Guidelines for Managing People Remotely

Remote work is not going away. The hybrid workforce is here to stay. Some people are choosing to work from home indefinitely. Many are working some combination of from-home and in-office. “Remote management” is now a resume must for any leader or supervisor.

But if you continue to struggle to manage remotely, you’re not alone. During the pandemic, a lot of leaders fell back on bad old habits. Overwhelmed by the pace of change and the influx of responsibility, it makes sense so many managers found themselves in “let’s touch base when we need to” arrangements with direct reports.

The surge of undermanagement has resulted in employee burnout and a vicious cycle of overcommitment on teams and in organizations. To keep turnover from spiraling out of control, it is crucial that managers recommit to the basics of strong, highly-engaged management.

First, audit of your current remote communication practices—as an individual and as a team.

Second, you must establish a protocol for maintaining high-structure, high-substance one-on-one conversations with any routine collaborators.


Audit your remote communication

Think back to early 2020, when everyone was scrambling to adjust to fully remote work while simultaneously maintaining alignment. Team Zoom meetings became daily occurrences for a lot of people. Those Zoom meetings were in addition to weekly companywide check-ins. And then on top of those meetings, you probably had a bunch of other meetings, too.

Because Zoom was eating up so much productive capacity, team meetings quickly became stand-ins for more robustly structured and substantive one-on-ones. The rapidity of change meant touching base and texting became the way many leaders communicated with people directly. The disorganization and informality of these remote communications looks like a lot of people working, while not actually getting much work done. Over time, unfinished projects and missed deadlines stretched working hours further into personal ones. Understaffing and overcommitment have combined to make each virtual meeting a productivity roadblock.

Take a step back and critically consider how the shift to remote work (and back) has influenced the way you and your teams communicate with one another. Make adjustments where needed to cut out any excess or duplicative conversations. Be a little cutthroat—you can always reinstate a routine meeting you later find out was an important one.

Beyond that, here are some more steps to take toward improved remote communication hygiene:

  • If you are working on any kind of partially remote schedule, keep one another informed of your schedules. Coordinate times when you will both be working from a central location, such as the organization’s headquarters, so you can hold in-person, one-on-one time.
  • Decide which remote communication solutions work best. Integrated webcams and microphones may seem ubiquitous these days, but for some of your colleagues these technologies may not be readily available to them at home. Some of your direct reports may prefer to have a video chat via their smartphone or tablet than their laptop. Endeavor to find communication and remote meeting solutions that allow for multiple ways of connecting, but also keep things simple. You don’t want to create the added burden (for yourself or others) of managing multiple communication channels throughout the day.
  • Practice good email, text, and phone hygiene. Too often managers slip into management by interruption, and that’s no different for managers of remote teams. “Call me when you need me” can easily become an even more invasive and interruptive policy when everyone is working from home. Don’t allow your communication to become increasingly disorganized, incomplete, or random. Have the team agree on policies for using email, text, Slack, phone calls, and video chats. Decide when and how you will utilize each of the communication channels available to you. Establish ground rules and expectations for when and how people should respond to or monitor work-related communications.

Make one-on-one conversations part of the routine

Once you’ve managed to reduce your communication time, you’re going to increase it. This sounds counterintuitive, but it’s an important part of the process which will payoff in the long run.

The only way increasing communication will benefit you and your team is if it is high-structure, high-substance, and one-on-one. Otherwise, yes, you will be back at square one.

High-structure means regularly scheduled, and conducted according to a clear, well-organized agenda. High-substance means rich in immediately relevant content, specific to the person and the situation, with a clear execution focus.

Talk about what’s going right, wrong, and average. What needs to be done? What are the next steps? And the next steps after that? Spell out expectations in clear and vivid terms, every step of the way.

These are some more tips for making the most of remote one-on-ones:

  • Schedule a series of dates and times for regular one-on-ones with any routine collaborators and take that schedule seriously. Having one-on-ones with direct reports should probably be your highest priority. But don’t forget your own boss, your cross-functional colleagues, and clients. Make every effort to keep one-on-ones from falling off the radar or down the priority list.
  • Prepare in advance of your one-on-ones and ask others to prepare, too. It is often a good idea to ask people to prepare a written recap of highlights and key issues since your last one-on-one, as well as open questions to discuss. Ensure any work product to be discussed is sent for review sufficiently in advance.
  • Don’t forget the follow-up. Immediately following each one-on-one, ask the other person to send you an email recapping what was agreed on in your conversation: the actions they are expected to take, the steps they will follow, and the timeline; as well as the date and time of your next scheduled one-on-one.

The secret benefit of communicating via email

Our research shows that conducting face-to-face conversations—whenever possible—is much better than conducting your management conversations solely by text, phone, and email. But email does have a built-in advantage: you create a paper trail. Save those emails and you’ll have record of your ongoing dialogues with each person. Structure your emails so employees can use them as checklists, or as the bases for crafting work plans, schedules, to-do lists, and other tools to help guide them in their work. For your part, you can use that paper trail as part of your ongoing tracking and documentation of each employee’s performance.


Be a better remote manager

We have a host of free resources you can use to learn more about undermanagement and the fundamentals of becoming a better remote manager:

And if you need more support, we’re happy to help. Contact us to learn more about solutions for you or your team.

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