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Managing remote team members can mean everything from having a direct report or two occasionally work from home, to overseeing an entire team stationed in a country you struggle to find on a map.But no matter how your team is configured, this much is certain: Remote work, in its various and ever-expanding iterations, isn’t just a fad. According to research firm Global Workplace Analytics, the percentage of the global workforce that works remotely is heading in only one direction. Up. And that seems to be exactly what workers want.
In the U.S alone, as many as 90 percent of the workforce would prefer to work away from their employer’s office at least a few days a week — and 20–25 percent currently do. Further, managers we surveyed said they lack the confidence and skills to manage remote team members effectively.
Jhana’s Content & Research team, with substantive work by Alex O’Connor, Heidi Basarab, Brian Veazey, Joy Harvell and Loren Mooney, just completed a six-month study on exactly this topic, with input from 1,000 managers, 400 non-managers, and the still-unfolding academic research. I know how important this is — my team has varying degrees of remoteness, and I have CERTAINLY made each of these mistakes! They have real consequences.To get you started, this article shares nine mistakes managers tend to make with their remote teams:
1. Assuming your remote direct reports aren’t working.
Remotes, on average, work longer hours and are more productive.
Surprised? Many managers are.
And yet you worry: Why has his online status been set to “unavailable” all afternoon? Why hasn’t she answered my email? Why haven’t I had a project update in 10 days?
Truth is, you have almost nothing to gain by assuming that your remotes are loafing — and plenty to lose. While you’re preoccupied with thoughts of them slacking off, you could be completely missing (and, by doing nothing, exacerbating) a host of preventable problems that are more likely to disrupt teams with remote members, such as breakdowns in team communication and remotes feeling isolated and overworked.
Instead, schedule regular 1-on-1s and establish clear expectations around team communication to be sure that all your team members get the information, updates, and feedback they need. (By the way, with this level of communication, if your remote isn’tactually working it’ll be glaringly obvious.)
2. Waiting for remotes to speak up, rather than actively soliciting their fresh perspective and unique input.
It’s all too easy to let the rhythm of the conversation in the room take over during a meeting — and meanwhile your remotes sit on screen like a picture on the wall, mics on mute. When you let them lurk, you’re not just risking making them feel left out, you’re also missing out on one of the biggest and often most overlooked benefits of having remote team members: their fresh perspective.
Think about it: Your co-locateds sit near you all day and can see your reactions and hear your tone, and they’re steeped in your organization’s culture and environment. Those things sway their views, consciously or unconsciously. Remotes, on the other hand, are more free from these constant influences, meaning you have regular access to relatively fresh eyes and minds, which can lead the team to new perspectives and solutions (and help you avoid mistakes, too). If you call on remotes by name and ask them to weigh in at opportune moments, that is.
3. Failing to devise, uphold, and periodically update a team-wide plan for communication.
When you don’t establish norms around communication with a team of people navigating individuals’ different time zones, cultural backgrounds, and tech preferences, you set the group up for an information free-for-all: a mishmash of updates via email, chat, and group doc dashboard. Important conversation threads happening in various chat channels and email threads. Fumbling for the first five minutes of every meeting over whether it’s supposed to be a video conference, virtual hangout, or old-fashioned phone call.
Under these circumstances, you’re not overdoing it by telling people how and when to communicate. You’re being a proactive manager with a plan to be sure the team is in sync and messages hit their mark. So periodically ask yourself: What are all the ways you and your team communicate — email, chat tools, weekly team meetings, informal talks about ideas? Consider setting basic protocols for each, as well as designating some of the team’s overlapping work hours (aka “golden hours”) specifically for interactive tasks.
4. Adding and hiring people who aren’t prepared for the challenges of being remote.
Picture this: You hire a remote team member who can’t wait to work from home every day — until she tries it and becomes so lonely she comes to you six months later asking if there’s budget to move her to headquarters. Or this: You agree to let a high-performing co-located team member work remotely, and then he quits after missing out on a promotion that he wasn’t on-site frequently enough to position himself for.
You probably won’t be able to avoid every remote-gone-wrong scenario. But you can definitely avoid some by checking potential remotes’ awareness of common challenges for remote workers: Isolation, overwork, mis- and undercommunication with the team (and with you), career and developmental disadvantages. Do candidates have strategies for addressing these challenges? Do they even agree that these are challenges?
5. Defaulting to what’s convenient for you and/or co-located team members.
Why does research find that remotes burn out at a higher rate? Probably not just because they tend to work more hours. There are several common causes of burnout besides overwork, including a sense of unfairness and feeling unsupported or isolated in your organization.
And you’re likely contributing to these feelings if you do things like schedule meetings that allow you to pick up your kid from school, but require remotes in another time zone to be at their desks at 6am. Or expect remotes to make time for regular trips to your office. Or figure it’s just their tough luck to miss out on happy hour celebrations for on-site team members.It’s your job to go the extra mile to help remotes feel like full-fledged members of the team, and that means getting co-located team members to do their part, too. Can you and co- locateds pitch ideas for creative, virtual celebrations? Or find a more considerate meeting time for a remote four time zones away? Or could you travel to a remote’s location?
6. Thinking that remotes who perform well and don’t complain must be doing fine.
So long as your remotes — or any of your direct reports, for that matter — get their work done, everything’s great. Right? Actually, that line of thinking can be pretty shortsighted.It’s entirely possible for your remote direct reports to perform at an acceptable or even high level yet be miserable and burning out. And you can’t easily observe their behavioral tells (e.g., a subtle bristle at feedback they typically take in stride) like you can with direct reports in the office. It’s pretty easy for your remotes to put on a happy face for the short time they video chat with you.“If I can’t see what’s going on, I’m going to struggle with it,” admits experienced manager Shahan Mohideen, who has managed many remote direct reports. This isn’t to suggest that you should be suspicious of a cheery remote. Rather, Mohideen says, “I try to have a mindset of ‘ask one more question,’” to dig deeper in conversations and unearth potential issues.
7. Giving remotes inadequate feedback or coaching.
Many co-located direct reports already feel like they don’t get enough feedback and coaching from their managers. Now factor in the natural communication hurdles that your remote direct reports face, with less access to you and their peers and all that time between check-ins with no contact.It’s no wonder so many managers fall short on their management fundamentals, hindering remotes by not giving adequate input on projects (and possibly causing them to screw up as a result), not being clear on where remotes stand performance-wise, or not giving them opportunities to grow (and leaving them feeling like they’re stagnating).
Yes, it can be challenging giving remote team members the attention they need to thrive, but good managers rise to that challenge, even viewing having remotes as an opportunity to raise their game as managers. This means working to build a robust feedback culture on your team, incorporating coaching questions into your conversations to help drive direct reports’ development, and being attuned to other opportunities to coach and give feedback on a daily basis.
8. Delegating fewer and/or less important projects to remotes.
When you have big, important projects to delegate, who do you give them to? Research suggests that, for many managers, it’s the direct reports sitting nearby (even when remotes might be better suited to the work).
When you commit this out-of-sight, out-of-mind management error, you could also be committing three other biggies, all at once: stymieing your remotes’ professional development, hurting the whole team’s performance (if a remote is actually the better choice for an assignment), and potentially overworking your co-locateds. Meanwhile, some on your team might start questioning your fairness, either privately or to your face.Start by checking the workload that you’re giving remotes versus co-located team members, as well as the importance of the tasks you generally assign these two groups.
9. Under- communicating the benefits of having remotes — especially to co-located team members.
You may think that explaining why the team has remote members is so obvious it’s unnecessary. But without your explicit reminders that remote work gives everyone on your team greater work-life flexibility and access to diverse perspectives, you could be fostering a fertile ground for resentment. One in which co-locateds grow to see remote work as a hassle to be endured — new communication tools they’re forced to adopt, or inconvenient meeting times to accommodate team members halfway around the world — because it’s “just how things are done around here.”
Let this attitude fester, and teamwork and morale suffer.This is not to say you should start every virtual meeting reminding everyone that your company’s openness to remote work allowed you to hire Minxuan, whose rare skills mean the team can take on a broader range of projects, or allowed Max to relocate after he got married. But there are appropriate times to be explicit about what remote work adds to your team — for example, when a remote first joins or celebrates an anniversary with the company, or when extra travel or communication inconveniences seem to drag your team down.If you made it this far, congrats, you’re on your way! Managing Remotes is a core skill for managers in today’s world of work. Work on it, or risk hurting your team.