Remote Team Management: Greatest Challenges and Their Solutions
Remote or Virtual teams are these days not particularly remote nor virtual. The world keeps getting smaller and smaller thanks to technology and there has been a quite startling but not unpredicted growth in Remote work. The 2020 situation has increased this speed but it was already happening pre-pandemic. Many businesses were seeing the huge advantages of remote work and exploring the possibilities, and workers all over the world are taking advantage of a more flexible and often more convenient working relationship. Unfortunately, there are certainly positives to this arrangement but as always not everything is 100% rosy. In this article, we will talk about the greatest challenges of remote team management and focus on their solutions.
Almost 4.7 million workers in the US were working at least partially from home even before the enforced rules. While, Owl Labs stats show that presently just over half of employees worldwide are working remotely at least once a week, rising to 68% for once a month. According to Global Workplace Analytics in the years between 2005 to 2018, there has been a 173% rise in remote work. Additionally, nearly 90% of businesses either encourage or made workers work from home during the Pandemic. The stats also show not just the numbers of remote workers increasing but rising numbers for productivity and job satisfaction. So there are obviously good reasons for both businesses and workers to explore this area, even without the mandatory safeguards.
There are potential issues and problems that can and will arise and both managers and employees are going to have to work on this newish relationship. The good news is this is happening, already managers are working on different strategies and techniques for getting the best out of their teams and technology is playing a bigger and bigger part in helping all parties. From developing and improving software from project management to communication and collaboration platforms.
1. Greatest Challenges with Managing a Remote Team
For managers, it is vitally important to quickly recognize the potential issues and difficulties with remote team management. Many of these potential problems are slightly tweaked versions of more general and usual management issues others are specifically related to the nature of remote work.
Buffer.com’s 2022 survey of the state of Remote Work” identifies the biggest problems that remote workers suffer. The two main issues are Collaboration and Communication problems, and loneliness, closely followed by “not being able to switch off from work.” Other key factors include home distractions, motivation, and time zone issues. Whilst some of these issues are primarily employee problems others are issues that management needs to look at addressing. Additionally, managers need to show awareness of the potential problems of remote team management and demonstrate actionable solutions and advice wherever possible.
1.1. Communication and Collaboration
Managers and Employees have issues with supervision. Often managers don’t feel as on top of things as they feel they ought when workers are working remotely. There is a balance in how much information on the progress you need and how often, and it’s not an easy balance to find. Managers need to tread a line between being included in the loop but not perceived as a lurking presence. This is true in the workplace too, but harder to achieve online. Equally, employees need supervision, they want to feel supported and not left rudderless but don’t want to appear needy.
When working as part of a team, smooth and efficient collaboration is vitally important. How can different employees contact others? Where do they find the information they need? Who is making the decisions? Who is leading? These are practical issues that need addressing before they led to a breakdown of teamwork between colleagues and co-workers.
Communication between and within teams goes hand-in-hand with collaboration. Poor communication or miscommunication can drive wedges in teams that are hard to fix. Even more so in a virtual environment.
1.2. Work/Life Balance
Workers, especially remote workers often complain about not being able to switch off from their work. Without the external schedules and travel to and from a place of work, home life and work-life can easily merge together. Your home office becomes your home more than an office. This can lead to the inability to disguise between your work-life, busy, efficient, and focused, and what should be relaxed, switched off battery-charging home and social life.
Thee are distractions at work, wherever, and whenever you work. In the office, it might be colleagues, at home it could be the children, the partner, or even the fridge. Remote workers can have difficulties avoiding these distractions and persuading others that they are in fact working and need to concentrate.
1.3. Loneliness and Social Isolation
One of the biggest issues that remote workers face is missing the social interaction that automatically comes from the usual physical work environment. While remote workers do communicate with each other, typically these interactions tend to be task-focused or at the very least heavily work-related. Workers can lose the sense of being and feeling part of the organization or business.
Clearly, managers have a part to play not only in setting up rules and routines for direct work-related issues but also in offering support, understanding, and advice on other potential problems that can affect the employee.
2. Remote Team Management: Best Practices and Solutions
After we highlighted the main challenges before remote work, let’s get to the possible solutions.
2.1. Improving Communication and Collaboration
Statistically the biggest problem for remote workers. Take a look at your own online communication skills, both written and spoken. Work on being precise, concise, and organized. Over-communication is better than under with remote workers.
Establish Clear Routines and Expectations
You should establish a structure that works for both sides. How communication functions, through which channels, schedule meetings, platforms, availability times, and working hours. Team members should know who is responsible for what, what are the expectations, goals, aims, etc. Workers need to know when managers are available, who to provide feedback to, and who to contact if they need information or help who is working with them. It is advisable to set up daily meetings at a specific time to centralize and focus on the tasks for the day.
Daily One-on-One Check-ins
When working remotely you lack the face-to-face you would get normally. You need to find a way of making up for this. When a daily meeting becomes a fixture of your remote team management style it gives you the chance to catch up and nip in the bud any potential problems. Video meetings are better than phone or email as they are much more personal and you can get a better feel for the conversation. These meetings also give you the chance you make the employee really feel part of the team and include them, as well as keep them up-to-date with elements of the project or work.
Take into account the different time zones that your workers are working in. Meetings and messages are best when the time is convenient for all parties, and taking the employee’s preferences into account man you are a thoughtful and considerate manager.
If you are running a multi-national team you need to work hard to understand and work with cultural differences within your team. There are differences in how people work, expectations of communication, ways of writing, and addressing fellow colleagues and managers. You have to be aware of and appreciate the cultural backgrounds of your staff, even more so if they are still based in their own country.
Remote teams have more freedom to operate. This when done well means greater responsibility and accountability for team members. However, you are still the manager and you still need a sense of control of the broad picture. By transparency, we really mean more than just the routines and expectations. Set up ground rules and expectations for meetings, behavior, dealing with issues or complaints, tracking and measuring progress, holidays and illness procedures, and even working schedules. Freedom to operate within a set of clearly outlined boundaries is an important ingredient in managing a successful remote team.
2.2. Managing Resources
When you are dependent on workers working online you are dependent on technology and infrastructure. You also need to have the right tools for this to succeed.
Technology & Infrastructure
Your remote workers are going to need the right equipment and internet connection in order to be a key part of the team. A weak, intermittent, or unstable internet connection is frustrating of course but it can cause serious problems for all the team members. As a manager, you may be responsible for providing technical resources or just helping with any issues that come up. Either way, this is something that needs dealing with as quickly as possible.
Remote Working Tools
There are many, many remote team management tools available, and more coming all the time. It is a huge area of growth and a competitive one too. You need to choose the right tools for the job and possibly different tools for different purposes. This is an area worth researching as the tool’s functions and useability will have a tremendous effect on the workflow. An investment in time and money, but a very important long-term consideration. Without the correct tools, your job will become almost impossible.
- Communication Tools – Internal Communications, Client Communications, Both
- Video Conferencing Tools
- Collaboration tools
- Project Management Tools
- Productivity Tools
- Time Management Tools
- Tracking Tools
- Time Conversion Tools
- Accounting Tools
- Calendar Tools
2.3. Improving Work/life Balance
Anxiety, distractions, inability to switch off, and changes in life patterns -are all potential difficulties for remote workers.
Set Boundaries with Remote Workers
In the physical workplace, there are established routines and norms of work, and one problem is how much these blurs and fudge when an employee is working from home. How much control you as a manager actually have is difficult to say but there are things you can put in place to establish some set boundaries. Scheduling daily meetings, setting working hours and times of availability, setting expected working days, etc, all help you as a manager keep up-to-date and have control over when are where you can contact your team member. They also give a sense of routine to the employee’s life, they have to have some structure in order to conform to the expectations.
One of the great advantages of working from home according to employees is the increased flexibility it offers. This is something to embrace and understand as a manager. It increases job satisfaction ratings and that’s a good thing. All remote workers will have different circumstances, some will have a well-set up a home office and organized, settled private life – others won’t. It’s better to accept that remote work is going to be different and you will not have the same control as you would if all your team were in a single room or office. Be flexible within reasons, flex but not to the point of breaking.
Similarly not only will every remote worker have different home circumstances, but many will also have different reasons for remote working. Some will have chosen this route but, especially today, some will have been forced down it. Workers might be feeling nervous and anxious about this new way of working, not to mention the other stresses involved with working from home. Now is the time for a manager to step up to the plate. It is a time to show not just that you can manage a project but also that you can manage people. Be understanding, listen, offer advice, and solutions, you have much to gain and little to lose.
2.4. Dealing with Loneliness
The Social Isolation of remote workers is cited as being one of the most problematic factors.
Mentor or Manager
Remote workers often have much more freedom, responsibility, and accountability so, in theory, your day-to-day remote team management should need to be heavy-handed. Take a step back and look at other ways in which you can help your team members. Become more of a mentor than a manager. Encouragement and advice make a worker feel less alone. Learn about their life, their family, and what they like to do outside work. Take an interest and try to put some flesh on the bones of your worker.
Schedule Time for Social Interaction
You will problem have quite a lot of contact, both individually and in teams with your workers. There is, however, an understandable tendency for these meetings to be very direct, focused, and to the point. Try to make sure that there is time for non-work conversation. You can schedule extra time in your daily meetings or an additional weekly meeting for a more “general chat”. You can organize team meetings that are not task-focused, virtual events, competitions, and social media groups. This allows workers time to get to know each other, relate, and form relationships. Basically what would happen organically in the office may need a helping hand virtually.
Create a Team
A successful team is a team that bonds. If at all possible try and arrange for your team to get together physically. It may be a one-off meeting or an annual event but it’s important. you’ll have to work at it, but it’s worth it.
Little things make a big difference
If your worker has done a particularly good job, make sure you tell them. You’ll need to give more positive feedback than you do in an office setting. People working alone are much more prone to self-doubt and questioning themselves. Send a personal email, an extra special message, or even a card or gift. Make sure the employee knows they are doing a valuable job and playing a role that you appreciate.
Include your remote team in the business. If you are giving out Christmas gifts for the office staff, the remote workers need to be included. If you are setting up groups or social vents, the remote workers need to be included. They are part of your business and then need to feel they are.
Remote team management is by no means an impossible task, it simply needs a little thought. Things that have been drilled into you as a manager may not work quite so well with a remote team and you may need to make much more effort in certain key areas. Like all managers, you will make mistakes, but like all good managers, you will reflect and learn from them. Remote team management is probably more about managing individuals and so you are going to have to get to know people, you are also going to have to know when to get involved and when to step back. Remote teams are not going to go away, so the more you get to grips with the nuances of managing them the better it will be for all concerned.
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