All kinds of advice for new remote workers, I haven't seen any for managers of remote workers, and they're often why remote work fails.— Jack Daniel is not dead. Yet. (@jack_daniel) March 8, 2020
As it turns out, I have also been managing remotely over the last four years, and have learned some things along the way. Not only do I work remotely, but my team is spread across three continents: North America, Europe, and Australia. Some team members do spend time in local offices, while others work remotely full-time. This mixture essentially means we treat everyone as remote, and have a standard way of doing things so everyone knows what to expect. The end result is true location independence: any one of us can be working from home, on the road, or in an office, and nobody skips a beat (and might not even notice)!
Management vs. Leadership
I had to learn that these two things are very different, though clearly related. I could (and probably should) do a whole post on just this, but I’ll sum it up this way:
- Leadership is the ability to…lead. This means inspiring people to do what needs to be done for the “greater good,” in spite of the possibility that they may not want to or the task may not be totally in their personal best interests, at least in the short term. This tends to be more operational, and so some people associate the term with the military rather than corporate environments, which of course is incorrect.
- Management is the term used to describe the tasks that help keep a team running smoothly. These are more administrative, such as tracking professional development, handling budgets, and ensuring the team has the right tools and training to do their jobs as well as possible.
Most people are good at one of the above, but almost never both. To be effective, any manager must know which of the two they excel at naturally, and which they need to focus on more. This difference will be dramatically amplified by the nature of remote work. If you’re a strong leader, but weaker manager, you will need to double your effort to keep track of the important details that your team is counting on you for. If you’re a strong manager, but weaker leader, you will need to find ways to continue to motivate your team and keep them on-mission. People will leave if you don’t. Also, don’t be afraid to ask your team for help with these things. Don’t delegate away your job (you can’t delegate accountability), but if someone is better suited to complete a specific task than you, by all means leverage that talent…within reason.
It is impossible for a remote manager to “over communicate.” I read a quote somewhere from either Colin Powell or Stanley McCrystal that essentially said “leadership means repeating yourself.” I can’t find that original quote, but here is LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner talking about the same principal in 2014:
A friend of mine once paraphrased David Gergen, saying on the subject of repetition, “If you want to get your point across, especially to a broader audience, you need to repeat yourself so often, you get sick of hearing yourself say it. And only then will people begin to internalize what you’re saying.”
So how does the manager of remote people do this? Talking and writing. A lot. GitLab’s Remote Manifesto is a great example of this:
All-remote work promotes:
- Hiring and working from all over the world instead of from a central location.
- Flexible working hours over set working hours.
- Writing down and recording knowledge over verbal explanations.
- Written down processes over on-the-job training.
- Public sharing of information over need-to-know access.
- Opening up every document for editing by anyone over top-down control of documents.
- Asynchronous communication over synchronous communication.
- The results of work over the hours put in.
- Formal communication channels over informal communication channels.
I’m specifically calling out items 3-7 above to make my point about writing, but they’re all great principles for us remote workers to aspire to. This sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t take long to grow accustomed to it. Successful distributed and/or remote teams often take advantage of multiple communication mediums, both written and spoken.
Our team uses five different forms of written communication, depending on how ephemeral the conversation is:
- Real-time chat: Used for real-time collaboration on tasks. Break into separate channels for specific audiences (e.g. one channel per operation). Ensure all communication is logged automatically to a central location so people in opposite time zones can skim or keyword search.
- “Less-ephemeral” collaborative documentation: Think google docs, box, or similar that still allows real-time collaboration, but does not require it. Use this for notes that need to be referred to over the course of a couple of weeks, but not necessarily permanently retained.
- Knowledge management system: This should be a wiki or similar. It needs to be easy enough to contribute, edit, and consume that the team actually uses it without being prompted, and permanent enough that new team members can use it to walk through unfamiliar processes, procedures, etc. This is essentially the documentation of tribal knowledge (not task management!).
- Task management: Think Jira, Trello, etc. This system tracks what everyone is working on, and the status. With everyone working in different time zones, I can’t always just ask what someone is doing when the question strikes me. I may have to wait a few days for the weekly call or one-to-one (1-1) call with that person, so being able to look at the system at any given time helps a lot.
- Email: This tends to be used within the team for announcements, or for external communications with other teams within the company. Use of the above systems really obviates the need for email within the team, for the most part.
Spoken communications should be live voice at least, and I strongly recommend video as well. Especially with international teams, a lot can be conveyed through facial expressions that may get lost in translation otherwise. If a manager really cares about their people, they will want to ensure communications are as clear, open, and honest as possible. This is critical to building trust over such vast distances. Our team conducts weekly team meetings to discuss last week’s operational accomplishments, this week’s challenges and priorities, and I communicate what’s going on at higher levels across the company. I also ask for input, a lot. I have my own opinions, but I’m always willing to change them when new data and perspectives are shared. Or not, but I’ll definitely listen and consider it.
I try to listen far more than I speak. This applies to my weekly “1-1” calls with each individual team member, as well. Ideally, we would evenly split the 30 minute call, but often we end up going down a rabbit hole discussing something interesting that one of us just discovered, etc. In order to better manage our time on these calls, I’ve started prepping running minutes for each call.
The format is simple but effective: date and attendees, agenda, notes, and actions. I block the first 30 minutes of my morning to prep the agenda for each call I have that day. This is usually just a few check boxes that I want to be sure to discuss. During the call, I share my screen so whoever I’m talking to can see it too, note the highlights of our conversation in the Notes section, and check off the boxes in the Agenda as we finish them. Any resulting Actions will be check boxes created during the call as well. Then I email a copy after the call so we both have it, and I refer to it when I create the agenda next week. I use this same format for the weekly team call, and most calls external to the team as well. Any actions for me are captured as tasks in my personal task management system as well, otherwise I’ll forget as soon as I email the notes!
This is a challenge when everyone is remote and spread across the globe. Budget permitting, I try to get everyone together in person for at least a week each year, and preferably toward the end of Q1 so people don’t get snowed in somewhere (again!). We use the time to lay out the year’s priorities, work through major challenges, etc. Time permitting, we also like to run some operations with everyone in the same room…you’d be amazed at how much knowledge transfer can happen during those hours! And of course, we try to do fun, unique team-building activities during the evenings (escape rooms, etc.). This helps people build personal connections that just aren’t possible purely online.
I have the privilege of leading a very mature team, made up of some of the smartest people in this industry. As a result, I don’t worry about tracking hours, where people physically are, etc. My main concern is that the job gets done professionally and on-time, while observing Rule #1: don’t leave your teammates hanging. If I suspect the rule is being broken, obviously things will change. But until then, I extend a lot of flexibility. I don’t think I’ve ever refused a request for time off, whether that was for an appointment or a couple of weeks of much-needed vacation time. They’ve earned it.
I do, however, tend to overshare with my team. Why? It builds trust. They know if they ask me a question, I’ll answer to the best of my ability…and expect the same in return. I don’t expect them to overshare, but I do expect honesty, given the nature of our work. We’re a Red Team after all…it’s our job to do things that would get other people fired or arrested. There’s no room for doubt here. This can and does result in some uncomfortable conversations about ourselves, our families, or whatever other personal challenges may be happening, but that’s ok. We’ll feel better after talking it out, and it shows we care about and trust each other. This reminds me of another famous Colin Powell quote:
“The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
So, don’t be afraid to show that you’re human, and definitely go the extra mile to make yourself available for your people. Do that, and they’ll follow you anywhere…even if you’re on the other side of the world.
As I said before, I have the privilege of leading a very professional team. Little has changed in the above since I joined back in early 2016, as the system works quite well for us. Hopefully there’s something here that will help you, too. As long as you work hard to communicate effectively and build trust, managing remote teams can not only be quite successful, but also fun and rewarding.
Please feel free to ping me on twitter if you have comments or suggestions!