I had a lot to learn when I jumped from managing a small team in an office to an online environment. I realized quickly that I had to make some adjustments in how I communicated and was present for my team in this environment. Everyone has their own working routines and habits just like they would in an office.
I discovered that it isn’t necessarily more difficult to manage when your team is spread out, but it is different. As a leader, you set the tone for your team. They will look to you for guidance and leadership. And it will be your responsibility to establish the cadence for how things are going to run.
If you’re new to leading a team virtually, here are a few things to keep in mind when figuring out how to manage a remote team:
Learn how your team works
Understanding your team members’ strengths and how they function most efficiently is an essential part of being a manager in any circumstances. While it may feel uncomfortable at first, I’ve found that the easiest way to figure this out when managing remotely is simply to ask your team members individually how they work best and what they expect from you.
Does your teammate need you to check in every hour or do they work better independently? What kind of support do they need from you as a manager? These are also great questions to ask in an interview when hiring new employees if you’re working with an entirely remote team that you’ve never met in person in order to make sure your working styles are compatible.
Keep in mind that working routines change when you’re out of the office. If your team has recently made the switch to remote work or you’re dealing with people who have never worked from home before, they might not even know what kind of support they need from you yet. By framing this question as what you can do as a manager to make it easier for them to do their jobs well, you’re creating a safe space for your team to feel comfortable coming to you if they need support going forward.
Set up tools and processes that work for you
Working remotely makes it a lot more difficult to find answers if you don’t know where to look for them or who to ask. You can’t simply pop your head into the next office or shout over your computer. Having clear tools and systems in places can solve this problem by helping your team get organized. A few easy things to start with are outlining who is responsible for what (so that people know where to go when they have questions) and organizing some sort of shared file system (Google Drive or Sharepoint, for example) that makes collaboration easy.
There are tons of tools that can help you manage your team such as project management tools (Asana, Trello, etc.), communication tools (Zoom, Slack, etc.), and time management (Toggl, Harvest, etc.), just to name a few. The most important thing when implementing a new tool is to make sure that everyone is given the training they need to use it effectively. If your team doesn’t fully understand how a tool works or how it will help them, you may have a hard time getting them on board with using it.
Don’t forget to delegate
‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is a trap you don’t want to fall into when managing an online team. Just because you’re sitting at home alone doesn’t mean you have to do everything on your own. Your team is still there to support you, even if it’s from their couch in their pajamas. Delegate tasks as you normally would but make sure that the instructions are clear and that your colleague has everything they need to get the work done.
Something I learned very quickly as a remote manager is to make sure instructions are extra clear when delegating tasks. Sending a follow-up email after a Zoom meeting clearly outlining who needs to do what and by when can make a big difference.
Pro tip: kindly ask your teammate to repeat to you what they need to do in their own words. This will make it clear whether or not you both have the same understanding and expectations of a task. This will save a lot of headaches down the road.
Communication is key
Communication is always important, but even more so when working remotely. Check in with your teammates regularly to stay up-to-date with what they’re working on. This is especially important if they might be receiving tasks from other teams as well.
In an office environment, it’s easier to get a sense of whether someone has too much or too little on their plate based on visual cues. When working remotely, you need to ask more directly. Also, encourage your teammates to not hesitate when it comes to asking for more work if they finish assigned tasks early.
It’s important that communication continues in the time between a task being assigned and completed. Since miscommunication happens more easily in a remote setting, checking in at different stages ensures that everyone is on the same page throughout the course of the project. Finding out on the due date that something was done incorrectly is never a nice surprise and may affect the timeline of other projects.
However, don’t fall into the trap of micromanaging or spending too much of your time checking up on what your team is doing. Setting regularly update meetings will feel less invasive. It will also keep you from wasting all of your time on Zoom or Slack.
Take time for team building
Even though you’re not in the same place, you’re still a team. As a manager, it’s important that you foster this feeling within your team. Having Zoom ‘happy hours’ or ‘get to know you’ activities on Slack can help create a feeling of camaraderie among your team members. Cohesion within the team builds trust and enhances accountability. It also makes things more fun.
You will also want to personally establish a good relationship with your team. If your team members feel that you care about them and you have their best interests at heart, they’ll be more open to sharing things with you. There are often things going on in people’s lives that you can’t see. So, having team members that are comfortable being open and communicative will be better for the team as a whole.
Working remotely is different for everyone. And it takes a bit of adjustment if you’re used to managing a team in person. But if you tap into your natural flow, communicate, and build strong relationships with your team, you’ll be set for success.