understanding them deeply, connecting them with the right assignments and opportunities, and unblocking impediments to their progress and success – supervision per se does not accomplish any of that.

Second, it has not been my experience that close proximity to one’s manager ensures consistent, on-task work anyway. There are plenty of employees who sit next to their managers all day and aren’t actually working for a lot of that time.

Third, unless you’re a pretty absent manager, you should easily be able to see your direct reports’ work product, especially on a support team. You can review the tickets they’ve solved, the knowledge base articles they’ve written, the responses they’ve provided in your online community, the Slack conversations they’ve been having with the product management team to get information for a customer…the list goes on. And assuming that you’re having 1:1s with them every week and checking in regularly to make sure they have everything they need, you have plenty of opportunities to ask about how the work is going. Bottom line: If you’re doing the things you’re supposed to be doing as a manager anyway, it’s pretty easy to see that your team is working hard.

Last, why is it important that someone is working all day? If you hire people that you trust, you should be ok with them taking breaks when they need them, in whatever way they see fit.

Ok, but how do you know that everyone is pulling their weight equally? You’d have no way to know!

Again, unless you’re a pretty absent manager, it should be very clear who’s working hard, harder and hardest. Hopefully, you also have systems in place to regularly recognize and reward your team members’ contributions, which encourages everyone to keep up their good work.

But this question actually raises a good, related question that many non-remote managers don’t think to ask: How do you know that people on your team aren’t working too hard? In my experience, people who work remotely often have trouble drawing the line between work and non-work time, and end up working way more hours than folks who “go home” at the end of a day.

This is a much more prevalent problem than someone on the team not working hard enough, and something that remote managers should be keeping an open dialogue about with their team members – especially those who are new to remote work.

How can you possibly build culture on a remote team?

Good question. I suppose it depends on how you define “culture.” If you think of culture as happy hours and ping pong games, your options are pretty limited. If you think of culture as values, customs and distinct ways of doing business that creates cohesion in your team, your options are basically unlimited.

That’s not to say that it’s easy, exactly. You have to make time and be intentional. For example, if you’re in an office with your team, it’s easy to organically get together for  lunch each Monday, to catch up and talk about the weekend. On a remote team, something like this has to be planned.

But the important thing is that it can be done effectively, and it can be done without a huge investment of money. You just have to be thoughtful and open to experimentation, to figure out what works for your team.

Aren’t you at a huge disadvantage if you’re the only team lead that’s remote?

Maybe, depending on the company you work for. I have been lucky to work with a company and manager who is supportive of remote work. I also have a number of in-office allies who I can trust to represent me and keep me informed if I cannot be present for a meeting (I should note that I’m also in a different time zone than the one where my company is based, and meetings sometimes happen after my work hours have ended).

If that doesn’t sound like your company or manager, I would not recommend pursuing a remote role with your current employer, because you’ll end up frustrated and disengaged. If it does and you’d like to explore being a remote manager, you might want to try it out on a temporary basis to see if it will work for you.

How do you get to know your direct reports when you’re remote? How do you build trust and rapport?

This goes back to intentionality. No, I can’t verbally say good morning to each of my direct reports each day. But I can send each of them a “good morning!” Giphy via Slack, and ask them how they’re doing (which I do, every day). This is the type of small thing that builds rapport remotely, you just have to commit to doing it.

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Typical good morning Giphy I might send to one of my direct reports to kick off the day

Building trust is a little bit different, and I would argue that it doesn’t have anything to do with physical proximity. In my experience, trust is built when you show that you’re reliable, honest, and have your team’s best interests at heart.

It doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen because you’re sitting next to each other. It happens because you prove to your team – every day, day in and day out – that you have those qualities.

Do you work in your pajamas all day?

Um. No comment 🙂

 

Need help or advice with managing a remote support team? Let’s talk about it!

 

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