I have worked on a handful of remote teams, each with different dynamics. What I have learned is that great remote leadership is one of the most important components of success on a distributed team. The healthiest remote teams have remote leaders, who are invested in a remote-first mentality. If your company has multiple offices, a flexible work from home policy, or completely spans the globe—you likely will be remote to someone on your team and your leadership style should adapt to that reality.
I think about remote management practices often and work hard to champion great remote-first culture both within my teams and with my peers across the company. Here are some things that I have learned along the way:
Run effective meetings
Meetings are something to be embraced as a crucial team building tool in remote environments. If meetings are always a slog, then something needs adjustment. I aim to have an agenda and purpose for the meeting (and yes, relationship building is absolutely a necessary purpose) and provide time for folks to gather their thoughts ahead of meetings. Uninterrupted blocks of work time are sacred in remote environments and I try to protect those as much as possible, so also providing plenty of notice for cancelling meetings so teammates can plan their days accordingly.
State ground rules
A few ground rules are important to run effective remote meetings such as always muting microphones by default, one camera per person even if you are co-located, assigning a note taker ahead of time, utilizing “raise hand” features so folks aren’t speaking over one another (this also provides equitable space for introverts and extroverts—something that is amplified on remote teams without the benefit of IRL body language) and of course stating these expectations and goals at the top of the meeting.
Be okay with silence
I find myself reminding newer remote leaders to be okay with silence. Often on calls teammates are polite and understand the lag that can happen on video, and as a result will pause for a few seconds before unmuting to speak or answer a question. It is best to resist the urge to fill every hole of silence with your own commentary—providing a few seconds for teammates (especially introverts) to gather their thoughts means more thoughtful communication and effective conversations with a variety of viewpoints. As a manager, I try to stay very cognizant of how much space I take up talking in a meeting and being comfortable with silence is a great tool to provide space for others to step up.
Balance asynchronous vs. synchronous
Remote teams work across a variety of mediums, time zones, communication styles, and meeting cadences. I focus on identifying areas where it is necessary to chat synchronously (such as a kickoff meeting with a lot of context setting and brainstorming exercises) and what conversations can be discussed asynchronously (like gathering feedback on a proposal document.) Though it sounds simple in theory, effectively utilizing both modes of communication is crucial to building remote teams.
Establish team norms
It’s important to establish expectations about how the team will work and communicate remotely and then hold each other accountable to those standards. While many co-located teams do this as well, having that certainty of what colleagues behind a computer screen can expect creates routine and grounding comfort for remote teams.
Let’s take an example of one of our team norms: “we trust everyone to manage their own Do Not Disturb settings when out of office.” Establishing this norm upfront sets the expectation that:
1. If you do not manage your DND, you might get a message while you are OOO
2. The rest of the team should not c*nsor mentioning someone who is OOO, for fear of pinging them, because it makes it easier for them to search and catchup when they return.
3. If you are messaging someone who is OOO, assume their DND is on and they will probably not answer you.
Many teams likely have different norms about how to handle people being OOO and that is perfectly great for those teams. Problems arise when these norms are not established upfront and lead to a lot of confusion and frustration (“why does this person keep messaging me when I am clearly on vacation?!”)
There are plenty of other norms to establish like what weekly rituals and touch points the team wants or when and how we track decisions made in Slack (:gavel-emoji:). As a manager, it’s my job to ensure that the team has space to create and reflect on these norms for themselves.
Communicate in multiple ways
You can never be too clear when most of your interactions exist online in written form devoid of body language and inflection. One of my focuses as a manager is to be a clarifying force and this work is amplified on remote teams—where we might be siloed in different Slack channels or potentially never interacting with folks across the org.
Reach people where they are
Try to find multiple channels to communicate different ideas to reach different folks — whether that’s a weekly email, a Slack announcement that gets cross-posted to multiple channels, a document that is open for comments, open office hours on Zoom, or a weekly design critique to get designers on the same page. It is important to distribute information often and in a variety of ways to meet a variety of working and communication styles. The best part about this happening on a remote team is that the communication is often self documenting, which makes for great posterity and easy reference in the future!
Provide multiple avenues for feedback
Communication is a two way street and it is just as important to provide multiple ways for team members to communicate to you. I like providing space for surveys ahead of meetings where folks can submit questions, and then I answer those questions on a synchronous call—with space for more questions to be asked in the moment. Providing a way for someone to both write and speak their communication is important on a distributed team where those communication styles vary. Holding semi-frequent AMAs, townhalls, and all-hands meetings provides space to hear from the team and stay connected.
Establish safe space
It is harder to build psychological safety on a team when you don’t spend significant in person time together where relationships are organically built. However, it is not impossible to create a safe space. It just takes thoughtful, intentional planning for how to get there and a code of conduct, like we have on Vox Product.
I look for signals in my team that they aren’t comfortable sharing their thoughts— is there less participation from teammates in meetings? Are the same few people leaving comments in docs? Are people frequently talking over each other? Once I see a pattern, I try to identify avenues to address it with my peers in engineering management and product management where we can tackle solutions together and build safety from all angles on the team.
It also helps to create space for the team to build relationships outside of the context of work. A small thing we do is have a fun Slack prompt on Fridays to share pictures of pets, kids, or anything else that you’re interested in. It’s great to asynchronously learn about my coworkers interests, and it makes us feel connected (also get yourself a #remote channel—it’s THE BEST for solidarity about the things we encounter as remote workers.)
Be intentional about peer relationships
A piece that is often overlooked when discussing management is how important peer relationships are for managers. I find this to be even more important in a remote setting where relationships can often slip through the cracks. Having routine 1:1s with peers is so important towards creating a “water cooler” where we can talk about anything and build trust. Once we have that space, having more difficult conversations about where the team is headed or how we can lead the team to their best work becomes much easier. When the management peers are in alignment, the rest of the remote norms fall into place because we are able to hold each other accountable to modeling the behavior we all expect of the team and ourselves.
Having built many peer relationships across my organization, it is much easier for me now to Slack them a quick favor or ask for their advice. I can’t overstate how important this is both for me as a manager, and for me to feel less isolated as a remote worker.
Model transparency about when you work
Lara Hogan has a great post about manager calendar defragging. This work becomes ever more important on a remote team where calendars are one of our key windows into colleagues’ day to day. I work to model the behaviors that provide the most clarity to my teammates looking to meet with me—things like utilizing built-in calendar features like displaying my “working hours” for my timezone so people know when to expect me online; or blocking off my own chunks of time for no meetings so I can go heads down on work. IRL and remote managers alike will always have calendars filled with meetings but the work of managing calendar time becomes ever more important when this is one of the secondary communication tools for you and your team.
I also like to provide transparency in my Slack status when I’m not at my computer and mention that I will be slow to respond. One of the strongest things I can do as a remote manager is model a healthy work/life balance where those boundaries can oftentimes be fuzzy and let my team know that is okay to not always be “on” in Slack.
It is important however, to be an active participant in Slack. So much of a remote organization’s culture will exist via text, emojis, and gifs. Being a participant in this helps connect you to the team or demonstrate your sense of humor or show what you care about and encourage. Just be mindful of taking up too much space! Typing more than the rest of the team in Slack creates the same feeling as a manager talking too much in a meeting.
What remote management practices have you found to be most helpful?
I love working on a distributed team and believe in the power of running them well, I’d love to hear what works for you!