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.
The Kona Team
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
"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
"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
"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
"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." ––
"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
"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
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:
What are my strengths, weaknesses, and preferences as a remote manager? Do I experience friction in relationship building, communication, or emotional transparency?
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?
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?
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?