Managing Remote Teams: 3 Steps to Success

Michael Knighten
October 26, 2020

At times, directing projects in multiple locales from a desktop or laptop feels like conducting an orchestra in the dark. Coordinating with diverse, remote teams of developers producing software on an agile schedule of continual updates and releases can be especially nerve-wracking.

At Sleuth, we’re crushing the remote-work challenge because, in 20 years of managing from afar, we’ve learned a thing or two — actually three — about how to do it right. To successfully lead your teams, here are three essential rules of thumb that every manager should follow:

1. Over-Communicate. Then: Over-Over-Communicate

Teamwork means working together to achieve common goals. To get the desired outcome, though, everyone needs to share the same vision for what success looks like.

Getting everyone on the same page may seem easy, but it’s anything but — even when your team members are sitting next to each other.

I’ve seen it thousands of times: two team members participating in design and planning sessions together, and collaborating on specs, but coming out with widely varying understandings of what they’re trying to achieve. Separate those two by miles and time zones and limit their communications to screen and phone time, and the potential for misunderstanding only grows.

With development teams, working through software discovery, persona articulations, user-story definitions, and other necessary processes requires lots and lots of communication — even over-communication.

Articulation, explanation, brainstorming, questioning, ideation: we get tired of hearing ourselves talk. But talk we must: the more, the better.

Over-communication (and over-over-communication) are triply important when you’re managing a team whose members are in multiple locations.

Unless you’re talking to everyone all the time and getting them to talk to one another, the magic that can happen when different perspectives mingle and even clash may pass your project by. If your team can’t come together in shared empathy for the users of their software, how can they create a solution that users will love?

Learn to Love Meetings

For the remote-team manager, over-communication means having lots of meetings. Lots of them. You can’t meet too much. I recommend one-on-one meetings with each of the people you manage as well as all your peers at least once a week — and you need to make sure your peers are doing the same.

When I worked at Reciprocity, managing a team with members in San Francisco, Slovenia, and New York, I had 18 to 20 one-on-one meetings every week, often at 6 or earlier in the morning, with the people who reported to me, engineering leaders to get their regular feedback (and buy-in), designers, salespeople, executives, and more.

Full disclosure: I hate meetings. I love getting work done.

But to be an effective manager, you have to build trust with your team members. I’m not talking about micromanaging but more of a trust-but-verify approach that can allow you to discover any hidden creaks or lingering issues in your remote work zones.

2. Manage Up as Well as Down

When over-communicating, don’t forget the boss. I’ve done so a number of times, particularly when my superiors were in a different time zone.

Keeping the higher-ups in the loop is important no matter your level of seniority or theirs, a lesson I often drive home with my new managers.

Treating your manager as a confidant and turning to them regularly gives them insight into what you’re doing, lets them know that you trust them and value their opinion, and presents you as a confident, collaborative manager.

I’ve found that neither weekly status reports nor the awful-yet-ever-present weekly team status meeting does away with the need for personal time with your manager every week. Insist upon it, if you must.

It’s hard in the Land of Zoom to subject ourselves to yet another meeting, but your one-on-one with your manager is really important.

3. Hire Good :)

Hiring smart, motivated doers is a good idea no matter where they, or you, will be working.

Hiring self-motivated, action-oriented team members is especially important now, however, when they’re likely to be working far away from where you are.

But “hire good” also means hiring people with strong values, integrity, and a reputation for valuing hard work and exceptional outcomes.

Hiring for mediocrity can cause issues at any time. But it’s often easier to spot under-performers in an office environment, where you can see that they’re not pulling their weight.

You don’t have the same visibility with your remote workers. You’ve got to trust that they’re doing what they’re supposed to — which means hiring trustworthy people. Try to be patient and take the time you need to find exactly the right candidates — not always easy given 24/7 release schedules, but well worth the wait.

With remote work the new normal, it’s important that you update your management techniques to deal with your distant peers and reports. Keeping everyone on the same page by over-communicating (and communicating some more!) will ensure you and your team deliver products your users will not just like, but love.