11 Best Practices by Successful Remote Team Managers

The past few years have been a real crash course in remote team management for many managers. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been a pleasant or successful experience for a large number, as the challenges presented by remote management can leave them feeling their years of hard-earned experience have suddenly been thrown out the window. Because while […]

by Dilyan Dimitrov

March 21, 2024

10 min read

Remote Team Manager

The past few years have been a real crash course in remote team management for many managers. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been a pleasant or successful experience for a large number, as the challenges presented by remote management can leave them feeling their years of hard-earned experience have suddenly been thrown out the window.

Because while many management best practices do translate well to remote teams, many don’t. This shift requires managers to really consider how they need to update their practices to continue getting the most out of their teams.

The reality is that this is likely the new normal as the demand for remote and hybrid work options shows no sign of abating. That’s why it remains vital for managers to invest in the skills and practices that can bring success to their remote teams.

Key Challenges for Managing Remote Employees

While the full list of challenges faced by remote managers could go on forever, there are two foundational challenges that must be understood first. Addressing them will enable you to implement all the best practices listed below far more effectively.

Information and Communication

One of the greatest frustrations felt by remote employees is a lack of information. This is particularly true when people are working from different time zones, when a single missing link, permission, or instruction can easily lead to a major delay for crucial work. Account for this happening regularly and the total wastage can quickly add up.

In other cases, if management and employees aren’t used to asynchronous or purely digital communication, context can be lost. Instructions one person thinks are clear can easily be interpreted differently by someone else, leading to further lost time and opportunities. 

One study estimated the cost of such poor communication at between $4,000-6,000 per employee. Considering the additional challenges with remote work, we can assume that number is higher for such employees.

Remote Team Challanges

In the worst cases, poor communication can make remote employees feel like they have a lack of agency because they constantly need to ask for guidance, clarification, or prioritization. This feeds directly into problematic working cultures.

Building an Effective Culture

When you peel back the layers and really get into root causes, poor working cultures are at the heart of most management challenges. From getting team members to be more proactive to motivating them to overcome challenges and do their best work, bad culture amplifies other problems across the organization.

In such situations, team members don’t feel comfortable raising issues, may hesitate to act independently for fear of making a mistake they will be punished for, and generally will feel less happy in their working environment. The result is poorer performance, lower retention rates, and an amplification of all the managing remote teams challenges on this list.

But building a robust and cohesive culture without relying on in-person meetings, trainings, and other activities is uniquely challenging. Considering how much culture acts as a force multiplier when done right, however, this remains a crucial area of focus for modern managers.

11 Best Practices for Remote Employee Management

With the two core challenges of managing remote employees clear, let’s dive straight into 11 best practices to help you mitigate and overcome those challenges.

1. Prioritize Visibility and Transparency

When you can’t simply walk down the hall to ask your colleague for some context, creating visibility through digital tools becomes even more crucial.

The power of better visibility is a lesson derived in part from the experiences of Agile software development teams as it enables individuals to act more autonomously because they have the information they need to make such decisions. Such employees feel better about their work and are able to accomplish more.

By contrast, when remote teams are faced with information silos, costs can quickly mount as team members struggle to get access to what they need to be effective. When team members lack access to information while not being empowered to pivot and adjust in response, they end up wasting time and resources waiting.

In this way, visibility and transparency affects both the practical functioning of remote teams and their culture.

2. Avoid Micromanaging

The old command and control style may be a relic of 20th-century factory-inspired management theory, but it’s still alive and well in far too many organizations today. The kind of micromanagement this fosters can be crippling for remote teams as individuals are forced to context switch more often and feel a lack of agency.

In remote environments, this can easily result in individuals simply waiting around to hear what they should do next. When managers can’t physically see people waiting for further instructions, you end up with more people wasting more time.

Then there’s the simple reality that micromanaging, an ineffective management style in any case, is even less effective when done remotely. True, some managers rely on monitoring software, but this usually does more harm than good. At the end of the day, management resources devoted to micromanaging are not being devoted to supporting and empowering employees to do more.

3. Understand Your Stakeholders

This is one of the challenges of managing remote employees and non-remote employees alike. But ultimately, an appreciation of who your stakeholders are and what they need is foundational to addressing nearly all the other challenges on this list.

In part, this is because one of your stakeholders as a manager has to be your employees. Neglecting to consider their needs as remote workers is a recipe for disaster. Doing so requires going beyond simply thinking about them and to actually integrating them into your planning processes, leveraging feedback to iterate and improve over time.

4. Enable and Empower

Over recent decades, that command and control style of leadership has gradually been replaced by servant leadership. This is built around the idea that the role of team managers should be to find ways to enable and empower, trusting that when given the right tools and information, their team members will do a good job.

This is particularly important for remote teams because not being physically in an office can make it easier to disengage from work because you haven’t been given the tools, authority, or even trust to get the job done.

So avoid the urge to monitor and micromanage and instead focus on giving your team members the tools they need alongside the freedom to find the most effective way to use those tools. The culture of accountability and autonomy this creates is crucially important for successful remote teams.

5. Prioritize More Effectively

Effectively empowering and managing remote employees relies heavily on prioritization. When it’s clear to everyone what the priorities are through something like a visualization tool, each team member can adapt and adjust their focus when they encounter roadblocks.

This translates into both more effective team members who waste less time waiting to be told what the next priority is and a greater culture of autonomy and accountability. But aside from displaying what those priorities are in a transparent and accessible way, there’s also the issue of deciding what they should be in the first place.

Prioritization can be done through stack ranking, MoSCoW, prioritization poker, etc. but what’s more important than the particular system you use is having a system in the first place. Being clear and deliberate about how you prioritize and what drives those decisions (ideally, driving value to your stakeholders) is what creates the kind of effective prioritization that really helps in managing remote teams.

6. Ensure Your Estimation Is Accurate

While prioritization and estimation can be seen as two distinct remote work best practices, they are deeply intertwined. Effective prioritization is impossible if you can’t accurately estimate the amount of work tasks will require.

The thing to bear in mind here is that, whether you’re managing remote employees or in-office ones, humans are very bad at estimating how much work a task will require. Overcoming that limitation requires taking a more systematic approach that helps mitigate that human deficiency.

One particularly effective technique is a game called planning poker which has actually been proven to dramatically improve estimation in scientific studies. But like with prioritization, what matters most is less the precise tool or technique you use and more that you invest the time needed to improve over time.

7. Build Trust by Leading with Empathy

Leading with empathy

One of the single most effective ways to build an effective culture while managing remote teams is through leading by example. Modeling the kind of behaviors you want to see in team members by exhibiting yourself is always going to be more efficient than investing in things like more training.

By empathizing with team members, listening to their challenges, and taking them seriously, you can gradually build the kind of psychological safety that truly effective teams are built on. That sense of safety is what helps empower individuals to be more open about ideas for improvement, processes that should be changed, and generally surfacing information that managers can use to do their jobs more effectively.

So instead of focusing on blame and punishment when people run into challenges, try to get to the heart of what caused those issues and figure out how you can make changes to avoid them in the future. After all, if a team member fails at something because they lacked the tools, visibility, or authority to do it right, blaming them isn’t going to get you anywhere.

8. Ensure Policies and Processes Are Clear

One of the main challenges of managing remote employees is promoting effective autonomy and efficiency. A major component of ensuring that happens is ensuring policies and processes are clear for everyone. This avoids the problem of remote employees feeling unsure about what to do or needing to wait for clarifications on next steps.

An effective way to do this is to ensure this information is easily accessible. That may come in the form of a company wiki containing all the relevant policies and procedures, or by using one of the tools to manage remote employees that enables you to easily list steps within a task management system.

Of course, this isn’t a one-and-done task. You have to regularly gather feedback from team members to understand where there may be a lack of clarity that’s interrupting work.

9. Don’t Forget About Face-to-Face Meetings

Study after study has shown that face-to-face meetings result in stronger relationships and more effective communication. But when teams work remotely, particularly in different time zones, it can be easy to simply forego face-to-face interactions in favor of emails, asynchronous updates, and Slack. 

But while everything certainly doesn’t need to be a Zoom call, the face-time tools like that provide is actually vital in building a team culture and ensuring people develop stronger understandings of their colleagues.

So consider how you can be strategic about finding a balance between optimizing for everyone’s time by not overburdening them with meetings while still ensuring enough of them happen. That could be through something like daily standups or just scheduling an hour a week for everyone to chat informally on a call. 

10. Get Feedback Regularly

While this was mentioned previously, it’s important enough in managing remote employees to warrant more information. It’s extremely easy for remote employees to feel isolated from their teams. Feedback that may be reliably conveyed in a regular office may easily remain uncommunicated on a remote team.

This is why remote managers need to be particularly proactive when it comes to soliciting feedback. That may be through something like a retrospective meeting or through regular 1-1s. Just bear in mind that not everyone may feel comfortable sharing information in a more public setting like an all-hands or retrospective, so it’s worth ensuring you provide alternative ways to share feedback as well.

11. Invest in Better Onboarding

Remote employees require a unique approach to onboarding for success. In an ideal world you’ve invested heavily in building a strong remote work culture, but poor onboarding can risk slowly eroding that culture by not properly integrating new hires into it. So what should you do?

Begin by assigning mentors to work closely with new hires so they don’t feel alone and isolated as they begin the onboarding process. Note that this shouldn’t be a manager but a peer who can share realistic advice about the experience the new hire can expect.

Next, try to ensure the new hire has plenty of both formal and informal opportunities to interact with their new colleagues in the first days and weeks. This both helps them learn who their colleagues are and gives a good chance to really see and understand the culture they are entering into.

Lastly, be clear about everything from expectations to processes. Consider what elements of your work processes are unspoken or informal and ensure these are clearly communicated. This can also be a good opportunity to get outside feedback on those processes to better understand what might be unclear or could be improved.

Tools to Manage Remote Employees

Another vitally important element of successful remote team management is the toolset you use. The first and most fundamental is a visualization tool that enables everyone on the team to clearly see what’s happening, access information and context for tasks, understand priorities, and generally avoid costly delays from a lack of information.

The first and most foundational tool is likely a work management system that enables teams to track tasks, share information about those tasks, and ideally visualize work in progress. This may be an off-the-shelf solution or a more custom piece of software designed specifically for your remote team’s needs.

One thing to consider when evaluating management tools is whether they can automate the collection of data about how work is getting done. Information like cycle time, idle time, etc. can help remote managers identify process improvements to streamline how their teams deliver value.

Next, you’ll want to invest in a set of robust communication tools to help ensure remote work is as seamless as possible. These might include messaging platforms like Teams or Slack, video chatting tools like Zoom, and even helping team members acquire things like cameras and microphones to ensure those interactions are high-quality and easy for everyone.

Remote Employee Management Training and Coaching

This final remote work best practice accomplishes several things at once. First, it enables your team members to develop their skill sets to remain effective in a fast-changing business landscape. That’s always going to be valuable whether they’re remote or not.

But for remote teams, this kind of investment also demonstrates a commitment to employees that can easily feel lacking when those employees aren’t interacting with the business as directly through a physical office. Lastly, training and coaching can serve as another opportunity for employees to work alongside each other and build a sense of common culture and camaraderie. 

A reader who loves writing, a marketer who loves tech, a nerd who loves sports. Dilyan, our resident writer, half-jokes that his days are filled with everything you can think of - except free time. He joined our team several years into his copywriting career - and he seems to feel at home here. Because, as he puts it, “there’s always cake at the office”.  If he doesn’t have his nose buried in a book, you can typically find Dilyan writing his latest piece, tinkering with his PC, or off swimming/cycling somewhere.