For many managers, the prospect of working with a fully distributed team is a daunting task.
Perhaps this is why many companies have been pushing their employees back to the office.
To get people to return, these companies have been offering incentives, such as special perks only available to in-person employees (the so-called "carrot" method). Others have been threatening to lay off or cut the pay of those who don't return to in-person work.
Despite the desire of some companies and managers for their people to work in an office once again, many jobs will remain remote or at least be done on a hybrid basis.
Managing a remote team is different
What works in person no longer works in an online setting. It’s no longer possible to “get a pulse” on what’s going on just by walking around the office.
Here are 12 mistakes managers commonly make when working with a remote team.
Mistake #1: Not managing alignment directly
Alignment is a process that requires constant management.
This does not mean micromanaging people. Rather, managers need to consider the systems, processes, structure, and incentives surrounding the work their people do.
That is, managers need to think about what systems they have in place today and how it supports aligning their remote workforce.
One reality of remote work is that it often means more autonomy for employees. Instead of walking around, “trying to catch” employees slacking off, managers need to now entrust their people to do the right thing at work.
Therefore, managers should develop an alignment management strategy and use it to keep people working together on the right tasks and goals.
Mistake #2: Using employee monitoring software
I’m not categorically against all forms of employee monitoring software, unlike some critics. Rather, I think these tools are ill-suited for most teams.
If you’re not in a consulting business that bills clients on an hourly basis – such as an outsourced accounting, law, IT, or management consulting firm – then you probably don’t need to use employee monitoring software that tracks your employee’s every move.
At this point, you might be asking: what’s the harm in using these tools?
On the surface, it may seem like these tools are no different than being able to work in an open office plan, where everybody is able to see what one another is doing.
But you’re forgetting that you’re likely watching someone work in their own home. You’re monitoring their personal device. You’re invading their virtual personal space.
The negative cost of monitoring employees in this way can be significant. For employees, this can mean that they feel like their every move is spied upon. They may feel like they’re being targeted because they’re not delivering results.
Soon, employees who are spied upon begin to feel like they’re not able to take breaks, make mistakes, or take risks. As HR Daily Advisor lists, some of the most notable cons of employee monitoring include:
- A sense that an employee’s privacy has been violated.
- Monitoring signaling a lack of trust, which can cause resentment in employees, thus reducing employee morale and productivity.
- Employers may find it difficult to retain top employees because other companies (that they feel treat their employees better) don’t monitor them.
These tools also create the temptation for micromanagement. Someone slacking off for a few minutes? It’s too easy to send them a Slack message asking them what they’re doing.
The feeling that monitoring creates of always being “under the gun,” can break down a sense of psychological safety – the attribute Google researchers found was integral to high performing teams – and increase stress, which can lead to burnout.
Mistake #3: Focusing on time spent, not outcomes.
In the same vein of tracking employees using monitoring software is being overly reliant on time tracking as a metric for measuring your team. While it’s often a necessity to track time for payroll, it is not a good proxy measure for productivity or value creation.
In fact, we recommend that managers of salaried employees completely rethink how they associate time with value creation. Consider implementing a performance-based compensation strategy, which rewards outcomes, rather than just outputs.
If you’re managing software engineers, be sure to check out our article from last week with 56 KPIs for Agile Software Teams for ideas of what measures to track. Giving software engineers autonomy over how they work can actually boost productivity. After all, building software is not a linear process – it is often messy and requires stepping back to reframe a problem.
Software like Minsilo can help facilitate outcome-based thinking, by providing a clear link between day-to-day execution and organizational goals.
Mistake #4: Prioritizing synchronous communication over asynchronous communication
Most communication tools only focus on the here-and-now. You need to read the entire conversation to get the gist of what is being said. Without context, you have no idea what people are actually saying.
While these tools are convenient, they’re rarely the best way to communicate about key decisions, project updates, or information that needs to be referenced in the future.
Many newly remote teams have moved to tools like Slack and Zoom to communicate quickly online. While these tools are a good replacement for the analog in-person process, working remotely presents a new opportunity to use asynchronous channels – such as wikis, project management tools, and alignment management tools – to manage communication.
Mistake #5: Creating “digital” versions of in-person processes
The term digital transformation often gets thrown around when it comes to remote work. After all, the promise of a fully technology-enabled workforce – which is integral to remote work – is enticing to many business leaders in organizations large and small.
Unfortunately, many companies that go remote only focus on the first half of digital transformation: going digital.
Transformation means that you rethink and reinvent the way you get work done. When it comes to managing teams, this can mean:
- Adopting new communication systems
- Rethinking how you measure progress
- Changing the way you incentivize behavior
- Exploring opportunities for process automation and process redesign.
As with any form of change management, managing change works best when there is a catalyst – especially a catalyst that everybody can understand the value of. COVID-19 and the ensuing shift to remote work is one such catalyst.
Savvy managers have already capitalized on this shift to remote work. They used the shift to introduce other changes, such as moving more communication to asynchronous channels.
Mistake #6: Assuming you don’t need to rethink how you manage people
If you’re used to managing a team that you see everyday in an office, it can be challenging to make the transition to remote work. The lack of constant communication and visibility, coupled with the new challenges of having to manage people who are in a new work environment (e.g. their home) can make even seasoned managers question their approach.
While there are no hard-and-fast rules about how to manage remote workers, consider adopting a few new practices:
- Lean into technology – remote work is enabled by technology, but many managers have yet to discover the wealth of tools and resources available to them for managing their people more effectively. There’s a whole world beyond video conferencing, chat, and email.
- Set the pace with your people – remote work typically means greater autonomy, but without any structure and a clear pace of work (we’ll talk about this one later on in this article), it can be tough for your team to stay in step with each other.
- Be a great listener – being a good listener was always a valuable management skill, but it is now a critical skill for any remote manager. Given the rapid rate of change at work, it could not be a more important time to leave aside your assumptions and start asking critical questions.
- Be a connector – ad-hoc interactions at work can be invaluable at fostering new opportunities for collaboration, idea sharing, and camaraderie. Spend time mastering the skill of email introductions and adopt a mindset of being a “people connector.”
Mistake #7: Thinking that remote work is temporary
Even after COVID-19 is over, companies that were once all in on office life are going to have to adapt to a world of hybrid work. Some employees will come to the office every single day, while many others will opt to come in only a couple of days a week. Others will have moved so far away from the office that they rarely ever come in.
If your company plans to go back to full-time, in-office work, expect that you’ll lose some of your best talent to companies that allow remote work. High performing companies across a number of industries have realized that allowing people to work from home has not only boosted employee morale, but also has increased their productivity.
Mistake #8: Assuming that everybody wants to work remotely forever
Although remote work is here to stay, not everybody who works remotely wants to do so forever. While consistent data is hard to come by1, one trend appears clear: many people want to return to the office, at least for a few days per week.
Managers will need to think carefully about how they construct their teams going forward to address this reality. We recommend adopting a remote-first system for work, which allows for many of the benefits of working remotely even if some of your team is in an office.
Mistake #9: Assuming remote work alone is a competitive advantage
By definition, a competitive advantage is some advantage that your company has that your competitors do not.
Thus, if every company offers remote work, it is no longer a competitive advantage. It might have been before March 2020, but it is no longer the case in the post-COVID world. Managers can no longer rely on remote work as a differentiator to attract talent.
Nevertheless, while the mere option of working remotely is no longer enough to differentiate your company, the way you manage remote can be.
Companies that provide greater autonomy for their employees, as well as more flexibility in their working hours, will be able to attract top talent more easily than companies that do not.
Companies that provide opportunities for career growth for remote employees will be able to compete for talent better than their peers that treat remote workers as second to their in-office colleagues.
Companies that provide flexible, remote-friendly perks programs – with many that can replace in-office perks – will also find it easier to attract and retain top talent.
Mistake #10: Not having the right structure in place
One of the key ingredients to an aligned workforce – especially one that is fully remote – is having the right structure for work to take place in. Structure enables people to work efficiently, ensures work gets done, and even can boost creativity.
Be careful when implementing systems that create structure. It’s important to not cross the line into bureaucracy, which can counteract many of the benefits of a structured work environment.
Structure is being able to know what to work on next – no need to ask “what should I do now.” It means having customer-driven deadlines. Structure means taking a disciplined approach to getting work done.
Bureaucracy is having to rigidly follow the structure, even when prevailing information says you should do otherwise. Bureaucracy is having processes to regulate things that should be common sense. Bureaucratic teams focus solely on “what,” rather than asking “why.”
As Citeman explains in their article on the topic, the key difference between structure and bureaucracy is standardization. Structure is flexible, whereas bureaucracy attempts to apply a single rule to every situation.
Mistake #11: Not investing in the right tools
Companies that don’t invest in their employee’s work tools are losing out on significant improvements in productivity.
These tools include:
- Ergonomics hardware, especially high-quality office chairs and adjustable desks. Expect to spend ~$1,000 for a quality office chair and $500 – $1500 for a desk.
- Computer hardware, including having multiple large monitors, ergonomic keyboards and mice, and fast computers that allow employees to get more work done in less time.
- Educational resources, such as audiobooks, online courses, and the like to help newly remote employees be more effective at their jobs.
While it may seem like these tools can be costly, consider the average knowledge worker making $50,000 per year (total comp.). If you spend $4,000 to improve her work tools, you’ve only increased your costs by 8% for the first year. Most of those tools don’t need to be replaced every year, so your annualized cost is much lower.
If you spend $1,500 a year on a $50K per year employee to improve their workspace, you only need to see a 3% increase in productivity. Just adding a second monitor can improve productivity by 35%.
Ergonomic furniture also has a big impact on your company’s bottom line: they reduce fatigue, the risk of injury, and stress. The use of ergonomic equipment can help reduce long-term health costs and decrease the likelihood of employees calling out sick. And, according to Steelcase, employees who sat in the Steelcase Leap experienced an 8.3% to 17.8% increase in productivity in their study.
Remember, the biggest labor cost is salary and wages, so be sure to help your people optimize the time they spend working.
Mistake #12: Not focusing on the mental health of your remote employees
Burnout is a real problem for remote workers, especially during COVID-19. According to job site Monster.com, 69% of employees experienced burnout symptoms while working from home in July 2020.
In addition, many remote workers have begun to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression, particularly in response to COVID-19.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “nearly half of American adults report that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health.”
The cost of burnout on productivity is substantial: according to Forbes, burnout can lead to disengagement, which can cause up to 34% of an employee’s annual salary to go to waste.
A December 2019 article in the Harvard Business Review suggests that the problem of burnout is mostly caused by workplace conditions, rather than personal issues of employees.
Managers should pay careful attention to the well-being of their staff and provide them with support – whether by connecting them to resources that can help, by providing them with some time off, or just being a trusted listener that can empathize with them.
Don’t forget to take care of your own well-being, as well. After all, you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.
(1) When conducting research on this article, we discovered significant variations in studies conducted in 2020. One study asserted 94% of employees wanted to return to the office at least one day per week, while another conducted by Slack between May and August asserts ~75% would prefer to remain remote. We believe there has been a shift in sentiment as time has progressed during COVID – perhaps due to the novelty of remote work wearing off on some workers or as a seasonal shift.