How to Manage Remote Teams Successfully

Before March 2020, First Page Sage was seen as an anomaly for being a mid-sized company with no physical offices. Today, as businesses struggle to adapt to a work-from-home world, the practices our company uses to manage a remote workforce are now of great interest. In this article, I break down how we have made a fully virtual company structure work not just adequately, but exceptionally well.

By the end of this piece, you’ll understand how a distributed workforce can:

  • Set up a successful remote environment
  • Run meetings effectively
  • Be highly productive
  • Measure KPIs better than a traditional business
  • Build a sense of connection & unite around a common cause

As you read, you’ll find that remote work requires lots of intentionality. Many practices that happen organically in person, such as building relationships with co-workers and having creative time, require specific attention in a virtual environment. This can take some getting used to, but once it’s in place, it brings excellent organization and communication habits with it.

Transitioning to Remote Work

Let’s begin with the obvious, practical differences between in-person and remote work. Here are the main changes to the way people will be interacting at your company:

Let’s look at these categories more closely.

Meetings and One-to-Ones

Meetings and one-to-ones are the easiest transition to make since they already have an inherent structure and set of expectations. Everyone knows what meetings are: two or more people show up somewhere, speak about certain subjects, and follow an implicitly or explicitly agreed-upon discussion format. That can happen just as easily online as in-person. However, if you don’t already have norms in place regarding meeting preparedness — namely, creating an agenda before a meeting starts and sticking to it — now would be a good time to start. One of the best aspects of our meetings at First Page Sage is the fact that everyone is expected to place a link to a shared agenda doc inside their meeting’s calendar invite. The meeting’s attendees are then expected to review the agenda prior to the meeting. We don’t have meetings without agendas. This creates a feeling of intentionality and efficiency inside meetings, causing everyone to feel like their time is well-spent.

A Google Calendar invite with a link to a shared agenda

In addition to the agenda norm, we also have norms in place to help people know when and how to speak up and ask questions in meetings. When you’re sitting in front of a computer, it’s easier to choose not to speak up; and yet, questions, feedback, and lively discussion are vital. In most of our meetings, the organizer begins with the purpose of the meeting, and at some point, no more than 10 minutes after the start, opens up for questions. In smaller meetings (less than 6 attendees), people either raise their hands or simply speak up, and in larger ones, people type their question into the group chat and the organizer goes through them sequentially.

A more unique practice that I personally love for meetings and one-to-ones is taking time to think. That may sound strange, but brief pauses to consider an idea tend to happen more naturally in person than virtually. When a strategic decision needs to be made, we ask people to come to the meeting with their point of view written out and just before the meeting, we copy all the points of view into the Agenda doc. Then, at the start of the meeting, everyone takes 2-5 minutes to read everyone’s ideas and think. After that, we discuss our new opinions on how to proceed, having incorporated everyone’s individual assessments.

A strategy meeting at FPS, where team members are asked to stop and think

In virtual meetings, focus can be a challenge. It’s too easy to have the meeting open in one window and another project, or chat, or any other distraction, open in another. In our meetings, we take the same approach to distractions as movie theaters do to cell phones, asking everyone to close out other windows and turn their attention to the meeting. We also ask people to be on video the whole meeting. Beyond providing that extra bit of accountability, it also helps people to feel that they are interacting with other humans and respect their time.

A major benefit to remote meetings over in-person ones is that employees tend to think a little harder about whether a meeting really needs to happen. Compared to wandering into a conference room, it takes far more effort to prepare an agenda, schedule a meeting, and then set up a virtual meeting room, and therefore people tend not to hold pointless meetings. We also ask team members to share calendars with each other, so you can see how busy everyone is when scheduling a meeting. It takes a certain degree of chutzpah to decide that your meeting is worth squeezing in between other appointments on multiple peoples’ calendars.

Project Collaboration

In a virtual setting, collaboration that once occurred around a conference room table now takes place on several online platforms. Typically, they include a document sharing platform like Google Docs; a project management platform like Trello or Flow; and a video conferencing platform like Zoom. If that seems like a lot of tools, it’s worth noting that:

  • You probably use a few of them already
  • All communication is archived on these platforms, making it easier to revisit an idea from a meeting or capture a participant’s exact language
  • These platforms were being used more every year even before Covid-19; today, being fluent in them is closer to necessary than optional

There are platforms that try to do it all, such as Google’s G-Suite and Office 365 Business. However, I find that these platforms always have at least one weak link, as in the case of Google Chat (formerly Hangouts), which is far inferior to Zoom, Blue Jeans, or even GoToMeeting.

You don’t have to figure out your entire remote tech stack all at once though; you can start with a disparate collection of tools (choose the most popular ones and you can’t go too wrong) and refine later. New and improved integrations between tools are being developed constantly, so it’s becoming more and more possible to cherry pick the platforms you really like and then integrate them into a cohesive system.

Project Management platform Flow

When engaging with these tools for the first time or attempting to optimize your company’s use of them, it’s helpful to have some ground rules to address their inherent awkwardnesses. Your company should create its own, but to give you a sense of these ground rules, here is a sampling of the rules we use for project collaboration at FPS:

  1. All project communications occur in our project management system – no e-mail
  2. Quick questions should be asked via the project management system’s chat; longer questions by video chat
  3. All essential project information kept in a “411 doc” in a central area of the project management system
  4. Every meeting is recorded, named according to our nomenclature, and stored in a central, searchable area for the project team and managers
  5. Shared docs requiring multiple editors follow a timeline linked at the top of the doc; all other times, editing can be done on local copies of the doc

For managers overseeing projects virtually, there’s an unusual limitation that doesn’t exist in a physical environment: you can’t observe what your team is doing. (There are tools to monitor employees virtually, but they’re correlated with lower workplace satisfaction.) This means that Goals & KPIs become all about results, and not about how you got there. Micromanagement is nearly impossible in a remote environment. Ultimately, I consider this an advantage.

Quick Questions

One of the less obvious parts of remote work is spontaneous interactions — that quick chat in the hallway or offhand question to your cubicle neighbor. There isn’t really an equivalent in the virtual realm, as you don’t “run into” someone online and interrupting someone for a quick question can feel onerous. That’s why many people feel that working from home is more productive than working at an office: everything you do has to be pre-planned.

While run-ins aren’t a concept in the virtual realm, quick questions certainly are. Our solution to them are chats — primarily in our task management system but if time is short, through G-chat. The great thing about chats is that they can be muted while you’re concentrating, unlike your cubicle neighbors.

A quick, time-sensitive question asked by G-chat

Maximizing Productivity in a Remote Environment

So we know that productivity in a remote environment cannot be defined by “time in seat.” Therefore, tracking KPIs — a practice that is both paramount to most companies’ success and rarely done as methodically as it should be — is more important than ever. Without tracking KPIs carefully, you’re basically flying blind. Therefore, your management team should have a thoughtful system for creating, tracking, and reporting on KPIs in each department, as well as company-wide.

At FPS, we create 3 targets for each KPI — a “must hit”; a “great”; and an “excellent”. This applies on an individual team member level right up to the entire company’s KPIs. Hitting each target corresponds to a certain level of potential reward.

A simple format we use at FPS for tracking and reporting on KPIs

In a remote environment, you have little choice but to cautiously trust that people will complete the work that needs to get done — until you’re able to see the results of their work. But because some level of oversight is mutually beneficial, managers in a remote environment have a greater onus on them to check in with their team members week-to-week. Also, you can develop “leading indicators” for your KPIs to identify problems before they become critical.

For example, our main service involves ghostwriting original thought leadership content for our clients. Each piece of content goes through multiple hands before going to the client, and each of those handoff points is an opportunity for us to check in on the quality of the work and identify issues with a particular team member or process. We’ve established a quick quality control checklist that each member of the team completes when they first receive the deliverable. The feedback we get through this quick evaluation allows us to see trends in overall work quality and offer kudos or suggestions for improvement to team members.

Because KPIs are so critical to us, we have a Business Performance Analyst (BPA) on-staff whose only job is tracking, reporting, and analyzing KPIs. Managers report KPIs on a monthly basis to her, and she uses those KPIs, along with qualitative assessments from managers, to assess performance.

KPIs can get quite granular, especially at a company like ours, whose own performance is judged largely on generating specific results for clients. We’ve built out our own KPIs to track how consistently we achieve the goals we set with our clients so that those remain at the center of all of our operational efforts.  As an example, here’s a list of metrics we use to judge the success of the corporate blog content we create for clients.

Apart from tracking KPIs, our culture fosters productivity as well. We encourage a work-life balance, taking breaks, and even checking in about non-work topics. I’ve found that employees who aren’t pushed too hard, but are instead motivated by a common cause — namely, doing well individually, together — tend to be more productive. In my experience, as long as you pay fairly and provide necessary benefits, you can only motivate today’s workforce so much with extra incentives. It’s far more energizing to create a culture that feeds people individually via growth in skills, knowledge, and career path; and collectively via a shared sense of accomplishment. The culture we attempt to foster is one in which our team knows that their work affects others they care about and who care about them.

Fostering a Genuine Culture Among a Remote Team

There is probably no concept more misunderstood than culture when it comes to managing a remote team. Many CEOs seem to think it can’t exist. My experience is that culture doesn’t just exist remotely; it thrives. Think of the other cultures you know about — your local community’s culture or your city’s culture, for instance. The elements of those cultures can exist across thousands of households in the minds of millions of people. In the same way, a remote team represents a group that can function as one entity through a shared set of understandings, beliefs, and ways of being.

It all starts with recruiting (which, if you’re only managing a remote team for a short time during Covid-19, will feel less applicable, but the thinking can be applied when deciding how teams are distributed between physical offices and virtual offices). In a remote environment, strong communicators and collaborators excel; as do people who are self-disciplined and work well independently. If you’re recruiting for remote employees, these are the main traits for which you should test, in addition to how they think about the problems they’ll be facing in their job.

Even with the right people onboard, how can your management team support a cohesive sense of ‘team’ when everyone is dispersed? This is where intentionality comes into play once again:

  • Have a clear vision, values & goals. Knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing is even more important in a remote environment because you don’t have the physical space to reinforce it through branding, space planning, and in-person interactions. Instead, you must be extremely deliberate about both stating it and demonstrating it. For example, at FPS we hold “fireside chats” quarterly where I address the entire team, sharing how we did on our KPIs and opening up to questions. The accompanying presentation has our vision & values at the top, and I briefly talk about them in the context of what we achieved that quarter.

Discussing our accomplishments in the context of our core values during a “fireside chat”

  • Convene teams by video conference frequently
    • When a new team is kicking off a project, begin the meeting by getting to know each other more personally; begin with ice breakers, followed by discussing the project’s goals and each person’s individual expectations
    • Ensure managers are having regular one-to-ones to maintain a sense of connection
    • Set up ‘socialization times’ such as virtual happy hours, birthday parties, and baby showers
  • Think about your team’s “real” life 
    • Set up in-person group gatherings at least quarterly; you’ll see that a team that has gotten to know one another so well craves the energy of in-person connection
    • Keep team member profiles with photos, interesting and silly facts, and a way for others to learn what they care about in their non-work life
    • Help your team set boundaries between work and personal time, and encourage them to socialize and exercise outside of work; some can forget to pay attention to their mental or physical health in a remote environment

A good virtual culture is one where there is frequent connection despite physical distances

In light of the pandemic, you’ve probably already figured out that more can be accomplished with a distributed team than you thought possible. Now that you understand the basics of setting up a remote environment, having effective meetings by video, fostering a productive and goal-oriented culture, and allowing genuine connections to occur between people outside of an office, I hope you’re beginning to see what I’ve seen for over a decade: that managing a remote team isn’t that mysterious after all. You might even find that it’s desirable to increase the number of remote positions at your company. By doing so, you could gain access to talent you wouldn’t have otherwise and improve your team’s quality of life.

Hopefully this article has been helpful to you. I love this subject, so if you ever want to chat about the pros and cons of managing a remote team, shoot me an e-mail at evan.bailyn@firstpagesage.com.
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