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June 15 2020

Check Your Distance: How to Effectively Manage Remote Teams

Industry Insights

Harry Mellor

Harry Mellor

Check Your Distance: How to Effectively Manage Remote Teams

James Moore, F-LEX’s Co-Founder and CTO, recently ran a webinar in collaboration with LawNet where he shared his top tips on effectively managing a remote team. 

James has been managing remote teams for 15 years. These have incorporated different time zones, geographies and cultures, and have made James well-accustomed with the different obstacles which may hinder remote workers. Now managing an entirely remote team, James has found the adjustment to current conditions relatively seamless.

The biggest question a remote manager must ask themselves is ‘how can the project progress?’ Fortunately for readers, James has found a few key strategies which help to answer this.

Distinguish between co-located and remote teams

When everyone works remotely, there are fewer communication issues because everyone is in the same working environment. However, problems can arise when a team is split, with some working together in the office and some working remotely. This is because the team in the office could agree something verbally which doesn’t get relayed to those working remotely, for instance. Team integration is another big concern. An office environment often leads to lots of informal interactions between team members throughout the day, for instance having a quick chat as you make a coffee or going out together to grab lunch. This strengthens team cohesion and collegiality, however for remote workers it can lead to feelings of isolation and detachment from the rest of the team, which ultimately impacts on efficiency and the quality of work being produced.

So what is the solution? If it is possible, try to separate teams into those working together in-person and those working remotely. By doing so, remote workers are less likely to feel that they are missing out on the office environment because the rest of their team is also working remotely. If this distinction isn’t feasible, it is important to address the unequal footing of remote workers. Team meetings play a huge part here because they offer a platform for everyone’s thoughts and problems to be heard and considered equally. Further, regular informal catch-ups between team members and supervisors helps to make remote workers feel included and engaged with the team.

Encourage asynchronous communication

In an effective team, everyone is communicating constantly. However not all communication is equal, and it is important to understand the nuances of its different forms. Asynchronous communication means that you don’t expect a response to a message or query straight away, but instead within a reasonable timeframe. Conversely, synchronous communication means that a response is expected almost instantly, and can leave you sitting at your screen waiting for it to appear.

James has found that encouraging asynchronous communication and work practices to be the best approach for workflows and enhanced productivity. This is because the stress levels and pressure felt by employees increase when they feel the need to respond instantly to every question they are sent. This can often mean they are ‘firefighting’ by responding to these messages instead of completing more productive work. Asynchronous communication removes this pressure, and means that their thought processes aren’t interrupted by every new notification. As a remote manager, encouraging this communication style is a great way to increase team productivity.

But synchronous communication still has its place!

Despite the above, synchronous communication should still be used where appropriate. An example may be daily update meetings with your team. Here, James asks team members what they did the day before, what they are planning to do that day, and what may be preventing them from completing it. This helps people to feel supported, and ensures that work-quality is high and that resources are being properly allocated. James also has 1-to-1 catch ups with his team every two weeks, where he has a wider chat about work and how they are getting on generally. This helps to set goals for each team member, and shows an investment into personal relationships which helps with team cohesion and wellbeing.

Deconstruct large tasks

James’s final tip is to break down large pieces of work into smaller tasks which can be more effectively allocated without overwhelming individuals. By doing so, tasks are also more easily reviewed by peers. This contributes to a rigorous quality-checking system, and allows for accountability to be shared between a team for a large project, instead of one person having to carry complete responsibility.

Some FAQs about remote management

How do we ensure junior people have enough supervision and are keeping their profile up? 

It can be tricky for more junior team members to work remotely. James has found the peer-review mechanism useful for collegiate work because it allows junior members to constantly learn, and also for their individual wins to be celebrated. By doing so, confidence within the team also increases, meaning junior members are more likely to reach out for help when they need it.

How do you deal with huge email traffic and highlight important messages? 

We can all be captive to our emails. A simple way to manage emails is to set up labels and tags in your inbox, which help to automatically file away unimportant messages. This leaves your inbox as a ‘to-do’ list, which only contains messages which need actioning and helps avoid distractions.

Further, James recommends the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (2016). This book helps to break down some of concepts discussed in this post, and highlights the difficulty of returning to a task once your focus has been broken.

Do any of you have examples of good practice you have adopted around supervising junior team members?

  • Open door policy: It is important to be approachable and make time for team members, particularly junior members who may have more questions compared to more established colleagues. Making the effort to reach out to your team on an individual basis also helps to create a supportive and collegiate working environment, and stops junior members from ‘suffering in silence’.

  • Technology: Zoom, Slack, and OfficeVibe are all pieces of technology that F-LEX uses on a daily basis to stay connected and ensure that an accurate understanding of team morale is being gauged.

  • Retrospective meetings: These are held every two months, and allow the team to break down what has gone well recently and what can be improved on going forwards.

  • Elevensies: F-LEX has implemented ‘Elevensies’ since the start of lockdown which allows the whole company to catch up informally over a coffee at 11am every Friday. We hold this over Zoom for around 30 minutes, and each week someone sets a trivia quiz. This has been great because it means everyone gets to chat to people in different teams that we may not be working with on a daily basis!