Do you wish you had a “remote boss” Magic 8-Ball that would give you all the answers about managing folks you rarely see in 3D? You’ve got burning questions on everything from collaborating as a team to building a good culture to selecting the right tools to setting goals.
Keep reading. You won’t have to “Ask again later.” Promise.
For the better part of a decade, I’ve run a fully distributed content team, and before that, I was a remote employee. When I first began writing about remote work back in 2015, I couldn’t have dreamed that those nascent topics—rocking your remote interview, how to fully unplug, working at home with your partner, body language on video calls!—would be beyond well-trodden today. Now the internet is chock full of advice. Since a lot of folks came into remote work unexpectedly and out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an urgent need to get up to speed.
As some workers settle into a less office-bound life for the long haul or take on new roles, you might find yourself managing one or more remote or hybrid employees and in need of some guidance. And even if you’re a seasoned manager, you might need some new tips to ensure your off-site direct reports are set up for success, have a fair chance to learn and grow, and feel like part of a team.
I spoke with four fellow experts based in New York, Spain, and Singapore to get their insights. Here’s what they said.
1. Establish remote-first processes.
“Managers need to first establish clear rules of engagement and ways of operating that assume people are not co-located,” whether your team is hybrid or fully remote, says Stephanie Lee, Head of Remote at cargo.one.
Ask yourself the following questions—and the key is to make sure you always assume people aren’t in the same physical space when you come up with answers (even on-site employees will benefit from this assumption if some of their teammates are remote):
- Which tools would help my team?
- How will we collaborate, communicate, and connect?
- How are decisions made?
- How can we make progress on projects independently, yet transparently, so there’s visibility into what teammates are working on?
2. Lean into asynchronous communication.
Zoom fatigue is real. And it’s not only that being in nonstop virtual or even face-to-face meetings can be, well, kind of a miserable experience. “Meetings can be a time waster and productivity killer,” says Chase Warrington, Head of Remote at Doist. Instead, he recommends leaning into asynchronous communication—touching base in ways that don’t require people to be in the same place or be responsive at the exact same time.
“Anything other than video conferencing could technically be used asynchronously,” he says, suggesting a mix of written and multimedia tools for connecting and sharing ideas. For example, you could use Loom for short video recordings to run through a client presentation and Yac to leave quick voice feedback on a design for your colleague.
Warrington emphasizes that the tools you select should underscore what the company values, whether that means expecting people to respond immediately (or not), giving credit for deep work or just for being online, or accepting that people unplug in order to give their best. So keep in mind, for example, that if you’re claiming to value work-life balance over presenteeism but insist on tools that show who’s online, it can undermine the stated values and pressure employees to feel like they have to be always on.
3. Focus on results.
Judging others’ performance equitably should be grounded in trust. This means you believe remote employers are working despite the fact that you can’t see them and that you’re more concerned with the quality of your team’s deliverables than the exact amount of time they spent behind a screen producing them.
“When managing remote and hybrid teams, it’s so important to shift the focus from input to output and outcomes,” Lee says. “And it’s also incredibly important to ensure fairness and thoroughness in understanding the impact of each teammate’s work, so you don’t inadvertently advantage employees who work in the same time zone or office.” For instance, you could create and share project checklists that clearly communicate what you’re expecting and how you’ll evaluate your team’s work.
4. Develop robust internal documentation.
Forcing people to search for files and ping teammates to understand how things work when they first join a new organization or take on a new task is exhausting and, frankly, a waste of time. Create an internal system where processes are documented and easy to locate, says LaToya Lyn, Chief People Officer at Help Scout.
“You have to ensure that people are able to navigate and find what they need to do their job well,” she says. “There’s no physical water cooler to gather around and casually ask colleagues questions, so make it self-explanatory and simple.”
5. Assign mentors to newbies.
Nothing helps you feel more comfortable in a new job than having a work buddy. Help Scout and Doist both have mentoring programs that pair new hires with a teammate. You could consider setting up mentoring for new hires with more senior or veteran members of your own team or talking with other managers or company leaders to establish something that could be further reaching. (There’s already plenty of evidence that remote mentoring works well.)
6. Create connection in micro-moments.
It doesn’t have to take hours of anyone’s time. You can simply make a little extra space within existing structures. Think about what kinds of topics come up serendipitously when we’re face-to-face, Lee says, and be intentional about creating opportunities to weave them into team interactions virtually. For example, you might set aside 10 minutes during your weekly team meeting to share wins or priorities or take time to catch up on how your weeks are going. “Don’t just jump into work when in meetings, check in and find out how people are doing,” she says.
7. Plan face-to-face retreats.
Of course, Zoom gatherings and asynchronous updates only get you so far. “The misconception about remote is people think you never see each other,” Lyn says. To really solidify a team, she recommends requesting a budget and fostering a culture around in-person retreats.
Companies can make face-to-face gatherings a priority. Before leadership considers it, though, managers like you might need to bring it up and share examples of how it’s worked well for other remote or hybrid teams. Case in point: at Doist’s onsite retreats, employees from 75+ cities have a chance to get to know one another and enjoy shared experiences for a week at a time. It’s become a companywide tradition that has helped to establish stronger relationships and build more cohesive teams.
8. Remember that you set the tone.
“It starts with you,” Lyn says. “Get clear on the experience you want to have”—and the one you want your employees to have. As a manager, it’s on you to take steps to bring that experience to fruition, even if you’re not sharing a physical space. Want to be seen as a caring boss? Take time to personally connect with each of your direct reports and ask questions to learn what matters most to them and how you can help them. The intentional effort you show as a manager will have a significant impact on your team.
9. Set slow-burn goals.
If you’ve ever felt like you and your team are accumulating a list of completed tasks, only to get nowhere, bestselling author and business strategist Dorie Clark understands. Her latest book, Playing the Long Game: How to be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World, focuses on what most of us are missing—the small actions that over time will have an outsized impact on our future.
As a remote manager, it can be all too easy to feel like checking items off a list equals major progress. “We’d like to assume that ‘short term + short term + short term’ somehow adds up to long-term thinking, but it doesn’t really,” Clark says. “It adds up to things that fill time. This doesn’t lead to a legitimate strategic direction.” So what should you be doing instead?
Help your team keep sight of the long term by creating up to three slow-burn goals to work toward over a six-month period. For example, you could focus on building bridges across departments. Maybe your sales team would benefit from knowing what’s on the product roadmap. Or your marketing efforts could be shaped by comments that community or customer service folks are hearing. In those instances, your slow burn goal could be something like: I’ll encourage my team to set up a virtual coffee with someone in a different part of the organization every other week, which will help each of us get to know people outside our immediate orbit.
10. Help your employees embrace the right opportunities.
Encourage early career employees to have a bias toward yes. Accepting opportunities gives them a chance to get to know colleagues at all levels—which may be more difficult for them to do remotely—and learn and gather insights about their preferences. “There’s not a huge line of people waiting to talk to you when you first start out,” Clark says. “And you probably don’t have enough data about what you do or don’t like.” Saying yes more often can set them up to pursue the paths they’ll most enjoy and do it successfully.
That said, you should guide any mid-career or more senior employees toward guarding their time (and you should do the same). As workload demands increase, selectivity is key to spending time wisely, especially in a remote environment where the boundaries between home and work tend to blur and it’s all too easy to just keep working.
Clark recommends using the ‘Hell Yeah’ test, popularized by author and entrepreneur Derek Sivers. “Unless your reaction to an opportunity is, ‘Hell yeah!’ (a 9 or 10 on your personal scale of awesomeness) you should probably say no to create space for other good things,” Clark says. Because by this point, “There are a lot more people queuing up; if you don’t change your habits, it’s easy to spend an inordinate amount of time pursuing other people’s agendas instead of your own.”