How to Support Professional Development on a Remote Team

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How to Support Professional Development on a Remote Team

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Today is a good day. You’ve just told your direct report, Christine, that she’s earned a promotion. This is the reason you love leading a team and managing people!

Last year, Christine was a marketing coordinator. During her annual review, you both were discussing her professional development when Christine expressed her interest in project management.

Since then, you two have met weekly to talk through her career goals. You identified the skills she needed to learn and the projects that would help her learn and improve them. You helped hold her accountable and delivered constructive feedback to encourage Christine to continue improving.

Here’s the catch: It all took place remotely.

As a team manager, facilitating your team’s career growth and professional development is your most important responsibility. It’s a win-win. Your team learns new skills and develops existing ones, while you can improve as a leader and better understand how to play to your team’s strengths.

Sometimes, investing in employee’s professional development can be tricky when you’re not face-to-face. That said, with strong communication skills and the right attitude, you can help any remote employee develop their skills and move up in their career. Here’s how to invest in your team’s professional development, as a remote manager: 

What is professional development?

Professional development can mean different things to different team members. To one employee it might mean learning a new skill or trying something new, while another employee might define career growth success solely on being promoted.

Common ways employees might define professional development:

As a manager, you need to ensure you and your employees define professional development on the same terms, so you can better understand their end goal and how to help them get there.

Why is employee development harder for remote teams? 

Professional development is a challenging aspect of managing a team whether you’re in the office or remote. It requires continual coaching, active listening, thoughtful follow-up questions, and meaningful feedback. It also requires you to have extensive knowledge of your team member’s professional goals, strengths, areas of improvement, and motivations.

On remote teams, those conversations don’t always happen organically. You might need to be more intentional about having these kinds of conversations with your employees early on, to help you better understand their goals and how you can help them succeed.

Remember, some employees might want you to take a hands-on approach to help guide their professional development, while others might just want feedback here and there along the way. You have to work with each employee to understand how you can best help them as a manager.

5 Tips for Remote Professional Development Conversations 

1. Provide the tools

Working remotely, odds are most of your conversations with your team are over email or chat. But, never underestimate the importance of face time. Avoid favoring email and chat and try to have frequent video and phone calls with remote employees, if possible.

To start, try to only use email or chat for tactical conversations, project follow-ups, formal updates, and team FYIs. In turn, try to depend more heavily on video calls or phone calls for everything else. This not only gives you some facetime with employees, but it also reduces the likelihood of a miscommunication and gives you an opportunity to check in with them personally. 

Empower your team to follow suit. Whenever you get an email or chat from Christine, for example, ask yourself:

If Christine and I worked in the same office, is this conversation something she would come to me in person for?

If the answer is yes, move to a video call.

Use tools that make talking “in-person” as seamless as possible. Remote company Invision recommends Zoom for video conferencing, Dropbox Paper and Google Docs for collaborative writing, and Slack for chats that can move to a quick call.

A manager has a professional development conversation with her remote employee

2. Know your resources

Oftentimes, employees aren’t familiar with what career growth opportunities and professional development programs are available to them at your company. As a manager, it’s your job to be familiar with your company policies and programs so you can help direct your employees to take advantage of all their available resources and help them develop their careers.

For example, if you know your organization offers an annual professional growth stipend, you could encourage Christine to use it to take an in-person or live online class on project management. Or, if your company has well-defined career ladders or career lattices, you can make your direct report aware of the skills and experience needed to get a promotion or move to a new team. That can help you establish an action plan to help your employee and inspire them to keep moving forward towards their goal. 

3. Make time to talk

Talking about career development doesn’t happen organically on a remote team and, as a manager, you shouldn’t wait for your employees to bring it up. It’s your responsibility to have professional development conversations with your direct reports.

To get started, bring up professional development during your weekly or bi-weekly 1-on-1 meetings. You should never just use these meetings to touch base on projects. Managers should make the most out of these casual check-ins to talk broadly about your direct report’s career goals, give feedback, and check-in on their morale.

Here are some sample questions to ask to lead an effective 1-on-1 meeting:

  • How are you really?
  • What’s going particularly well?
  • What are you challenged by?
  • What’s something you’re doing now you’d like to do more of?
  • What’s something you’re doing now you’d like to stop doing?
  • What’s something you’re not doing now that you would like to start doing?

In a 1-on-1 last year, Christine answered that last question by saying she wants to start doing more project management. Because the call was in-person, you could better gauge her interest, read her body language, and ask guiding questions around the skills she wanted to learn next.

These conversations rarely, if ever, happen over email. Provide your team the opportunity for bigger conversations — they’ll appreciate the initiative.

4. Just be available just to chat

In addition to carving out 1-on-1 time with direct reports, spark conversations with a more informal tone. These conversations would take place over an office coffee run, lunch, team retreat, or happy hour, but being remote, these situations don’t organically unfold.

Still, these casual run-ins are an essential part of understanding what makes your team tick as they provide an opening for learning your team’s hopes, dreams, drivers, and fears.

Here are three ideas to get you started:

  1. Calls don’t have to be a big event. Invite an employee to a quick 5-10 minute catch-up call over coffee or encourage them to take your next virtual 1-on-1 as a walking meeting. Creating a more casual atmosphere can help them relax and help build a stronger manager-employee relationship. 
  2. Leave work out of it. Make time to get to know your employees personally and catch up on life. Asking them how their weekend was or how they plan on celebrating the holidays can help build a lasting relationship. 
  3. Give your team an opportunity to socialize. Create team Slack channels for #random conversations, giving #props to others, and greeting #new-team-members.

An employee shares her career aspirations on a remote call with her manager

5. Overcommunicate

Your team’s professional development doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Employees need to understand the role they play within the broader company. Providing context is especially important on a remote team. Remote employees run the risk of feeling isolated from the company at large.

As the leader of a remote team, always reiterate:

  • Your team’s goals
  • Other team’s goals
  • The company’s mission and values
  • The company roadmap
  • New company-wide initiatives

You’ll help your team understand where things are heading and how they fit into the company’s future.

6. Establish an internal growth framework

Once your team reaches a certain size — let’s say 5+ people per function — you’ll need to set structure around growth opportunities.

Social media management company Buffer establishes career frameworks for each function. Each ladder includes a growth path for individual contributors and managers and walks through requirements for each level, like:

  • The level of ownership over project progress
  • The level of ownership over project results
  • The strategic involvement and planning required
  • The scope of influence across teams

Once you’ve set your frameworks (usually, with the help of HR), share them with your remote team.

You looked at Christine’s career framework to see how she could grow into a project management role, for instance. Christine looked at the requirements and identified which skills and competencies she didn’t have yet. From there, the two of you identified projects that would help Christine fulfill those requirements. Because Christine had a better idea of what she needed to improve to reach her dream role within the company, she was able to stay motivated and steadily build the skills she needed to secure her career transition. With a little help from a great manager, of course! 

Investing in professional development as a team lead is challenging, but it can also be extremely rewarding. Follow these guidelines and stick with them. Over time, you’ll set the stage for success — for yourself and your direct reports. 

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