Guidelines for Better Remote Work Management

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Years removed from the height of the COVID pandemic, remote work continues to flourish. While many companies have transitioned from fully remote employees to hybrid work arrangements, the need for effective remote work management remains.

But Managing remote teams is no cakewalk. With different time zones, the inability of in-person and onsite conversations, burnout, lackluster employee engagement, and the pitfalls of remote work environments can all stymie personal and professional growth — as well as the ability to effectively manage.

A remote workforce can end up in dire straits without the right manager. But for those thrust into the remote management spotlight — especially first-time managers — choosing the right management style and management tools, as well as adjusting to a distributed workforce can make all the difference.

Remote work management adds elements that are uncommon in the physical office, which can add to the sink-or-swim conundrum of leading remote workers. If you have even the slightest penchant for managing, you can find ways to overcome any obstacle. You only need to put your best (digital) foot forward.

Are You Out of Touch on Remote Work Management?

Woman chatting with her remote team

Future Forum is a consortium founded by Slack to research and advise on the future of work. Each quarter they survey more than 10,000 knowledge workers in the US, Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the U.K. This quarter’s Future Forum Pulse report had a couple of eye-opening results.

The report generally matched observed trends in remote work, yet some of the specific numbers illustrated the scale of the change the workplace is going through (and the challenges). The whole report is an interesting read, but we wanted to highlight two dynamics in particular:

  • Adding more communication
  • Flexibility

Bosses Failing To Talk With Remote Team Members

An astonishing 66% of executives reported that they were designing post-pandemic workforce policies with little to no direct input from employees. Given that one of the key pieces of advice for getting remote/hybrid work right for your corporate culture is to talk to your employees, this is staggering.

For many firms, this situation will be a trainwreck — particularly because, as the survey also showed, executives and employees are far apart in how they think about this issue in terms of onboarding, micromanaging, clear expectations, social interactions, and virtually all aspects of remote work.  

“Of those currently working fully remotely, nearly half of all executives surveyed (44%) want to work from the office every day, compared to 17% of employees (2.6x difference). And 75% of these executives say they want to work from the office three to five days a week, versus only 34% of employees.”

A significant number of executives appear to be designing policies without speaking to their employees, based on assumptions that are out of step with the majority of their workforce. Oh, and they’re also communicating them poorly.

“Two out of every three executives (66%) believe they’re being ‘very transparent’ regarding their post-pandemic remote-working policies. Less than half of workers (42%) agree with these remote work management ideas.”

If that sounds like it could be an issue in a competitive hiring market where retention is difficult and employees are assessing their employment options roughly every two years, trust your instincts.

In short, if you don’t know your team’s preferences for remote work, asking is the solution. You can get the inside scoop on your teams’ favorite collaboration tools, communication channels, video conferencing software, workday preferences, and team meetings/one-on-one time.

Flexibility Achieves Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Goals

The report concludes that flexibility around where and when people work improves the remote working experience for everyone and avoids issues with remote work management, particularly for underrepresented and historically marginalized populations.

The impact on Black knowledge workers has been especially stark.

“Over the last 12 months, the share of Black respondents agreeing with the statement ‘I value the relationship I have with my co workers’ has risen from 48% to 76%. The share of Black respondents agreeing with the statement “I am treated fairly at work” has risen from 47% to 73%. And the share of Black respondents agreeing with the statement ‘management is supportive' has risen from 43% to 75%.”

The report concludes that the shift to virtual meetings and communication removed options for exclusive in-office chatter and “leveled the playing field” in terms of both transparency and frequency of communication, making more people feel they belonged.

3 Practical Strategies for Remote Work Management

Woman waving to a person during a remote meeting

We’ve seen a lot of advice over the past year on leading a remote team, and Molly Struve’s talk at LeadDev Live was amongst some of the very best.

Struve is a Senior Site Reliability Engineer at Netflix and runs a team across eight time zones from Thailand to Denver. She had some very tactical remote work management advice for any manager looking to put in place new processes to help their distributed team work together, successfully and inclusively.

Her approach is based on three core strategies:  Async Standups, Rotating Meeting Schedules, and Setting Async Work Expectations.

1. Async Standups

If you’re distributed across eight time zones (or even much less!) finding a time for a weekly standup meeting that works for everyone is almost impossible. Yet sharing that context about what everyone’s working on for the week remains invaluable. So what to do?

Struve’s standups aren’t meetings at all, they’re blog posts. Every Sunday evening she creates an internal post of relevant team updates. Team members can then view the document and leave comments if they have anything else to add. A dedicated section for team members to introduce their topics and praise colleagues for their work is also a winner, allowing others to discover what their colleagues are up to and the successful initiatives they’ve had in recent memory.

Everyone stays updated just like in a standup meeting, and everyone is always included. As an example of inclusion, even the date format specifically references the month in full rather than using US formatting (July vs 07) so it’s clear to everyone.

2. Rotating Meeting Schedules

Although async docs work well for standups, teams need face time during or after work hours to help them bond and build relationships. Rotating schedules, where several meetings of the same type happen at different times over several weeks, are key to inclusively doing that. Struve arranges two types of meetings this way.

  • Engineering roundtables: Every week at a different time, Struve holds these meetings. Not everyone can attend all of them, but that’s not the idea.  It creates plenty of opportunities for people to meet with their colleagues and most of her team manages to attend two or three of these meetings every four weeks. She includes some sample discussion points in each meeting invite to help facilitate debate, particularly for those who might not be comfortable just raising their voice spontaneously. For those who can’t attend but still want to catch up on what was said, every meeting is recorded and Struve publishes an accompanying set of notes for those who don’t have the time to watch the recording.
  • Watercoolers: The virtual water cooler is an interesting choice for 15-minute Zoom calls for less formal, non-work discussions. As she acknowledges, these are most successful when they have an advocate — e.g. someone makes it clear on Slack or Microsoft Teams they are attending — so people know they’re not going to be the only one in there.

3. Setting Async Work Expectations

Setting specific norms for your team is very powerful in creating inclusive habits that foster distributed teamwork. Struve mentions three that have worked for her:

  • 24-hour Pull Request Review: This allows everyone on the team to review the majority of the code that is being shipped, whatever their time zone.
  • Slack as Async: Set expectations that Slack messages, email notifications, and other messaging apps don’t require an immediate response. In her words, “a massive win for work-life balance.”
  • Record all meetings: This is self-explanatory, yet it’s a big benefit for inclusive team-building and project management.

There may be other norms you could put in place for your teams based on your pattern of work.

5 Tips for Remote Work Management and Discussing Work-Life Balance

Remote worker taking calls from the beach

When your colleagues feel comfortable sharing ideas, asking for help, or challenging the status quo, it’s a great sign of a high-performing and healthy team. You may already be familiar with this under the label “psychological safety.” Psychological safety has specific relevance now as you talk to your team about their working arrangements for the rest of the year.

For example, team members feel comfortable critiquing each others’ decision-making (and yours), or putting forward unsolicited new ideas in meetings. But over the past few years, work and life have become so intertwined that managers increasingly need to have discussions about both.

“In the past, we’ve approached work and non-work discussions as separable, allowing managers to keep the latter off the table. Over the past year, however, many managers have found that previously off-limits topics like child care, health-risk comfort levels, or challenges faced by spouses or other family members are increasingly required for joint (manager and employee) decisions about how to structure and schedule hybrid work.” - Amy Edmondson and Mark Mortensen

If your workplace is going to maintain hybrid or fully remote teams, these conversations will continue and will only be effective if your team feels comfortable discussing these (sometimes very personal) details of their lives. This also has to come from the team member: both for legal and personal reasons just asking people to formally disclose information about their private lives invites allegations of bias and invasion of privacy.

So how can encourage these positive discussions as a manager? Just being aware of the potential sensitivity is a great start, but Edmondson and Mortensen also have five suggestions for improved remote work management combined with work-life balance:

  1. Set the scene: Make it clear this is something you want to talk openly about and solve together so the team can run effectively while accommodating people’s lives.
  1. Lead the way: Share examples of your own remote/WFH challenges and how you’re thinking about solving them.
  1. Take small steps: Don’t expect people to share their largest issues immediately. Start by making small disclosures yourself and encourage others to do the same.
  1. Share positive examples: Don’t disclose private information, but share examples of how when someone disclosed a circumstance you were able to help them.
  1. Be a watchdog: Be aware of when others get shot down for sharing their experience and push back when you see it happen.

By working on open conversations about remote work, you’ll make sure that you have the information you need for your team to be both effective and happy.

Demonstrating your commitment to helping them do their best work at your company might also help convince them that it’s the right workplace for them.

Use the Right Tools to Gain Your Foothold in Remote Work Management

Remote work management is a challenge — there’s no getting around it. But don’t beat yourself up. It’s still a relatively new aspect of management and one that requires some trial and error to balance existing management principles with remote work management enlightenment.

However, you can always take extra steps to grow with your virtual team, improve workflows, and build a friendly and open remote workspace. Gaining as much knowledge as possible is always advised, but not everyone learns the same way. In some instances, you may need someone well-versed in the art of remote work management to provide their insight.

At Unicorn Labs, we’ve been helping startups, human resources, and established companies learn better ways to manage and interact with remote and hybrid work arrangements. We help you realize the importance of leadership on top of management — taking your innate strengths, building on your weaknesses, and constructing a new set of skills to become a true leader of remote teams.

Contact us today to set up a video call appointment to see how Unicorn Labs can improve your remote work management, leadership, and company culture today.

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