Managing people who work from home is nothing new for many leaders, but getting the mechanics right can be another matter. With a few smart moves, anyone can learn to manage a remote workforce effectively.
Move One: Recognize that you may have been thrown into the deep end of the pool without much of preparation. A lot of leaders who are managing remote or hybrid teams didn’t get much warning about their new normal. People were in the office one day and gone the next. Although everybody did the best they could at the time, fast answers and actions don’t always equal good management.
If your remote or hybrid team isn’t running like a well-oiled machine, take a hard look at why, and don’t use location as an excuse.
Move Two: Stop trying to make remote work function as in-person work does. In much the same way that apples are apples and oranges are oranges, remote work is different from an in-person experience. Accept and embrace the differences.
Yes, people working remotely may move laundry from the washer to the dryer in between meetings. Yes, they may answer the doorbell during work hours. No, you’re not going to run into them in the cafeteria. And just because they will answer email at 9:00 p.m. doesn’t mean you should accept that behavior as a given. Remote is remote, and onsite is onsite. Think about how you should adjust your style and behaviors to enable people to give you their best in each environment.
Move Three: Plan better. Managers without a plan and routines often survive in an onsite environment. There, charm, personalities and quick thinking saves the day. When work goes remote, however, many of those people stumble. Leading at a distance requires deliberate calendaring and regular check-in meetings.
Some people check in at the beginning or end of each day, others meet every other day, and some schedule virtual lunches. Regardless of the specifics, what’s consistent is a contact pattern. To keep your remote group in the loop, build routines and stick with them. In uncertain times, this is one area where you can nail it simply by having a plan and executing it.
Move Four: Be specific about expectations. Strong managers know that clear expectations are an essential element in the equation for getting what they want, and remote work amplifies the requirement. In other words, if you are not clear, don’t be surprised when you are disappointed.
Ask yourself a lot of questions. Do you expect people to be available at certain hours? Do you expect them to shut work off at a certain time? Have you told your team what you want in terms of quantity and quality of work? What about milestones and status updates?
Move Five: Resist the urge to micromanage. “Even though she says she works best late at night and our work doesn’t slow down if she keeps odd hours, I don’t care. I want her focused from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, just as if she were in the office.” While there are plenty of reasons to zero in on how work is done, ask yourself if you’re too deep in the weeds. For instance, if your direct report has a kid’s soccer game at 3:00 in the afternoon but he started working at 6:00 in the morning, does that schedule shift affect the work in any material way? If not, and you can’t flex, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Most people dislike working for control freaks and will get away from them when the opportunity presents itself.
Move Six: Spend more time connecting the dots and explaining why. “Rebecca, you are in a customer-facing role. Because our clients may need to reach you during our core hours, it’s important that you are available to them between 9:00 and 5:00 each day.” A why explanation communicates not only the expectation but the reason behind it.
When a reason is missing, people draw their own conclusions about why, and sometimes they get it wrong. “Rebecca, we need you to be available between 9:00 and 5:00.” In the second example, Rebecca may conclude that her core hours requirement is due to micromanaging instead of a genuine business need — a false conclusion, but nevertheless the one at which she arrived.
Move Seven: Help the team make connections with each other. Good remote managers have strong relationships with their direct reports. Great remote managers do the same and they help their people connect with each other. In practical terms, this means scheduling watercooler time and deliberate team building.
Move Eight: Ask for feedback. Thanks to technology advances and shifting norms, the remote workplace is constantly evolving. What worked two years ago may not work today, and what’s working now probably won’t be the perfect fit in the future. Periodically take stock and ask your team for feedback. Do you get enough guidance? Do you get too much? Do you feel connected with your co-workers? What can we do to improve? What should we stop doing? If you ask good questions, you’ll learn a lot.
Leading at a distance is a skill anyone can develop. What’s your next move?
Kate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works, Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team provide onsite, virtual, and online soft-skills training courses and workshops to clients in the United States and internationally.