How to Run a Remote Team Better than an In-House Team
If you’re used to working in the same office space with all of your teammates, you might find it hard to manage your first remote hires. This short guide will help you avoid common beginner’s mistakes.
I’ve written a lot about the benefits of remote work, and I doubt that anyone needs additional confirmation of how good it can be for workers, as well as their managers.
But there are crucial differences in the playbook for managing remote hires, and the playbook for managing in-house employees.
You need to screen remote candidates for different skills, oversee their work in a different way, and help them feel like a true part of your team, not just an outside addition.
The perfect remote employee
Let’s start with the best way to screen remote candidates. What skills should you look for? How do you know they’re the right person if you can’t have a personal 1-on-1 meeting with them?
Necessary skills for remote workers
Psychology divides people into extroverts and introverts. It’s a spectrum, and people are rarely a hundred percent one or the other. We all have a mix of extrovert and introvert traits.
We also like to work around pleasant people, so there’s a natural tendency to hire outspoken, well-mannered people who always dress well and put on a smile.
But when it comes to remote work, you might do yourself good if you give a chance to people who are shy, withdrawn, introverted and not preoccupied with what other people think of them.
You might find that those can be the most honest people you’ll work with. Honesty is one of the key traits of a good remote worker.
Honest people are straightforward, and won’t lead you on if their work isn’t going well. They’ll tell you exactly what they don’t like, and what issues they have.
This is important because you can’t look over the shoulder of remote workers or ask them how work’s going during breaks.
Honesty helps remote workers be upfront about any problems they encounter. In other words — if they aren’t afraid to tell you things that you might not like during the interview process, then they might just be the right candidate.
Moving on – timeliness and accountability. That means upholding deadlines, responding quickly, and admitting when they’ve made a mistake.
Communicating without the ability to meet and talk face-to-face is already difficult enough. You don’t want to hire remote workers who make you wait too long for their answer, because it will drive you crazy.
Hiring without personal meetings
Hiring people is both a science and an art, but when you’re hiring remotely you need to be as scientific as possible.
In other words — if you’re hiring someone based on their extraordinary skills, you need confirmation of those skills.
A strong portfolio and references from past clients / employers are a must for remote workers, and the good ones almost always have a personal website and a strong LinkedIn profile to go along.
Another simple, yet often overlooked thing: writing and text formatting. To put it simply, do they proofread their emails, or do they leave their mistakes in? How many mistakes do they make? Are they able to write messages in a way that you don’t have to wonder what they’re saying?
A big part of your communication with remote workers will be in writing — on Slack, in emails, documents, tickets, and so on.
Being able to swiftly communicate in writing, without misleading the other person, is a huge part of being a good remote worker. Pay close attention to how they write.
Next – there’s no better way to test remote workers’ skills, than to give them a task that’s similar to what they will do once they get the job.
For writers, that’s writing a relevant description, short article, or piece of documentation. For graphic artists, that’s creating a graphic that fits your brand’s visual style. And so on.
Just make sure that the task is relevant and set in your business context. Some recruiters give candidates test tasks that are completely unrelated to what the company does, and that’s… that’s just silly.
Delivery and workflow – remote team management
Standing over your employees to make sure that they’re working is not a good idea, even for in-house teams. However, when your team is distributed, you can’t even take a peek whether they’re actually working in the hours they’re supposed to.
How do you keep track of your remote employees so that they don’t bill you for more hours that they’re actually working?
Regular updates – but not too much
In-house teams have regular meetings for planning, tracking progress, and evaluating the results of different tasks.
With remote work you pretty much do the same, but with Skype, chat, email and a task board. The important part is not to fall in the trap of micromanaging remote employees too much.
It’s easy to keep emailing, messaging, or calling remote workers to ask how their work is going and if they’re finished yet. It’s just as easy to completely forget about them, and just keep your fingers crossed that they’re working.
As always, the ideal frequency is somewhere in the middle. You don’t want to nag remote workers too much, or contact them so rarely that they feel irrelevant to your project.
Sacred task board
The task board is important, and it’s not to be taken lightly.
Those who don’t put in the work to keep it clean, organised, and well documented, should be taught how to do so. Those that refuse to take it seriously should be fired.
If managed properly and taken seriously by your employees, a task board saves a lot of trouble and greatly enhances your workers’ efficiency.
It’s important for any team, but it’s particularly important when it comes to remote work.
Treat it as the command centre for everything that your team is doing. If something is not in the task board, then it doesn’t exist. If the task board specifies a deadline, then the deadline should be abided by, and there should be consequences for failing to meet it.
And remember that, as a manager, you also cannot take it lightly. If you expect your workers to respect the task board, then you need to respect it as well. If you don’t miss deadlines and treat the task board seriously, you can expect remote workers to follow your example.
Culture and team spirit
Work is not all about finishing tasks and delivering results. The glue that connects your team, and makes everyone believe in your project, is company culture. How do you foster team spirit when working with remote employees?
Place to talk about anything
Can’t have watercooler conversations when the team is spread across thousands of miles and several different time zones. Well, you can, but they would be the most expensive watercooler conversations known to man due to the travel costs.
The thing about watercooler conversations is that they are a big part of building team spirit. That’s when workers can cool off for a moment without talking about work-related things all the time.
During that time, some people can get problems off their chest, others enjoy a bit of joking around, or a bit of philosophising or political discussions.
You can substitute that by creating a chat room specifically for watercooler conversations — talking about anything, with anyone on the team.
This helps in a few ways. For one thing, if people start talking about irrelevant stuff in your main communication channels, you can tell them to keep that in the watercooler chat room.
Above that, having a place to vent and talk about things unrelated to work is important to keeping your remote workers sane, and helping them really feel that they’re a part of the team.
Documented culture and values
Documenting every crucial work process, as well as the brand values and business culture in your company, is always important. Purely in-house teams often avoid doing it, not realising that it could greatly help them increase accountability.
With remote work, however, you simply must document these things, and these documents should be as sacred as the aforementioned task board.
You can’t tell somebody that what they’re doing is against company values, if your company values aren’t documented anywhere, and you yourself don’t even know what they are.
Documenting doesn’t mean that you have to write a huge brand book. Save that for the biggest companies, which have the budget and time to make this into a big project.
In most small and medium companies, all it takes is a single-page document that states clearly:
- What every employee in the company believes in,
- How every employee in the company should approach work,
- What are the most important aspects of the business,
- How employees should treat one another.
…and other specific aspects of the company culture that may be important in your unique case.
Use this document, refer people to it if they don’t know how to act, revisit it regularly and refresh it when people don’t understand it.
If not anything else, a document like this will at least save you hours that are often spent discussing undocumented business aspects like brand values, or whether someone is behaving in accordance with your company culture or not.
Small things matter
When running a purely in-house team, most managers recommend similar tactics that I’ve recommended above if you replace chatting and voice calls with face-to-face meetings.
Some of these are small things, which are usually forgotten and set aside when the whole team is working in one place. Since you communicate directly, and see each other everyday, there’s a misconception that it’s easier to stay on the same page.
While an in-house team can afford to set these things aside, it is inadvisable and costly to treat things like documentation, or task board management, as unimportant. With remote work, these seemingly small things make all the difference between an efficient distributed team, and a bunch of unrelated people connected only by working for the same manager.
So, as a final note, remember that small things matter. Putting the time into organising an efficient workflow, working out a communication process, or creating detailed company values — these actions will pay off in many ways.
Most importantly, they will enable remote teammates to take care of their tasks efficiently, and it will save you the time that a lot of managers spend answering the same questions over, and over again.