This year's Remote Manager Report is finally here! Be the first to read it.

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EQ & Remote Management
2020 Report

All of our remote work learnings from
110 companies, 180 managers, and 7 months of interviews.

Get the PDF for free!

A remote worker leans on her arm, thinking.

Remote leadership requires emotional intelligence.

That's our main takeaway from seven months of interviews with remote managers. When we started our research in January 2020, we had no idea remote work would sweep up every industry and Fortune 500 company overnight. We only knew that remote work was the Future of Work, and that we had a lot to learn if we wanted to build a tool for it.

We started with cold LinkedIn outreach and open-ended questions. What do you love/hate about remote work? What tools do you use? What's the hardest part about your job? A trend emerged: remote work problems were very human. Managers lost sleep over relationship building, miscommunication, and visibility on team emotions.

Emotional intelligence was the most important skill for increasing productivity, reducing attrition, and building company culture. Yet, most managers felt they lacked EQ training for a remote setting and struggled with soft skills despite years of experience.

We started diving into the importance of emotional intelligence in remote work when COVID-19 hit. Worldwide uncertainty, mandatory work-from-home orders, and spikes in burnout only strengthened our hypothesis. For remote managers, emotional intelligence was the most important skill for increasing productivity, reducing attrition, and building company culture. Yet, most managers felt they lacked EQ training for a remote setting and struggled with soft skills despite years of experience.

This report aggregates insights from 180+ interviews, 110 companies, and 90 hours of Zoom calls with remote tech managers. It's a growing document that illustrates the human side of remote work before and during COVID-19. Please enjoy.

With love,
The Kona Team

Report Highlights

#1

Remote managers have an average ~4.87 direct reports. Inexperienced managers have a lot of relationships to manage.

#2

21.5% of remote managers had less than 1 year of management experience when mandatory WFH began.

#3

The hardest part about remote work is relationship building. Next is communication.

#4

High EQ-tasks like building relationships, adapting to work styles, and understanding team emotions make up the majority of remote manager friction.

#5

Async communication is preferred by remote-first companies at scale. Async requires conscious effort to avoid burnout and build quality relationships.

#6

Giving feedback, reading emotions, and motivating teammates get easier with experience. However, even expert remote managers struggle to adapt to individual work styles and communicate expectations.

#7

Engineering and People Ops managers care the most about getting visibility on teammate emotions.

#8

Psychological safety has direct links to remote engagement, productivity, and retention. Maintaining company culture falls to the manager.

EQ & Remote Management
2020 Report

All of our remote work learnings from
110 companies, 180 managers, and 7 months of interviews.

Get the PDF for free!

Interview Demographics

The Companies

A cluster of logos of remote tech companies and startups.

Average Company Size

We wanted to get a comprehensive view of remote work, so we sent hundreds of LinkedIn connection request messages to a wide pool of companies. The managers that agreed to an interview often skewed towards 101-500 and 1,000+ person orgs. We think this is because the former group often had a startup culture that encouraged user research. The latter were leaders in remote work at scale and valued sharing their processes.

A pie graph displaying the size of remote tech organizations we interviewed.

Phases of Remote Adoption

Most of our interviewees came from companies with somewhat established remote work processes before mandatory work-from-home (WFH) in March. Suspecting COVID-19 would lead to indefinite WFH, we wanted to focus on long-term issues outside of initial remote transition. We often relied on remote job boards and company announcements to identify growing remote companies.

A donut graph displaying the type of remote work these tech organizations did before COVID.

Interview Demographics

The Managers

Interviewees by Experience

This graph depicts the interviewee's overall remote management experience across their career. We defined manager based on the presence of direct reports (with the exception for Product Managers.) We managed to get a fairly even spread of manager experience and seniority. Given WFH's growth over the last decade, it was rare to find managers with over a decade of experience. About half of managers changed jobs every 2-3 years while the other half remained at the same company.

A donut graph showing the remote managers' experience levels.
A pie chart showing the distribution of roles we interviewed for our remote managers report.

By Role Function

We reached out to a variety of roles in remote companies to get diverse perspectives on remote work. Our response rates were highest among Product and People Ops folks. We the think the former responded because they related to the process of user interviews and the latter appreciated talking about the remote programs they organized. We realize our cold outreach may have came off as salesy and may have deterred certain roles.

By Geography

While remote work is a global phenomenon, most of our interviewees came from the United States (77%), Canada (2%), Australia (3%), and Europe (12%). We never limited our outreach by region. However, the companies we targeted often hired English-speakers in similar timezones. Notable outlier countries represented in this dataset include Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Slovenia, Thailand, Philippines, and Singapore.

A picture of the United States, Europe, and Australia, the regions our remote interviewees came from.

What Everyday Work Looks Like

A ranked list of tools: Slack first, Zoom second, Google Drive third.

Top 3 Tools Used

Remote teams have very similar toolkits. Almost half of the managers we interviewed used Slack religiously as their main hub of communication. Slack was more popular among remote-first tech startups while Microsoft Teams was the choice for larger, transitioning corporations. Zoom was the most popular video collaboration tool, though privacy concerns sometimes led companies towards Google Hangouts. Other teams mentioned tools include Notion, Jira, Github, GitLab, Trello, and 15Five.

Number of Direct Reports

On average, remote companies had approximately five direct reports per manager. Though more senior positions supervised middle managers, our data showed the average number of direct reports was consistent regardless of remote experience. Translation: less experienced people managers have several relationships to maintain and must adapt quickly.

A sideways bar graph showing the average number of direct reports per remote manager.
A bar graph showing the average number of direct reports per remote manager by role function.

Average Direct Reports by Function

The most variance appeared when we took the average number of direct reports per manager and mapped them across role functions. More technical roles like Engineering and Support had an almost equal number of reports as CEOs. We think that as tech companies scale and product demand grows, these teams often bloat. Empirically, we've heard that issues arise when some managers in these functions are promoted based on skill and have less people management training.

"In your opinion, how well do you know your coworkers?"

A pie chart showing how well remote managers know their coworkers.

While we originally intended this question as an open-ended prompt, we noticed a majority of remote managers prided themselves in knowing their coworkers' holistic lives. Fewer called their coworkers "friends," but remote workers openly shared their personal lives with coworkers.

"What do you do to build trust with your remote team?"

A heart graphic with a ranked list of responses from remote managers about trust building techniques.

When asked about how they built trust, remote managers almost always brought up 1:1s as a means for understanding their direct reports. Notice that many of these practices are led by managers as opposed to company programs. For more best practices, see page 14.

A pie graph showing the percent of async vs sync work by remote teams.

Async vs. Sync

For context, sync implies real-time communication whereas async allows for delayed responses. Async processes are usually implemented to combat timezones and meeting overload. Partially remote and remote-transitioning companies typically leaned on more synchronous communication. Widely-distributed remote-first companies often rely on async tactics and less meetings.

Async Adoption by Company Size

Complete async processes are less popular among small startups (<50) due to high-touch collaboration. More async processes grow feasible as larger teams (51-100) cross timezones, but become less popular at sizes under 1,000. An even mix of processes allows for real-time collaboration across timezone clusters. At scales of over 1,000, remote-first companies opt for fully async while transitioning corporations prefer office-like sync.

A segmented bar graph showing how async processes change across company size.

EQ & Remote Management
2020 Report

All of our remote work learnings from
110 companies, 180 managers, and 7 months of interviews.

Get the PDF for free!

COVID-19 Stress & Remote Transition

60% of managers experienced sudden remote transition from COVID19.
21.5% of managers had less than 1 year of remote management experience before COVID-19.

Reported Manager Stress by Types of Remote Transition

We asked managers to rate their stress and mapped this against their company's remote transition. While previously in-person companies had the most burnout, overall stress from mandatory WFH was very mixed. Meanwhile, partially remote companies had the most reported "high functional stress."
A set of three pie charts displaying manager sentiments across remote-first, partially remote, and in-person companies.

The Two Waves of Remote Transition

This graph depicts two waves of remote transition. Most obvious is mandatory WFH in March, with elevated negative impact as transitioning companies seek out remote infrastructure. The second wave appears in July after numerous companies announce indefinite and continued remote work. Though a number of managers have acclimated to remote, burnout spikes among a small group. This is due to long term EQ-issues like relationship building, communication, and isolation.

A segmented bar graph showing the waves of remote transition.

Managers Struggle with the Human Side of Remote Work

A donut graph showing the hardest aspects of remote work.

"What is the hardest part about remote work?"

Over 75% of the biggest problems in remote work involve "softer" aspects of people management like relationship building and communication. Fast-scaling teams, gaps in virtual communication, and cultural barriers, make emotional intelligence more important than ever.

Emotional Intelligence
The capacity to understand and manage your own emotions
and the emotions of those around you, and to handle
interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.

"What do you struggle with while managing your team remotely?"

A large pie graph showing the difficulties of managing teams remotely.
As seen on the right side of the graph, high-EQ tasks make up the majority of difficult responsibilities for remote people managers. They're essential to get buy-in, motivate teammates, and gauge team burnout, but achieving these outcomes gets exponentially harder without in-person visibility and thorough manager training.

Remote Problems by Async vs. Sync

Async and sync processes come with their own problems and benefits. 100% async (often massive, remote-first) teams have set policies that reduce communication and timezone issues. However, async managers struggle the most with building relationships and siloed burnout. 100% sync companies have an easier time sharing information but struggle with meeting overload and timezones.

A segmented bar graph showing remote work problems by async and sync teams.

EQ Struggles, Beginners vs. Experts

We asked managers about their most difficult leadership tasks and compared the extremes of our sample. Beginners had almost equal difficulty with all five, with an emphasis on getting visibility on emotions. Our most senior managers had an easier time reading emotions, motivating teammates, and giving feedback. However, they struggled equally with beginners on adapting to coworker needs and immensely with communication.

A segmented bar graph showing how expertise changes remote manager struggles.

Most Mentioned EQ Tasks by Function

We took these five manager tasks and mapped them by role. There's a lot to unpack here, but what stood out was how Engineering Managers kept tabs on team emotions to avoid silos, Product Managers required the most balanced distribution of all five tasks, and Sales prioritized motivation to hit key metrics. Different roles prioritized different manager tasks!

A segmented bar graph showing how EQ tasks change by remote manager function.

EQ & Remote Management
2020 Report

All of our remote work learnings from
110 companies, 180 managers, and 7 months of interviews.

Get the PDF for free!

The Impact of Psychological Safety

A graphic with Amy Edmonson's definition of psychological safety.

From a two-year study of 180+ teams,² Google found psychological safety is the #1 driver of team effectiveness.

"In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members... Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives."– Julia Rozovsky,Analyst, Google People Ops

Loss of psychological safety leads to disengagement.
Disengagement has high costs.³

Remote teams without psychological safety experienced 50% higher turnover, 60% more errors, and 37% lower job growth.

When a majority of employees feel their
opinions count, companies see:

When a majority of employees feel their opinions count, companies see 27% reduction in turnover and 12% increase in productivity.

Sources:

https://www.jstor.org/stable/2666999?seq=1
https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/
https://hbr.org/2015/12/proof-that-positive-work-cultures-are-more-productive?registration=success

How Managers Apply Remote EQ

COMMUNICATING EXPECTATIONS

"It's harder to pick up body language and non-verbal communication cueswhen you’re not in the same room with your teammates." –– VP of Product

"Cross-functional communication can break down. You build rapport withinteams, but not being aware about others is an opportunity for people to bein silos. I always give actionable items and specific examples." –– Senior Sales Manager

MOTIVATING DIRECT REPORTS

"If everyone’s remote, you have to be a servant kind of manager. You can’t hope to micromanage someone. It doesn’t work that way." –– CEO

"It’s a learning curve... People don’t care what you know until they know that you care, but you can’t build this trust over Zoom very easily. To build this rapport, I get to know them through 1:1s." –– VP of Talent

GIVING FEEDBACK

"Regarding feedback, make sure you structure it so that it makes sense [to the recipient.] You want to make sure you address conflict immediately, because it will come back over and over." –– Senior Product Manager

"I need to make sure I understand my direct report and her goals. For example, if she wants to learn about the product, I bring up that stuff over and over." ––
Account Manager

ADAPTING MANAGEMENT STYLE TO THE PERSON

"I need to understand your style, your personality, you, so I can really understand how you're performing and how to help." –– Customer Success Manager

"Figuring people out requires a level of thought and planning, and a ton ofEQ. Sometimes, the best way is to just explicitly ask people about their communication style." –– Product Manager

GETTING VISIBILITY ON TEAM EMOTIONS

"Building rapport and understanding is a big part of my job. We use engagement surveys, Culture Amp... It's mostly qualitative. I also do temperature checks during 1:1s—it's a bit exhausting." –– People Ops Manager

"I always have to keep in mind that you never know what people are going through. It may be a mix of personal and professional issues. Something may have just had happened, and it’s not on you." –– VP of Operations

EQ & Remote Management
2020 Report

All of our remote work learnings from
110 companies, 180 managers, and 7 months of interviews.

Get the PDF for free!

Where to Go from Here

How to start improving your remote EQ

This study barely scrapes the surface of the key relationship between high emotional intelligence and effective remote management. Though psychological safety often gets thrown around as a buzzword, the underlying concept proves that treating employees as human beings and encouraging emotional growth makes a massive impact on the bottom line.

Building safe environments to fail and a trust-based company culture trickles down into everyday interactions between remote managers and their teammates. Unfortunately, remote managers struggle to juggle everything on their plate. As a result, emotional tasks often fall to the bottom of the list.

So how do you understand and improve your remote EQ?Emotional intelligence is described in four-stages. We can apply this framework to remote and identify areas of improvement:

Colorful bubbles show the four quadrants of emotional intelligence by Daniel Golemann.

SELF AWARENESS

What are my strengths, weaknesses, and preferences as a remote manager? Do I experience friction in relationship building, communication, or emotional transparency?

SOCIAL AWARENESS

What are my teammates' preferences, priorities, and major points of friction? How can I adapt my remote management style to best support my teammates' needs?

SELF-MANAGEMENT

Do my remote habits lead to conflict or friction? How can I catch myself while communicating? Do my actions uphold our company values and create a safe space to fail?

RELATIONSHIP MANAGEMENT

How are my teammates feeling? How can I align myself with their goals and build trust? Do I practice active listening and give effective feedback? How can I de-escalate conflict overSlack and Zoom without invalidating the parties involved?

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Empathy is a habit.

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