businessman on phone in airport
PHOTO: VanveenJF

Managing remote teams can be tough. Being alone and lacking a collaborative work environment isn’t always ideal. And it often affects the quality of work that’s being produced. Having managed remote employees and contractors since I was 16 years old I've learned a few things along the way.  

1. Trying to Micromanage Instead of Lead

When you work in an office, and you want to ask someone a question, you just walk over to their desk and talk to them. Pretty easy, right? Or, you want to share a new piece of news, so you gather everyone for a quick meeting in five minutes. Unfortunately, you can’t always do the same thing virtually.

You can Slack them or email them. But what if they’re in a different time zone? What if they’re halfway around the world and maybe only overlap with your schedule for a few hours? Now, take this issue and multiply it by 10 or 50 or 100. Unscalable communication, like cubicle fly-bys, don’t work.

Instead, you need to be more proactive, not reactive, to get ahead of issues before they become issues. This could mean different things for different types of companies. Imagine a service company gets a new lead. How do you close that lead, onboard them as a new client, transition their information to operations and create a feedback loop with your account managers to make sure each new client project kicks off without any hitches?

Problems in this context are almost guaranteed. So what are the fallback plans when that happens? You won’t have time to swing by someone’s workspace to give a quick update. It might take another 6-12 hours for their time zone to catch up again. So you better have planned for that possibility ahead of time.

Related Article: How to Nurture a Positive Company Culture With Remote Workers

2. Measuring Hours Instead of Output

While some company's say they offer flexible hours and will let you start later and then stay later, in some cases, management is still scanning the office to see who’s not showing up. Now, contrast that with remote workers. Some are working at co-working spaces and a large number of others are working from home.

Are those people working less? Maybe, maybe not. The important thing is to focus on output instead of hours.

Here’s how to do that:

  • Take a job description for each major role in your company. Estimate time for the main recurring deliverables.
  • Figure out the proper utilization for that role (or how many of those to fit inside a typical work week).

It sounds easy on the surface. But it might take awhile to implement correctly because it requires a culture shift. Yes, you can simply institute time tracking for remote workers. However, the hours worked are irrelevant. Output is what gets you paid by clients in a service company, or what delivers results that grow companies.

Related Article: Bringing Your Remote Workforce Into the Fold

3. Relying on Talent Alone Instead of Processes

Talent is a prerequisite in any successful business. You can’t get very far without it. However, you can over rely on it in a remote company where things are naturally more flexible and intuitive.

So how do you make sure things still get done, on time, under budget, consistently across teams of people? By putting good old-fashioned processes and systems in place.

You need to be proactive to make sure that production of output across time zones doesn’t slip. Everyone needs to know exactly what to do and when to do it. They need to be able to log in to Asana or Trello (or whatever system you have in place), know exactly where to start on a new project, and who’s supposed to get the hand-off when it’s ready.

You can record video walk-throughs of every process, too, just to make sure everyone is crystal clear on how to do things. In addition, address something as seemingly simple as communication, for example, be clear about where team members should get hold of each other — email, Slack, Hangouts? If Slack, what’s the acceptable delay? Do people need to respond ASAP, or is the next day fine? And most importantly, it's important to instill the right ‘culture’ in a remote team where people only meet in person once or twice a year tops.

Related Article: 5 Ways to Bring Out the Best in Your Remote Workforce

Get the Most Out of Your Workers, Wherever They Are

Remote teams aren’t any less productive than in-person ones. In fact, if you do things right, they could be even more productive. There is no time wasted commuting, less ad-hoc meetings or interruptions and worldwide teams can literally be working 24/7.

However, you can’t manage remote teams the same as in-person ones. You need to figure out how to proactively lead, instead of reacting and micromanaging. You need ways to capture the output of your people, not the hours they spend in front of a computer. And you need to supplement talent with clear-cut processes for how to interact or work to make sure that everyone’s pulling in the same direction — regardless of where they might be sitting.