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The top three challenges of remote management are isolation, expectation-setting, and burnout. We share 21 tips to lead remote teams in 2021.
We’re used to working remotely. The majority of companies have weathered indefinite work-from-home for almost a year now. For the most part, this experiment has worked. Productivity has thrived in the pandemic with 94% of employers reporting the same or higher productivity than before 2020. With the anniversary of COVID-19 and cases still on the rise, remote work is less of a temporary experiment and more of a strategy for the future.
It’s no wonder why major companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Zillow announced plans for ongoing work-from-home. With long-term remote work on the horizon, it’s time to switch gears. Strategies that got teams through the initial remote transition aren’t as effective now. Managing remote teams in 2021 looks different––it’s about helping teams thrive, not just survive, while fully remote.
It seems counterintuitive that so many remote leaders worry about their people thriving. The main issue isn’t about translating tasks, however. It’s translating culture and interaction.
Our team has had the pleasure of interviewing over 500 remote managers since last January. We asked open-ended questions about their biggest problems with remote work. The concern for the softer side of management saturated our data. Overwhelmingly, the top three challenges mentioned included:
These challenges make one thing clear: managing teams without in-person synergy is extremely difficult.
The short answer is lead with emotional intelligence. The best remote leaders add a human element across a virtual environment. Each of these remote manager challenges can be tackled with a bit of vulnerability and emotional literacy.
To make this easier, we’ve gathered 7 tips from our research to address each major challenge. Here are your 21 EQ tips for managing remote teams in 2021:
Coworker bonding looks vastly different while remote. Even after a year of work-from-home, remote managers still struggle to recreate the magic of office events and connection. Thankfully, practicing empathy can help you restructure virtual spaces into opportunities for relationship building.
We can’t pretend work and life are completely separate anymore. We spoke with managers as they pet their dogs, bounced their babies, and worked from their kitchens. Managers understand it’s okay to not be okay and they actively create a safe space for their team.
We heard the phrase “manager as a coach” mentioned by the most empathetic leaders we interviewed. This mindset boils down to this: support teammates in their life goals, not just the company’s goals. Managers who listened often learned what made each teammate tick and how to support their growth.
Over 90% of all the managers we interviewed mentioned conducting weekly 1:1s with their teammates. The best teams kept these meetings regardless of how busy their schedules got. Honoring 1:1s gives teammates a space to address issues, highlight wins, and feel supported.
People Ops does a great job organizing company-wide events, but many managers also took ownership in creating fun environments for their teams. Whether it was walking meetings or virtual escape rooms, the best managers understood that play fosters creativity and relationships.
We heard amazing stories of how managers went the extra mile to recognize their teammates: personalized gifts, fun Zoom backgrounds, and remote pizza parties, to name a few. At the end of the day, it’s about thought. Our favorite managers asked individual teammates what made them feel valued.
Remote onboarding can be a daunting task, especially when you never meet face-to-face. Effective managers always took the opportunity to lay out the virtual welcome mat and emphasize community. They paired new teammates with buddies to kickstart team building, outlined everyone’s work-with-me guides, and ensured documentation was clear and concise.
For managers of managers, it can feel like skip-level management creeps into micro-management. Directors and VPs need to build relationships, however, since hierarchy can add to miscommunication. These managers often created time once a month or quarter for bonding with their skip-levels and having honest conversations about growth.
While remote teams have figured out how to hit OKRs, creating a culture of open communication and psychological safety is a much harder target. A lack of body language and cross-the-room glances makes trust more important and more difficult than ever. With high-EQ, remote managers can lead with care and promote open communication.
A lot can get lost over lagging Zoom calls and written Slack messages. When miscommunication happens (and this can be often,) the best teams give a benefit of doubt. The simple principle of assuming positive intent reframes our fight or flight mechanisms and allows us to pause and clarify.
Though a few remote teams may debate the logistics of what makes for the best communication cadence, most emphasized the need to over-communicate. A principle of over-communication eliminates assumptions and allows intentions to be clear as possible. Over time, this transparency leads to trust.
Remote management is tough. You can’t see if teammates are working across the room or scrolling on LinkedIn. Even with a baseline of trust, it can be tempting to re-emphasize expectations just in case. Instead, the best managers helped their teammates prioritize their todos and left their DMs open in case they needed help.
Slack, Jira, GitLab, Notion, Confluence. There’s a jungle of documentation tools in the company tech stack. Without clear organization and channels, sifting through resources can leave more questions than answers. Experienced remote teams know writing is a superpower and have set rules for how they share information.
Missing a deadline or OKR can spark a bit of panic. Teammates may point fingers at who dropped the ball. Remote leaders know blame and shame can poison a team’s psychological safety. They focus on key learnings, address trends, and focus on levers of change.
Adding to the last point, effective teams take every opportunity to learn. This boils down to everyday interactions and reframing failures with realizations and takeaways. At scale, this creates a culture of iteration and innovation.
Feedback can be scary. By framing feedback as learning, however, these conversations can drive the team’s greatest growth. The best remote teams acknowledge individual feedback styles and take care to share input at an appropriate time. More importantly, managers constantly ask for feedback so channels are a two-way street.
As Tania Mulry, Co-Director of StartupBoostLA, says, "Empathetic leaders gather feedback from other stakeholders (employees, customers, investors, etc.) before jumping into big decisions. They hold a space for other voices to be heard, seen and considered before crafting a solution. An empathetic approach galvanized support and buy-in for the final decision because everyone feels like they were a part of it."
Quarantine has lasted longer than anyone could’ve expected. Teams are feeling the results. Burnout is at an all-time high as teammates face extreme social, economic, and political unrest on top of their daily todos. With emotional resilience, managers can support their teammates and become a safe harbor during these unprecedented times.
This solution was incredibly popular among the remote managers we interviewed. Departments agree on a day––usually a Wednesday or Thursday––where meetings are off-limits. This allows for deep work and a break from back-to-back meeting rooms.
Burnout was inevitable in 2020 and it’s effects will likely bleed into 2021. Great remote managers know to look for clues: changes in behavior, dips in messaging, and sunken productivity may indicate larger problems for team morale.
Even though Zoom happy hours worked at the beginning of the pandemic, they’re dipping in popularity now. Teams are sick of spending another hour on camera. To create async spaces for bonding, managers called their employees on the phone, encouraged photo-sharing on Slack, and found creative games to play.
Across our data, managers brought up that the biggest factors affecting team moods were often completely out of anyone’s control. Some teammates lost family members, others felt isolated on their teams. When it comes to understanding the stages of burnout, it’s crucial to get context for your support.
Just as teammates have preferences for feedback or learning, they also have different reactions to stress. Knowing whether to give space, lend an ear, or take action often starts with asking the person.
Burnout has a variety of sources, but often the greatest help isn’t to help at all. By focusing on listening, really listening, managers can best support their teammates emotionally. For problems without a solution, showing empathy can be the best route.
The managers we interviewed kept mentioning how difficult it was to get teammates to take time off. Without anywhere to go, remote teammates skipped their vacations and continued working. As best you can, encourage teammates to take time away from work and break the cycle of burnout before it gets worse.
Managing remote teams looks different in 2021. A year into forced work-from-home, it's up to remote managers to maintain company culture and the key relationships between teammates for long-term remote success. These 21 tips cover only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to supporting your remote team.
Corine is co-founder of Kona. They write regularly on emotional intelligence and people-first leadership. Their work has been featured by Fortune, Yahoo, TechCrunch, Entrepreneur, Harvard Business School, Forbes, and more. They've spoken at remote work conferences like GitLab Commit 2021 and advised Fortune 10 companies on remote strategy.