10 Essential Tips for Managing Remote Employees

In today’s global economy there are skilled people around the world that can help you build your company.  With the competitiveness in hiring talented people in tech epicenters, it becomes all the more enticing to hire people in other cities, states and countries to join your team.

Adding these remote employees to your team present unique challenges to management that you may be overlooking. Improving them will improve morale, productivity, and team cohesion.

I worked with a largely remote team when I ran product at KISSmetrics and ran a remote team in Boston for the 2.5 years for my past business, Greenhorn Connect.

Below are a few of the lessons I’ve learned and advice I’ve collected along the way that helped me better manage, motivate, and retain remote employees.

managing a remote team can put people all over the world.
Photo credit: Blossom.io

Managing people remotely can feel like a totally different challenge than managing people you work side by side with. Things that work in an office don’t always translate exactly to remote employees.

Often times, the biggest challenges are that things you naturally do in an office, don’t come naturally with your remote staff. Use these tips to be more conscious of the unique approaches you should take to managing remote employees.

1) Make time for small talk.

When managing remote employees, it’s easy to just talk about what needs to get done and jump off your call, end your chat, and get back to executing.  And in some cases, that’s exactly what you should do; if you’re on a tight deadline, fighting a fire, or just having a quick standup meeting that makes sense.  However, if that’s all you do, you’re really missing out on a critical part of management.

You must build rapport with *every* member of your team. Rapport is what will help you work through problems each team member has, trust they can come to you with things important to them, and give you the benefit of the doubt when you make a mistake or an unpopular decision.

Rapport does not come from doing and talking about work. Rapport comes from getting to know them as a complete person.

Ask them what they’re into, about their family, and where they’re from. Demonstrating you care is important to them and essential for you to truly understand their motivations. Taking the time to do this will also make them like working for you more.

Remembering what you do learn about them, especially for people you only see a couple hours a week on calls, can be hard. Apps like Lighthouse can help you keep track of those details as you learn them. You can also get more ideas for how to build rapport with anyone here.

Managing Remote Employees - sqwiggle is a great communicate when you manage remote employees

2) Use video as much as you can.

Research shows more than half of human communication is non verbal. When you don’t get to see someone in the office every day, having any type of visual clue to what someone is thinking is essential. Whether you’re gauging their reaction to a change in plans, or just trying to judge their overall mood that day, video tells you way more than an audio-only call or chat will ever reveal.

With so many free and inexpensive solutions for video chat (like Skype, Google hangouts, and Zoom), there’s no reason not to switch to video whenever you can.

Trust your instincts when you see something might be wrong and take the time to ask about it. Those non-verbal clues you see on video are your opportunity to fix problems when they’re small for your remote employees.

3) Have longer one on ones.

Since you don’t have all those moments in the office to build rapport and talk about issues ad hoc, make up for it by setting aside more time for your one on ones with your remote employees.

Your “open door policy” fails when it’s, “call me at a time that works….without our time zones conflicting….when I might be at my desk…but you can’t see for sure.”

If you ever forget to update your availability on Skype, HipChat, Slack, etc, realize that your remote employees have no idea when your door is actually “open.”

The best way to handle this is to give remote employees a full hour every week on your calendar for one on ones. This ensures you can cover a variety of topics and really dive into issues that aren’t covered because they’re not in the office for ad hoc discussions.

Want help making the most of your one on ones and automate some of the admin work around them? Then sign up for a free trial of Lighthouse here.

4) NEVER cancel a one on one.

One of the fastest ways to build resentment on your team is regularly canceling one on ones. They’ll probably agree if you ask, but that’s more about a power dynamic between manager and report than they really didn’t want to talk. There is always more to talk about even with your reports you sit next to.

Remote employees miss out on a lot of things going on in your office. They also miss out on the kinds of information that would naturally spread across an office related to other parts of the company and brief announcements.

One on ones provide an opportunity to make up for that as well as handle all the little things that build up over the course of a week. With so much to cover, you simply cannot afford to miss one for these team members.

Pick a time that always works for you for your remote 1 on 1s and make them sacred on your calendar. If you absolutely have to, reschedule it, but never cancel.

Managing Remote Employees - Use animated gifs to convey emotion when managing remote employees

5) Use animated gifs and emoticons to convey emotion.

Given that so much of communication is non-verbal, it’s hard for words alone to convey how you feel about something. Especially in work, words can come across more aggressive or not as impactful as you may like.

If someone did great work or there’s a good team win, find a gif at a site like giphy.com and send it with the message praising them (you are reinforcing good behavior, right?).

Watch how much better a reaction you get than when you just email, “Good job.” You can get a similar effect if you want to diffuse an email by putting an emoticon at the end to show you’re not too serious.

6) Balance schedule inconvenience.

Once you start adding remote employees, it won’t be long before you have people across many time zones. That can make meeting scheduling a real challenge. Often times, you will get one person that always has calls at awkward times for them.

At KISSmetrics, we had a designer in Australia. When it’s 8am there, it’s 3pm in SF (our main office) and 6pm on the East Coast (where a lot of the team lived). It always made calls challenging since his day was just beginning when many others were anxious to end their day and eat dinner with their families.

As product manager, I tried to schedule some of my calls with our designer for late at night. 10pm here in San Francisco is a nice 3pm in Australia. It had the desired effect of making calls easier to schedule and I know he appreciated not getting asked to wake up early for another call.

You show a lot of solidarity if every once in a while, team members in your main time zones accommodate your outlier. It will help your team remember the sacrifice their teammate is regularly making and help them empathize more with the distant, remote person.

managing remote emplyoees includes growing them too

7) Remember their career paths, too.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of  your remote team members as mercenaries helping you get things done. But just like the people in your office, they have goals and aspirations. Ensuring they make progress on their goals for growth and understand the career paths available by being remote avoids confusion or frustration.

If you follow through on the recommendation to have a one hour for one on ones with your remote employees, you will have plenty of time to talk about their career development.

[Ed note: You can use an app like Lighthouse to collaborate on their goals and growth so you can circle back as necessary and always remember what matters to them.]

8) Build a culture of adding people on Skype.

It’s easy to have discussions and pause and say, “Sam should be involved.” If Sam is in the office you will likely grab them and bring them into your meeting, but if Sam is remote, that often gets forgotten, or quickly passed over as not worth the hassle.

As a leader,  set the example. When situations like that arise, you should go out of your way to get the remote person into the meeting. If you would have interrupted someone in the office, then it’s worth bringing them in, or waiting until they’re available.

Whether you convey that it doesn’t matter or that it is important to loop in your remote team members, the rest of your team will follow your lead. You can make this easier by having the right tools at your disposal (the same software on everyone’s computers, hardware in conference rooms, etc) to reduce the friction of looping someone in.

Managing Remote Employees - Send swag for the whole family to delight the remote employees you manage
Swag for the whole family is a crowd pleaser that gets shared.

9) Send them swag for them and their whole family.

Especially if you’re a Valley company, we can take swag for granted around here. However, it’s easy to forget about how little swag your remote coworkers have as you sit in a sea of t-shirts by your desk.

In my experience, the moment remote coworkers get their swag is a big deal; getting to work for a company that is exciting, cutting edge, and has cool swag is part of what likely convinced them to join your company instead of something locally.

Send whatever swag you have, so that your remote employees have them, too. They’ll feel more connected to the team and not forgotten by the main office that may have people on video wearing swag all the time.

Bonus points to send the right sizes for their husbands, wives and kids. There’s a good chance the family will wear them and next thing you know your swag is on their Facebook and Instagram showing off your awesome company (like above).

10) Get together face to face at least once a year.

Nothing beats getting everyone together face to face. You’ll always get at least a few, “wow, you look different than you did on video” and other funny reactions. More importantly though, you’ll build more rapport in a few days of team work in person than months of remote efforts.

KISSmetrics did a summit once a year when I was there, and many fully-remote companies like Buffer actually travel as a team to exotic places like South Africa.

These gatherings may be pricey at times, but the ROI is very high. The energy from these gatherings is always high and provides a unique opportunity to have big discussions around culture, vision, and the company or team’s future that would be difficult to do with people spread around the world.

Want help managing your remote employees effectively? Then sign up for a free trial of Lighthouse.

We help managers at great remote companies and those with global offices like Automattic, Travis-CI, and Zendesk. Start your 21 day free trial now here.