In a matter of months, the Coronavirus pandemic completely changed the way we work. Today, being a remote worker is no longer a special privilege, but the norm for millions of people around the globe. To keep up with the rest of the world, knowing how to manage a remote team is vital.

Businesses that already had existing frameworks for telecommuting felt little or no pressure adjusting to the remote work-life balance. But what first-time remote workers – where do they even start?

If you’re in management and concerned about the new normal – read on. In this article, we’ll talk about what 2020 taught us about managing remote employees and how employers can effectively implement those lessons for an engaged team.

Let’s get started.

What 2020 Taught Us About Managing a Remote Team

The year 2020 taught us a lot about grit, perseverance, and cracking on despite the odds. Being forced to drop the traditional on-site 9 to 5 mindset, countless non-essential businesses had no choice but to ask their employees to work from home.

Here are some timeless lessons that the pandemic taught us about managing remote staff:

1. Employer-Employee Trust is Crucial

Employer-employee trust is, and always will be, an important driving factor for a positive workplace culture.

There are two ways you can perceive trust in this context, depending on who you are:

  • Employee: “I trust that my manager has my best interests at heart.”
  • Employer:I trust my employee will get the job done.”

That means trust is a two-way street.

But what does it mean for managers in the context of managing remote team members? How can you tell if your employees aren’t slacking off and not getting the job done?

This is a common concern of many managers, despite 77% of employees reporting that they’re more productive when they telecommute.

You can’t micromanage, either, as it will prevent you from strengthening the bond of trust with your employees. Trust that they will get the job done, and have a framework in place to ensure that they do they (in a way that doesn’t make them feel you’re micromanaging them).

Here’s a quick tip: To get frequent updates, set clear expectations. You can ask your employees to report to their supervisors twice a day – once when starting their workday and finally when clocking out. In case an employee doesn’t report on a crucial project they’re working on, there’s nothing wrong with their supervisor reaching out to them.

2. Actions Matter More Than Empty Words

According to the Resolution Foundation think tank, over a third of workers fear catching COVID-19 at work, implying that they’d rather work for a company that allows work from home.

Irrespective of the pandemic, a 2017 study on remote work found that companies that supported remote work had 25% lower employee turnover rates than others. That difference has likely increased over the past year.

However, merely allowing your employees to work from home to get vanity points on LinkedIn and Glassdoor isn’t going to cut it. Instead, you need to go the extra mile to show you actually care about your team.

This entails having daily check-ins with every individual (apart from team meetings), providing them with workstations, paying for their internet, and anything else that might support working in their remote environment.

It’s important to note that this level of support for your remote employees should continue even after the pandemic subsides.

3. Tangible Results Matter More Than Pointless KPIs

A classic approach to management encourages showing up and doing work for a fixed number of hours. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, a survey revealed 33% of remote workers believed having a fixed schedule made them more productive.

But the problem lies in using the number of hours and other pointless KPIs – that don’t necessarily impact the business bottom line – to reward employees.

In a world where remote workspaces are the norm, team managers need to focus on actual deliverables to gauge performance. If an employee takes 5 hours to wrap up their workload, without taking any breaks, they shouldn’t be forced to stay online for the remaining 3 hours.

What Managers Can Do About it

If you’re new to managing remote teams and are worried that you won’t be able to keep your employees engaged, satisfied, and productive, keep reading.

Here are some expert tips to help you manage telecommuters:

1. Set Clear Expectations

The biggest obstacle in managing a remote team is not having daily, face-to-face, and in-person conversations with your employees.

Having these daily interactions with your employees helps set clear expectations in terms of productivity, among other things.

A lack of communication with your remote employees can result in those expectations getting blurry.

To that end, the first thing that you want to do is to set the rules and clearly establish what you want from your team members. This could include defining:

  • A certain amount of work that needs to be done each day
  • Minimum number of hours the employees should put in every day
  • Workflows (to maximize productivity)

Don’t just stop there – go one step further and also describe what the employees should expect from the management. This could include flexibility, special perks, and frequent feedback.

2. Create a Game Plan for Employee Engagement

When working remotely, and not having those day-to-day interactions, water cooler chats, and in-person team building activities, it’s easy to feel detached from your colleagues.

This, in turn, can result in disengagement, and in worst cases, lead to mental health issues, burnout, and compromised wellbeing.

For that reason, you need a proper game plan for engaging your remote employees.

Merely setting up meetings out of the blue, surprising employees with gift cards, etc. won’t do – you need an elaborate strategy to keep your team members engaged.

This would entail:

  • Providing and Gathering Feedback – give your employees reviews on their performance and get their opinions on the different aspects of work (their satisfaction with their supervisor, company policies, benefits, etc.). Furthermore, describe the method of feedback collection.
  • Setting Metrics – use different metrics, such as the employee net promoter score (eNPS), days off, employee turnover, etc. to measure engagement levels. Set yearly or quarterly goals to track your performance over time.
  • Taking Action – after getting feedback and reports, take corrective measures to improve engagement levels, gather more feedback if you have to, and show that you care.

With an engaged team, whether in-house or remote, you can skyrocket your productivity, boost revenues, and keep that turnover in check.

3. Overhaul How You Evaluate Performance

You can’t continue to use the exact set of KPIs to measure the performance of your direct reports working remotely that you’ve been using for your in-house workers.

Of course, you’ll need to continue using most of them, such as overtime, customer satisfaction, sales, etc.

As mentioned earlier, you need to stop looking at just the number of hours, and focus on what the remote employees are able to accomplish during the day (i.e., the deliverables).

These deliverables can be anything, such as the number of tickets resolved, percentage of code completed, pieces edited in a day, etc. Based on your industry and the type of work you do, pick an appropriate metric that helps you gauge your employees’ deliverables.

4. Offer Flexible Work Hours

Working from home has its own common challenges. There are chores to sort out, children to look after, and distractions to ignore. Because of all that, it’s not always easy to follow the same working schedule every single day, which may lead to a drop in productivity.

For those reasons, giving your remote employees some level of freedom in setting their own working schedules can go a long way.

This is especially true if you have a geographically distributed team with people in different time zones.

If a flex-time work arrangement isn’t an option for your business, you could also consider offering compressed workweeks (4 working days per week instead of 5).

5. Pump More Budget into Employee Benefits

In addition to daily check-ins and flexible hours, you need to give your remote employees the same level of love as your in-house teams when it comes to perks and benefits.

Here are some ideas:

  • Internet/Technology allowance
  • Homecare service
  • Any free subscription service of their choice
  • Unlimited PTO

Additionally, you can offer retirement plans, insurance, free home-delivered meals, and much more. Set up a budget, ask your employees what perks they’d prefer, and set them up.

6. Set Up Weekly Team Meetings

Having individual check-ins with your team members over video calls is important for sharing feedback, cultivating strong relationships, and hearing their concerns.

In addition, you need to set up team meetings on a week-to-week basis, where employees can discuss strategy, share their challenges, or simply engage in team-building exercises to strengthen their camaraderie.

You may choose to have a fixed time for these meetings or schedule them whenever convenient (just make sure to do it at least a day in advance).

7. Leverage Telecommuting Tools

If you’re still only relying on Google sheets, email, and Skype to communicate with your remote employees, you’re missing out big time.

There are a ton of team management, project management, and communication tools that can make your day-to-day operations far smoother.

Unlike the traditional platforms mentioned above, most of the modern tools are highly configurable, which means you can customize them according to your requirements.

For video conferencing, you can always rely on Zoom, Cisco Webex Meetings, and Microsoft Teams.

For project management, tools like Asana, Trello, Airtable, and Monday.com are great.

If you want to share large files, WeTransfer, Dropbox, and OneDrive are good options.

Finally, for real-time messaging, you can never go wrong with Slack, Discord, and Google Hangouts.

The best part is that all of the aforementioned tools come with free plans with enough features for someone who has to manage a small or medium-sized team.

Even if you do have to opt for a paid plan for any of those tools, they won’t break the bank. If anything, they’d help you make more money in the long run.

What Does the Future Look Like?

All things considered, it’s safe to say that remote work is the future of work. According to a survey conducted by Slack, only 12% of employees want to return to the office. Furthermore, another survey found that 79% of millennials and zoomers in the 18 to 36 age bracket would prefer a WFH job.

Does this mean you should pack up your workplace and tell everyone to work from home? You can, if you want to, but it’s not necessary.

Ignoring mandatory lockdowns, the best approach in future would be to offer both options to your employees. Not only will this give you access to more talent from different corners of the world, but will also provide the much-needed flexibility to existing team members, lest they look for it elsewhere.