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5 Things I've Learned (Some the Hard Way) About Being an Exceptional Remote Manager

Updated: Aug 3, 2023

In today’s episode of the Want To Work There podcast, I reflect on five core lessons I’ve learned over 10 years of being a remote manager.

Managing a team remotely does have its advantages, but it also comes with its own set of challenges and lessons learned. Unfortunately, I learned some of those lessons the hard way. Hopefully by sharing, I can spare you (and your team) from having to experience the same, and you can learn what it takes to be an excellent manager, even when you're not face-to-face.

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • The one assumption you should never make when managing remotely.

  • How the “butts in seats” mentality has carried over to remote working and what you must do to eliminate the problem.

  • The one step you MUST always take before having a difficult conversation with a team member remotely.

  • Why consistency is king when it comes to employee 1:1s.

  • The importance of not just talking the talk, but also walking the walk – and what that looks like when you aren’t in the same room as your team!

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A people ops leader listens to the Want to Work There podcast and learns about being a great manager

How to Manage a Remote Team

While remote work became a mandatory requirement for many at the beginning of the pandemic, it’s something I’ve actually been doing and advocating for over 10 years!

During that time, I’ve learned a handful of lessons when it comes to managing a team remotely - some of them the hard way.

Whether you’re still fully remote or are navigating hybrid work, there are five tips that I know will make both you and your employee’s experience better.

  1. Your idea of remote work autonomy isn’t necessarily shared by your whole team - so be explicit.

  2. Always set clear communication norms.

  3. Never start a difficult conversation without first making sure they are in a safe space to have it.

  4. Prioritize your 1:1s over all else.

  5. Don’t just tell, show.

1. Your idea of remote work autonomy isn’t necessarily shared by your whole team - so be explicit.

As someone who has worked remotely for over 10 years, I have established my own set of norms that guide how I interact with others on a day-to-day basis. As is so common in life, I began to assume my own norms were shared by my team without considering that they might need to be explicitly shared.

In my last role, I hired a very senior person onto my team who had been in many leadership roles prior. Given that, it never occurred to me that she might feel the need to check in with me before making a spontaneous Starbucks run - but that was exactly the message I got her second week on the job. To be clear, we weren’t scheduled for a meeting or any necessary communication - instead, she was worried that if I emailed or Slacked her while she was gone, it would be a problem that she hadn’t informed me that she was away from her desk. I quickly let her know that she never needed to give me the heads up on these kinds of things. I personally fall strictly into the camp that adults are adults for a reason. If you’re able to pay taxes, cloth and feed yourself, raise children, or all the other things that come with being a grown human, I fully trust that you know when it’s appropriate to step away and grab a coffee, put in a load of laundry, or run a quick errand. My bottom line is that I hire adults and then treat them like adults.

In other words, I’ve hired you because I full-heartedly believe you can get any agreed-upon work done in the way that’s both best for you and respectful of the team’s needs as a whole.

If that means you go to the grocery store at two in the afternoon so you can avoid crowds and then work on your presentation at 8 pm when the kids are in bed, go ahead and do that. I don’t need to know.

But clearly, someone she worked for previously had a different take on how available she needed to be at any given moment - and that assumption followed her into the new role.

From that day on, I never assumed that my employees share my assumptions about remote working norms. I’m now super upfront with my philosophy on remote working and what I both expect (and don’t expect) from them. Which brings me to my next tip…

2. Always set explicit communication norms.

Just because many of us shifted to a remote environment during the pandemic does not mean that some of our old beliefs about work didn't follow us home. For instance, one of the biggest reasons people didn’t go remote before the pandemic is because having employees in an office gives a false sense of control.

Basically, it’s the belief that if you can see that your employees are there, you can be assured they’re working.

While there are so many reasons this belief is problematic (something I’m sure we’ll talk about in a future episode) a version of this big brother mentality lived on via communication norms when many shifted to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic.

Many employees began using the swiftness of their response to a message as a way to show that they were indeed working. It was the communication version of butts in seats. And it wasn’t even a conscious choice for many. It was just something that we all fell into collectively.

Those who use Slack became extra aware of their green available button. What did it mean if it wasn’t on? God forbid your manager noticed and assumed you were off binge watching old episodes of the OC while covered in Cheeto dust on your couch. In our minds, the only way to ensure they knew you weren’t doing this was to make sure your green light was on. Which ironically is something you could easily accomplish even if you were binging old episodes of the OC while covered in Cheeto dust.

If it wasn’t slack, it was email. A quick response time to emails showed you were working. And so it became something you prioritized, always keeping a tally on the pings and popup notifications that meant something new had come into your inbox.

The problem is that when we’re constantly monitoring our communication channels in an effort to show we are really working, we never truly get time to do impactful, heads-down, focused work. And it’s those blocks that actually produce the best results.

As a remote manager, it’s your job to set communication expectations that (yes) ensure business needs are being met, but that also give your employees the ability to “check out” of the responsive aspect of constant communication and focus on the work that matters most.

Practically, this means setting expectations for when and how communication happens. What type of messages are for email vs Slack? And what is the designated response time for each? For Slack, maybe you’d like a response within 4 hours. For email, maybe it’s 24.

Even thinking about this is making some of you itchy, I have no doubt.

If it does, I’d challenge you to pay attention to the type of communication that goes out over a week. Do any Slack messages REALLY need a response quicker than 4 hours? Take a tally.

If everything coming through Slack does, then reflect on why that is. Could the information have been sent sooner? Does that customer request REALLY need immediate attention, or are you creating urgency?

Yes, some truly urgent things happen. Although, unless you’re a trauma surgeon, I’d argue it’s less often than you feel it is. When those moments do happen, most of us have and can be reached by cell phone. I always told my team, if it’s SUPER urgent and during work hours, I’ll call you. And even then, I don’t expect a response sooner than an hour. Because in our line of business, there was truly nothing that needed handling sooner than 60 minutes.

People talk about wanting better work cultures. This is it. This is one of the ways you create it. I guarantee you that if I polled a group of people on whether they’d like a team happy hour or more leniency on the required response time to emails, most (if not all of them) would vote for the latter option.

The norms around how and why you communicate are an integral part of culture. And as a manager, you have at least some say in how it works within your team.

Take advantage of that.

I promise you won’t regret it.

Speaking of regret, one of mine is the basis of tip #3.

3. Never start a difficult conversation without first making sure they are in a safe space to have it.

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned as a remote manager is that you can never assume who is (or is not) in the room with anyone you’re talking to over zoom.

I will never forget an employee stopping me in the middle of revealing something extremely sensitive, so he could get his 7-year-old out of the room. I still kick myself for it to this day.

Difficult conversations are always tricky and one of the things I've learned about them over the years is that you don’t want to make small talk to kick them off. However, when it comes to having them remotely, I now always start the conversation by asking, “Are you in a safe space to have a sensitive conversation?”

If the answer is yes, then we proceed - but if it’s no, we come up with a different solution. Sometimes it means the person needs to move to another room. Other times it means waiting for a few hours until a partner gets home, so the kids have someone else to be with them.

As a former head of people, I know that delaying the conversation is not possible. In that case, I recommend letting the employee know in advance that you need to have a sensitive conversation and requesting that they are in a safe place to do so when you call.

While I still regret having to learn this lesson the hard way, I’m glad I can now pass it on to you now in the hopes that you never have to repeat the mistake.

Which brings me to lesson #4.

4. Don’t move your 1:1s!

One of my most toxic management traits, especially as a young manager, was how frequently I would move or sometimes even cancel my weekly 1:1s with team members. For a variety of reasons, I really struggled to prioritize them. That is, until a brave team member called me out on it. She shared that me constantly rescheduling our 1:1s made her feel like she wasn’t important and valued as a team member. Meanwhile, she was killing it which allowed me to justify to myself that she really didn’t need the time with me - right? Wrong?

Inadvertently, I’d made one of my best employees - someone whose resignation would be incredibly painful - feel like she didn’t matter.

I’d like to say I immediately changed my ways and never looked back, but unfortunately, I fell into old habits only 3 or 4 months down the line. It took me learning the lesson a few times to really understand just how important 1:1s are and why that importance is only amplified when you’re working with a remote team.

As many of you have now experienced, there are tons of advantages to working from home, but one of the disadvantages (especially for extroverts) is a feeling of isolation. While you may spend your entire week on calls, your employees may only have a few meetings each week. When you constantly move or cancel that time with them, not only are you showing them that they aren’t a priority, but you’re also forgoing the chance to provide an important sense of connection to both you and the company as a whole.

When I work with remote managers today, my number one rule for them is 1:1 meetings are more important than anything else. Always make time for them. I often recommend that it’s a mandatory part of management - an expectation that is set before someone takes the role and is then enforced with vigor.

But whether or not it’s a mandatory part of your current role as a remote manager, I highly recommend adopting the process and then sticking to your commitment week after week.

Which brings me to my 5th and final tip.

5. Don’t just tell, show.

The difference between words and actions makes all the difference when it comes to the adoption of culture norms. This is even more true when working remotely, because your employees aren’t physically seeing your actions.

More than ever, it’s important for you to both walk the walk and talk the talk. Changing the way we work is hard - and can even be scary from some who’ve been told something by a manager in the past, only to find out that those words don’t actually match the daily actions of the team.

If you set new communication norms for the team, you need to be the first one to uphold them. That means not responding to every message immediately. And not showing frustration or concern when a team member acts on the new communication guidelines and doesn’t respond to an email you sent for almost 24 hours.

The same can be said for your expectations around autonomy

On a Lattice webinar earlier this year a senior manager shared a story about going to his daughter's swim meet one early afternoon. Earlier that quarter, a new work norm had been put in place for the entire company. They were now implementing available working hours, which (if I’m remembering correctly) were from 10 am-1pm. That was the block of time you were expected to be online and available for engagement. Outside of that, it was up to you when you completed the remainder of your work - which brings us back to the early afternoon swim meet.

While there, this senior manager was approached by someone who worked at the company, but not for him directly. They’d never met, but she recognized him from a company all-hands and came up to introduce herself. She shared that seeing him there - as someone very senior in the company - acting on the newly shared policy put her at complete ease of utilizing it as well. The policy was no longer just words. She’d seen it in action.

While it won’t always be this obvious, your team is watching what you do, not just what you say. Take the vacation time. Share that you booked a doctor’s appointment during the day last Tuesday. Show up for the 1:1s consistently.

Walking the walk often, will eventually build up trust that will allow employees to easily and quickly believe when you talk the talk about something new.

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