The basic role of a remote manager is the same as that of a middle manager: to lead the operation. However, the old way of leading no longer works. The remote leader must make effective use of online tools and ensure that collaboration is successful, motivating, creative, and that communication is effective. There is no single right course of action, but instead every organization and team must find the ways that work best for them.
Studies show that remote management is not in and of itself more challenging than leading a team who works in the same place. But, it is different. The reason it is often perceived as more challenging is because managers try to use the same way of leading remotely as they did before. According to Vilkman (2016), a remote manager should adopt a “virtual way of thinking”.
No matter what word you use – whether it is remote management, multi-site management, location-independent management, or virtual management – the challenges of remote management are usually related to trust, interaction, community, and ways of working.
Successful remote management/multi-site management/location-independent management/virtual management: 7 tips
1. Trust and Appreciation
As a team, talk about what everyone needs, longs for, hopes, appreciates in both their co-workers and you as a manager. Increase transparency: by clarifying roles, speaking out loud about what are colleagues working on, and agreeing on ground rules and/or procedures to ensure smooth operations.
In addition to trust, valuing a colleague is another of the cornerstones of remote management. If you do not value others or experience appreciation, cooperation will simply not work. Appreciation is a small act, and it can be e.g. paying attention to your colleague, offering help, greeting, listening, praising, and giving thanks. As a manager you are an example and you should encourage your team members to collaborate and consider others.
Further, remember to agree on when and why you will meet face-to-face. Normally, handling things remotely isn’t the issue. However, what many are longing for from face-to-face meetings is the chance to strengthen their social relationships and have more informal discussion. Remote meetings are usually more controlled and regulated than in-person meetings. Therefore, hold remote meetings to facilitate meetings where, e.g. there is a limited agenda or some information needs to be collected or shared.
Free creative collaboration, on the other hand, requires more from communication, so it may make sense to keep such meetings in-person. Presence is important: to be inspired by what others say, one has to listen, focus, and keep eye contact, and these are more easily done in-person.
2. Goals and Follow-up
In order to succeed in any leadership role, we need goals and jointly agreed ground rules. Further, for these goals to be relevant, work must be monitored.
Make sure everyone understands what you as a team are aiming for. As a team, have regular discussions about how each job/task/issue is leading towards your goals, and where you are in relation to the annual or quarterly goals. This will help you to prioritize your work.
Many managers rely on one-to-one follow-up meetings. I would love to see these transformed into learning meetings, where the team has the chance to reflect on how they work, what makes them annoyed, and how they can better manage their workload. I would completely transform the monitoring of the team’s results and goals to the team meetings. This way joint work and responsibility for achieving the teams’ goals can be activated. An exception to this are discussions about underperformance, they require more robust personal means.
For many, the idea of regular and weekly recurring meetings seems impossible due to the ongoing rush. I want to reassure you that the benefits of well-managed meetings will materialize into the team’s daily life and the manager’s own use of time faster than you would have thought, making it easier to act in crisis situations. When working remotely, the lack of communication is enhanced, which means that you must set aside more time for all communication. After all, with everyone working remotely, there are no ad hoc conversations around the coffee machine.
3. Managing Occupational Well-being
In the big picture, occupational well-being consists of work, the content of the work, the relevance of the work, good management, an encouraging work community, sufficient competence, motivation, and good work ability. The biggest challenge in remote management is related to how team members feel they have been heard, how their work is valued, whether it matters, and do they have a community to which they belong to and from which they receive support when needed.
As a manager, your most important thing to do is to ask: “How are you? What would you like to talk about? Are there issues for which you would want to discuss? How do you take breaks/make sure you don’t work too hard? What about ergonomics?”
Often people working remotely are in a so-called turbo mode and they don’t take enough breaks. As a remote manager, you don’t usually see when a team member is overburdening themselves. So, asking is the only way to find out. If possible, arrange walking meetings on this topic.
Remember that remotely you have to ask and reassure more. You need verbal communication for everything when gestures and facial expressions are not conveyed remotely as well as in-person. Interpretations will always arise, but in a remote context misunderstanding happens even more easily than in-person.
The priority in remote communication is to learn to express one’s feelings using the tools at disposal. For example, emotions can be articulated: “I feel that you are a little dissatisfied. Is that the right observation?” It is also worth practicing asking open-ended questions. These are questions, where the other party must form sentences to respond. For example, “How are you?”
A written message is quite often misunderstood, especially if it is brief. An important and complicated thing should never be communicated via email. If there is no option to do it in-person, then definitely remember to use a video connection with cameras on. Nor can communication be the sole responsibility of the manager. Encourage, demand, and enthuse colleagues to share their thoughts, knowledge, and their own ways of working among the team.
Pyyhti (2019) considers psychological safety to be an important source of openness, commitment, and motivation. The manager acts as a key figure in building psychological safety. In a psychologically safe team, employees dare to talk about difficult things and make mistakes. Openness enhances team spirit, which in turn strengthens commitment. If the work community does not feel safe, it is easy to be afraid to make mistakes and, as a result, withdraw from the team.
5. Emotions and their Effect
In remote management, one’s own emotional skills are also emphasized. How to recognize your own and other people’s feelings? How to be both empathetic and steadfast? Stop in different situations and think about what feelings are you feeling and how do they guide your actions.
Decide to be interested. A manager must know how to ask and be willing to do so, because otherwise it is almost impossible to get clarity about someone else’s state of mind. According to Haapakoski et al. (2020), in addition to emotional intelligence, the a virtual team manager must also have sensitivity and analytical insights to detect cooperation barriers. An example of this could be an employee’s dissatisfaction with a decision made.
Learn how to observe your team members’ voices and ways of communicating, so you can spot even the slightest hint if something needs further discussion. Also, stop often enough to analyze what’s going on within yourself, what emotions are arising. This is because decisions or communication driven by emotion often causes unwanted reactions and increases the risk of misunderstandings.
6. Self-management and time management
To be successful in a managerial role, your own time management and self-management skills are the cornerstones. If other “important” tasks take precedence over people management tasks, you are probably in trouble. A good manager prioritizes their team’s management role as their number one priority, and sets aside enough time for it.
You cannot lead everyone in the same way. To be self-directed, an employee needs clear goals and boundary conditions. They must be able to prioritize, organize, pause, and ask for help. It is your responsibility to support all of this. Some need more support, while others value freedom and responsibility in organizing their own work. However, this does not eliminate the need for sparring. Without support, these collegues may go in the wrong direction or they might exhaust their own requirements. Everyone needs help and support to get the most out of themselves.
How much time do you spend leading people? What do you really lead: things, or the ability and thinking of your team members?
7. Conflict Situations
Conflicts occur from time to time in every organization, regardless of whether its members are working in-person or remotely. However, in remote communication, misunderstandings are clearly more common. For this reason, the remote manager must carefully consider whether the recipients understand the message in the same way. On the other hand, if the goals and practices are unclear to team members, it can inadvertently cause inconvenience to the team. When technology is tangled, communication can break down and put employees in an unequal position.
Develop trusting relationships between team members. Together, learn to identify barriers to mutual trust and solve problems in advance.
Invest in the communication, its unambiguity, and the channels you use. Increase the responsibility of everyone: if someone is annoyed or left wondering, then everyone has a responsibility to bring the issue to the table. This can also create a common ground for the team.