7 critical skills for managing remote workers

Remote workers face unique challenges compared to on-site colleagues. A good manager — armed with the following seven skills and management practices — can ameliorate these obstacles.

Sharon Florentine Dec 08th 2017 A-A+

Remote and flexible work opportunities are quickly becoming a differentiator for attracting and retaining top tech talent. But remote workers face unique challenges that on-site colleagues don’t, according to a new study from authors and social scientists Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, including unequal treatment and gossip, according to the study.

The study, which surveyed 1,153 employees, found the following troubling trends for remote workers:

  • 52 percent of remote employees feel on-site colleagues don’t treat them equally
  • 67 percent feel colleagues don’t fight for their priorities
  • 41 percent feel colleagues say bad things about them behind their back
  • 64 percent feel colleagues make changes to projects without consulting them
  • 35 percent feel colleagues lobby against them

Worse, remote employees who experience these challenges have a harder time resolving them, according to the study. In fact, when encountering one of these issues, 84 percent say the concern dragged on for a few days or more, and 47 percent admitted to letting it drag on for a few weeks or more.

These problems don’t just affect relationships; remote employees see larger, more negative impacts on productivity, costs, deadlines, morale, stress and, ultimately, retention than their on-site colleagues do, the survey revealed.

The good news is that good communication can address these challenges, and managers can serve as a bulwark against these issues; there are seven critical skills managers must have to enable the success and satisfaction of their remote workers.

 “Our research over the past three decades proves the health and success of any team is determined by the quality of communication between colleagues,” says Maxfield. “Teams that can hold candid and effective dialogue — minus the emotions and politics — experience higher morale and results like better quality, shorter time-to-market and better decision-making,” he says.  

Grenny adds that managers play a particularly important role when it comes to communication.

“When managers model stellar communication, the rest of the team follows suit,” Grenny says. “You cannot overestimate the influence a manager has on his or her team’s ability to engage in a dialogue and create a collaborative and healthy culture,” he says.

To identify the specific communication skills integral to helping co-located teams thrive, Grenny and Maxfield asked survey respondents to describe a manager who is especially good at managing remote employees. They received 853 accounts of skilled managers, all of which shared seven specific management skills and practices.

1. Frequent and consistent check-ins

Nearly half of respondents (46 percent) said the most successful managers checked in frequently and regularly with remote employees. The cadence of the check-ins varied from daily to bi-weekly to weekly, but were always consistent and usually entailed a standing meeting or scheduled one-on-one.

2. Face-to-face or voice-to-voice

One in four respondents said managers who insisted on face time with remote employees were more successful. Managers should try to visit to remote employees or schedule a mandatory in-office day once a week, month, quarter or year, and use this time for team-building, according to Maxfield and Grenny. If in-person meetings are not possible, at a minimum use video conferencing technology or pick up the phone to ensure colleagues occasionally see one another’s face or hear one another’s voice, they say.

3. Exemplify stellar communication skills 

Respondents emphasized the importance of general, stellar communication with co-located teams. The most successful managers are good listeners, communicate trust and respect, inquire about workload and progress without micromanaging, and err on the side of over-communicating, according to the survey respondents.

4. Explicit expectations

When it comes to managing remote teams, being clear about expectations was mandatory, according to survey respondents. Managers who are direct with their expectations of both remote and on-site employees have happier teams that can deliver to those expectations. People are never left in the dark about projects, roles, deadlines, and so on, Maxfield and Grenny say.

5. Always available

Successful managers are available at all times of the day and respond quickly to subordinates, according to the survey. They go above and beyond to maintain an open-door policy for both remote and onsite employees — making themselves available across multiple time zones and through multiple channels; for example, instant messaging, Slack, Skype, email, phone, text — however their employees reach out to them. In other words, survey respondents say, remote employees can always count on their manager to respond to pressing concerns.

6. Collaborative tech know-how

Successful managers use multiple means of communication to connect with their remote workers, according to the survey. They don’t just rely on phone and email, but are familiar and comfortable with video conferencing technologies and a variety of collaboration platforms like Slack, Skype, instant messenger, Adobe Connect — or whatever their organization’s platform of choice happens to be, respondents say. Not only that, but they’re willing to tailor their communication style and medium to each individual employee.

7. Prioritize relationships 

Team building and camaraderie are important for any team, and co-located teams are no exception. Good managers go out of their way to form personal bonds with remote employees. They use check-in time to ask about their personal life, families and hobbies. They allow team meeting time for “water cooler” conversations that allow the entire team to create personal connections and strengthen relationships, according to the survey.  

Grenny and Maxfield say managers who master these skills and management practices will find that not only are their remote colleagues happier and healthier, they are also more successful.