Did you know that a recent global study, cited in a story by CNBC in 2018, showed that 70% of the worldwide workforce works remotely at least once per week?
And certainly a post-pandemic survey will only reflect that this number has increased even more.
Therefore, no discussion about teams in the modern era would be complete without discussion of best practices in leading remote teams.
In the last ten years, I’ve had the opportunity to lead ten different teams. But four years ago, I had my first assignment managing an entirely remote team.
I’m definitely still learning, but today I hope to share some tips from research, and from people doing this a lot longer than I have—that can save you time, and kick-start better results for you.
No one has done more research on American workers than the Gallup Organization. For their 2017 report on The State of the American Workplace, they collected data from 31 million respondents.
One of their top seven recommendations to leaders and companies is to increase opportunities for employees to work remotely.
The report is more than 200 pages, but I highly recommend that you read the first 9 pages of the executive summary, and the recommendations section. Link provided at bottom.
The research is clear—more and more people want the ability to work remotely, and it plays a huge role in whether they will take or leave a job. If your organization doesn’t offer this, you likely aren’t competing for the best members of the workforce. Even a couple of days a week can make a huge difference for people.
With all the rapid changes in global organizations however, Gallup is unwavering that one thing remains constant—leadership is still fundamentally about people, and the practices that pertain to them.
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Hassan Osman is a Senior Project Manager for Cisco Systems (#58 on the Fortune Ranking) who studied virtual teams during his time at Harvard. He works remotely, manages remote teams, and constantly writes and blogs about the subject. His short books provide zero fluff, research-backed advice for managing remote teams, and many of his suggestions are incorporated here.
- Hire people who can manage themselves well. Remote work is not the solution for everything. Ask new potential hires how they would manage a remote work arrangement. This might include a private space, family arrangements, and time management habits. Whenever possible, look for people who have already demonstrated the ability to produce results while working remotely.
- Communicate in a highly precise way. Most research suggests that about 75% of communication is non-verbal. Therefore, when working with a remote team you must become exceptional in your communication. You must be especially careful with email. Emails should be short, concise, and have a clear call to action. Fact—No one reads long emails anymore. And if there is any chance it could be misinterpreted, make a phone or Zoom call instead!
- Define the results you want. A key to managing remote teams is to be extremely clear with what result you are asking them to produce.
- Set clear deadlines. This can save you a ton of headache. Leave nothing to guesswork and make it crystal clear. If the employee doesn’t know the deadline, it’s stressful for them too because they cannot plan their time effectively.
- Over-communicate. Yes, I wrote this again in case you didn’t catch the full impact the first time. Communication in a remote leadership role is an essential skill that cannot be overemphasized. I love what Brene Brown says, “In the absence of clear communication, people make up stories.” If you don’t communicate well, people will attempt to fill in the gaps with speculation and gossip. Remote teams are at an even greater risk for this. Recognition and praise are even more important with remote teams.
- Increase your efforts to be reliable and reasonable. People work best with leaders and team members they like and trust. Without the ability to connect with them regularly in the office, you will have to work even harder to ensure that you are extremely reliable and reasonable. You must also emphasize how important it will be for team members to be reliable with one another. Trust will erode quickly without this culture. I also read an interesting leadership study recently that suggested many employees are afraid of their bosses. This being the case, you must take active and consistent steps to diminish fear.
- Keep personal connections alive and thriving. Remote work always runs the risk of becoming dry and transactional. This means you (as the leader) must make extra efforts to stay connected to people on a human level—and to help your team members connect with one another. One of the most common job satisfaction issues I hear from my remote team is loneliness, so make sure you get creative and facilitate connections. You can do this by sharing personal information (family, vacations, hobbies) about yourself, and encourage your team to follow your example. You could set up mentoring, buddy systems, or virtual work groups. This is vital. Furthermore, back in the 1950’s social psychologists at MIT discovered something they termed the Propinquity Effect (Latin for “nearness”) which proposed that people are likely to form closer relationships with people based on physical or psychological proximity. Without maintaining some kind of nearness to your team, your team may actually like you less, which means they will also trust you less. This will diminish your overall leadership.
- Make one-on-one time for your team. This principle is well established (see the Google Project Oxygen study). Science says the best managers spend individual time with people. This still applies in remote working conditions, and is perhaps even more essential.
- Hold some web-based meetings or phone conferences. As a recovering meeting slave, I now believe most meetings are unnecessary. The golden rules are that they should be infrequent and highly purposeful. But they are still very important. If possible, have a video meeting, it can help to create a more human connection than just using the phone.
- Hold some in-person meetings. Meet with the team in person a few times a year if possible. And be highly intentional about social engagements if people make the effort to travel. If that is the only time people see their colleagues all year, make sure you schedule time to socialize before, during, and after the meeting.
Does remote work improve team member productivity? Research from Stanford
Still skeptical about remote work?
I want to recommend a phenomenal (and hilarious) TED talk by professor Nicolas Bloom, which describes a study by Stanford University about whether or not remote work improves productivity. The answer may surprise you.
Stanford conducted this study at the largest travel agency in China in 2018. The agency had more than 16,000 employees and was finding it increasing difficult to retain talented staff members who had to fight the brutal traffic of Shanghai, and find a terrifically expensive place to live.
Here is a quick snapshot of their findings:
- Remote work improved employee productivity by nearly 6 hours per week
- Employee attrition dropped by 50%
- The company saved $2000 per employee annually in rent
- Traffic and carbon emissions were reduced
- At the conclusion of the study, most remote employees elected to return to the office part-time
A few parting thoughts… Remote work is not for every job or every person. Isolation and lack of face time can erode team relationships and cause loneliness over time.
If you do not currently offer the ability to work remotely, take some time to brainstorm how you might make this possible. Be creative and get input from others. Don’t be left behind in the global workplace and lose your best team members to other companies.
Have a great weekend!
- Gallup State of the American Workplace Report 2017 https://www.gallup.com/workplace/238085/state-american-workplace-report-2017.aspx
- Hassan Osman website https://www.thecouchmanager.com/aboutme/
- Influencing Virtual Teams—Hassan Osman
- 70% of global workers work remotely https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/30/70-percent-of-people-globally-work-remotely-at-least-once-a-week-iwg-study.html
- A 2 year study from Stanford shows the astonishing boost in work from home (INC magazine)