5 Tips on How to Best Manage Remote Teams

By Paul Slezak - Nov. 12, 2015
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A few weeks ago we published a post in which I shared some of my own personal leadership tips for anyone growing their team.

Managing a group of people isn’t always easy even if your entire team is sitting right in front of you. But the challenges faced by anyone building a team are only exacerbated when that team is spread across different offices – whether the offices are at different locations within the same city, or whether the offices are spread across multiple time zones.

A distributed team is a distributed team.

You can’t just gather everyone around spontaneously to share an update; the team in one office may be celebrating a win while the rest of the team is sleeping; having a difficult conversation with a team member over Skype is never going to be the same as taking them out for a coffee and sitting across the table from them; and maintaining team morale across multiple offices can often feel like an insurmountable task.

I’m tipping that anyone responsible for managing remote teams can relate to at least one or two of these scenarios. That’s why last week we hosted a Q&A during which I moderated a panel of experts who are well on the way to mastering the art of managing and engaging remote teams.

The panel comprised of Fraser Stark – VP Talent and Director Consumer Markets at Influitive, along with Whitney Naquin from the HR team and Sam Lambert – Director of Technology, both with GitHub.

Throughout the conversation they were able to share their own pieces of advice and best practices when it comes to looking after distributed teams.

There were a few similarities in some of their approaches but there were also some really interesting differences. And, as is common on panels like these, even the panelists learned some tips from one another that they took away to implement in their own work environments.

I thought I would share a few of their tips on how to manage remote teams in this blog post.

1. Synchronous vs asynchronous meetings?

The choice is yours.

While Sam Lambert reinforced GitHub’s ‘social contract’ where all work is asynchronous (avoiding group meetings ‘at all costs’), Fraser Stark shared Influitive’s policy of having a full company meeting every day from 11:50am – 12:00pm. This works for the Influitive team currently spread across Toronto, Boston, San Francisco and Palo Alto, but would be almost impossible to implement at GitHub with offices across the USA, Latin America, Europe and Asia Pacific.

However as the Influitive team expands further afield (internationally), Fraser explained that the notion of holding all meetings in real time may break down at which point the leadership team will be forced to adapt to that evolution.

2. Always keep the remote experience top of mind

Whitney Naquin works remotely herself. Perhaps that’s why the ‘remote experience’ is at the forefront of all her HR policies and procedures. One of the great anecdotes she shared was how when it comes to offering flu shots to everyone in the San Francisco head office, she has ‘remote flu shot’ kits sent out to all the other team members regardless of where they are.

Fraser shared his own ‘remote experience’ scenario. At Influitive, if there’s a party at their Toronto HQ, then all the other offices will also celebrate at a similar type of restaurant (or at least with the similar catering) to ensure a shared company wide experience.

It’s also important to keep the ‘remote experience’ top of mind during the recruitment and induction process. Each of the panelists gave their own examples of the types of questions they ask prospective employees to determine whether or not they would suit working either on their own or as part of a distributed team. They also shared the philosophy of (where possible) flying new team members into HQ as part of their on-boarding.

3. The importance of ‘work-life separation’

I really liked Sam’s use of the word ‘separation’ as opposed to ‘balance’ (which can often be more a case of ‘imbalance’). Sam’s team works across a 9-hour time difference. He reinforced how there is no point trying to make someone function at a time when they should be sleeping. His advice was that it’s more important to look at the contribution someone is making to the business as opposed to when they might physically be online and working.

4. Create a culture of feedback

Both Fraser and Whitney were clearly advocates of always asking for feedback from staff right across their businesses – but especially from their remote workforce. That way the moment one of their team members might express that they are feeling isolated (or perhaps even discriminated against by not being ‘where the action is’) the issue can be dealt with swiftly – as opposed to having to wait until a formal performance review.

5. Ensure you have clear reporting lines

This may sound obvious – and it typically is for team members physically working in the same office as their manager. However what can often happen is that employees working in offices away from HQ can feel like they are reporting to someone in the local office, and then perhaps also to someone else who may be responsible for their ‘vertical’, department or business unit. Each of our panelists agreed on the importance of having a clearly defined single reporting line for all staff members regardless of where the employee and manager may physically be located.

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It’s impossible to avoid time zones. And the more companies realize that the best talent do not necessarily need to be physically located in the same city (let alone the same office), it will become critical for leadership teams to set expectations and implement management processes that are ‘remote friendly’.

Of course if you would like to watch the full Q&A and to learn more from Fraser, Whitney and Sam, just view the recording below.

Cofounder and CEO at RecruitLoop. I've been a hands on recruiter, manager, trainer, coach, mentor, and regular speaker for the recruitment industry for nearly 25 years.


Paul Slezak

Cofounder and CEO at RecruitLoop. I've been a hands on recruiter, manager, trainer, coach, mentor, and regular speaker for the recruitment industry for nearly 25 years.

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