Just five years ago, remote work was considered to be the way of the future, but only the distant future. Most specialized web publications predicted a rise in the popularity of telecommuting, but only in ten years’ time. However, this future arrived much earlier.

Buffer’s research says that 98% of employees would like to have the possibility to work remotely, and 97% consider this to be objectively optimal. The global quarantine at the beginning of 2020 accelerated the process of transferring to remote work, and many companies continue to work in this way even after the lockdown was canceled. This situation has become somewhat of a challenge for managers: although the team and the project remained the same, many processes had to be radically changed or even set up from scratch. In this article, we are going to analyze the main problems of managing remote personnel and consider options for solving them.

Why this is important

Fact №1: The number of remote employees is growing with each year. According to FlexJob for 2019, the number of remote workers has grown by 2.5 times over the past 12 years. Although some companies decided to bring their employees back into the office, it is likely that a full or partial transition to remote work will still happen, even if it takes a while. The market is expanding, new startups are appearing, companies are opening representative offices in other regions, new teams are coming into existence. When creating each new company or division, managers consider the pros and cons of both onsite and remote formats, and preference is being given to telecommuting with increasing frequency.

Fact №2: If applying the principles, which were used when working at the office, in personnel management on a remote site, a manager will not be able to fully control a number of processes. Simply said, if a manager doesn’t take the transition to remote work seriously, they risk losing touch with their team and noticing a decrease in productivity, which will only worsen over time. On the other hand, when they understand the problems that the team members are facing and implement the right practices, a PM will be able to reap all the benefits of remote work.

Problems that remote team members may face

The 2020 survey showed that remote employees are most concerned about the following consequences:

  1. Communication problems. Due to the absence of non-verbal signals, employees may sometimes misunderstand each other. Misunderstandings most often arise when communication is conducted only via messages, without voice calls.
  2. Loneliness, a sense of being abandoned. For many people, most of their social activity takes place at work, and colleagues are their close friends. The absence of such communication can lead to social isolation and cause a feeling of loneliness.
  3. Problems with “disconnecting” from work issues. If you work in the same place you live in, life often turns into non-stop work. When there is no clear office/home division, as well as no intermediate stage like commuting, boundaries are blurred.
  4. Personal degradation. When there is no need to go out every day, many people stop taking care of their looks as much as they used to. Also, motivation to develop intellectually and physically reduces. 

The above-mentioned problems, as well as many other, not obvious ones, lead to a loss of motivation. People stop being passionate about their work: it turns into a routine, sometimes a very painful one. To avoid this effect, a PM should pay special attention to personnel management.

What a manager should do

There are many ways to increase the motivation of your team members, improve communication with them, and tune in to common goals. Good managers already know many of these methods; some managers apply them intuitively. Still, it will be useful for every PM to refresh this list in their memory from time to time.

So, here is what a manager can do for their remote-working team:

  1. More communication. Daily Skype calls with the team will allow you to keep in touch and be aware of each other’s tasks.
  2. Video calls as frequently as possible. Although some team members are more comfortable with voice-only conversations, a video call best imitates a face-to-face meeting and eliminates the shortage of social interactions.
  3. The opportunity to talk one-on-one. A manager should communicate with each team member in private; once every two to three days would be perfect. Together with daily calls, this will allow you to always be aware of current problems and solve them in a timely fashion.
  4. Availability 24/7. It’s not that comfortable, of course, but thanks to this approach, you can gain maximum loyalty. When employees know they can get advice and support at any time, they will try not to let you down. On the contrary, the contact-with-questions-only-during-working-hours policy makes team members less loyal. Why would they care about the projects and the company’s interests if the manager doesn’t?
  5. Emoticons, stickers, and gifs in messages. These tools help to portray emotions, thus compensating for the absence of non-verbal communication. But it’s important to know when enough is enough. 🙂
  6. A work schedule that is convenient for everyone. If the team members are distributed around the world, it is necessary to organize several regular calls per day, so that each employee can conveniently communicate during their working hours.
  7. Necessary equipment. It is necessary to provide all team members with corporate equipment, if possible. This will eliminate downtime due to the fact that the employee’s personal laptop broke down, for example.
  8. Opportunities for personal and career growth. Remote employees, like onsite ones, are interested in advancement. It is necessary to help them improve their skills and offer them new opportunities if their abilities are growing.
  9. Encouragement of initiative. Taking the initiative is valuable because it shows that the employee cares for the company and the project. Moreover, a person will implement their own idea with greater enthusiasm. Team members should be encouraged to take the initiative as, even if their idea is not currently relevant, it shows a willingness to go above and beyond, and their idea may even be useful further down the road.
  10. Focus on the result, not the activity. It’s easier to evaluate the work of employees by activity, but the results are objective. A manager who understands their team members’ work will be able to evaluate the effectiveness of each member and give fair feedback.
  11. Intensify communication by inviting people to other calls. For efficient work, not only internal communication between team members is important but also communication with colleagues from the company’s other departments. Inviting an employee to a group call is much more effective than constantly mediating between team members and other employees.f tasks. This advice is relevant not only for remote work, but also for personnel mana
  12. Organization of brainstorming sessions. It is useful to engage the team in solving common problems.
  13. Proper allocation ogement in general. Most people are uncomfortable with working on several tasks simultaneously, so it is recommended to avoid multitasking, if possible.
  14. Informal communication on Skype/Zoom. People often miss communicating informally with colleagues, especially if they used to work together at the office. Virtual coffee breaks during lunch or casual Friday calls will help brighten up your leisure time.
  15. Offline events. At least once or twice a year, you need to get together. The easiest and most effective way is corporate parties. People who previously only communicated virtually can get to know each other better and bond, which will help them to work more efficiently in the future.
  16. Small gifts and bonuses, including some for employees’ families. Corporate merch may seem trivial at first glance, but it reflects and reinforces the company’s values.

Perhaps not all of these methods will suit every single company and team. But each PM will probably learn something useful from this list.

Manager’s personal traits

Let’s not forget that, along with the right actions, the manager should also demonstrate certain traits. These will not only help motivate employees but also help to earn their respect.

  1. Trust. By taking a person into the team, the manager has already shown confidence in them. Checking up on the employee constantly and doubting their effectiveness will make them feel disrespected. Any checks and reports should be reasonable – such as, for example, a daily team meeting. You need to understand the difference between jointly analysing the team’s work and requiring an employee to report on each and every action.
  2. Passion for work. If the manager does not love what they do, motivating the team will be much more difficult.
  3. Gratitude. Don’t forget to show that you value the efforts of your colleagues and the results they achieve. The more specific and personalized the gratitude, the better.
  4. Willingness to take risks for the sake of employees. The manager should be able to stand up for their team in front of both the customer and top managers. Few will follow a leader who does not take responsibility for the actions of their people and does not believe in their ideas.
  5. Self-confidence and perseverance. Sometimes even loyal employees disagree with the manager. You need to be able to objectively evaluate your arguments and those of others. If the manager is confident about being right, they should be able to convince others of it, even if the team members do not like this position.
  6. Ability to admit to mistakes. You need to understand the difference between perseverance and stubbornness and be able to quickly see when you are in the wrong. If the team was right to disagree with the manager’s position, the manager’s ego should not interfere with acknowledging this and making the necessary changes.

To reinforce these theories with practical experience and real cases, we interviewed our PMs about what methods they use to organize the remote work of their team, and what they consider useful or overrated.

Olga Volkova, a PM on the project of an international platform for taxi sharing (NDA)

As practice shows, remote work is good for introverts who are so disciplined that they are able to work almost without interacting with colleagues at the office. However, discipline is such a thing that even the most exemplary worker may weasel out of it. 

It’s important for me to keep in touch with the team. Jokes, discussion of weekends and plans for the evening, and turned-on web cameras help to establish this connection in a team. We worked with cameras even before the transfer to remote mode, because my teams are very diverse in terms of geography. But now this is another reason to put each other in a better mood: we set stupid backgrounds on Skype, laugh, discuss the news – so it’s like we talked about work and at the same time maintained friendly relationships. And work becomes more fun for everyone. On my Russian-language project, I organized a small English club twice a week. And half of the team’s 15 members attend it regularly. We improve our English and get to know each other better. There is somehow more mutual trust because of these meetings. I do this not because it is necessary, but because the guys in the teams are really cool; it’s interesting to spend time with them. Sometimes you learn such amazing things about people that you get really surprised and motivated.

About availability 24/7: my guys understand that I’m a human being too, not a robot on the other side of the monitor. They won’t bother me after working hours with little things that can surely wait till the next morning. But I also have a realistic attitude to my position and understand that I may be needed at any time. We once discussed jobs by distribution, and army recruitment, and even decided what to give to a beloved girl as a birthday present. But this does not get on my nerves, on the contrary, it’s great that the guys are so open and positive.

Yaroslav Gritsyna, a PM at the Andersen CRM project

Communication one-on-one with each member of the team is necessary, and once every 2-3 weeks is more than enough.

A daily call is a must, so the whole team will be aware of the entire project, as the slightest deviations from the original plan will be visible at this stage.

Reports are a very good practice. Customers who are not involved in the development process will be very grateful to see summaries of the development status.

98% (referring to the statistics at the beginning of the article – author’s note) is a bit surprising – is the remote work format really so popular and desired? 🙂

Leonid Vysochin, a PM at the EuroFunk project

I don’t agree that one-on-one communication should take place every 2-3 days. It should be done depending on the need, when the PM sees that something is wrong with the person or the person behaves in a nontypical manner. Such frequent one-on-ones will lead to the opposite effect. I recommend doing one-on-ones every month or when necessary.

Also, everyone should understand that there are working hours, and all the tasks assigned to the day should be solved during these working hours. A PM who is available 24/7 pampers both the team and the customer. They will just use you to solve issues whether you are necessary or not. There can be emergencies, of course, but they happen extremely rarely, and you need to be ready for them, but no more than that.

And here is a small lifehack that will help improve relations within the team, boost fighting spirit, and make the team even more holistic. 🙂 You should organize events with prizes for the winners, namely: a competition for the best Skype background during a daily meeting, a competition for the best clothes that a team member will wear for a daily meeting, and other competitions like that. The main thing is to have fun so that everyone participates with the cameras turned on, speaks, and votes (they can do it anonymously by messaging the PM directly). And of course, some tasty prizes for the winner – pizza, sushi, delivery of some other tasty food, followed by a photo from the winner in a chat with the team.

Sergey Krugley, a PM at Paxful.com project

Along with the morning daily call, we recommend making another regular but shorter group call in the afternoon. This will allow keeping in touch and being aware of each other’s tasks, as well as give a greater sense of involvement.

If the PM can be a career manager for the most promising employees, everyone will benefit from this. Employees will develop, the company will grow rich, and the manager himself will be able to become, like a famous poet once said, “a servant of the king, a father to the soldiers”, i.e. enjoy credibility among the company’s managers and employees. 

It is important to maintain communication in the group chat besides working topics and outside of working hours so that relations in the team are not that formal. If there is a human relationship, many issues are resolved more easily and things go more quickly.

Pay attention to the development of your soft skills and the soft skills of your key employees. These skills are very important for remote management.

It is important to understand that not all employees enjoy the remote mode. As Joel Spolski recommends, include in your team only those people who are smart and get things done, i.e. the intelligent ones and those who don’t need a nanny. And improve your PM professional skills. The skills that are especially important are the skills of conflict resolution, making presentations, thinking one step ahead, and holding distributed meetings – preparation, facilitation, and listening. Among the books about teams, I recommend the book The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization, as well as books by Joel Spolsky.

We hope this selection of techniques for working with employees remotely, as well as the advice of our PMs, will be useful and will help you in your relationship with your team. If you have something to add, write about it in the comments!