While the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of remote work, a growing number of companies were already embracing the idea of distributed teams — and with good reason! Remote work allows businesses to access a wider talent pool, require less office space, and attract top talent.
Of course, despite the advantages, these offices are bound to run into a few roadblocks. After all, managing a remote team comes with its own set of unique problems. From a lack of communication to time zone trouble, we’ve put together a list of the top challenges of managing remote employees that trip up most new managers.
Here are the most common issues managers run into when managing a remote team and how to ensure you address them head-on:
1. Lack of Effective Communication
Effective communication is one of the biggest challenges of managing a remote team. Without body language and the context that comes with being in-person, emails can often get misinterpreted and directives get misunderstood. A funny joke to one person may be seen as a slight, or microaggression, to another – especially if the two people don’t interact on a regular basis.
Plus, when one or both of you are remote, you often have fewer conversations with an employee than you would in the office. That means less time to clarify meaning and expectations. You can’t read a room or swing by a coworker’s desk to get your questions answered. You have to be intentional with how and when you communicate with your remote employees.
And always err on the side of over-communicating.
How to Prioritize Communication
Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to prioritize communication when you’re managing a remote team. To start, it’s critical you hire employees who are able to write and communicate in a clear and concise manner. This will obviously help curb any potential confusion.
Moreover, remote teams should be encouraged to communicate frequently. Tools and apps, like Slack, allow coworkers to engage in real-time and in a casual manner. Additionally, it’s a good idea to hold regular video chats as well. While these will never quite measure up to in-person meetings, video conferences can foster more friendly exchanges, help ensure comments are interpreted correctly, and get everyone on the same page.
TIP: When managing remote employees, you don’t always need a reason to reach out. Grab a virtual coffee, throw 15-minutes on someone’s calendar, or shoot them a Slack to get to know when better and have some friendly banter. Those small moments can help foster trust, help keep them engaged, and build your manager-employee relationship, making them more likely to come to you in the future if they need help or have an issue.
2. Transfer of Knowledge Across Teams
Many distributed teams face numerous hiccups when it comes to knowledge transfer. This is often because various facets of a project end up being completed in a piecemeal fashion, with each team working on different parts at different times.
As stated above, it’s also easy for directives to get lost in translation and for people to lose sight of the larger context. These workers may also fall victim to the black box effect wherein one person or group sends out requirements to another and just expects output. They don’t really think about who is completing the work or the institutional knowledge they may or may not have.
How to Keep Everyone in The Loop
To avoid these missteps when managing a remote team, it’s important to be hyper-aware of all pertinent information. Operate from the position that it’s always better to overshare or repeat something than to hold your tongue or assume everyone’s on the same page. Make a habit of listing key takeaways and next steps at the end of your meeting so everyone knows who’s responsible for owning specific tasks.
3. The “Us vs. Them” Trap
When teams are distributed geographically, it’s all too easy to fall into the mentality of “us vs them.” Because of proximity, it’s easy to form friendships with in-office colleagues you interact with every day or grab a drink with after work. Remote coworkers who live three states away can often become an afterthought. And as you bond with your cube-mate, you are more likely to sideline the guy you don’t see, meaning you’re less likely to turn to them for help or involve them in a new high-visibility project that could help their career or benefit from their expertise.
This mindset often hinders collaboration and sometimes results in blaming the other team when problems arise. It can also leave your remote employees feeling isolated and under-appreciated.
How to Unify a Remote Team
Luckily, there are several ways to bring your employees together when you’re managing a remote team. For starters, it’s imperative that companies foster a common vision and use cascading goals. This helps remind everyone they’re working towards the same goal and tells them how their individual contributions connect to the larger company goals.
Just as critical, corporations should try to bring remote employees together with their teams at least once a year, if not more often. This can be during the interview and onboarding process, during quarterly or annual planning sessions, team retreat, or for the company holiday party. This gives remote and in-office employees the opportunity to meet face-to-face and get to know each other better.
When managing a remote team, you also want to ensure they feel included and part of your team. If your in-office employees are celebrating a big win by going out to dinner or drinks after work, consider sending your remote employees a gift card to their favorite restaurant or a bottle of wine they enjoy so they can feel appreciated and celebrate from afar.
4. Varying Time Zones
If you’re managing a remote team that is distributed globally (or simply across the country), you’re likely going to bump up against time zone issues. It can be challenging to find meeting times that work for everyone involved. People might be forced to get up incredibly early or work well into the evening, which can very well impact their moods and attitude. After all, some individuals are energized and alert in the mornings while others are sluggish and aloof.
How to Manage Distributed Team Meetings
To promote a sense of equity and limit pushback, ask your employees about their personal preferences. You may be delighted to discover that your New York team loves a good lunchtime call while the folks in Lisbon enjoy dialing in at sunset.
If you’re not that fortunate, it makes sense to rotate timing. That way, the same people won’t continually feel inconvenienced.
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