May 5, 2020

How to overcome the challenges of managing a remote or distributed team

Business leaders across the world are currently looking after their teams from afar. Many are now in a position they haven’t found themselves in before.
15 min read
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Jeremy Bourhis
Demand Generation Manager
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Most likely not by choice, managers and business leaders across the world are currently looking after their teams from afar.

Many managers are now in a position they haven’t found themselves in before. What’s different? Probably almost everything. Like with anything new or unknown, managers will need support and guidance. There’s no end of advice on what employees need in this situation but a lot of this advice seems to ignore that managers are employees too!

It’s not an easy transition for employees - managers and non-managers alike. Whether people are used to working from home or usually enjoy having the occasional day away from the office, they’re bound to feel restricted and may be struggling. Striking a balance between operating business as usual and acknowledging the enormity of the current situation is the current challenge for any worker.

There is wisdom to be inherited from previous testing times and some more experienced leaders may have advice or tips from surviving earlier times of business or workplace pressure – it’s worth asking them! Recognizing that people need their anxieties acknowledged and to be given support to help them achieve as much as possible in these unusual circumstances.

No doubt for those who thrive in an office environment there have been some growing pains as we all adapt to the ‘new normal’. This blog post aims to call out the obstacles, issues and red flags to watch out for when managing a remote team. More importantly we will demonstrate ideas for solutions to overcome challenges and spot silver linings in the new regime of remote work, with best practices and wisdom from our team. Here is our advice for great remote management:

Make sure your team have what they need

Being thrust suddenly into remote work will have been easier for some companies than others and easier for some employees than others. To make the transition to working from home as comfortable as possible there are certain equipment requirements – a laptop or assistance in ferrying more bulky equipment home to set up a workstation that resembles that of the office as closely as possible. There are legal responsibilities to ensure that workers have the right equipment but just from a simple wellbeing aspect it’s important. At Cronofy we were lucky to be fairly prepared for the transition to remote work but the increased use of video conferencing has meant we’ve invested in web cams for some of our team who didn’t quite have adequate in-built cameras to do this well. For any more than a few days at home it’s important that employees aren’t ‘slumming it’ on the sofa with just a laptop. Having a setup with a desk, screen and a good chair will also help with getting into a professional mindset in an environment that may not usually have that purpose. Make a point of asking about this regularly – requirements may come out of the woodwork as time passes.

Be present and available

As well as physical equipment like appropriate furniture, a monitor and computer it’s important that managers try to be available for any ad hoc support that may be needed. Getting the balance right here may take time. Managers are used to additional demands on their time and hopefully enjoy supporting others, but recent changes in working practice may mean that at least in the short term these demands increase. An open-door messaging policy (on Slack for example) is ideal for this. Remind team members of it - people often feel guilty asking for help and being remote just adds an additional barrier! If as a manager productivity is a concern, having ‘office hours’ where team members know they can approach for things or set up video calls is also another good solution. Interruptions are a key consideration. Unlike in an office, you can’t read the room and sense when people are trying to get their head down to focus on a project or block out time to write. Daily communication between team members about their rough plans can help with this. A virtual morning stand-up to discuss projects and requirements is a great way to get an idea of what’s on everyone’s plate for the day. Encourage team members to say if they need a chunk of time to focus on something in particular so that you know not to bug them. They might be allowed to mute chat or change their status to ‘busy’ so that others in the wider company are also aware. Sharing calendars is also even more useful when working remotely as it’s easy to see meetings or times when people have commitments.

“When in the office it’s relatively easy to spot if someone is having a bad day or might just want a chat. The situation is completely different when working remotely. This is why I have endeavoured to communicate to my team that I’ll never take their requests for catch-ups as an interruption to my day.”
Jeremy Bourhis | Head of Marketing, Cronofy

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Overcoming the physical distance of working remotely always has its challenges but these can be amplified for managers and teams who have not chosen this life long-term.

“Aim for honest, consistent, and adaptive communication”

Cronofy’s leadership team commented on the challenges of text communications and cited a variety of types of communication as a solution to this as well as extra consideration for each methods limitations.

“Another challenge is that most of the chat on a day to day basis is now text based, and not in person. Text chat is hard, because it lacks tone and can be easily misconstrued. I’ve been making a conscious effort to add personality to chat where previously I hadn’t needed to.”
Karl Bagci | Head of Operations, Cronofy

Battling the lack of spontaneity of communication when remote can also pose an issue. It might feel unnatural to have to go out of your way to talk to someone in another team but reaching out will do wonders for your own day and almost certainly theirs!

Collaboration and connectivity

It’s well documented that people work and collaborate better when they are more personally connected to each other. This connectivity or the organic bonding that happens on team nights out or lunches can be hard to replicate and maintain with remote teams, let alone in the current climate with no access to such activities. A Harvard study conducted over 79 years proved that social connections are vital to happiness and success – both in and out of the workplace. It’s important that managers introduce ways to facilitate these relationships even when their teams are distributed. Video calls help to increase emotional connection as you can see people’s faces and there are many cool ideas such as virtual lunches, quizzes or happy hour on a Friday that have proved successful for remote teams. It could be as simple as just being more accommodating of the need for informal communication needs in existing more but usually more formal interactions though.

“We’ve been allowing more time in meetings for them to naturally run into people talking about their personal lives. This compensates a little for the lack of natural interaction with their colleagues and again, helps the team feel more closely connected.”
Karl Bagci | Head of Operations, Cronofy

It’s an unusual situation that we’re in and the managers at Cronofy have stressed the importance of maintaining strong connectivity between the leadership team. We’ve upped the weekly management meeting touch points by adding short catchups every other morning so that company matters and policies can be addressed regularly and reactive policies can be introduced as soon as they are needed.

Be human

One of the biggest drawbacks of remote working is the lack of human contact and the difficulty in picking up on non-verbal cues. An employee might be able to ‘perform’ for formal meetings but very much be struggling behind the scenes. In an office scenario sighs, tormented expressions (or in fact those of happiness and delight) are very easy to spot and hence tune in to the mood and emotions of team members. It’s challenging but important to find new ways to be intuitive. It’s also important to be human. Whilst it’s the job of a manager to lead and encourage, honesty and vulnerability are equally valuable. Pretending everything is fine or behaving like an impenetrable superhuman may mean that team members are less likely to open up so aim for realism and share some of your struggles or frustrations whilst remaining professional. Employees will appreciate and respect their managers more if they’re truthful with them - levelling with them when they don’t have all the answers. Remember that it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’ and seek advice.

“I consider myself a pretty upbeat person but this current situation is hard for everyone. As a manager it is important that I keep the team in good spirits but I don’t want the members of my team to feel like they can’t have a bad day. Because I also have bad days. I’ve found that sharing the highs and lows with my team has made the highs a lot more enjoyable and the lows a whole lot easier to overcome!”
Jeremy Bourhis | Head of Marketing, Cronofy

Trust your team

Focus on results. As much as it’s important to check in with people, micromanaging is counterproductive, especially with a remote workforce. There are exceptions of course, if you just welcomed a new starter for example. Asking for an update on every single little task or criticizing the way that they execute things is unlikely to reap rewards and more often than not will make people less productive. Bad management is one of the biggest reasons for staff turnover. In fact 69% of people who have experienced micromanagement consider changing jobs and 39% actually leave (Trinity Solutions). The same applies for managing from afar. There’s always a fine line between good management and micromanagement – offering enough so that people have clear direction and feel supported is important but telling them how to do their job and execute every little step is overbearing and can lead to severe health problems and negatively impacts morale in employees. In a team that has built trust people are usually more committed to achieving results and while checking in regularly is important it’s vital that if results are being achieved managers don’t feel the need to constantly badger and control their teams. Now more than ever there is need for a bit of understanding and flexibility. Some days may be slower and others very productive. Some days might require overtime and other days an early finish to pop to the shops and beat the queues. Just like in an office there will be fluctuations in productivity. But added to that people are stressed, anxious, sick of being at home and may need to keep different hours or take more breaks, just to stay sane. At the end of the day if the work is being achieved and employees are available for their planned commitments then that should be enough.

“We’ve taken to home working so much better than I ever expected. I can hand on heart say that I’ve not seen any downturn in productivity in the transition to home working. We trust people to work their hours, and deliver their work - and they do, time and time again.”
Karl Bagci | Head of Operations, Cronofy

There’s an important lesson here too. Considering how important this trust is when you are hiring for new roles will pay dividends down the line. When building a team it’s worth factoring ways to establish this implicit trust, even as early as the interview.

Share learnings as best you can

Whereas in an office setting if someone needs help they can just tap you on the shoulder and ask for it, with remote work these conversations tend to happen in private. Once again the onus is on managers to be mindful of this issue and ensure that as much as possible the office environment is replicated. Try to actively share learnings and problem-solving conversations so that others can benefit. It’s good practice to chat using forums that are as public as possible as a rule so that others can receive the simulation of overhearing office chat. It’s always about relevance though and is a judgement call. Having a Slack channel for minute-by-minute discussion and solutions between members of a direct team can be balanced with sharing finished items or results on a more public and companywide channel.

Be supportive

“The best advice I’ve had is that while we say we’re working remotely, this isn’t normal. What we’re doing is working remotely during a pandemic, and that’s different. People are at home with their partners, children, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, broken boilers and whatever else. So we need to be more patient than usual, and always be kind.”
Karl Bagci | Head of Operations, Cronofy

There’s bound to be a real mix of comfort levels amongst employees suddenly thrust into this quasi-remote working life. Some may thrive instantly then waiver as it proves longer and more tedious. Others who struggled at first might later settle into the routine but still need checking in on. The communication and frequent check-ins should be maintained with a special consideration for the extra pressures and stresses that the team might be experiencing.

Make sure that you’re supported

One of the major challenges facing managers of new remote working teams is getting the balance right between being honest and human and allowing some vulnerability to peak through in order to be relatable and approachable. On the other hand, a manager clearly stressed and overwhelmed by the entire situation will have a negative impact on their team’s wellbeing and productivity. Anxiety is a particularly contagious emotion. It’s also a very natural one at times like this. And it’s important that leaders have their own support and outlets for stress too, so they are in the strongest position to provide support for their teams. Ideally ensure that as a manager you have a balance of both a mentor figure (ideally your own manager) and peers (people on the same seniority level as you). If this can’t happen within your company, seek counsel and support elsewhere through friends or business connections that have similar roles or pressures to you.

“As a manager you are often in a situation where you need to reassure and support your team. That’s totally normal and it’s your job. What’s important is to remember that you need help sometimes too! Don’t hesitate to schedule regular catch-ups with your peers where you can share the challenges you face and find solutions together. Manage remotely but don’t manage on an island!”
Jeremy Bourhis | Head of Marketing, Cronofy

Stick to processes as much as possible

It’s highly likely that managers and their teams will be missing physical contact and the environment of the office. Breakout areas, team brainstorms in a meeting room or monthly retrospectives are all things that perhaps we never knew we’d miss but keeping to this routines as much as possible is vital in such a volatile and changing world. So much is changing for everyone - more change if not necessary is stressful. There are many great tools that can be used to simulate these closely. Don't just add tools for the sake of it, it’s a balance. Where possible try to discover new ways of using tools that your team is already familiar with. At Cronofy we’ve enjoyed having success with some new tools like MetroRetro for collaborative brainstorms for example but also found new ways of using Whimsical for wireframing joint participation projects such as landing pages and website design in a space that multiple people can easily access. As a manager spend some time exploring existing tools but also ask the team – they may have had a good experience in a previous role and have suggestions.

Learn what you can

However frustrating being catapulted into this quasi-normal remote working world, there are lessons and learnings to be taken for the future of remote work policy on a company and team level. For those who weren’t prepared technologically or with the correct equipment, there’ll be a takeaway of ensuring that all employees have the flexibility to work from anywhere.This is true at company and employee level. Whatever the policy on remote work pre-COVID19 it’s undeniable that having measures in place to allow remote working even if it’s not all the time is likely to save companies money and increase productivity. A doctor’s appointment need not mean an entire lost afternoon if working from home is an option. A sick child might not mean a day off for a parent if flexibility can be offered.

“I would rather be working in the office but I’m amazed by how much I have learnt as a manager over the past few weeks. From using existing technology to fill the gaps left by remote working to encouraging more regular interactions within the team I know that Cronofy is a business that can successfully operate a fully remote model.”
Jeremy Bourhis | Head of Marketing, Cronofy

It’s not all doom and gloom! While there are certainly going to be challenges in what is an undeniably alien situation for many it’s possible to find silver linings. Embrace new opportunities where you can and ask for help when needed. Some of the Cronofy team have commented on how much better they have got to know people with the higher emphasis on informal and personal chat. And although all the video meetings and calls can feel disruptive they really have proved that it’s possible to collaborate professionally and enjoy social interactions even when the workforce is spread out.