Seven Tips for Remote Team Management

Do you work from home, or manage a team that primarily works from home? While avoiding office politics and a rush-hour commute is a dream for almost anyone, managing a remote team can be a challenge. It is important that your team feels like a team, even though its members may never see each other, and that your staff members have ways to communicate and accomplish projects as easily as if they were working in the same space. Here are seven tips for remote team management to help you manage your team more effectively, and to help make working from home more easy.

Emphasize that everyone is on a team.

When your remote team is comprised of freelance contractors or salaried employees, it is important to establish a culture that emphasizes everyone is still part of a team. Breeding team culture doesn’t translate to requiring each contractor or employee to read motivational books in lieu of a corporate retreat to a rope course (or worse: both). However, your team members should be encouraged to collaborate and contribute to each other’s work for the benefit of the team. In an office environment, employees often have side conversations or send each other off-topic pictures and YouTube videos, as well as coordinate lunches and gatherings to cultivate a culture that develops companionship. Consider utilizing some of the tools mentioned below, such as video chat and chatrooms, to replicate this same type of environment, albeit virtually.

Additionally, consider hosting a yearly (if not semi-annually) all-hands gathering to allow the team to meet, chat, and socialize face-to-face. This is especially critical if everyone on your remote team is new, which can psychologically help solidify the concept of a team, though everyone will usually be working remotely. You may also want to celebrate birthdays and other common celebrations often conducted in office environments (e.g., secret Santa exchanges, such as the one LockerGnome conducted via Elfster this year) to emphasize that you may all work from home, but you are still a team.

7 Tips for Remote Team ManagementEstablish clear goals and ground rules.

If you have a remote team, it is likely that your team is small with unique responsibilities for each person. Be sure that each remote team member understands their individual goals and responsibilities so as not to duplicate efforts of other team members they likely can’t see or hear, which can waste time and your budget. Using project management tools like Basecamp can ensure that everyone knows what needs to be done, and who is working on each task.

Additionally, if there are rules to be set — such as being available between certain hours of the day or on certain days of the week — be clear about these ground rules and to whom they apply. Many people who work remotely often use this as a luxury to escape the 9 to 5 grind, which may mean unique sleeping habits or a preference to work during early mornings or late evenings. If you prefer your remote team to be available during specific times, be sure to clarify these rules to prevent unrest and an unhappy team.

Communicate effectively.

A remote team means that your contractors or staff will be working alone, unable to peer over a cubicle wall to ask a question or knock on your door should a problem arise. This also means the typical Monday morning staff meeting doesn’t happen — unless, of course, you utilize tools such as Skype, GoToMeeting, or even Google+ hangouts to virtually replicate the concept of meetings. Scheduling virtual meetings on a daily basis using one of these tools (we’re fans of of using Citrix’s GoToMeeting every morning at 10 am) is useful for remote teams to ensure everyone is staying on task, as well as to discuss problems and long-term goals and projects. Be sure to use the best method of communication for your type of team; you may need to share screens, or may not need audio at all. Several conference platforms exist, and you can choose the best for your budget. Be sure, however, to choose the most effective method of communication that fits your remote team’s needs.

Communicate frequently.

Once you have decided on the best methods of communication, be sure to allow your team to communicate frequently. Tools like Basecamp’s Campfire and Google Chat’s Partychat are great ways for remote teams to collaborate on projects and discuss concerns throughout the day, just as if they were sitting in an office together. If these tools prove distracting for your team, discuss other ways to ensure your team members are communicating frequently enough with each other to prevent mistakes, unnecessary progress on cancelled projects, or to announce breaking news and emergencies. If you choose the most effective means of communicating for your team, you will be able to communicate frequently with your remote team — and you should.

Compromise time zone differences.

The luxury of working as a remote team member usually means that you can work from almost anywhere in the world, during any time of the day. This, however, means that your remote team must usually compromise and work as if they are on a single time zone, especially if you collaborate and hold daily virtual conferences. Some members of your virtual team may find it easier to compromise and work as if they lived in the same time zone as the majority of the virtual team to prevent longer working days than necessary. Your entire team may also find it beneficial to work as if everyone lived in a specific time zone, such as on the east coast if the majority of your clients are based in that region. Keep in mind that this type of adjustment will limit your team’s personal flexibility and lifestyle, as each will be required to be available during specific hours.

Use the right tools to manage projects.

In many offices, teams manage projects using whiteboards, easels, and good ol’ fashioned pen and paper. Remote teams work virtually, requiring projects to be managed with virtual applications to keep track of clients, tasks, projects, and documents. Your team may have a comprehensive list of clients and need a CRM such as Salesforce, or you may constantly be transferring files and need a file transfer app like Dropbox. If your organization is task oriented, you may want to utilize a service like Producteev to manage tasks, while something like Basecamp may fit better into an organization that needs to manage ongoing projects. (Basecamp also offers a built-in CRM and a chatroom, which is great for small teams that need a comprehensive way to communicate about both projects and tasks.) These tools mentioned are usually just the right size for small remote teams, but there are dozens of other project management tools available that can benefit your specific type of business. While you may need to investigate what fits your company, be sure your remote team is using some type of project management tool. Even using email with a few color-coded labels can suffice in the short term until you find the app that fits your business best.

Respect individual lifestyles and schedules.

If you have developed a team that works primarily away from an office, you have likely granted its members the freedom to define not only where they work, but the hours they work. Many remote team members may have children, pets, or other responsibilities that may pull them away from their home office (or the coffee shop) during “normal” working hours. While some members of a remote team may enjoy setting a rigid schedule, others (like yours truly) enjoy the absence of a schedule, taking breaks throughout to run errands, hit the gym, or even write late at night instead of during the day. It is important to trust your remote members to do their jobs as agreed upon and define their own work and life style until they demonstrate a lack of responsibility. Many managers in the 9-5 corporate environment seem to enjoy micromanaging their employees’ schedules, as these employees are typically required to be at their cubicle during these hours. As you manage your remote team, try to avoid micromanaging your remote team members’ lifestyles until it begins to impact their performance, the team, and of course, your business.

Do you work from home? What tips or tools help your team be the most effective and successful? Share your thoughts in the comments.

CC image of red stapler via Cliph.

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Kelly Clay, author of Blog Without Boundaries, is a freelance writer and lifestyle advisor.