VP of Services, 10+ Years of Digital Marketing Experience
May 18th, 2017
Managing employees is never easy, but managing employees who aren’t even in the same room can be a whole different ball game.
Consider some of the most common questions people have about managing remote employees:
“How do I tell if my remote employees are actually working?”
“How can we make sure our remote employees feel part of the culture?”
“How do I foster communication with all the challenges of being remote?”
“How do I manage in-office and remote employees effectively?”
If any of those thoughts have crossed your mind, read on. That’s exactly what we will address.
First, let’s set the stage.
Back in 2016, I wrote an article about all the things I wished I had known before relocating for my job here at IMPACT. Fast-forward to fall of last year and my life circumstances changed again. My husband was offered a position back in my hometown in Texas, so I packed up, moved across the country again and I officially became a remote employee.
At the time of my original relocation, IMPACT was not exactly a remote-friendly work environment. We had one remote employee and to be completely transparent, we didn’t do the best job at not making her feel like she was on an island. We knew it and worked hard to fix it, and to continue the transparency, we’re still trying to improve the experience for both our remote and in-office team members.
In the last year, we went from one remote employee to 10, including myself. That’s almost a third of our staff and this makeup is not unique. Offering remote-working opportunities is quickly becoming a necessity for modern life and for attracting the best, young talent.
Over the next few months, I will be taking on a new role as the Director of Client Services at IMPACT and this is a challenge I will face head-on. On our team of 13 client-facing team members, 8 are remote; Not so cut-and-dry, all in-office or all remote.
In preparing for my role, I’ve been asking myself as a remote team member what I’d like to see, as well as researched great companies with admirable remote cultures.
The following is what I’ve learned along the way, what IMPACT will be focusing on in the next year, and how you too can put your best foot forward with managing a remote team.
1. Hire for Culture Fit in the First Place
I’ll keep this one short since it’s pretty obvious, but also the most important.
If you’re worried about your team members not working as hard or as much as your in-office team, they are either not a good cultural fit or you need to ask yourself how you’re measuring job performance (more on this in a bit).
Being a good cultural fit means you agree with the company’s values, processes, goals, and vision. It means you believe in the same things and are dedicated to bringing it all to fruition.
How IMPACT does it:
We have an extremely selective hiring process for finding people who are the right cultural fit, BUT it’s not comprised of 15 calls. We have 4 main touch points:
5-minute “quick-fit” call: We ask a few key questions that let us know immediately if someone is qualified.
1-hour interview: We go deeper into their capabilities and determine if they’re a good culture fit. This is done via video chat.
Super scary hiring activity: We ask candidates to do an activity that demonstrates their ability to do the job. It’s not really that scary -- sometimes.
In-person visit: Only the cream of the crop make this step. We invite final candidates to our office for 1-2 days and let them meet the entire team. This allows them to judge us from a cultural standpoint, as well as allows us to gain the entire team's input.
We also judge how a candidate writes and how quickly they respond to our email communication - all things important for they type of work we hire for.
We do this for all potential candidates, remote or not.
P.S. I say we’re selective but we know exactly what to ask so we don’t waste anyone’s time. I was once part of an 8-call interview process with 7 calls comprised of the same exact questions but with a different team member so they could “compare my responses.” That annoyed me so much I didn’t even want the job after because of how it reflected on the company. Don’t be that company.
2. Create a Measurable Onboarding Plan
You can’t manage what you can’t measure.
When hiring all employees, in-house or remote, create a measurable onboarding plan that enables you to fully see how your newer team members are growing in their position. Even if someone is super experienced or coming into a director-level position, set measurable milestones so you can track their performance and ensure they’re on track for where you need them to be.
How IMPACT does it:
We have 30,60,90-day plans specific to each role outlining all the activities a new team member must do to learn their job within 90 days.
Throughout their onboarding, each person has a weekly meeting with their manager to check in on their progress, and are encouraged to set up meetings with their peers as part of their learning experience.
We know right away if we’ve hired the right person by how well they progress through their plan, and how well they take ownership of it versus waiting for us to tell them what to do.
3. Set Expectations
Set the expectation of what work your team members are responsible for and how they will be judged.
If it’s hours at a desk, be very clear that your remote employees need to be available during your business hours. If completed points or results is more important to your organization, communicate that as well.
At IMPACT, we are a slight combination of both. We work in Scrum, so points completed is one of our indicators of performance, but we still work with clients who expect a certain turnaround time in communication. We ask our team, whether remote or not, to use their best judgment when it comes to exact hours.
Also, don’t forget the unwritten rules.If there are cultural norms a new person in-office would naturally pick up, your remote employees never will know unless you tell them.
In addition, be very clear on job expectations and how your employees will be measured. This is essentially starting with the end in mind so you can decide how everyone will be evaluated and base your performance discussions around that.
Schedule routine one-on-one meetings to touch base on how all of your team members are doing. Do your best to never miss a one-on-one. We’re all busy, but don’t send the message that you’re too busy for your own team.
Job expectations and performance criteria should be the same regardless of where you are located.
How IMPACT does it:
We use the RACI model (Responsible, Accountable, Communicate/Inform) between our positions to be crystal clear on how our jobs are measured and everything we’re accountable for. Our team has very open communication to address anything that’s confusing or needs further clarification.
4. Get the Right Technology
Now, this is a big area that we’ve been working on in the last year. There are few things more frustrating than unreliable technology as a remote employee, especially if it's essential to your overall productivity. Here are a few areas to focus on:
For getting work done:
This is where project management meets communication. Make sure you have tools in place that enable your team to easily collaborate. At IMPACT, we use the following:
JIRA: We JIRA as our scrum project management tool.
Confluence: We use Confluence for a common knowledge base. This houses all our how-tos, processes, etc. Our entire team knows before you ask a question, check Confluence first. There’s probably a playbook for it already.
Google for Business: With team members working on a deliverable from multiple locations, Google docs, Sheets, and Slides make collaborating at the same time seamless. Google Drive is also a great shared place to store files we can all access.
Your remote employees don’t get to hang around the water cooler and chit chat with everyone else. However, with the right technology, you can foster this same experience.
Slack: I could have put slack in the “for getting work done” category, but I think it serves a larger purpose of inclusion. The more our team members communicate, whether it’s about work-related items or in our more silly Slack channels, the more they’re part of the team even if you’re miles away.
Your remote employees work hard and deserve to be recognized too.
7Geese: One way we continually recognize each other is through a tool called 7Geese. This not only houses our objectives and key results but enables the team to call each other out based on our core values or other awesome achievements.
Slack: Again, Slack is just awesome for recognition. In this sense, we have a #happythoughts channel to share nice things we hear about each other or our clients’ success.
As part of getting the job done, you might also consider a stipend for office set up and routine supplies. Your remote employees are using their own dime to furnish an office, and can’t go to the company goodies drawer to get post-its and batteries. Whatever you feel is fair, just keep in mind saving money by putting the expense on your remote employees doesn’t send the best message. In some states, it’s mandatory to pay for your remote employees’ cell phones, so be sure you’re in compliance with whatever you roll out.
5. Set Communication Ground Rules
One of my biggest fears, when I transitioned into working remotely, was getting up from my desk. I was afraid someone might call that very moment and assume I wasn’t really working even if I just stepped away for a coffee. In order to remedy that, my team and I came up with a set of communication ground rules:
Slack: Respond within two hours
Email: Respond within the business day if possible
For emergencies: Text or call me
Time zones: We all work Eastern time. You can expect to hear from me as I can expect to hear from you in those business hours. I’m the only one not in the Eastern time zone, so you may choose a different set of standards based on your team composition.
Another challenge I experienced was how in-office people spoke on the phone. When you’re the only remote person on the phone and in-office team members are pointing at something in the room or snacking right by the phone, you can have no idea what’s going on.
I spoke with our Director of Talent and she helped create a playbook on remote etiquette we all follow, such as ensuring there is always a video call link in our meeting invites and while on the line, don’t have side conversations that drown out the audio.
Those may seem small, but to a remote employee, it means we can participate. We encourage anyone experiencing audio issues to speak up in that moment to have a constant reminder of how to communicate more clearly and involve the whole team.
6. Get Face Time
I’m not going to lie - I was really looking forward to working in my PJs with no makeup -- BUT we all realized video provides a better communication experience (and you can still wear sweatpants if you want).
Get your team set up with a conferencing technology, like Zoom, so you can talk as if you really were there in-person.
Speaking of in-person, get together as much as you can. Some companies do an annual outing while others get together more often. The get-together doesn’t even have to be at your headquarters if most of your team is remote. Just make sure to take that time to bond as a team and let your remote team get to know others they don’t usually work with.
How IMPACT does it:
We host 1 get-together per quarter in our Wallingford, CT office. Every remote employee is flown in for 1 week. We work in-office like a regular day, but every night have a fun team activity to do together. Then, we usually end the week with an all-hands meeting.
Going the Extra Mile
We’ve definitely come a long way when it comes to managing a remote team, here at IMPACT, but we still have a ways to go. We have a lot to learn in making sure everyone continues to feel part of the culture and has a meaningful experience working here - but in the meantime, going the extra mile with the right technology and processes in place makes a huge difference.
Let me know in the comments if you have any other tips to add. We’d all love to hear it.