Our 9 pillars for effectively managing a remote team

Sharing our 9 practices on successfully leading a remote team—from our unique hiring process to how we make sure that 130+ employees feel happy at work!

April 2, 2021

Have you ever Googled “managing a remote team”? There are over 290 million results with lots of different ideas and advice. Which is best?

The fact is that leading remote teams looks different for each company—it all depends on the culture and remote work approach.

For example, some companies are 100% remote, while others offer a variety of office and remote options. Some managers trust their teams completely, while others use tracking software to ensure people are working. Each situation calls for different approaches.    

At The Remote Company, we believe managing remote teams is less about strict procedures and all about setting up each individual for success. When individuals thrive, the team as a whole is stronger.

Over the years we’ve learned and adapted to overcome the many challenges of managing remote employees. We're happy to share them with you now!

1. Set clear expectations for remote workers

If you’ve read other articles from The Remote Company, you’ve likely come across our company values. We talk about them often and for good reason: they guide almost everything we do. 

Managing any team, remote or traditional, starts with setting clear expectations. While each person might have individual responsibilities based on their role, the entire team needs a set of guidelines that help them stay on the same page.

By writing down our values and requiring everyone to agree to them when they are hired, we instantly have a baseline for managing distributed teams. Everyone knows how to act and more importantly, they understand why we do the things we do.

Values help people make decisions without a manager.

Values also help our remote workforce to prioritize their time and manage their own projects. Lastly, values help managers know when to get involved or when to let the remote team member handle something.

Managing a remote team will be extremely challenging if you don’t have a set of guidelines or values that everyone understands and respects.

Learn more about how we created and live out our company values:

2. Hire people that manage themselves

Leading a remote team is much harder when a team member isn’t a good fit. Maybe they don’t follow the company’s values, possess the right work ethic or are not as skilled as they let on. 

Whatever the reason, a weak link can negatively affect the entire team. 

That’s why hiring is a critical aspect of managing a remote team. How do you hire the right people, especially when you can’t meet them in person? 

We’ve learned that typical hiring practices don’t work for remote-first teams. When you’re recruiting people from across the globe from different work experiences, you probably won’t recognize their schools or previous companies. A traditional CV and cover letter are useless.

Instead, figure out what traits are most important, and develop a way to let your candidate show you who they are.

At The Remote Company, we value several characteristics like:

  • Self-motivation

  • Positive attitude

  • Team player 

But when we analyzed all of our successful hires over the years, we found one common thread: they all had a genuine passion for The Remote Company.

To gauge a candidate's desire to work for us, we developed a unique way of applying. Most applicants will create a newsletter and complete an assignment. For developers, it could also entail spending a week actually working with the development team.

Our tailored hiring process allows us to find the best people. Applicants are able to share their “Why”, display their skills and express their personality in a natural way.

Learn more about the recruiting approach that helps us measure a candidate’s desire to work at The Remote Company:

3. Embrace cultural differences and viewpoints

As of April 2021, The Remote Company is a team of 130 people from 30+ different countries. 

This diversity is an amazing benefit for us, especially since our customers are global as well.

Our multicultural team gives us a broader view of the world and how we can solve different problems together. But this would not be possible if we weren’t intentional about creating an environment where everyone’s voices are heard and respected.

To manage an international team where people have different perspectives and attitudes toward work, the entire company must embrace these cultural differences and not try to make people fit into their way of working and thinking.

To learn about our similarities and differences, every new colleague has to do a short presentation about themselves during their first workation. These presentations, called Pecha Kuchas, give us a sense of people’s culture, personality and interests. 

On Slack, team members are encouraged to update their status with their country’s flag. This is a fun conversation starter, as well as a time zone indication for team members.

See how we create an environment where our diverse team can share their viewpoints and help each other see new solutions:

4. Use tools to automate management tasks

Remote work technology has exploded. Grandmas across the globe are Zooming! There are tools for everything from remote team management to tracking employee goals and happiness.

We found that managing a remote team is easier when you use a smaller amount of tools and use them well. At the end of the day, you want to be productive and efficient without giving your team technology overload. 

Currently, we have nine core apps that our team uses to communicate, manage projects and collaborate. The goal is that some repetitive managing tasks can be handled by the tool, which is why it’s important to document the purpose of each remote tool and explain how people should use them.

For example, we use GitHub to manage our project sprints. Everyone knows their responsibilities and what’s in the pipeline. The manager doesn’t need to waste their time with daily check-ins, frequent status meetings or crafting direct reports.

The same goes for collaboration and communication tools. The technologies facilitate social interaction and keep records of all conversations. Managers are freed up to focus on the bigger picture and help individuals when they see a potential challenge in the workflow.

Read more about the tools we use and how we use them to make it all work:

5. Set clear communication guidelines

Communication is a pillar for any type of team management, but for managing a remote team across the globe, it takes on a whole new level of importance. All the important discussions and decisions must take place online and be shared with the right people.

Have you heard the phrase: “Pics, or it didn’t happen?” At The Remote Company, we like to say: “Write it down or it doesn’t count.”

The most critical aspect of making remote communication work is that everyone must be willing to share the information online in written form, so you’ll have a recorded history of how everything happened and why. 

For example, our developers have a Slack channel where they document each bug and how it was fixed. Everything is explained in a human, not overly technical language so all team members can understand. 

We solve our challenges with different time zones by communicating asynchronously. When someone writes a message, we don’t expect others to reply right away. This means no one has to check their messages non-stop, allowing them to work uninterrupted. Knowing this, we need to plan tasks ahead of time, to make sure there’s enough time to complete tasks.

The same goes for planning in a global remote team. Though we keep virtual team meetings at a minimum, whenever we do organize a meeting, we make sure that it’s announced well in advance and scheduled at a time that works for most people.

Learn how we use Slack and video conferencing tools to communicate well:

6. Establish processes to manage projects and productivity

While remote work requires each team member to manage their own projects, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t create a structure and process that everyone follows.

At The Remote Company, we developed an agile project management system that is simple and allows team members to feel empowered to take responsibility for themselves. While the process is designed to keep track of everyone’s work at a team level, we don’t tell people how they must accomplish their tasks.

The best way to get the most from each person is to give them a goal, allow them to freely work in their own style, show gratitude and make everyone feel cared for. We don’t subject our colleagues to productivity trackers or timers. For us, it’s much more important to focus on the end goal. Either we see results, or we don’t.

With that in mind, the best way to manage remote employees is to trust them. Give them the assignment and hold them accountable at the end. If you find yourself micromanaging, there is something bigger that must be addressed. Stay focused on results, not daily activity.

Learn more about getting the most productivity out of your remote team:

7. Support your distributed teams

The way you treat your employees is the way they will treat your customers.

Sir Richard Branson

Happy team members = happy customers. When team members feel good about their work and their remote environment, the results will be better. Developers write cleaner code, managers are more engaged and support members give extra effort to make customers happy.

In a large team, it’s challenging to keep track of everyone’s well-being and make sure people maintain a good work-life balance. 

We use the review tool, 15Five, for check-ins. Each month, employees are asked questions, like what accomplishments they’re proud of, where they’re struggling and what can be improved. This is the place where our team leads listen and act when someone indicates they need a happy-hormone boost.

Another important part of supporting remote workers is to show appreciation. 15Five offers virtual high-fives that people can hand out to shine a light on other team members. 

For daily appreciation, we created Slack channel #kudos, where we give kudos to people that helped us or did a great job. Everyone can give a compliment to anyone.

We also provide our team leads with coaching so they can become better at motivating their people. 

Our support lead, Remis, is a great example. He started in support and grew into a managing role. Every chance he gets, he’ll spotlight his support champs—whether on Slack, in presentations, social media or other workspaces. Our support team is our most engaged team because the people in this team feel especially connected.

Read our seven steps to building a healthy remote culture:

8. Train and connect remote employees

If you’ve read our remote article on creating an inclusive team, you’ll know that we hire people based on their values. Most of us are self-starters, so we naturally love to pick up new skills and absorb knowledge. Our team members are currently learning how to code, do handstands, speak Japanese, become master chefs and much more.

As a company, we’re training remote employees in various ways. We document all company-related information on Notion, so people can learn about our company. New employees receive this link in their welcome email during the onboarding process.

Team leads are responsible for showing newbies around, or in our case, virtually introducing them to their colleagues on messaging tool Slack. If anything is unclear, they can hop over to our #new_hires channel where seasoned members are supporting remote workers that just started working full-time at The Remote Company.

By teaming people with varying experiences, they can learn from each other. See it as cross-mentorship, except both team members offer different skills instead of one person having more knowledge in a particular area.

On Notion, people are also encouraged to write a “How to work with me manual”. These are short profile texts in which team members describe how they enjoy remote working, collaborating and being approached by colleagues.

Furthermore, we try to plan activities that broaden our minds during our work/staycations. During one of our 2020 staycations, we learned how to meditate, identify new trends and craft great stories. We also organize our RemoteFair, which is a company fair where teams host their own booth and talk about their projects, progress and accomplishments.

If people find an (online) course or conference related to their job (or a role they want to grow into), we happily support them! Allowing people who are motivated to develop themselves will always benefit your business.

9. Maintain strong team bonds

Strong team bonds are all about people connecting with each other on a more personal level. It’s much easier to talk to colleagues when you have things in common. But how do you find out? These conversations mostly take place outside the workplace.

Since we can’t physically host happy hour drinks or teamwork events, we’ve created spaces for people to talk about what drives them off-work.

For starters, our team created fun Slack channels about food, music, books and what to watch on Netflix next. These channels arose from one person having an interest and flourished into a crowd of people discussing TV series and more.

We also have quarterly creative days, where people unplug, explore and share their findings with the team. Most people choose to visit a museum, which unintentionally turned our #creative_day channel into a virtual tour of art exhibitions worldwide.

And then there are our infamous workations. These get-togethers allow us to emerge in team building all week long. We all talk to people from different teams and get to know each other’s personalities. For example, from watching people’s Pecha Kucha presentations, we discovered that the majority of our team is obsessed with cats, dogs, sports, traveling, psychology and food.

Though we host our workations in either Lithuania or an exotic destination, you don’t have to fly out your entire team to have an amazing experience. 

When the pandemic limited us from seeing each other in real life, we started organizing so-called staycations. During these week-long events, there are Zoom-hosted presentations, workshops, games and welcome drinks — allowing us to continue to grow stronger as a team.

And that’s not all. Every month, we organize video calls where we all talk about a topic or discuss previously announced questions. We break up our big team into different groups and informally chat in breakout rooms for about an hour.

And lastly, in addition to our yearly Christmas party, we started sending each other Christmas cards. In an Excel sheet, those who wanted to participate could add their addresses and then send physical cards to others. It was truly heartwarming to read the handwritten notes from colleagues!

Responsibility is the price of freedom

Managing employees remotely is not that hard when you hire the right people for your team: people that you can trust 100%, people that value freedom and people that are eager to take responsibility. 

The key to success is communicating in advance what you expect from your team and giving them the freedom to get it done.

What’s your biggest challenge in managing remote teams? Leave us a comment!

If you agree with our management style, you should take a look at our open job positions and join our ever-growing remote team!

Editor's note: This post was originally published in April 2017 but has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.


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