Woman Taking Notes

3 Secrets For Leading Remote Teams to Success

Managers looking to successfully lead a remote team should have two concerns: hiring the right people and making sure everyone is on the same page after that.

While simple in writing, it’s hard to resist the temptation to treat remote workers as mythical beasts who are better left to their own devices. This isn’t Hogwarts, and remote workers aren’t wizards.

Great managers of remote workers do three things in common to ensure employees are happy, productive, and feel included. As I said, it starts with hiring the right people.

Find the Right People

Hiring remote from within

A successful remote team is staffed by the right people. Hiring managers looking to hire remote for the first time should consider a timed trial period to see whether the arrangement works as part of the company’s culture.

Define a start date, check-in times to monitor progress, and a wrap-up to discuss what was learned and what lessons can carry over if you plan to bring on more remote workers. Resist the urge to make it a one-month trial—you’ll need at least a few months to settle into the flow of remote work.

When selecting workers for this trial, consider employees who are productive and reliable without a lot of direct hands-on management. Be clear that they’re part of a trail and are expected to provide feedback on the arrangement as well as complete work as usual. With their comments, you’ll gain valuable insights on if and how a remote team will function and contribute to your business.

Hiring remote from outside the company

First, know where to find people who want to work from home. Job boards such as Authentic Jobs have lots of people specifically searching for remote work.

A remote applicant will likely describe themselves as a self-motivated, independent worker. Words are cheap so look for concrete evidence of this in their work history. Did she start a podcast or blog? Has she launched a website, product or a business? Has this person taken a chance with a startup? Someone who has a hand in projects like these typically have the focus and drive to work well in a remote setting.

Still, a little guidance will be necessary. As the manager, take care of this by defining expectations at the hiring stage. For example, communicate how you monitor progress and productivity by explaining the position’s monthly, quarterly and annual goals (as well as project-specific objectives) as well as outlining regular, mutually agreed upon check-in times.

If you and your remote team can schedule a day back at the office, great. If not, focus on finding the right tools.

Use the Right Tools

I spent five years in a virtual newsroom with AOL. There was an Editor-In-Chief, a Managing Editor (yours truly) and a stable of full-time writers and freelancers that spanned three continents. Even those of us who were in the U.S. were scattered from New York to California. In fact, no two of us were in the same state. Yet we had clearly-defined “office hours,” a strong work culture and concise, and effective team meetings thanks to some fantastic online tools.

Back then, we used IRC as our “office” (decidedly old school), but today my choice is Slack. Basecamp is another fantastic option, with a focus on recording a project’s history and all relevant communications. You should also consider Skype for meetings (and interviews), and a service like Trello for project assignments and coordination.

In the situation where workers are dispersed across time zones, setting rotating meeting times on these tools makes it so one individual or group of individuals isn’t always getting up early or working late. Check out this list of 19 products for managing time zone differences—many even integrate right within Slack.

Rules and Policies

As I mentioned earlier, setting rules and expectations in the hiring stage can ward off frustration later on. Sticking to these rules and expectations is key to ensure everyone is on the same page when they can’t be in the same room.

Here are a few I recommend:

  • If you’re “at work,” you’re in Slack (or IM, IRC, etc.) Email is fine but it can’t beat the immediacy of live conversation. Require remote workers to be in the tool of your choice during their work hours. Get site-based workers in the habit of doing this, too.
  • Set times for check-in meetings. This is a time you’ll all get together, either in person or virtually, to catch up, offer feedback and see where people are at.
  • End meetings with identifying action steps and the responsible parties. “So, the action steps are [X]. [Y] will report in a week.” That way everyone, including the “away team,” know’s what’s expected of whom.

I recommend keeping any rules in a central, easily-updated location to make onboarding easy. Then it’s easy to grab the latest copy and forward it to a new member of your away team.

Finally, be careful when discussing remote workers if you have an office-based team. It’s easy to use language that creates an “us vs. them” mentality that you definitely want to avoid. Be as generous with public praise as you are with all employees. This will prevent local workers from feeling “different” than your remote workers, and helps the distributed team feel included and acknowledged.

The 3 Steps to Success

With a little time and attention to these details, you’ll have a remote team that hums right along.

Successful management of remote teams relies on finding the right people, using communication tools, and setting expectations. Remember that home-based staff are just like the person in the next office… plus pets, a full kitchen and potentially a gaggle of kids at their feet.


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