Over the last decade, we have seen a strong trend towards remote working, with more and more people preferring to make the most of their time by avoiding the long commute.
It has also allowed many to expand their potential job opportunities beyond a relatively small geographic circle. Remote teams mean that companies can diversify their groups, and reduce the overheads associated with maintaining a large, permanent, physical office space.
Moreover, many teams have been forced to temporarily go remote in response to the stay at home orders associated with COVID-19.
At UserGuiding, we have been practicing remote working with various groups in the past, and we have completely switched to working remotely after the pandemic. Surprisingly, we have managed to keep our efficiency the same, maybe due to our past experience with the concept.
Building and managing a successful remote team is not as easy as it looks as many managers will learn over the coming weeks and months of quarantine. It is not the same as simply displacing your regular team practices to remote locations.
It requires extra tools and processes, while not forgetting the important things that slip our minds when we don’t see our teams day-to-day.
In today’s article, we will go over my top 5 tips to manage a remote team better.
For the product managers reading this article, we have gathered the main challenges a product manager faces in remote work in the second section.
Let’s start with general tips:
5 Tips for Remotely Managing a Team
Here are my top 5 tips to build and manage the best remote team possible:
1. Find the Right Talent
Building a successful remote team starts at the hiring stage.
Remote working does require some different skills than being part of a traditional team. Someone who would make a great marketer at the center of buzzing office space, might not flourish in the same way when working in isolation.
Many job descriptions state that they are looking for independent, self-motivated, self-starters. But when it comes to remote teams, these should be at the top of the required characteristics list.
Some people are great workers when they are in an environment alongside colleagues that are working towards common goals, as they thrive off the momentum of energy and productivity. But not everyone is able to keep themselves on task and on track when they are alone, especially if they are in their own space where there are lots of potential distractions.
You definitely want to seek workers that demonstrate the ability to work independently.
Also, remote teams need to mesh. One of the benefits of remote working is that you can put together a more diverse workforce, which has been shown to result in greater creativity.
However, diverse teams can also result in greater conflict, which is why many companies tend to hire people that are cut from the same cloth. This can foster cohesion and cooperative productivity.
When putting together a remote team, you need to consider both sides of this coin.
Take advantage of your ability to get people with vastly difficult skills and experiences, but also consider how the individual members of the team will mesh. Otherwise, you might find yourself with a very difficult leadership challenge in your hands. Just because colleagues aren’t seeing each other face to face doesn’t mean that conflicts don’t arise.
In fact, it can be worse. It can be easy to misinterpret statements in emails, and without seeing someone personally, there is not the same pressure to resolve issues in a timely and acceptable way.
2. Try Remote Team Building Activities
Just because your team isn’t in the same building doesn’t mean that you can skimp on the team building.
In fact, this should be a higher priority as you lose the opportunities of catchups around the coffee machine and bonding over the shared love of pecan pie on someone’s obligatory birthday morning tea.
Teams perform better when colleagues know each other beyond just professional transactions and have a bond. This allows them to feel comfortable working together, which means that it is easier to challenge ideas, have productive disagreements, and broach difficult issues.
Having a solid relationship reduces the risks associated with speaking up and sharing your opinion.
But how can you foster this kind of camaraderie when it comes to remote teams? Here are some ideas:
- If geographically possible, do physically get your team together periodically. This is a great opportunity to provide training and workshop challenges and new opportunities, as well as build relationships over a beverage or two.
- Integrate team building activities into staff onboarding processes. No one should be working for you for three weeks and still have never spoken to the guy who works in another timezone and only sends one-word responses to emails. You can use the kind of icebreaker activities that we often see at conferences, such as asking everyone on the team to share their biggest failure, or a unique skill (outside of the work sphere).
- Have regular times when everyone on the team is online, maybe once a week for a conference call, so that no one loses sight of their co-workers that are working with them towards the same goals. For example, in their Working From Home article, the team of Kdan Mobile explains how they are doing standup meetings to ensure everyone is in the loop and moves in the same direction.
3. Set Expectations
Setting expectations about working styles and company culture is important in any workplace.
This should be done formally for all teams but is even more important for remote teams, who cannot learn a lot of this information from observing more well-established colleagues in the office.
While remote working allows for flexibility, there do need to be ground rules so that everyone can mesh. For example, there should be core working hours when everyone is available online, even if these hours are limited as a result of timezones. It can also be useful to have guidelines about when people are offline.
When managers and leaders are sending important emails at both 6 o’clock in the morning and 11 o’clock at night, workers can feel like they need to be online at all hours to respond to requests. If timezones permit, there should be set communication hours, unless it is an end of the world emergency – and let’s face it, if you work in marketing, how many ends of the world emergencies do you really have?
There should also be clear guidelines on how people log and track their work, in a way that colleagues can see where they are and what they are up to, but in a way that is not onerous or intrusive. Having shared, prioritized task lists can save a lot of email traffic and irritation.
Rather than colleagues having to bat around emails asking when they can expect something that they are waiting for, they can see where their work is in the list, and what is ahead of it.
4. Invest in the Right Remote Team Tools
While a remote team might mean that you don’t need to invest in expensive physical premises, with offices, meeting rooms, and kitchens, you do still need to invest in the infrastructure that your team needs to function effectively.
At an absolute minimum, your team will need a secure communications system, a task accountability tool and a content calendar.
But at the same time, you shouldn’t invest in too many tools, and working environments should be streamlined as much as possible. No one likes to have 50 passwords, or constantly switching between systems that have slightly different menu structures and terminologies.
Tools should never be used for the sake of having the tool, and you should always be looking for whatever system best integrates with your team’s way of working.
5. Don’t Forget About Professional Development
We can sometimes make the mistake of treating our remote workers as though they are freelancers, and expect that they will take responsibility for their growth and professional development.
But employees, even remote employees, need to be nurtured in order to give their best.
Aside from good compensation and flexible working conditions, staff also value having their contribution recognized and opportunities for professional development.
The staff that is working remotely still require services such as conflict resolution support, stress management, and professional development. Providing this allows them to grow and to become a more valuable member of your team; and in most cases, someday, move on to bigger and better things and let you recruit new talent.
There are training hubs out there that provide company subscriptions which can allow all your staff to choose the individual courses that they need for their particular tasks and development.
You should also be providing staff with regular performance reviews which gives you an opportunity to praise their hard work and provide constructive criticism and guidance so that they can continue to develop and be a vital player on your team. It is also their chance for them to critique you, and let you know what you could be doing better to manage the team.
Challenges of Being a Remote Product Manager
In this part of the article, we will focus more on product management in remote work, however, the solutions we offer can be utilized by anyone in any department. Here are the main challenges a product manager faces when working remotely:
Product Managers need to be influencers.
In most cases, they are the person within the company responsible for the success of a certain product, or a feature of a certain product in larger organizations. Their job is to fix problems and identify opportunities for improvement, expansion, and growth.
But once they have identified that opportunity, they must sell that opportunity to the organization, to gain approval for the required work, and then secure the resources that they will need to complete that work. How difficult this is can depend on the size of the organization, and how tight resources and budgets are.
Product Managers must use their influencing skills to make their case.
They will need to communicate with senior management in order to gain approval, and they will need to communicate with team leaders and team members to ensure that they understand the product vision, the user’s needs, and what is required. This is important so that teams aren’t just onboard officially, but are also invested in ensuring that the product is a success.
It can be hard to get people’s attention at the best of times, it is even harder when you can’t pin them down face-to-face. How do you know if you even have their attention on a call? We are all guilty of occasionally doing something in the background when on an important call.
What can you do to boost your influence while working remotely?
Product Managers should experiment with different ways of getting their message across effectively while working remotely.
- Perfect the elevator pitch: When you are communicating with people remotely, by a phone call or video conference, you have a very short window to catch their interest as they decide how much of their attention to give you for the next few minutes. This means that getting your elevator pitch right is more important than ever. You need to get across the compelling core of your point within the first 60 seconds.
- Use compelling visuals: When people are pouring through emails and other communications, it is easy to skim. You want to use tools that are visually stimulating and draw the eye, and communicate the important information at a glance. Make use of infographics and similar compelling visuals to get your point across in a brief and compelling way.
- Show, don’t tell: When possible, show people what the problem or the opportunity or issue is, rather than telling them. A short video of a user struggling to use a ket company product will be significantly more compelling that you explaining the issue. But cut and edit ruthlessly. Your show always needs to be short and to the point.
Lead Without Authority
Product Managers are often in the position of needing to lead without authority.
This means that they need to steer people’s work and get the best out of them, while those people are not their direct reports.
For example, they may work with one or two people from the user research team, but they do not report to the Project Manager, they report to the Research Manager. They may need the assistance of UX Designers, but they are part of the design team that reports to the Design Manager. They will then need a team of developers to implement the new designs, but that team is led by a Development Manager, who reports to the Head of Engineering, and not to the Product Manager.
How can a Product Manager get the best out of all these individuals, and get them behind the vision of the product, especially when they can’t meet with them and engage with them face-to-face?
What can you do to boost your indirect leadership while working remotely?
Product Managers need to use the influencing skills that have already been discussed in order to achieve indirect leadership. But there are also other things that they can be doing.
- Integrate with the working patterns of teams: Usually, it is the leader that sets the working patterns of teams, including remote teams. But the Product Manager is not in that position as those things are already being set by other leaders. In order to best communicate with teams, the Product Manager needs to do this on their terms, on their schedule and using the platforms that they prefer. While this might be relatively straightforward while working with one team, it can be difficult when working with individuals from multiple teams that all have a different cadence. But it is up to the Product Manager to fit in with those teams so that their work becomes fully integrated.
- Nominate a product champion: While the Product Manager should work with the direct manager of the individual team to determine how work will be completed effectively, this can be challenging when the Product Manager’s product is just one of many products and projects that the team is working on. The team manager is often burdened with balancing a huge range of different priorities. In these situations, it can be useful to nominate a project champion within the team. It can be their role to ensure that the product is on the team’s agenda when required and take ownership of staying up with the details of the product on behalf of the team.
Coordinating Disparate Teams
As well as the challenge of communicating with a variety of different teams, the Product Manager can have the challenge of coordinating and integrating the work of individual people across teams.
They need the work of the researchers to feed into the work of the designers, which will then orient the work of the developers, that may be prototyped and tested by the researchers of another team, and eventually pushed out to users by the communications and marketing team.
This can be challenging, even when you get everyone in a room, on the same page, and relating to someone on a personal level.
This can be even more challenging when your key developer only knows the researcher as someone on the other end of an email, who sometimes takes 24 hours to respond to basic questions, significantly holding up their work.
What can you do to boost your cross-team coordination while working remotely?
It is often up to the Product Manager to make sure that these disparate teams work together effectively.
- Invest time in team-building: We all know the value of team building as we have discussed it earlier, but it can be difficult when you are trying to get people together from disparate teams, who feel like they are already built into their primary team. But taking the time to do this can reduce friction down the line. But it should always be done in a way that feels like it adds value to the participants. Don’t ask them to share their personal goals or tell funny stories about themselves. Get people together using video conferencing to get them to solve real challenges about the product. The problem-solving challenge will help them bond, and you may even make some good discoveries.
- Set expectation: Expectations around the speed of communication and speed of delivery are often one of the primary challenges faced by disparate teams. Set rules and expectations around this so that people know what to expect, and how delays might impact their work, so that they can plan accordingly and not lose important work time. You should also encourage members of the team to avoid jargon. You don’t want your developers to get frustrated with your researchers for using market research speak, and your researchers to misunderstand your developers because of specific technical language.
- Invest in documentation: Whenever possible, make it so that you limit how often someone needs to rely on someone else responding to get on with their work. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to ensure that all up to date, available, and authoritative. When in doubt, every member of the team should be able to get their information from notes and documents.
- Make yourself available: While you never want to invest too much responsibility in the hands of one person, the fact of the matter is that the Product Manager is ultimately responsible for the success of the product. This means that when important work is happening with the product or deadlines are approaching, the Product Manager needs to be available. At these high-pressure times, Product Managers may need to adjust their time in order to be available when needed, while still keeping an eye on their important work-life balance.
Moving to a remote team set up involves more than just giving up your office space, it comes with a lot of challenges.
It is an art to enable a team of different talents, working in different places, and sometimes even different time zones, and with different methodologies. Without daily contact, it can be hard to maintain their productivity.
While the flexibility of remote working generally increases worker happiness or is managed badly, it can also reduce satisfaction as workers are deprived of a vibrant environment where they can interact with colleagues and exchange and develop ideas.
Create the most productive, stimulating and satisfying remote working environment for your marketing team by starting with these five top tips.
Frequently Asked Questions
❓ How can I manage a remote team effectively?
You must be considerate when hiring team members, keep the energy between the team high, and adopt the best tools to maximize collaboration.
🤩 How can I motivate remote team members?
Staying aligned under company goals can be tough for remote workers, make sure to forward the progress you make to these individuals. If they see results, their motivation will increase.
🏀 What is the best remote team building activity?
People like participating in different activities, so you have to try a few alternatives such as playing games, chatting, etc. to find the best fit for your company.