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Managing remote teams

At Disquiet Dog, we've worked as a remote team from the outset, so the idea of managing a remote team is second nature to us. Here we list some of our principles and values, in case any of them help you if you're looking to manage a remote team for the first time.

Image of a team of smiling colleagues standing in a circle, some with arms around each others' shoulders

Managing remote teams

In the days before Covid-19 (Coronavirus), many leaders and managers turned their nose up at the idea of having employees work from home. I spent many years in one such organisation where the longer you stayed in the office, the more the boss thought you were committed. Right now, we're left with no choice but to work from home. Based on 6 years of running a business with an entirely remote team and no physical offices, here are our top 10 tips on how to get it right.

Time is not money, output is money

If you can no longer monitor someone's presence in the office, at their desk, stop trying. We think this is the way in which managing remote teams is most different. It's all about the output, so if you need to, set output targets and deadlines to ensure you get what you want, when you want it. However, this also goes hand-in-hand with trust.

Trust your team

Statistically, the chances are that in the past, you voted against your team working from home because of list of possible distractions, from the ever-open fridge door, to social media and Netflix. But you need to trust your people. If you trusted them enough to offer a job in the first place, you need to trust them now that they're working remotely.

Remote work and the splice of life

During the Coronavirus crisis, many of us are juggling balls. There might be complexity within work, but your team members are most likely having to splice your work requirements with looking after relatives, managing and entertaining small kids, home schooling older ones, food shopping and many other factors. Therefore it's important that you make allowances and accept that work output may be interrupted, spread over the day, or completed at night when small people have gone to bed.

Managing remote teams' morale

We know that a large part of face-to-face communication is non-verbal. You can walk into a room and gauge the atmosphere and how the team is feeling. As a manager, you will know instinctively when something is wrong. When teams are working remotely, the innate knowledge of how everyone is doing today, is lost. If you can't rely on your instinct and non-verbal cues, you need to replace this with time to check in with your team.

Allow time for checking in with your team

If you're going to check in and make sure everyone is OK, it's important that you allow time to listen to the answers. Regardless of how long your to-do list today, it's vital you let people express how they're feeling, what they're struggling with, what's on their minds, what may be stressing them, what upcoming task or deadline might be freaking them out. Going the extra mile to elicit responses is very different from establishing a general rule of "Just call me if you have a problem".

And although everyone is jumping on video calls right now, be aware that a simple phone call might be a better way to check in.

Photograph of a woman on the phone, writing notes into a book with a laptop open in front of her. It looks like she's working from home, from a dining table.

Set up an open house remote meeting option

At Disquiet Dog, we have the Doghouse. It's a daily meeting slot on Zoom. Any time we have a need to chat, we jump on Doghouse. Sometimes there are planned meetings, sometimes the owner of the meeting is just there in case anyone needs to hop on and ask a question. We use it in conjunction with Slack, in that we'll Slack each other to informally request a Zoom meeting and then pop into Doghouse!

Video meetings: prepare for extra participants

We've had twittering budgies, hungry cats, howling dogs, and any number of doodling children on our meeting calls. We embrace it all. Locking life out just makes for stress on the other side of the door, and may mean your teams' minds are more worried about what's happening outside the call than inside it. Anyone who has been around young children will have honed the art of "holding that thought" and pausing until another situation has been dealt with. It doesn't mean your team is any less serious, so helping them to feel fine about interruptions, will keep everyone relaxed.

A photo of a bright yellow budgie standing on the keyboard of a smart-looking laptop, staring at the cable

Managing remote teams long term

If you expect to be managing a remote team for just a couple of weeks until the Covid crisis is over, you might be happy with letting things coast a bit. When things return to normal, we may well find that normal has changed. We think there is a likelihood that more people are going to want to carry on at least some part of remote working. If so, you might also want to take a longer-term look at what systems and processes you need to have in place.

Remote project management

One aspect that may need to kick in if you're managing people remotely for a longer period of time, is project management. There are many off-the-shelf software solutions, such as Trello, Asana, Monday, which help manage remote teams, their priorities, their workload and their completion of tasks. These are particularly useful ways of balancing workload, so that work doesn't keep getting heaped onto the same people. With the more sophisticated solutions, you can estimate the time taken, input team availability, and even add in the rate per hour you pay your team members.

Value the bits in between

There is a poor relationship between the physical time spent at desks and the quality of work. Still, a long-held belief amongst managers is that the longer you spend sat there in front of the screen, the better it is. Now that might apply to a wall of tasks that need mindlessly working through, but it doesn't hold for tasks which need concentration, reflection and the application of knowledge to a specific situation. For those tasks, the best answers often come during downtime, sitting outside, on a cigarette break. Working from home can actually make it easier to switch out of work mode, particularly if your team members can access a quiet space in the back yard or garden. Not a given, if kids are home, we know.

In summary

Managing remote teams may be new to you, but if you remember to focus on the people you know and trust, understand and accept the full range of their home-based obligations, then you'll have a decent sense of what they'll be able to achieve. Setting clear targets for output, rather than insisting on a fixed amount of time spent will also help your remote team to adapt and feel calm. Check in with them in a way which may seem a bit more structured than they're used to, and in time, use software solutions to support the new structure.

If you're encountering particular problems in managing a remote team, drop us a line and we'll see if we can help some more. Take care and look after yourself, and your team.