How to be a better remote manager: 6 tips

For leaders, making the adjustment from managing by walking around to managing remotely can prove tricky. Consider this advice for remote managers
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By summer of 2020, 42 percent of the U.S. workforce was working at home, according to a policy brief from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). And within many organizations, remote work is here to stay. A survey of firms from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s Survey of Business Uncertainty found that post-pandemic, the share of working days spent at home is expected to increase fourfold from pre-COVID levels, from 5 percent to 20 percent.

For many organizations, remote work – and remote management – are here to stay.

Remote work has numerous benefits, but there are also disadvantages. Some technology professionals, in particular, feel that work-from-home mandates have hampered their career plans. More than half (53 percent) of tech workers surveyed by anonymous professional network Blind said that their career progression has been negatively impacted since working remotely. (Whether this is true or simply a perception, it’s too early to tell.)

Effective IT management is crucial during this period. But for leaders, changing from managing by walking around to managing remotely can prove tricky.

[ Are you over-communicating and not engaging? Read our related story: Remote leadership: 9 ways your style may backfire. ]

Remote managers: 6 best practices

Replicating office norms remotely may not be possible or advisable. However, consider these existing and emerging best practices for managing WFH employees and teams at scale.

1. Be visible

“This is not the time to hunker down or disappear behind your screen,” says Suzanne Bates, CEO of executive coaching and assessment firm Bates Communications. In fact, now is the time for IT leaders to increase their check-ins with their team members “to ask how things are going, what they are learning, and what they think could be coming up and needs to be addressed,” Bates says. “Ask about the bad news, too, so you can address issues immediately. Your visibility will encourage people to be in touch. Visibility also creates systematic lines of communication.”

2. Prioritize one-on-one time

Regular team meetings are critical, but so are one-on-ones. “These meetings can be mostly business-related, but you should also offer unstructured time to allow team members to bond over video chat,” says Scott Griset, engagement manager at Theorem. Resist the urge to cancel these check-ins when things are busy. “Keep your one-on-one meetings with each team member,” Griset advises. “This gives you the chance to find out how they’re doing personally and professionally, and how you can lend help.”

[ How do your team meetings stack up? Read also:  Zoom tips: 6 ways to make meetings better. ]

3. Insert fun and embrace humor

“One of the things people miss most about the more casual interactions of an in-person office is the opportunity to have some fun and joke together in between meetings and work at their desks,” says Bates. While scheduling fun can sound decidedly un-fun, it’s important to consciously pursue opportunities for levity and see what sticks.

Some options Bates has seen work include:

  • 5 p.m. mingles: “Have everyone put aside their work, bring a beverage, and raise a glass to the accomplishments of the week,” Bates says. “Some teams enjoy games and activities, so if you have creative members of the team let them inject fun into the virtual get-togethers.”
  • Virtual celebrations: If you usually have cake or cupcakes in the office for birthdays, make it a point to celebrate online.
  • Chat channels humor: “Set up an all-team chat channel and encourage people to share stories, ideas, jokes — and make sure to participate yourself,” says Bates. “Humor is one of the best ways to manage stress and make things feel more normal.”

4. Consider gathering data

Checking in with employees is one way to get a sense of how they’re doing working from home. But they may be struggling with the systems, processes, or tools provided for remote working. "User experience analytics can reveal whether employees are able to function efficiently or if they are frustrated and taking longer than usual to complete their tasks,” says Brian Berns, maker of user experience management software maker Knoa Software. “The applications that employees are using while working remotely may not function in the same manner as those they use in the office.”

There may be an opportunity to offer additional training or make systems more intuitive and user-friendly. “We are living through a very unique time, and some people are better able to handle the ‘new normal’ than others,” Berns says. “Once you can identify those employees who are having trouble, you can implement the changes necessary to help them cope, stay engaged, feel more productive, and perform their jobs effectively."

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

5. Be thoughtful about how you use virtual channels

Know when to use email, chat, or phone vs. video.

“Video has subsumed other modes as a tool for teamwork for a reason. It is the next best thing to being there,” says Bates. Video can provide important non-verbal cues like body language, eye contact, and tone of voice.

However, Bates points out, a good strategy for virtual work takes into consideration all of the channels of communication and leverages the right ones for the right purpose. “Use email to inform, create a record, or handle detailed issues. Use online chat to ask a quick question. Pick up the phone when it is time to get off chat and have a one-on-one conversation. Use all the channels, and model this for your team as well.”

6. Create an environment supporting constructive conflict

Make sure the team knows that while virtual, you still want to encourage vigorous discussion and informed decision making. “In a virtual team setting, it is more important than ever to surface issues, uncover ideas, and engage in a healthy debate as you work to solve problems together,” Bates says. “Debate gets to the best answers, creates alignment, and gets people working together toward common goals. Allow time for real discussion, ask opinions, be inclusive, hear people out, and make it comfortable to disagree.”

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.