The remote working relationship is as common now as three-martini lunches for ad executives in the 1960s.
Form-building provider Formstack of Indianapolis, Ind., had a little fun with the concept of remote-working bosses when it tested if certain fictional characters would make good ones.
We caught up with the provider's CEO, Chris Byers, to discuss remote bosses. Trust and communication, he told us, are the foundations to a good working relationship between boss and employee in remote settings.
"Communication is the most important skill that a remote boss can develop," Byers said. "Without good communication, your employees will struggle, productivity will suffer and you will wonder why things aren’t working. Leaders need to intentionally communicate vision and culture to their employees. Remote bosses should frequently remind their team why they exist and what their work is accomplishing."
But how can managers pull it off when they're steering a ship that sometimes feels like it has no crew?
Micromanage? Keep on top of virtual workers at all times?
"Micromanagers will struggle in a remote setting but they also struggle in a typical office," Byers said. "Micromanaging has its root in distrust. A controlling boss does not believe that his or her employees will do the work they are expected to do. This is a problem whether or not anyone is remote."
Those problems can be eliminated before they even start by hiring well. Additionally, when leaders set clear expectations they don’t have to rely on micromanagement.
"Set clear expectations and follow up," Byers said. "It might sound simplistic, but that’s the core of managing well."
Keep in the Loop
Byers said his teams do weekly stand-up meetings and share progress on projects. Some think this is a bad idea.
"A good remote boss should know what his or her employees are working on and what their project status is," Byers said. "We have to be much more scheduled than if we were in an office. These meetings become important touch points to ensure employees don’t feel isolated."
But can you communicate too much? Yes, Byers said, adding, "Just like in a regular office, interruptions can be detrimental to productivity. We have designated 'No Meeting Thursday' to ensure that our teams can get focused, uninterrupted work done."
Go off the grid when you need to focus, he said.
"Just communicate your status to the appropriate people and turn off your notifications," he said.
How Do I Come Off?
We judge each other all the time. We probably judge one another more when the only ways by which we communicate is a meeting conference line and some emails.
So how do you fix that? Be more like you would be if you worked together in the same building.
"Remote bosses need to think about how their employees perceive them," Byers said. "Instead of coming across as direct and abrupt, learn to write in a friendlier manner. Add social niceties to phone calls and video chat. Check in with questions and casual conversation before getting down to business. Social conversations tend to happen in the margins of a regular office, but they have to be intentionally cultivated when you are remote."
It's hard to survive without a working compass. Byers said his company calls its a "manifesto," a document that encapsulates company’s values.
"Whether we are hiring or doing employee reviews, our team can look at our manifesto and see how we are measuring up," Byers said. "Our team also strongly believes in mentoring. I encourage people to find trusted professional and personal mentors who can guide you along the way."
It's not all on the boss, though. New employees should provide daily updates or schedule appointments, according to Byers.
"Doing so helps them get used to initiating conversations, which can be difficult at first," Byers said. "Some bosses don’t know how to support remote employees because they have never worked remotely. Ask for what you need and explain why. For example, if you don’t think your boss is communicating well, set up meetings yourself. Even a five-minute phone call can improve the connection between people."