Going all in on all remote: Managing your team from afar

In a fully distributed workforce, managers will struggle to achieve results if they don’t have clear goals, metrics and checkpoints. I spoke with Cary Moretti, co-founder of Proximuto and remote-work pioneer, and got his recommendations for managing a team virtually.

I’m used to wandering by everyone’s desk throughout the day to see how things are going. What’s the best way to put this in place in a remote setting without having it feeling contrived or like I’m micromanaging?

You probably are micromanaging — just joking. But, done right, this can still work. Make sure your team has a group chat and stay involved. Do not just pop in when something is late; be proactive, offer help and check in before tasks are due or overdue. This will allow you to keep your finger on the pulse of your team and can build engagement. Moreover, by checking in early and offering assistance instead of critique, you begin to create a culture of trust.

It’s pretty common for urgent requests, which require immediate action, to come in. Usually I’d find the first available person and task them with handling the response. Are there policies or processes that I can discuss and put in place with my team that don’t involve everyone having to tape their phone to their head?

Communication protocols work in your favour here. Once your team is up on the right tools (chat, voice, video and screen sharing), you’ll have the same direct access to one another that you would in an office. Actually, access will be much improved because you don’t have to physically move to get their attention. However, be careful here — teams need training to be sure they’re using the tools correctly. Notification levels have to be adjusted for 100 percent remote work: if they’re too high, they will be nothing but noise; if they’re too low, you won’t reach anyone. Managers also need a back channel in case regular channels fail (lots of that is going on right now). Consider creating an on-call schedule, if applicable, and be sure there’s always someone available after hours in the event of an emergency.

A big focus of our workplace is the team concept. People spend time together and develop relationships that go beyond their jobs, which I feel fortifies us as a unit. Are there things I can do to help foster this in a remote environment?

Absolutely. Have team chats and calls that aren’t just about work. Instead of aiming for the “big” event, break it down and get social with co-workers, staff and even your manager. Create a nonwork channel in your group chats. Social chatter happens anyway, so find it a home and encourage it! Try to make time in meetings (usually at the start) for social niceties; this doubles as a way to give extra time to attendees who are struggling to get onto the session or joining from another meeting. 

I have a problem employee that I routinely need to check on (they do great work but are easily distracted). How do I make sure that they are not going to spend the day slacking? I’m worried that I won’t know until it’s too late and a deadline is missed.

The same skills that work on-premises work remotely, too. Don’t wait until tasks are due; make sure you’re checking in regularly, even if nothing is currently due. “Dropping in” unannounced doesn’t work so well with remote-work situations, but scheduled check-ins are great and less time-consuming (you don’t have to wander around looking for people like you do in an office). If you can, consider a daily stand-up or check-in for your team — so you don’t have to single out one person — where you can get a full update on the day’s tasks. Stand-ups aren’t just for agile tech start-ups.

We routinely plan and hold social events aimed at improving morale and group cohesion. How do I replace this now that everyone’s scattered?

You can’t have a team barbecue if everyone is at home, but you can certainly call Uber Eats or SkipTheDishes. Virtual pizza parties are a great way to have fun with a meeting and give your team something to look forward to. If your team was suddenly forced into a work-from-home situation, consider sending gift baskets filled with treats and supplies that might come in handy.

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