Whether you’re exploring new ways to manage teams remotely or fine-tuning the practices you picked up on the fly, there are lots of ways to manage a remote team. You just need to find the tactics that fit your situation.
That’s no small order, but this is a great time to test and learn.
We’ve explored some of the best practices that have started to take root since the world went remote in March 2020 and have identified 17 strategies to help you structure and manage a remote team. At the core of each strategy are three key threads:
See how each suggestion can help you refine your approach, bring your team closer together, and strengthen your team’s foundations so you’ll all be better prepared for whatever changes the next year will bring.
1. Set team expectations
The rapid shift to remote work sparked a lot of questions and the answers haven’t always been available. Left to themselves, a team will find its own solutions—but lack of clarity creates potential for confusion and more stress for everyone.
“Uncertainty means ambiguity,” said Aoife O’Donovan, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco’s Weill Institute for Neurosciences. “[That] means that we have to expend effort in trying to predict what will happen in addition to preparing to deal with all of the different outcomes.”
Eliminate a lot of the guesswork from the start by discussing day-to-day expectations of common core activities, processes, and systems, such as:
- Scheduling and availability
- Professional development
- Performance measurement
Getting clarity around these core activities can help you effectively manage a team remotely and keep work-related anxiety under control so the team can focus that energy on other priorities.
2. Create onboarding materials for new team members
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a lot of changes for talent recruitment, whether an organization scaled its employees in a new direction or expanded their work with independent professionals.
In either situation, onboarding new talent is a detail-oriented exercise that takes time and thoughtfulness to do well.
In a very condensed period of time, the goal of onboarding is to welcome someone to your team, introduce your organization’s culture and expectations, ensure administrative requirements are taken care of, and get them up-to-speed so they can make a meaningful contribution from Day One.
Creating onboarding documents for new team members adds consistency and clarity at every level:
- For the organization: The process is easier to scale, which is particularly helpful for organizations that are growing quickly or frequently work with independent talent.
- For leaders: It eases stress by creating a solid starting point. You don’t need to figure out the process from scratch so you can focus on tailoring your efforts to the needs of the project or individual.
- For talent: There’s a single point of reference to lean on and refer to when onboarding as well as a hub that points the way toward other resources.
Onboarding a new hire remotely, when they may never meet you or their colleagues in person, adds another layer of complexity. Introductions and connections are essential so they won’t be left in isolation—figuratively and literally, as they settle in from the comfort of their remote workspace. "If you aren't communicating what new hires are supposed to be doing and arming them with the tools to do it properly, you're setting them up to fail," said HR professional Ben Peterson as part of SHRM’s onboarding guide.
Consider including the following in your welcome package:
- An overview of the whole process: This helps set clear expectations and enables the professional to track their progress.
- An introduction to organizational goals and team objectives: This helps new team members understand how current projects—and their work in particular—help support the overall mission.
- Contact information: Explain who to contact and when, along with each remote team member’s roles and responsibilities.
3. Establish documentation & processes
“[A system is] a process for predictably achieving a goal based on specific, orderly, repeatable principles and practices . . . Systems are deliberate, intentional, and practical. They really work—regardless of your profession, talent level, or experience.”
— John C. Maxwell, from “The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth”
Good systems can support optimum performance and predictable results as you develop and manage remote teams. Do you know what strategies work best for your team? Does your team know?
Articulating the processes that drive ideal outcomes and results can help everyone on your team achieve more. Documenting them makes each process more transparent so it’s easier to share, easier to follow, and easier to build on.
Consider your team’s most important performance indicators and the different types of processes that help you achieve success. For example, in his book “The E-Myth Revisited,” entrepreneur and systems advocate Michael Gerber describes three kinds of systems:
- Hard systems, which include the physical things your team uses to get things done, and how they work together
- Soft systems, which include the actions, ideas, and language your team uses to move toward your objectives
- Information systems, which include the data your team records and tracks in order to measure progress and inform decisions
Establishing documentation and processes helps capture and disseminate what it takes for your team to perform at its best, which means even the newest members of your team will be equipped with the information they need to hit the ground running.
4. Utilize DACIs (Driver, Approver, Contributors, Informed) and RACIs (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed)
Under any circumstances, projects are at risk of bottlenecks, disagreements, and having “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Add distance and a time zone or two to the equation and the risk for miscommunication goes up.
One solution, as you articulate your strategies and processes, is to leverage the concepts behind two acronyms: DACI and RACI. In a breakdown for Dummies.com, project management experts Brian Lawley and Pamela Schure offer this summary:
- DACI (Driver, Approver, Contributors, Informed): Who decides on a course of action for a particular task or function?
- RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed): Who is responsible for completing a certain task, milestone, or deliverable?
Let’s take a look at each framework.
DACI is a model that helps define decision-making authority:
- The Driver is the hands-on project leader, responsible for the project overall. They don’t do all the work, their role is to drive it forward—whether through meetings, planning, or setting milestones.
- The Approver is a higher-level authority who ultimately signs off on project-related decisions.
- Contributors are subject matter experts, recruited by the Driver, who help define the project’s direction and requirements.
- Informed includes people who aren’t directly involved with the project, and don’t have any decision-making authority, that need to be kept informed about progress.
A RACI chart, also known as a responsibility assignment matrix, overlaps with DACI but there are two important differences:
- Responsible vs Driver: While the Driver is a coordinator, Responsible specifies the doers: They won’t necessarily do the work themselves, but they do need to ensure it’s completed.
- Accountable vs Approver: People who are Accountable are often not the ones doing the work. Instead, they’re responsible for making sure commitments are met and explaining any decisions made along the way.
Lawley and Schure said that, in general, a RACI matrix can be ideal for defining roles and responsibilities. It can also help illustrate where additional resources might be needed. For more complex projects, however, a DACI chart might be a better way to explicitly define the decision-making authority.
5. Centralize important team dashboards
A dashboard is a graphical user interface that provides a clear look at select data to help you monitor progress or track results. They can provide visibility into your results as you move toward objectives or a high-level overview of your team’s hard work.
Most office work is invisible and that’s amplified when you work with a distributed team. That’s why centralizing important team dashboards—up-to-the-minute reports available to everyone on your team whenever they want to check in—can be a gamechanger.
Tailored to deliver the key performance indicators (KPIs) that matter most to your work, team dashboards can:
- Enable greater transparency by making key data points easily accessible
- Highlight progress toward high-priority objectives to help keep your team focused
- Provide a higher-level perspective into the value of the team’s efforts
- Help your team quickly identify and act on strengths and weaknesses
Being able to see the impact of their work in real time—or close to—can be very motivating as the team works harder to push the needle.
6. Align on communication guidelines
Remote teams run on good communication that keeps them connected and on track. Setting clear communication guidelines—such as who to contact, when, and how—removes any ambiguity. Without this alignment, each member of your team will set their own expectations. If they don’t match up, the results can be frustrating.
As you improve communication with your distributed team, here are a few ideas:
- Set a regular schedule for meetings and check-ins so everyone knows when they’ll have an opportunity to share results, ask questions, and touch base. As we’ll discuss in more detail below, different types of meetings have a different role to play when it comes to bringing your team together.
- Discuss guidelines as a team to boost engagement and buy-in, so everyone knows expectations around response times, real-time conversations, and which tools to use when.
- Decide when asynchronous communication is OK and when it might be more productive to connect in real time instead. Email and instant messages have become the default options for asynchronous sharing, which gets the information out there but can leave people feeling overwhelmed. And sometimes, you need to have a real-time conversation. Discuss preferences as a team before you decide how to manage all the different communication channels.
7. Develop the best tech stack for communication & collaboration
Tools can also affect your ability to manage teams remotely. The solutions in your tech stack can be the difference between projects that are well-organized and projects that require constant backtracking to find the most up-to-date information.
You’ll need tools that support:
- Collaboration, such as group discussions and virtual white boards
- Communication, such as video, voice, and instant messaging
- Information sharing, to facilitate activities such as sharing documents, files, calendars, contacts (and their data), and version control
And it’s important that you don’t just make do. Alexia Nielsen, Director of Social Media at Upwork, said her team’s distribution is its greatest asset because it invested in the tech solutions needed to empower the team to do its best work.
“Spend the time and money to get the right solutions and processes in place,” she said. “[In our situation] “There are a lot of social media vendors available; try not to settle for one that’s ‘good enough,’ because it makes a significant difference. Clearly document parameters for deliverables and escalation paths so team members have the autonomy to solve problems quickly, even outside regular business hours.”
8. Encourage time blocking to work more efficiently
Time blocking is an approach to scheduling that gives purpose to every minute of your workday and puts you in control of your day.
It takes 23 minutes to recover from an interruption and the typical workday is full of them. Time blocking aims to leverage the power of focus: By planning your day in blocks, and giving yourself permission to ignore everything else for a set period of time, your work can benefit from the flow that comes from being undisturbed.
“A 40 hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure,” said author and computer scientist Cal Newport, a long-time advocate of time blocking.
“My goal is to make sure progress is being made on the right things at the right pace for the relevant deadlines,” he said.
And he isn’t the only fan of this type of approach to productivity:
- As CEO of Twitter and Square, Jack Dorsey themed his days, assigning types of work to specific days of the week in order to help manage his focus and attention.
- Futurist Jacob Morgan calls task batching—when types of tasks are limited to defined blocks of time—“the best time management hack for entrepreneurs.”
With so many people adjusting to remote work, time blocking has been trending lately in part because it brings a cadence to the week when old routines have gone out the window.
9. Empower your remote employees to make better productivity choices
Any productivity strategy can only take your team as far as they’re able to implement it. Whether the secret to each individual’s productivity is time blocking or something else, it doesn’t matter if they can only follow it in short bursts.
“Most people don’t work in isolation,” said operations expert Daniel Markovitz in this HBR article. They work in complex organizations defined by interdependencies among people — and it’s often these interdependencies that have the greatest effect on personal productivity. Personal solutions can be useful, but the most effective antidote to low productivity and inefficiency must be implemented at the system level.”
Take an active role when it comes to supporting your team. Give permission to have down time and help them set boundaries: Mobile technology sparked an “always-on” company culture that has only been amplified further by our unexpected shift to remote work.
In the absence of defined boundaries and expectations, remote workers have been left to set their own—leading to significantly higher rates of work-place stress and burnout. Empowering your team members to make the productivity choices that work best for them won’t fix everything. But it is one way to give them better control over their time and energy.
10. Give the tools to assist with building better team skill sets
“Companies need to prepare their people for a future where new and evolving skills and ways of working are a given and where an embrace of continuous learning is the key to relevancy in the workplace.”
— McKinsey Quarterly, from “Three keys to building a more skilled postpandemic workforce”
The COVID-19 pandemic challenged everyone in new ways at home and at work, leaving little time for anyone to pick up skills that could have made the transition easier—but it isn’t too late to help your team do better now.
Some companies have turned to experts, such as instructional designers, to facilitate remote learning and development programs. But there are other tools, such as Skillshare and LinkedIn Learning, that give your team access to programs that can help them build better team skill sets.
Here are some core remote work skills you may want to encourage:
- Adaptability and resiliency
- Online communication
- Health and wellness
- Online collaboration
- Project management
- Sleep habits
- Time management
Like having the flexibility to shape their day and their priorities, continuing education helps individuals feel more in control of their careers.
And, over the long-term, it’s an investment that also benefits the organization. In a survey by McKinsey, 69% of respondents said their companies were engaged in more skill building than in the past. Some of these efforts are designed to close technical skill gaps, but some of the biggest jumps show an emphasis on social and emotional capabilities, such as interpersonal skills, leadership, and continuing education.
11. Challenge your team to evolve
It isn’t easy for any of us to learn new skills or go beyond our comfort zone. People are drawn to what they’re good at. And then they like to stick with it. This can work well in the short term, but it ultimately leads to stagnation.
Instead, there are great reasons to challenge your team to embrace uncertainty and try something new.
A risk-taking mindset has helped many companies evolve and thrive. Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, told author Gillian Zoe Segal, that risk taking was a core skillset she learned as a child that led to the success of her company. “We’d sit around the dinner table and [my dad would] ask, ‘What did you guys fail at this week?’, said Blakely. “If we had nothing to tell him, he’d be disappointed. He knew that many people become paralyzed by the fear of failure.My father wanted us to try everything and feel free to push the envelope. His attitude taught me to define failure as not trying something I want to do, instead of not achieving the right outcome.”
What can you do to make growth easier? Employee engagement specialist Brett Farmiloe shared nine ideas from HR professionals, such as:
- Open the door to new ideas and ensure everyone feels that they have a voice
- Allow room for mistakes so people gain the confidence they need to keep trying new things
- Acknowledge efforts to learn so your team knows you’re paying attention and invested in their success
Ultimately, encouraging your team to evolve helps keep them engaged, pushes them to reach their full potential, and brings broad benefits to your team.
12. Make time for team building
Relationships at work have a special power. “Getting along with your coworkers not only makes your days more pleasant but also makes you better at your job,” said HBR’s Amy Gallo, who writes and speaks about workplace dynamics.
This power doesn’t just come from the opportunity to chat with each other over coffee. Gallo explained that we also draw strength from these meaningful connections:
“Without friendships at work, you miss out on two types of important support: structural support, which is ‘the ability to ask someone to cover for you when you’re in a bind,’ and emotional support, which is having someone who can talk you through stress, change, or anxiety.”
Just as sharing an office doesn’t automatically make you and your colleagues “besties”, working remotely doesn’t preclude building the strong connections that can underpin a strong remote work culture. The key is to be purposeful and make an effort.
That’s where it’s important for you, as a leader, to make time for team building. And it doesn’t need to be extravagant: Gallo suggested that starting each meeting with time for small talk can be enough to get the ball rolling.
Or break up your routine. Regular meetings can get formulaic so take a chance and do something different. For example:
- Schedule virtual coffee meetups
- Do professional development together, like learning how to set up an ergonomic home office
- Plan a session to swap productivity strategies
- Brainstorm ideas to bust through hurdles your team has faced recently
Consider what you want to achieve with your team building activities. As explained in a guide from SHRM, social events may create shared memories but meaningful and collaborative efforts can have a more lasting impact.
13. Schedule a weekly team check-in
Regular meetings—online or in person—create valuable opportunities to connect. That can be particularly true when you develop and manage remote teams that may not otherwise interact.
In his book, “Read this before our next meeting,” business consultant Al Pittampalli said: “Meetings are the lever that allow coherent motion. Meetings are the way we make change, and change is how we grow.”
But Pittampalli wrote his manifesto because it’s also too easy for good meetings to go sideways. We all know what a slippery slope this can be.
Consider virtual meetings: In December 2019, Zoom had 10 million daily meeting participants; by April 2020, it had more than 300 million. The exponential increase hasn’t all been good. Zoom fatigue—a feeling of mental and physical exhaustion that comes from seemingly endless video calls—has become a very real problem.
What can you do to make a weekly team check-in valuable?
First, consider best practices for any meeting, such as:
- Set an agenda, with a clearly stated purpose, so everyone understands the flow and meeting objectives up front
- Share information using asynchronous channels so you can leverage time together to discuss, clarify, or debate in real time
- Be purposeful about things like socializing, so personal conversations don’t spiral into the rest of the meeting
Second, be mindful about online meetings. Experts are just starting to understand how we experience virtual meetings at scale.
One 2021 study drew on earlier research and feedback from contributors to highlight some key considerations:
- Should attendees have their video cameras on or off?
- When it comes to meeting management and etiquette, what are the responsibilities of the meeting host? What are the responsibilities of the attendees?
- How can cameras be arranged so participants look as natural as possible?
- Is eating during a team meeting acceptable or a distraction?
- When should microphones be muted or unmuted?
- How can participants manage work-from-home issues, such as having kids in the background or sharing an office space?
There is no right solution to any of these questions, just options. Work with your team to set meeting protocols that are tailored to address their needs.
14. Schedule weekly one-on-ones with team members
Where team building can enable unstructured connections across your team, and weekly check-ins can support greater transparency and stronger collaboration, weekly one-on-ones provide time for direct interaction that can establish rapport and trust.
Regular one-on-one meetings can help:
- Avoid confusion by confirming that individuals are working on the right priorities
- Provide a safe and private space for team members to raise concerns, questions, and feedback
- Establish a regular “milestone” that encourages accountability and self-awareness
As career and workplace writer Rebecca Knight wrote in HBR, running a productive one-on-one largely boils down to two things: Having a plan for your meeting and being present.
“One-on-ones are one of the most important productivity tools you have as a manager,” time management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders told Knight. “They are where you can ask strategic questions such as, are we focused on the right things? And from a rapport point of view, they are how you show employees that you value them and care about them.”
15. Celebrate the team’s achievements
“We are strongly motivated by identity, the need for recognition, a sense of accomplishment, and feeling of creation.”
— Dan Ariely, from “Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations”
It’s easy to keep your head down and move from one priority to the next—something that’s particularly true for a remote team where being solo is the default. That’s why it’s so important to set aside moments to recognize your team’s successes.
Celebrate achievements to add value in a number of different ways. Here are some ideas:
- Showcase what you’ve been able to accomplish together
- Ensure everyone sees the final results of their hard work
- Draw attention to all the meaningful work your team is doing—people may not be aware of projects they aren’t involved with
Acknowledging individual contributions, particularly between peers, is just as important as celebrating team wins. It’s something two-time Olympic Gold Medalist & FIFA World Cup Champion calls Rush or Point—something “Dare to Lead” author Brené Brown’s cites as one of her favorite leadership tips:
“When someone else scores a goal, rush towards them in celebration. When you score the goal, point to the people who made your success possible. Make sure everyone knows that every win is a team win.”
Recognition doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. As experts from the Forbes Human Resources Council shared, visibility is important—but sometimes it’s just about showing gratitude.
16. Ask for feedback every quarter
As you try different strategies as a remote manager, asking for feedback on a quarterly basis can help establish a regular and timely communication loop so you can adjust your efforts as needed.
However, encouraging feedback isn’t just a matter of asking for it.
As Ruchika Tulshyan explained in the New York Times, in order to speak up at work people need to feel that it’s safe to do so—and many people, particularly women and women of color, do not.
Psychological safety is “the belief that you can speak up, take risks and put forward ideas, questions or challenges without facing ridicule or retaliation,” Tulshyan explained.
Research by Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School who specializes in psychological safety, has found three things that help create a safe work environment:
- Frame the work as a learning problem not an execution problem because there’s less perceived risk in sharing different perspectives when everyone is in an unfamiliar situation.
- Acknowledge your own fallibility—that you may miss something or make mistakes.
- Model curiosity by asking a lot of questions helps draw out other thoughts and ideas.
Tulshyan said the value of taking these steps can be significant. “Teams with psychological safety have a higher chance of innovation, growth and expansion and better collaboration, trust and inclusion.”
17. Trust your team
All these ideas can help your team reach further, run more smoothly, and be more effective. But ultimately, without trust at its heart, any results are bound to be short lived.
Many of us moved to remote work with no time to plan or prepare—and it hasn’t been an easy transition for everyone. According to one mid-pandemic study, 40% of managers said they lacked confidence in their ability to manage a remote team. That gap can lead to difficult situations, from micromanagement as a way to track productivity to workers who feel their skills and abilities are constantly being questioned.
Yet a trusting environment is important to cultivate if you want people to do their best work.
A team that lacks mutual trust risks building resentment, less engagement, and more anxiety around goals, direction, and quality of work.
If your team is struggling and has an undercurrent of doubt, you may need to circle back to suggestions on this list, such as setting expectations, centralizing team dashboards, and ensuring the right tools are in place.
But if you are questioning your team’s capacity to do its most important work, then it may be valuable to rethink how you find and engage talent:
- Find colleagues with the knowledge to help you hire outside your area of expertise, so you can feel more confident about assessing skill levels
- Thoroughly vet professionals before bringing them onto high-visibility and high-profile projects
- Invest in test projects to check assumptions about the skills your team needs, confirm your approach to a problem, or see a professional in action
Create your remote team today
Until 2020, remote work was trending up but it hadn’t gone mainstream. The past two years have changed that.
A year from now, 28% of businesses expect to be fully remote. And many more have taken a hybrid approach, working with colleagues and independent professionals they may never meet face-to-face.
Learning to effectively manage a team remotely means fine tuning different ideas to figure out what works best. The result will be a team that’s well connected and positioned to thrive—wherever they happen to be located.
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