24 Things I Learned Managing Remote Teams For 5 Years

Managing remote teams

I ran a fully remote marketing agency for five years and worked there for eight. We made a number of mistakes, but that allowed me to learn as a manager. After years of working with a fully distributed team, I feel like I’ve learned some truths about preferences people have while working remotely. You could poll just about every remote worker and they would agree with each of these 24 statements.

I’ve broken the article into two parts:

 

What I Learned Managing A Remote Team

In this section, I share 24 things I learned about what remote employees look for in management. These are, essentially, universal truths about the preferences of remote workers. Most people on your team would agree with these statements.

You can read this list and choose to implement new techniques of your own based on these truths. Or, jump to the next section to see how I learned these things and what you can specifically do to capitalize on them.

  1. People would rather stop working than do a Zoom happy hour from 4-5 PM on a Friday.
  2. If you expect people to be available even when they aren’t actually working, people will be unhappy and leave.
  3. If you encourage people to stop working rather than sit online not working, they’ll be happy and stay.
  4. The people who reply the quickest to emails and chats are likely providing the least value, not the most.
  5. Being present on Slack is more detrimental than beneficial to your team’s success.
  6. You can have full days where no one talks and still have a good “company culture.”
  7. Doing valuable work is fulfilling. Being available for 8 hours on the internet is not.
  8. One recurring team meeting where you don’t talk about work is worth the time investment.
  9. Video meetings help form a personal connection, which is important for work.
  10. A full day of video meetings, though, will make just about anyone tired and miserable.
  11. Daily team huddles encourage urgent yet unimportant tasks to be finished.
  12. If you are fully remote, office politics, bickering, sniping go away completely.
  13. Hiring for a fully remote position is no longer the advantage it was until 2020.
  14. Learning should be a core value in some way for any company.
  15. In an office, the most outgoing and driving personalities often lead decision making. In a remote setting, more opinions have a chance to win.
  16. Personality tests will reduce miscommunications.
  17. Core values can be used to create interview questions that help bring on new team members who possess your core values.
  18. Documenting each process step-by-step might be the most important thing your remote team does.
  19. People will appreciate it if you buy them good office equipment (and it’s necessary).
  20. If you add a salary adjustment for cost of living, you’ll be able to hire people in more cities.
  21. In-person company retreats are great if you can afford them and if people want to do them.
  22. A business isn’t a family. People still want to spend more time with their real family than online with colleagues.
  23. People don’t need constant awards and treats and forced recognition.
  24. People want fulfilling work, respect, trust, and flexibility.

 

Tips For Managing Remote Employees

In this section, I have grouped each takeaway by theme. Sometimes a takeaway might stand alone, other times it will be bunched with four or five other. Under each group of takeaways, you’ll find out how I learned these things and what you can do to capitalize on them.

These are my tips and best practices for managing remote employees.

1. People would rather stop working than do a Zoom happy hour from 4-5 PM on a Friday.

How I learned this managing a remote team:

In an office setting, there are some childish techniques we’ve all accepted, like these:

  • “They’ll bring in a nice free lunch, but we all need to listen to an internal presentation”
  • “I feel like I should go to the holiday party at the office, at least they’ll have free beer”

There is an idea that since we’re already in the office getting paid, we might as well accept the free stuff.

At a remote company, you are already at home when managers try out those tricks. Now the employees face this decision:

  • “Would I rather relax on my own couch and have a beer, or socialize on Zoom?”
  • “Would I rather play trivia, or hang out with my family?”

How you can capitalize as a manager: 

Your employees will appreciate the opportunity to stop working an hour earlier more than they will a Zoom happy hour. Cancel the forced social interactions, especially at the end of the day. Give people back their free time instead and they will appreciate the culture and work environment more.

I shared more about this principle in this article, Managing A Remote Team: 8 Fluff-Free Tips.

 

2. If you expect people to be available even when they aren’t actually working, people will be unhappy and leave.

3. If you encourage people to stop working rather than sit online not working, they’ll be happy and stay.

4. The people who reply the quickest to emails and chats are likely providing the least value, not the most.

5. Being present on Slack is more detrimental than beneficial to your team’s success.

How I learned this managing a remote team:

You know how it is in an office. Sometimes, the “breaks” you take are scrolling through Facebook on your computer. It looks better to be at your desk still, even though your brain needs a break.

That “look like you’re working” doesn’t have to be part of a remote team. Remote workers have the option to take real, healthy breaks – get a snack, play with your kids, meditate, go for a walk. If people at your company feel like they need to be online (“green” on Slack, or replying to emails quickly), they won’t actually get a break to recharge.

How you can capitalize as a manager: 

Encourage people to take real breaks by discouraging quick responses to emails and constantly showing “green” on Slack. Ask people toward the end of their typical day, “Are you able to wrap up soon?” Schedule emails to send for the next morning if you are working late as the manager.

Give people back their free time instead and they will appreciate the culture and work environment more.

See Also: The Future Of Remote Work In 16 Steps

 

6. You can have full days where no one talks and still have a good “company culture.”

7. Doing valuable work is fulfilling. Being available for 8 hours on the internet is not.

How I learned this managing a remote team:

In all honesty, I don’t know what company culture means. That’s why I put it in quotes. I feel like most people think company culture = people getting along, enjoying each other’s company, being heard, and sharing beliefs.

I would define company culture as the way in which work gets done at an organization. See the difference?

You don’t need a Slack channel for jokes or pet owners. You don’t need interaction between everyone on the team every day. You need a culture where people get their work done, have autonomy over their work, and have the flexibility to do it when and how they want.

How you can capitalize as a manager: 

Change your policy about Slack and email. Tell people to come on Slack and say hello, if they want to, and sign off to do the real work. Tell people to check email in certain blocks of time that work for them, and close out of it otherwise. Encourage “think days” and blocks for “deep work.”

As the manager, you can help position people for more time doing real work and less time doing available/busy work with these small changes. Some days, no one will talk and it might feel weird. To the individual, it is freeing.

 

8. One recurring team meeting where you don’t talk about work is worth the time investment.

9. Video meetings help form a personal connection, which is important for work.

How I learned this managing a remote team:

At my company, we had one full team meeting each week. At first, we tried to do some work stuff – client reporting, stand-ups, financial info. But we would always start off the meeting just chatting (for awhile we did icebreakers to get the discussion going). As the years went by, the non-work chats started to take up more and more of the meeting time.

Then, we just got rid of the business stuff altogether and ended up with one weekly non-work chat on Zoom.

How you can capitalize as a manager: 

The part you may feel like you are missing from an office setting is the camaraderie, random interactions, chatting in the hallway. You can recreate this by having structured ways for non-work talks. Book one team meeting per week where you specifically don’t talk about work. Make sure most of your meetings happen over video so you do have the non-verbal communication.

 

10. A full day of video meetings, though, will make just about anyone tired and miserable.

11. Daily team huddles encourage urgent yet unimportant tasks to be finished.

How I learned this managing a remote team:

We used to have weekly meetings with clients. We had weekly one-one on calls internally. We had daily stand-ups. But no work happens in a meeting – a meeting is where you talk about doing the work, but don’t actually do the work.

Over time, we cut our client meetings from weekly bi-weekly then monthly. If they pay us for one meeting instead of four, we can get more done for them. When we decided to implement a four-day work week, we cut all of the remaining meetings in half to free up more time.

How you can capitalize as a manager: 

It is your job as a manager to free up people to work on things that bring value. Daily stand-ups, according to the “Eisenhower Matrix” encourage tasks that are not a good use of time for your employees. If your people are in meetings all day, they cannot get any fulfilling or important work done.

  • Go through each recurring meeting you have: is it doing anything valuable? Having them inform you of what they’re doing does not count.
  • Before you book a meeting, ask: can we do this without a meeting?

 

12. If you are fully remote, office politics, bickering, sniping go away completely.

How I learned this managing a remote team:

I worked at two companies with offices. I’ve worked for one fully remote company with no office. At the office, there are always distracting rumors, bickering, and he said/she said conversations floating around. When I joined the fully remote company, I noticed early on how all of that was gone.

How you can capitalize as a manager: 

You don’t need a return to the office. You don’t need a hybrid work schedule. If your people want to work remotely, then go for it completely. You’ll notice the baggage of the office go away.

 

13. Hiring for a fully remote position is no longer the advantage it was until 2020.

How I learned this managing a remote team:

My company has been remote since 2012, way before the pandemic. It was easy for us to hire since we were one of the few companies on the job boards that could say “remote.” We could hire from anywhere in the country and we had hundreds of candidates for each position.

Unfortunately, every position got the “remote” tag in 2020. When we hired for our next position in 2021, our candidate pipeline dried up. We no longer stood out.

How you can capitalize as a manager: 

Hiring remotely is no longer the edge it once was. You need something else to stand out on job boards. Our next thing that helped us stand out was offering a four-day work week. Yours could be that you hire anywhere, in any country. It could be paid sabbaticals or an attractive form of unlimited time off.

Pick a unique benefit and use it in hiring.

 

14. Learning should be a core value in some way for any company.

How I learned this managing a remote team:

These are the two main character traits I look for in a person who will work remotely: trustworthy and interested in learning. If your processes are good, you can train anyone to do most roles. But they need to be interested in the topic or discipline and interested in learning and improving.

How you can capitalize as a manager: 

For job candidates: We made learning a core value, and then asked questions in interviews to try to discover if candidates liked to learn:

  • What’s one topic/interest that has your attention right now and you are trying to learn more about it?
  • What is a book you’ve read recently that you enjoyed?

For employees: Start a book-a-month benefit where the company buys any book for each employee once per month. Set aside a budget for courses, conferences, or other ways to learn. Set aside learning time for each employee to think and read about something outside of work each month, for example.

 

15. In an office, the most outgoing and driving personalities often lead decision making. In a remote setting, more opinions have a chance to win.

How I learned this managing a remote team:

When you have ten people sitting around a conference room table, the loudest or highest ranking person (many times those are one in the same), usually gets to make the decisions. There could be some good ideas trapped inside the minds of introverts.

How you can capitalize as a manager: 

Set up a digital “idea system” at your company. You can easily track this in a project management tool. Enable employees to post ideas of any kind to a board. Then, everyone can discuss and decide which ones to pursue. Then, track the ideas to completion. This will give a way for everyone to contribute good ideas, not just the loudest people.

 

16. Personality tests will reduce miscommunications.

How I learned this managing a remote team:

When our founder once announced, “We have some exciting changes,” not everyone was “excited.” Some people interpreted the message as “something is wrong,” or even, “I did something wrong.” Others were excited for some change. The difference in the reaction comes down to personality types.

By using a tool like the DISC profile, we had a way to understand everyone’s personality type and how to communicate to that type.

How you can capitalize as a manager: 

Have your team take personality tests. It could be DISC, but I’m sure other ones are good, too. Then, have review everyone’s personality test as a team and share them in a public folder (like in Google Drive).

 

17. Core values can be used to create interview questions that help bring on new team members who possess your core values.

How I learned this managing a remote team:

I thought core values were useless – even after business school and through running our remote company. Maybe what I learned is that they are useless unless they tangibly become part of how you operate.

How you can capitalize as a manager: 

If you believe in your core values, you should hire people that possess them. To do that, come up with a few interview questions for each core value. I gave an example earlier:

We made learning a core value, and then asked questions in interviews to try to discover if candidates liked to learn:

  • What’s one topic/interest that has your attention right now and you are trying to learn more about it?
  • What is a book you’ve read recently that you enjoyed?

If they couldn’t think of a topic that interested them or a book they’ve read recently, we would mark those answers as a 0. Even after one 0, we might disqualify a candidate.

 

18. Documenting each process step-by-step might be the most important thing your remote team does.

How I learned this managing a remote team:

When I made my first hire at the company, I swung and missed. It was a disaster from the beginning. We realized that the major part we were missing at our company was process. We give people tons of freedom, but if they have no idea how to do the things we do, they are set up for failure.

Through the years, we built up to a 101-page process manual in Google Docs. For years, every time a recurring task is done at the company, we strive to document the process step-by-step.

How you can capitalize as a manager: 

Create a process manual that everyone can access and update. Whenever something gets done that needs to be repeated (that’s probably 95% of the word done at a company), tell people to document the steps.

 

19. People will appreciate it if you buy them good office equipment (and it’s necessary).

How I learned this managing a remote team:

I started out with my own chair I bought used. I had a fold-out, old beer pong table. I didn’t have a monitor at all.

Over time, our company started upgrading everyone’s equipment until it became part of the normal onboarding package to allow employees to pick out a nice desk and chair, and to send them a monitor, and a video conference backdrop.

How you can capitalize as a manager: 

Offer a home office stipend, or get your equipment out to remote employees one of these four ways. This is the list of equipment my company sent me over the years.

Product

What I Have

Price

Laptop

Macbook

Office Chair

FelixKing Ergonomic

Desk

Fully Jarvis Standing Desk

Monitor

Dell S2421H 24 Inch

Wireless Keyboard

Apple Magic Keyboard

Wireless Mouse

Apple Magic Mouse

Laptop Stand

Nexstand

Webcam

Logitech 4K Pro

Video Conference Backdrop

Voodrop (Customizable)

 

20. If you add a salary adjustment for cost of living, you’ll be able to hire people in more cities.

How I learned this managing a remote team:

When we were really small (3-4 people), our salaries were all over the place. We did what it took to get good people on board. As we grew, we needed to formalize some salaries and roles. We copied Buffer’s salary calculator and tweaked it for our company.

The cost of living adjustment gave me the wrong feeling at first – people should be able to make the same wherever they live. I still think that. But the issue is with hiring. If you want to be able to hire people everywhere (a benefit of being a remote company), you need to offer competitive salaries everywhere.

How you can capitalize as a manager: 

Standardize your salaries and add a cost-of-living adjustment to make your job postings attractive everywhere. We pulled data from this cost of living tool and made four tiers.

 

21. In-person company retreats are great if you can afford them and if people want to do them.

How I learned this managing a remote team:

We had one full company retreat in the eight years I was at the company. We had get togethers for smaller groups of people, too. They are great for team building, thinking about bigger ideas, and bonding.

But we only had one for a reason. For the first few years, we simply weren’t profitable enough. For other years, a few team members were having kids (it’s not fun for a mom to be away from a two-month old for two days, for example). And another year, we could’ve done it or given a profit sharing check. What do you think people did?

How you can capitalize as a manager: 

Absolutely do company retreats but only if you can afford it and people genuinely want to do them. If it comes down to a bonus or a retreat, give out the bonus.

 

22. A business isn’t a family. People still want to spend more time with their real family than online with colleagues.

23. People don’t need constant awards and treats and forced recognition.

24. People want fulfilling work, respect, trust, and flexibility.

How I learned this managing a remote team:

These three takeaways are more of a summary of the first 21. If you want to sign off a bit early to spend more time with your family, so do the people who work for you. If you feel like it’s a bit fake when you get an award for something that was average, so do the people who work for you. If you want to be trusted by your manager and given the freedom to do your job how you want, so do the people who work for you.

How you can capitalize as a manager: 

  • Don’t say things like “work family”
  • Give awards and recognition but only when it is truly deserver
  • Don’t say to a full room of people, “You’re great” (unless they all are great)
  • Free up people’s time to do real work, not “available” work
  • Encourage them to workout, do errands, take a break during the day – it shows you trust them to get the job done

About the author

Henry OLoughlin

Hi, I'm the founder of Buildremote. I have worked from home for a decade and run a fully remote, four-day work week company for eight years. I've made all of the mistakes running a remote company. I hope if you read my site, you'll be spared.

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