5 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Managing a Remote Team

Read on to learn the most common mistakes managers make when managing remote or distributed teams — and, more importantly, how to avoid them.

According to a recent study, 71 percent of remote workers say they’re happy in their current job. 

Being able to work remotely is a must-have for a lot of people. But just offering the option to work remotely isn’t enough to keep your team happy and retain top talent in the long term. If you want to build thriving remote teams, you need to manage them effectively. 

But how, exactly, do you do that? What are some of the most common challenges of managing remote employees—and some of the most common mistakes managers make along the way?

Mistake #1: Not creating space for conversations

When you share a physical workspace with your team, your day is filled with opportunities for spontaneous conversation. You can stop by someone’s cubicle to ask about their weekend, quickly pop your head into a team member’s office to get clarification on a project issue, or catch up on your day over lunch.

These casual conversations might seem trivial, but the truth is, they’re part of what brings your team together. Unfortunately, these opportunities for spontaneous, casual conversations aren’t so readily available for remote or distributed teams (it’s not like you can pop your head into someone’s office when they’re working hundreds of miles away).

But just because those conversations don’t happen as naturally in remote teams doesn’t mean they’re not just as important—and so part of effectively leading remote teams is creating space for those conversations to happen.

“Employee communication is ongoing and, while mostly informal, is essential to keep needed information and direction flowing smoothly,” says strategic consultant Jeff Skipper. “Remote employees are cut off from many critical details. They need the interruptions and serendipitous conversations as much as anyone else.” 

As a manager, it’s up to you to create an environment that fosters conversation with and within your remote team. Check in with your remote team members at the beginning of every one-on-one meeting and ask how things are going, both professionally and personally. Schedule an end of the week “virtual happy hour” where the only agenda item is to hop on video and catch up with your team. Create opportunities for your team to connect and converse throughout the day (for example, on an informal Slack channel).

The point is, these casual “water cooler” conversations bring teams together. And because remote teams don’t have a physical water cooler, it’s up to whoever is managing remote direct reports to create the space for those conversations to happen. 

Mistake #2: Keeping communication strictly digital

When you’re managing virtual teams, it can be easy to keep all of your communication digital. But while digital communication tools can certainly make connecting with your team more convenient, keeping things strictly digital doesn’t necessarily make your communications more effective.

In a 2018 Harvard Business Review article on how to collaborate effectively with remote teams, Erica Dhawan, CEO of global consulting firm Cotential, and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup and a professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, write:

“What’s missing from our texts, emails, conference calls, and other digital communications? Body language. Even when we’re co-located, the tone of a text or the formality of an email is left wide open to interpretation, to the point that even our closest friends get confused. These misinterpretations create an anxiety that can become costly, affecting morale, engagement, productivity, and innovation.”

If you want your remote team to succeed, you need to be able to communicate freely and effectively. And while digital channels can certainly be part of that communication, they can’t be the entire equation.

In addition to emails, Slack, and other digital communication, make sure to schedule regular face time with your remote team, either on video or in person. This kind of face-to-face communication is not only more personal, but it’s also easier to get a read on what’s really happening with your remote team members—and to make sure they have everything they need to be successful.

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Mistake #3: Not giving clear directions and setting clear expectations

When you give your team a task, you know exactly what you want from them. But just because you’re clear on what you need doesn’t mean your team has the same level of clarity. 

It’s always important to give detailed directions and set clear expectations with your team. But it’s especially important when you’re working around the communication challenges that come with managing remote or distributed teams.

In a 2017 article in Forbes, Marcela De Vivo, CEO of Gryffin, writes:

“If you fail to communicate your expectations effectively, you are doing a big disservice to your remote team. The productivity, efficiency, and deadlines of your remote workforce can only be successful if you have clear, concise instructions in place.”

Whenever you give your remote team a task, “it’s important to be extremely clear, and prompt the employee to repeat instructions in their own words,” says Skipper. Once you’re sure your team understands exactly what you’re looking for, set clear expectations on how you expect the task to be completed (for example, when you expect the task to be completed and what channels your team should use to submit their deliverables).

Mistake #4: Rushing through meetings (and not giving remote team members a chance to contribute)

When you’re having an in-person meeting, it’s a lot easier to run things like a conversation; people can easily chime in when they have something to share in real time.

Virtual meetings can be a bit more challenging. Because they’re not actually in the room, remote team members might not feel comfortable “interrupting” the speaker to give their input. If you’re rushing through the meeting, your remote team might never see an opportunity to speak up and contribute in a real way—and, as a manager, you’ll lose out on their thoughts, contributions, and input.

“If you ask ‘does anyone have anything to contribute?’ then immediately move on, you have likely shut down someone on your team,” says Jennifer Stine, PhD, a consultant and instructor of organizational behavior, leadership, and teamwork at Harvard Extension School. “We don’t [always] see body language [during virtual meetings]—someone looking up, getting ready to speak—so you have to provide additional ‘blank airspace’ to make sure people have enough time to gather their thoughts and contribute.”

If your remote team isn’t contributing as much to your virtual meetings as you’d like, it could be because you’re not giving them the time and space to do so. Make sure to pause regularly during your meetings to give your remote team the floor.

“During team meetings, call on everyone who should be providing input,” says Skipper. “Don’t accept silence as assent.”

Mistake #5: Not setting the standard for your team

Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make when managing remote teams? Talking the talk without walking the walk.

Do you tell your team showing up to virtual meetings on time is a must—but then show up 10 minutes late? Do you say that it’s important for everyone to respect the team’s work/life balance—but then shoot off emails to your team all weekend? If you want your remote team to thrive, sending those kinds of mixed messages just isn’t going to fly.

Your team is going to look to you to set the standard for what’s acceptable—and what’s not acceptable—within your organization. So it’s important to embody the values that you want to inspire within your team.

“As a remote manager, you set the team’s culture, both with your words and actions,” says Stine. “Make sure you say explicitly what you expect from others, and then live by this. Asking for and modeling communication, collaboration, meeting attendance, and on time delivery are key if you expect these from your team.”

Avoid these mistakes and build a thriving remote team

No matter how long you’ve been in business, there’s always going to be a learning curve when building remote and distributed teams. But now that you know some of the biggest mistakes managers make on the road to building productive and effective remote teams, you can avoid these common pitfalls—and get to your destination of remote team success faster, more easily, and more efficiently.

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