Virtual and dispersed teams are quickly going from novel to commonplace. In the past five years, the number of companies with remote, international teams have more than doubled. The numbers are expected to double again in the coming year. Even with the expectation that remote teams will continue to grow, many managers find it challenging to manage these teams. The lack of face-to-face collaboration, uncertainty about the tools to use, and other common challenges can prove difficult to overcome to even the most experienced in-person manager.
Let’s take a look at the common challenges managers face when learning how to lead remote teams. We’ll look at proven strategies for managing a remote team. We’ll also provide suggestions for some of the top remote team tools of the trade. And, for those managers who are interested in how to engage remote teams, we’ll share some powerful remote team-building activities.
What is a remote team?
A virtual or remote team is a small group of committed professionals who are using their complementary skills to achieve objectives and results for a company or brand. They are not geographically co-located. A dispersed team can have individuals who are working from anywhere in the world.
Many managers, from solopreneurs to Fortune 500s, are choosing virtual teams for several reasons. One of the most common is reduced overhead costs. Another is the option to go with contractors or freelancers instead of employees, further reducing operating costs.
One of the best reasons to choose remote workers, beyond cost, is the ability to select the best talent from around the world, rather than being limited to people who live or are willing to move to your company’s physical location.
Common challenges of remote teams
Even though you may be working with the best talent in the world, managing a remote team can be a significant challenge. Just a few common challenges of remote teams include:
- Tracking productivity,
- Building trust and rapport,
- Maintaining a healthy company culture,
- Encouraging collaboration,
- Scheduling work across time zones.
Communication is one of the most challenging skills to master, even in face-to-face relationships, both personal and professional. Adding distance and time zones to the mix can prove to be a make-it or break-it experience.
To minimize poor communication, managers can practice several best practices. First, implement the right tools. We’ll discuss the best tools later, but implementing tools that are simple and easy for everyone to learn and use will encourage robust communication.
Listening skills are hard to find. Managers who work hard to listen carefully to the needs of their individual team members, as well as the group as a whole, are solution-finders instead of slave drivers.
Productivity is one of those big question marks that can leave a team feeling disrespected, and managers feeling distrustful. While there are bad actors in the freelance and contractor space, most people genuinely want long-term relationships with regular income.
Empathy can go a long way. Managers who are able to bring kindness to the table are respected rather than feared. Respected managers promote motivated, high-quality work, whereas feared leaders promote inequity, poor communication, and limited productivity.
Think about the big picture. Many managers get drawn into bad habits like micromanaging, particularly when they don’t trust their team. Instead, focus on goals and outcomes. By focusing on what matters, minute-to-minute updates become an expensive way to invest working hours, tedious, and generally less useful.
Build trust and rapport
Nobody wants to work with strangers. Not only is it counterproductive and creates a slower workforce, but a lack of connectedness and trust can also create problematic behaviors like information hoarding and unnecessary competitiveness.
Make time for face-to-face communication and get to know remote workers. Filling the social disconnect can do wonders for trust-building. Something as simple as remembering birthdays, using nicknames instead of formal legal names, and asking about the things workers care about, such as friends, family, and pets, can build humanity back into the perception of one’s co-workers.
Focus on strengths. By recognizing the strengths of the individuals on the team, managers can quickly build and maintain rapport. Recognize accomplishments. Create a list of go-to people for various skills. Invite people to take turns talking about what they do best. When teams see each other in a positive light, it gives them a starting place for rapport-building and ongoing trust.
Pro tip: Autonomous, self-directed teams are often more productive, collaborative, and are better for company culture.
Maintain a healthy company culture
Company culture is one of those intangibles that can inspire great teams to do great things, or end a company, altogether. Poor culture can lead to high turnover and contagious negativity. A great culture can lead to brand ambassadors who promote the organization from within as well as to the public.
Make time for fun. Great companies with great cultures take time for breaks, fun, and laughter. Play digital games together and make time to get to know each other by finding common ground. Nothing makes a company worth bragging about like work that doesn’t feel like work 100% of the time.
Close skill gaps. Encouraging growth in individuals and groups build trust that the manager and the organization care. However, it also allows workers to gain a deeper understanding of their work. By keeping things interesting, growing together, and offering continuing education, workers are stronger, and skill-gaps are significantly reduced.
Collaboration is one of the biggest reasons remote workers who are co-located are often recalled into the office. When Yahoo! recalled hundreds of their remote workers in 2013, it was a controversial move, but it wasn’t because of a lack of trust or individual productivity.
The Yahoo! recall, along with many others, was because idea generation and the ability of the company to capitalize on their intellectual capital was thought to depend on the casual, collaborative problem-solving that occurs in face-to-face, in-person work environments.
That notion has since been dispelled by the general working public, given the advent of more and more collaboration tools and strategies for digital teams. Icebreakers and conversation starters are a tried and true communication tool that encourages idea generation when used strategically. Offering more autonomy to workers to find solutions and work together, rather than reporting only to their manager is also an effective management style.
Scheduling work across time zones
Hiring the best talent from around the world is a huge win for everyone, but one of the most significant drawbacks is coordinating work across time zones. Meetings, collaborative calls, and more can end up taking several days instead of several minutes.
Information sharing is one of the best solutions to the time zone conundrum. Effective communication is crucial, but information sharing is one of the pieces of the puzzle that many managers miss.
Instead of the old way of conveying information, such as long emails and phone calls, choose collaborative communication and centralized document sharing platforms such as Slack. Rotate meeting times so everyone can contribute. And rotate some responsibilities, such as group or meeting leadership so that everyone can have work and communication lead by their timezone from time to time.
Strategies to help you manage your remote team
While the above common managerial challenges of remote teams, there are additional strategies that can prove useful and lucrative for many organizations.
Transparency is the new black
Just like black is the color of choice for ties and cocktail dresses at most soirees, transparency should be the best practice for leaders and remote workers. Everyone should feel free to share ideas, talk about what works and what doesn’t, offer opinions, and understand expectations. When a workforce practices inclusion and makes workers feel like their opinions matter, it’s a recipe for success.
Organized work and clear expectations
Everything, from closets and desks to to-do lists and workload, feels better when it’s organized. By helping remote workers understand their job and how to prioritize based on clear goals and objectives, everyone works with less clutter on their desk, and on their mind, making them happier and more productive.
Engage often with reliable tools
By checking in with individuals and teams regularly, workers have a clear sense of when they’ll be able to ask questions and help problem-solve. It gives them a sense that the organization is dependable, and they aren’t alone. Using reliable tools that are easy to learn is also vital. Nothing causes more anxiety and will pull focus, like misbehaving, unreliable tech.
Pro tip: managers are more likely to gain buy-in from their team if they ask for input and implement change suggested by their workers.
Avoid too much multitasking
Our fast-paced digital world can leave us feeling like we have to move at light speed to keep up. However, when examining the science behind productivity and healthy minds, researchers have put to rest any ideas that multitasking is healthy. In fact, multitasking can be an especially bad idea for remote teams. Craft small, everyday, high-quality communication best practices, such as creating a new email thread when the conversation drifts from whatever the original subject line was referencing. And build out big-picture monotasking, such as creating a timeline that uses a team bandwidth on only one or two projects at a time.
The best tools for remote teams that you should be using
Finding the right tools are crucial for a functioning, healthy team. Everyone needs to track time, communicate, collaborate, store files, and more. Failing to understand the usefulness or functionality of available tools or resources can lead to a precarious balance between team success and failure.
While you always want to build trust throughout your team, blind faith is irresponsible. Team members need accountability, as well. And managers need to be able to account for their teams and budgets to their leadership. Popular time trackers can be found everywhere. One of our favorites is HubStaff. They allow for time tracking by project so that managers can budget properly. They also have invoice tools and other benefits that are valued by workers and employers.
It can be tough to find the ideal, singular location for all communication. More and more collaboration tools are trying to build facilitated communication into their platforms, but nothing beats simple conversation threads. Skype is a long-time favorite for chat, video calls, and screen sharing. Slack is one of those seminal chat and community managers that is used by big and small organizations.
Even though casual conversations and chatter are important, getting into the weeds and working at the task level requires some structure and design. Google Drive has yet to see a competitor that proves to be a real threat to their live collaboration features. However, to organize ideas, comments, and keep a home for deadlines and tasks, there are several favorites. Trello, Airtable, Asana, and Favro are some of the most successful collaboration and project-to-task facilitating platforms with significant sticking power.
Pro tip: small leadership teams of remote workers run most of these collaboration platforms. If you adopt a tool and find it’s missing something, tell their customer service team. They’ll often build your feedback into coming updates.
Ideas for remote team-building activities
There are several types of team-building activities. Icebreakers are designed to get the ball rolling at the beginning of meetings. That way, managers don’t have to fall back on singling out individuals for small talk while the rest of the group waits for the meeting to get started.
A fun Icebreaker can be as simple as asking everyone to come prepared with a picture or answer to a question of the week. By quickly going around the “room” and giving everyone a moment to share, teams can get to know each other over time. This icebreaker is also easy because anyone can play regardless of how familiar they are with the work, the team, or the setting. Questions might be as simple as asking whether the worker is a dog person or a cat person. Pictures to share could be a home office, a pet, or a favorite local haunt.
Games are a great way to get team members who might not otherwise interact, to work together on something other than busywork. Games also reveal strengths and interests that people might not otherwise talk about, even in small talk.
Scavenger hunts are a fun game that can be used to bring teams together, without sacrificing precious meeting time. Workers can rotate who they work with to solve puzzles or answer questions. Asking workers to work in smaller teams to find out who drinks the most coffee, who has the most fur-babies, and who lives the farthest from company headquarters can be an easy way to get people talking while encouraging a little healthy competition.
Activities are longer than an icebreaker, and less focused on winning than games. Recognizing team strengths and building gaps across weak skillsets is an important way to build trust and a desirable company culture. Lunch and learn meetings have had increasing success in both digital and in-person workspaces. Every employee has skills that others can learn from, even if only a tidbit or pro tip.
Create a calendar and ask that everyone attend a meeting where at least 15-20 minutes will be spent rotating among employees as they take turns giving presentations. They might choose a work topic, such as their approach to productivity. Or they may choose to share their favorite recipe for gumbo. Whatever they present, it will be something that allows everyone to expand their knowledge and grow.
What are some powerful ways you and your remote team find your footing? Do you have a favorite icebreaker, a vital tool or resource you would recommend, or a best practice you think every manager should know? Tell us about your successes and share your best advice.