Common mistakes of first-time remote managers

A blue plate breaking on a concrete floor

Teams with flexible working options are happier, more productive, and more adaptable than their office-bound competition. To realize those benefits, however, managers must anticipate and plan for the unique challenges that come with running a remote team.

Even if you have spent decades in leadership positions, the best practices you worked so hard to develop may not translate well to a remote environment. Different employees thrive in different ways. It’s up to you to provide them with the support and guidance they need, no matter how far apart your desks may be.

What makes remote team management different

Effective remote management relies on a foundation of proactivity. Passive management practices, like a lack of scheduled check-ins with employees and casual open door policies, do not make remote teams feel heard or supported.

Think about all the small conversations that happen within offices. People see each other in the hallways, stop by desks to chat, grab lunch together, and sometimes talk in the parking lot before heading home for the day. All these interludes add up to create feelings of trust and companionship between managers and team members. 

Small moments like these don’t happen by accident in remote working environments. Managers must deliberately reach out to team members to ensure they feel heard, schedule one-on-one time to build relationships, and fill in the gaps created by distance.

The pandemic created thousands of first-time remote team managers who will likely be responsible for distributed team members for the rest of their professional careers. No matter how you ended up as a leader of a remote crew, be careful to avoid some of the more common mistakes that come with the job.

Steamrolling optimal tool usage

Distributed teams depend upon order, especially teams on which people work in different time zones. If you do not follow the rules and use the right tools and platforms in the right way, your team members will struggle to understand your expectations and your projects will fall behind.

Slack, for example, is a great tool for a friendly chat or a quick work conversation, but it is not a substitute for a real meeting, nor does it make a good home for documentation. When you find yourself asking team members to look through Slack to find old conversations for necessary information, you’re doing it wrong.

Learn to trust the processes in place within your organization. We use GitLab to manage our projects and Notion to manage our documentation. By staying vigilant about the use of those tools, our teams always know the status of ongoing work, which is a necessity to remain productive while working remotely.

Failing to adhere to the calendar

All managers should rely heavily on their calendars to manage availability and stay on top of their work. In remote team management, the role of the calendar becomes even more essential.

Set up time in your calendar for recurring individual meetings with all your direct reports. Don’t use this time to rehash old projects, though. Instead, use your individual meetings to talk to your employees about their needs and make sure they have everything necessary to do their jobs well. You can use your project management and documentation tools, as well as project-specific meetings, for more granular review of tasks.

Schedule time for yourself as well. Everyone needs downtime to reflect or to get into a flow on a major project. Block off that time in your calendar so others don’t intrude on the time you set aside to get work done.

Not communicating praise frequently

Collaborating on projects remotely requires a much more proactively positive approach than collaborating in person. When team members send you work for review, don’t dive straight into what they need to fix. Instead, start by pointing out the things they did well and acknowledging where they incorporated previous feedback into this work. Once they feel good about their contributions, you can work together on improvements.

Public praise goes a long way in remote environments. Departments interact less when they don’t share a refrigerator and a parking lot. At Remote, we stay active in our #thanks Slack channel to call out the good work of team members in a place where everyone can see.

Disrespecting boundaries of time

Speaking of calendars, remember to respect the clock as well. Just because your employees are within a few steps of their computers throughout the day does not make them available at all hours. You may feel like putting in some extra time, but if you do, do not expect your team members to answer your questions until the next day. Otherwise, you run the risk of burning out your employees and creating resentment.

In your meetings, start on time and end early or at the scheduled ending time at the absolute latest. Time management is essential for remote teams, and going off the schedule is disrespectful to others. If your employees schedule quiet time to get work done, don’t interrupt that scheduled focus period without an excellent reason.

Forgetting to set the right example

On a remote team, it’s easy to suffer from imposter syndrome. You don’t see the times when your colleagues get frustrated by their own lack of progress. For employees, this can lead to high levels of stress when they assume they are the only ones who don’t meet a constant standard of high productivity.

Demonstrate to your team members that you care about them by caring about yourself. Schedule vacation time, and when you take time off, don’t spend the whole time sending emails and answering messages. Your team members will not use their benefits if they don’t see leaders doing the same.

The same concept applies to the small things as well as the bigger ones. Use the fun Slack channels to post pictures of your dog or talk about sports. Attend the team-building events instead of scheduling meetings over them every time. When your team members see you make room for a little levity, they feel more comfortable about their own ability to take breaks.

Once you have the basics down, you will start to realize just how many advantages remote work offers to your team. Increased flexibility allows people to work when and how they work best, and a company-wide commitment to documentation ensures projects and plans flow more smoothly than ever. If you have felt challenged by your role as a new remote team manager, don’t despair. Use this opportunity to grow in your role and become the supportive leader your crew deserves.

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