Managing remote employees: 8 best practices for leaders now

Copying and pasting your real-world management style to remote work didn't work well last March - and it isn't working now. Consider these remote management best practices for the good of your team
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Many IT employees have been working from home for nearly a year now. And for some, fully or partially remote work will become the new normal. More than half (57 percent) of employees work from home now, according to a new survey of employers by Willis Towers Watson, and around two in five employees will still be working remotely at the end of 2021.

While this may be a welcome proposition for some tech professionals, IT leaders and managers may need to optimize the WFH proposition – for the betterment of the larger organizations and their team members.

“The biggest mistake that we saw in the beginning of the pandemic, that some leaders and managers continue to make, is to adopt a ‘copy and paste’ approach to managing their teams,” says Elizabeth Freedman, executive advisor and consultant at executive coaching and assessment firm Bates Communications (recently acquired by global strategy consultancy BTS). “They try to take what they did in the live world and apply it directly to the virtual one.” That didn’t work well last March, and it isn’t working well now.

In addition, some jobs just don’t work remotely and some people don’t work well remotely, says Cynthia Spraggs, CEO of virtual work consultancy Virtira and author on How To Work From Home. “Companies have time to plan for both – and so do employees.”

[ Does remote work leave you exhausted? Read our related story: Remote exhaustion: 13 tips to reduce fatigue. ]

8 remote management best practices

IT leaders have the opportunity now to rethink the remote work environment for the future. While the interventions may vary based on the plans and needs of the individual IT organization, most tech leaders must take a number of actions this year.

1. Adjust work norms: Do a meeting audit

"Even small improvements can be big game-changers."

It’s time to limit the Zooms. In short, Spraggs says, there still tend to be too many meetings and too many people attending meetings, while there is too little time allocated to uninterrupted working. “Trying to replace informal office chats with endless Zoom meetings doesn’t recreate connection – it causes fatigue and disruption,” Freedman says.

“Maintaining the same cadence of frequent, long meetings doesn’t get work done or decisions made – it wastes time, extends the day, and fails to move the needle on the big decisions that need to happen quickly. Communicating via video screen the same way you would in person doesn’t engage – it loses the audience’s attention quickly.”

It’s time to do a meeting audit and edit to see what should stay, what can go, who really needs to attend, and how they can be more effective. “Even small improvements can be big game-changers,” says Freedman.

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

2. Create remote-optimized HR practices

“The biggest mistake – and this existed before the pandemic ­­– is assuming that remote workers can be managed with the same methods as office-based employees,” says Spraggs. “You must have recognition, compensation, and career planning for remote employees (that are) on par with office-based employees.”

3. Get better at broadcasting

"Make it a priority to get really good on video.”

Of course, video meetings or chats won’t go away altogether. And IT leaders, in particular, need to understand how to best engage audiences in two dimensions. Think core capability. “Make it a priority to get really good on video,” Freedman advises. “Communicating on camera requires its own set of skills and attention to body language, eye contact, and presence. Recognize that your audience will be multitasking, so figure out how to facilitate differently and ensure productive conversations.”

4. Invest in keeping it short

Speaking of communication, if you or any of your team members tend toward the verbose end of the spectrum, it may be worthwhile to invest in related training. The remote workplace responds best to short and sweet. “Invest in communication skills. Remote means long-winded explanations or too much social chatter can crush an interaction,” Spraggs says. “Identify people prone to this, and coach them that work (unlike social) is a place to get things done.”

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

5. But also create space

While it is important to get real project work done in meetings, it is especially important in the virtual world to ask and listen to how people are feeling. “Ask open-ended questions that provoke thinking and help the team think beyond ‘I’m doing fine,’ so that you can help people when they need it,” says Damon Bates, executive advisor and consultant with Bates Communications. “And you can reveal a little of yourself to them so they experience your human side, too.”

6. Provide real training and direction

Make sure everyone understands which collaboration tools to use when.

We all jumped on Zoom and Slack and have haphazardly adopted any number of new or experimental applications to get things done. Now it’s time to step back and invest in the right tools and training. “Implement and fully train staff on collaboration and meeting tools so that at every meeting, you don’t waste precious time because someone can’t take themselves off mute,” Spraggs advises. “Cut down on meetings by making sure everyone understands which collaboration tools to use when.”

[ Do you have a tools problem – or a manners problem? Read also: Remote work: 10 tips to be a better virtual collaborator. ]

7. Pay attention to time management to avoid burnout

Making meetings more effective and productive will help, but to manage most effectively in the virtual environment, IT leaders need to make sure they have time for strategic planning and long-term thinking. “Now more than ever, you need to protect that time and keep yourself from burning out on the wrong things,” Freedman says.

8. Ask for more input

Your teams know better than anyone what could improve their remote work experiences. “It’s one thing to get input on what the team is doing. But when a leader asks the all-important question, ‘How can I help?’, it is one of the most empowering tools to inspire and support the team to take action,” Bates says.

Without water-cooler conversations or face-to-face meetings, there can be a growing gap in communication and connection. “It’s only going to get worse without attention and focused effort,” says Josh Christopherson, CEO of leadership and skill-building platform Achieve Today. He suggests weekly mastermind calls, ten-minute one-on-ones with direct reports, or participating in some collaborative platform to quickly turn around remote culture issues rather than “slowly sliding into trouble.”

[ How can automation free up more staff time? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ] 

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.