What Remote Managers Do Differently

“Claire, what do managers of remote teams have to do differently?”

I recently spoke with a manager who was asked to run a remote team for the first time in her career. She asked me this question. I could tell she was hesitant — perhaps even nervous about it. She’d never managed a remote team before.

“Do I need to shift some of my attitudes or behaviors?” she elaborated. “What do I need to do as a remote leader to make sure we’re as successful as when we were co-located?”

I had to pause and think about her questions for a minute.

Even though I’ve been a CEO of a remote company for more than five years, I’d never explicitly thought about the difference between what a remote leader requires vs. what a co-located leader requires. But when posed the question, I realized there are certain things I deliberately focus on as a remote leader. And, I’ve noticed other leaders of remote teams focusing on similar things, too.

This isn’t to say that co-located managers are a world apart from remote managers. In fact, in the survey we ran with almost 300 remote managers and employees, we found that most people who’d worked both in remote and co-located environments found the two to be only moderately different (59% of remote managers said this).

Rather: As a remote manager, you cannot survive without doing certain things. You have to do things a little differently.

Based on our survey we conducted with almost 300 remote managers and employees, insights from our online community in Know Your Team, The Watercooler, and what I personally strive to practice as a leader, here are the 4 biggest things that remote leaders do differently…

Switch from “Speak first” to “Write first.”

The biggest difference between managing a remote team versus an in-person team is what you could have guessed: Communication. In our survey, 30% of managers said that “how people communicate with each other on the team” was the biggest difference between managing a team remotely versus managing them in-person.

When it comes to communication, there’s one form that is more popular than others in remote teams: Writing. Specifically, “writing synchronously (e.g., chatting via Slack, Basecamp, etc.)” was cited as the primary form of communication in remote teams (45% of survey respondents said this).

This is a big departure for most managers who are used to operating in co-located teams. When you have a question, the instinct is to talk to someone about it – not write it out. When you have a new project to kick off, you hold an in-person meeting. When you have a question, you walk over to someone’s desk to ask them about it. However, in remote teams you don’t say it, you write it.

On the contrary, quite predictably, while in-person, most managers default to in-person meetings as their primary mode of communication (29% of survey respondents said this). Only 6% of managers and employees in remote companies said that in-person meetings were their primary mode of communication.

The most successful remote managers understand this and are diligent about writing – clearly, precisely – to communicate with their team on a daily basis. In Chapter 2, we’ll discuss specific tactics and best practices for communicating in remote teams, in greater detail.

Trust your employees… for real.

As a leader, you have to trust your employees, irrespective of if you’re in-person with them or remote. But as a remote leader, that trust becomes even more paramount. According to remote managers, “building trust and rapport across the team” is the #1 thing managers should prioritize (33% of remote managers said this), what new managers most frequently overlook (25% of remote managers said this).

On a personal note, as a remote CEO, I couldn’t operate day-to-day if I didn’t have our team members. If someone goes out and runs to the grocery store in the middle of the day… so what? If someone takes the afternoon off to go watch their kid’s school play… so what? In fact, it’s great that they get to do those things, live their life, and get work done too. It doesn’t matter how many hours are being put into the work or when the work is being put in. All that matters are the results — and I trust our employees find a way to make the results happen.

Leon Barnard, a UX Designer and Writer at Balsamiq (and Know Your Team customer), talked about how their CEO trusts their employees:

“Our founder and CEO, Peldi Guilizzoni, shows a lot of confidence and trust in us. I would guess that we all actually work more effectively than we did in previous jobs where the most important thing was “looking busy” for the boss… Being so distributed, we couldn’t function without valuing trust and autonomy. Peldi doesn’t micromanage. At this point he couldn’t, even if he wanted to.”

Paul of Litmus put it succinctly: “Trust your team… Work only gets done when you allow people to make mistakes.”

That being said, how do you trust people to get the work done, while also keeping them accountable to a high quality of work? You can read how to exactly think about performance management in Chapter 5.

Get intentional about social connection.

Naturally, when you’re not in person, you’re not as socially connected to your team as you might be if you were in-person. According to the survey we ran this past fall, “fostering a sense of connection without a shared location” was seen as the #1 most difficult part of being a remote manager – and the #1 most difficult part of working remotely, in general.

This matters, as research has demonstrated the value of social connection at work. For example, one study shows that individuals who had 15 minutes to socialize with colleagues had a 20% increase in performance over their peers who didn’t. Furthermore, studies have shown the positive impact that social relationships have on life expectancy.

As a remote manager, this means you need to be more intentional about how your team members are connecting with one another – and how you’re connecting with them. For example, many remote companies default to video as a means of creating a higher fidelity of connection. In fact, after written communication, video calls were the second most popular mode of communication in remote teams (28% of survey respondents said this).

Additionally, remote managers will invest in doing some sort of in-person team meet-up. According to our survey, we found that the most common frequency of meeting in-person was “several times a year” (25% said this), and that they spend on average $1,001 – $5,000 per employee (29% of respondents said this) to accomplish this.

You can read more about specifically how to build social connection in a remote team in Chapter 4.

Have the hard conversations, quickly.

Telling a team member something they don’t want to hear is hard enough. But how do you do it when you’re not in-person? Finding a way to have the hard conversations quickly is crucial in remote teams. According to our survey, the second hardest part of a remote manager’s job is “communicating effectively without in-person cues” (15% of remote managers said this).

As a result, remote teams tend to emphasize structures, processes, and habits that help force hard conversations to happen sooner. For instance, more remote managers reported having a formal onboarding process (69%), compared to co-located managers (59%). And, more remote managers shared how they have some sort of mentor or “buddy system” in their team (51%) versus their co-located manager peers (41%).

You can read in-depth about specific communication best practices in Chapter 2, the role that one-on-ones play in remote teams in Chapter 5, and onboarding and training in remote teams in Chapter 6.

Now, there are plenty of leaders who are not remote that do many of the things above… which is great! However, when you’re a remote manager, these 4 things become do-or-die. Don’t do them, and it’s likely your team won’t last as a remote one.

When you’re a remote leader, you can’t afford to not be a good writer. You can’t afford to not be intentional about social connection. You can’t afford to not trust your employees.

If anything, being a remote leader tests you as a leader in all the right ways: It forces you to communicate well, and have a strong processes for people feeling connected in your team.

As you’re considering how you can become the best remote manager, keep these four things in mind as a leader. I know I’ll be sending this piece over to the manager who’s new to being remote, myself.

Takeaways:

  • The biggest difference between managing a remote team versus an in-person team is communication.
  • “Writing synchronously (e.g., chatting via Slack, Basecamp, etc.)” was cited as the primary form of communication in remote teams (45% of survey respondents said this).
  • “Building trust and rapport across the team” is the #1 thing managers should prioritize (33% of remote managers said this), what new managers most frequently overlook (25% of remote managers said this).
  • The second hardest part of a remote manager’s job is “communicating effectively without in-person cues” (15% of remote managers said this).

Put this into practice with Know Your Team:

  • Communicate well in a remote team by using our Heartbeats feature, which keeps everyone in the loop on what they’re working on.
  • Focus on building rapport and trust in your team with our Social Questions feature, which asks fun, non-work-related questions to everyone periodically.