Ultimate guide: how to manage remote teams in 2020

Now is the time when you have to start hiring remotely if you haven’t done so yet. Numerous studies show that in 2020 more than half of the professionals from highly developed countries will work remotely. Even more surprising stats: around 25% of developers from Eastern Europe who answered StackOverflow’s survey, said they already work remotely full-time. 

The first thing  that comes to our minds when we think remote jobs are the benefits for the employee. They get to save time and money commuting to work, spend more time with their families and overall have a better work-life balance compared to those who work from an office. 

Secondly, an important question arises “How to manage remote teams effectively?” Let’s figure it out together.

Pros and cons of working with remote teams

But first, let’s take a look at what employers gain when hiring remote teams

  1. Less paid vacation days. 55% of remote workers take less than 15 vacation days a year compared to the U.S. average of  22.6 days, while still managing to have a balanced work life and travel more. 
  2. Fewer office distractions. In the US alone employers lose up to $1.8 billion in work hours, suffering from lower productivity of their office employees. If you wonder how much 1.8 billion dollars is, it’s enough to book Kanye West for private concerts for almost 2 years straight. 
  3. Real estate cost cuts. According to MarketWatch, the average cost of office space per employee in New York is $14,800 per year. 
  4. Flexible schedules. Remote employees are only paid for the actual hours they spent working. And although they still have deadlines, they also have the freedom to customize their schedules and alternate their working hours in a way that allows them to forget about sacrificing work for doctors appointments or personal needs. 
  5. Larger talent pool. This is priceless for companies of all sizes and backgrounds. If you’re hustling to run a lean startup based in Silicon Valley, you can’t underrate the possibility of hiring remote developers from Europe who have the same skills but cost at least twice less. The struggle is even more real when you dream of combining working on a cutting-edge innovative idea while enjoying the perks of living in a rural area. 

And that’s to name just some of the advantages companies that hire remote marketing teams enjoy. 

But, of course, it wouldn’t be fair not to mention the cons of distributed teams and the things that often become deal breakers. 

  • Recruitment and hiring are somewhat tricky when it’s your first time looking for an employee on the international markets. 
  • Remote work requires a specific mindset and self-discipline 
  • Lack of transparency in communication inevitably leads to disasters within distributed teams
  • Early burnouts 
  • Failure to deliver tasks completed on time and according to requirements
  • Remote team-members often feel left out 

Nevertheless, one thing you should bear in mind is that all of these obstacles you might have already encountered are not things that can’t be resolved. 

Which companies know how to manage a remote team best? 

Just look at the list of companies who acknowledge working with remote or distributed teams as a part of their success:

Basecamp 

Previously 37signals, aka the guys behind Ruby on Rails, which was first designed for internal use for developing their most successful web applications such as Basecamp, Campfire, and Highrise. They have also written two books which became New York Times bestsellers: Rework and Remote: Office Not Required. Both of these focus on productivity hacks and remote team management techniques and are definitely good for further reading. 

Automattic

Last year, Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of the company that brought WordPress into this beautiful world, announced Automattic is shutting down its San Francisco office. Why? Because no one was using it anyway, so they’ve figured they can find better ways to put the money to use. Out of 500+ employees working on Automattic’s products from 50 different countries around the world, less than 10% actually live in San Francisco where their abandoned 14,250-square-foot office was located. Here’s an awesome map with all the Automatticians’ locations across the globe: 

Buffer 

Live smarter, not harder is the core value of the team responsible for one of the best social media management tools that allows digital marketers to handle all of their social profiles in one place. What’s funny is that Buffer started out and grew further as a fully-remote workplace pretty much by accident. At the same time as they received their first major funding of $400 000, another defining thing happened to Buffer’s co-founders. Joel Gascoigne and Leo Widrich had their American visas expire and decided to move to a few different locations. Desire to hire a remarkable team along the way brought them, 70 employees, working from all over the world and an amazing philosophy that encourages the nomadic spirit of Buffer. 

Envato

Best known as a marketplace where the creative crowd can buy and sell their digital creations, e.g., WordPress design themes, video production templates and audio jingles, etc. Envato actually acknowledges not all of the professionals who are the right fit for the company are carved out for entirely remote work. So, while they allow and encourage their staff to work wherever it feels best, they also are totally okay with working from their hipster headquarters in Melbourne. Another benefit they admit to come from hiring people across the globe is having a distributed support team able to work flexible schedules to ensure a 24/7 online presence valuable to their global audience.

10 ways to effectively manage a remote team

So how to remotely manage staff and do it effectively? 

How do you pretend you don’t know your colleague is not wearing pants while face-timing you from their home office across the oceans? Should you worry when you see them posting Instagram updates instead of getting some work done? Does in-bed work affect their productivity in a negative way? And, most importantly, should you feel embarrassed in front of your partners when telling them you don’t actually have an office and have never seen any of your colleagues in person? 

Here’s our attempt to answer all of these questions in 10 simple tips on how to hire and manage remote teams. 

1. Hire self-managers 

Not everybody’s cut out for remote teams that require tons of discipline and self-awareness. 

And while recruiting is always painful, it gets only trickier when you’re hiring remotely, and sometimes don’t even get to meet the person you intend to work with. 

When you’re hiring for a remote team, you have to be looking for disciplined self-managers who have no trouble making their own agenda and always know what to work on and what their priorities are. 

Some of the tells that will help you distinguish your people from no-go candidates are: 

  • Record of self-management from their previous job experiences or background in successful entrepreneurship 
  • Punctual and precise. To see if they can keep up with the pace in the long run, have them pass through several interviews to see if they are consistent. The more steps they go through, the better you get to know them. 
  • Good with complex tasks. Your future colleague will have to deal with most of the problems on their own. But if you are hiring them to become a part of the team, they will sometimes face problems they won’t be able to solve on their own. Give them a test task you know is way out of their league. You have to understand how they approach and deal with challenges. Otherwise, be ready for unwanted surprises.
  • Not easily distracted. Something you can check during an interview. Try switching topics of the conversation a few times and then casually ask them what you were talking about before jumping on the train of consciousness. If they stay focused and don’t fall into your traps, it’s a good sign. 
  • Decision-makers. Last but not least. The reality is, no matter how good you are at managing your distributed team, every member has to be able to make a decision on their own and hold responsibility for it. Make sure your candidate recognizes that.

In a best-case scenario, if you want to hire a remote development team (or a team in any other field, in fact), you’d better have a budget to hire an international recruitment agency or a consultant. Local recruiters work even better, but you’d either have to know where exactly your next superstar lives or put in additional efforts in finding several HR contractors and establishing partnerships with them. 

A less obvious option is to consider hiring a qualified freelance professional. Not everyone realizes that partnerships with freelancers can be full-time and long term too. Our only suggestion would is that if for some reason you don’t feel like working with us or looking for freelancers other than developers, stick to the platforms that provide vetted or pre-screened candidates. For more information about similar freelance platforms, we suggest reading this review. 

2. Develop an onboarding process

Get used to this thought: your company has a culture. Even if it’s just you, and your culture is being “a gluten-free workspace.”  

Here’s a basic checklist for a successful onboarding: 

  • Announcement. They need to know they are a part of the team and everyone is aware of that. You have to eliminate shyness as much as possible. Let them know they are a special snowflake, and you know how lucky you are to have such a professional on the team. Confidence matters a great deal, don’t take that away! 
  • Virtual tour. We don’t propose you show them pictures of your office. However, you need to show them where they can find all the things they might need further on. Keep your files and documentation organized and easy to find. Having messy digital storage is the same as working in an office that never gets cleaned. Gross! 
  • Mentor. One advantage that remote workers get is that it’s easier for them to remember all the names (because they see them all written on their screens). From all the other perspectives, being new to an established community is always a little intimidating. A mentor should be able to guide your new coworker though the typical first-timer’s issues, manuals, set up the goals for their first week and answer all of the questions. 
  • Make sure they have all the information and access they need. Take care of these preparations before their day 1. That’s a great way to show your corporate culture is not about doing things last moment. 
  • Give them some space. New work = new information to process. Don’t make it even more overwhelming, leave your new colleague some breathing room and time to figure out what’s going on and who all these new people are. 

3. Regular checkpoints and feedback  

This is basically your answer to the question, “How to successfully manage remote teams”. You have to understand that while your remote team members will always have ongoing communication, the person managing a team always has to make out time for both group meetings and one-on-one chats. 

You will need to experiment with how frequent such meetings should be. You may even discover that different people require custom approaches and while you need to have daily checkpoints with your developers, the SEO team will require your attention once a month. The optimum frequency for one-on-ones, though, is often either once a week, or once in two weeks.  

Here’s how to make the most out of your checkpoints: 

Report summary + Planning. Both managers and doers have to know they are on the same page. Reports on what has been done over the period of time in comparison to what has been planned help to determine weak spots faster and find a solution on how to avoid them in future. 

KPIs. Everything needs to be measured somehow. KPIs are a managers’ litmus test. You see an index going down – you know something’s off. 

Honest feedback should be coming from both sides. Building a culture in which asking your colleagues whether they know something that could help you grow professionally or personally is a routine, isn’t easy. But it’s worth the efforts. And remember:

criticism should always be polite, delivered at an appropriate time, and never emotional. 

Retrospectives. Bring up some things that have happened since your last checkpoint. Highlight the best and worst parts, go over the decisions which were made and intentions behind them, and discuss what could have you done differently and how would that have affected the situation. Because the only thing you should never look back at is your high school crush. 

4. Trust and transparency 

If you want your team to be honest and open, you will have to start with yourself. The more they know about overall strategies and decisions made on top, the better. Such an attitude works exceptionally well for startups. In the very beginning, the biggest struggle every company has is to find efficient and scalable ways to bring more value to the world. You never know which idea will bring you the best result. Listen to everyone and test out the craziest theories. 

It’s a slippery slope not to share the big picture with your colleagues. Unless you want them to consider the challenges you face to be someone else’s problem, not their own. 

Trust, on the other hand, is not built overnight. It’s simple science, and something we, as human beings, can’t resist. Our reptile brain is never really asleep, always telling us to trust the environments and people we’re most familiar with. 

This part can be more delicate with remote teams. Your colleagues are deprived of spontaneous social interactions: cooler chats, group lunches, small talk. In other words, all those distracting office privileges on-site workers have. However, the lack of interactions can do damage as well. That’s why you have to make sure there is a time and place for discussing non-work related things. 

Here some ideas you can use for remote team-building: 

Webinars. These are golden. While getting to learn new stuff on a peer-to-peer basis, your colleagues will also have an opportunity to show off their skills, share knowledge and gain respect from their colleagues. If you set the right mood and throw in a pinch of incentive, these practices snowball really fast. Money, though, shouldn’t be a part of this. Show your appreciation through small but exclusive things like limited edition t-shirts only speakers get. 

Happy-hour group calls. Ever heard of long-distance friends getting together for a drink via video-call? Why not give this idea a twist? Set up a time for a weekly non-work related chat, talk about the usual stuff you’d talk about at a bar or, what’s even better: throw a Youtube-party! Group activities are important, even if your group is all over the world. 

Dedicated chat room. Whatever messenger you use for corporate interactions, set up some group chats where everyone can share fun stuff: favorite music, movie recommendations,  must-read books, and articles, memes. Facebook’s Workplace is a great tool for that. Yeah, it’s a Facebook! But only people from your company will be able to join your space. 

5. Well-structured knowledge base  

Document everything and then share it. 

This routine should be adopted by every single team in the world, but it’s an absolute must-have for a remote and distributed team. 

Come up with a roadmap for storing all the information your colleagues use or produce. It should be easy to file and easy to find. 

There are some collaboration tools that help you organize the knowledge base. One of the best examples is Confluence by Atlassian. However, if you’re looking for some free options, any cloud solutions, including Google Drive and Dropbox will work great as well. 

Three suggestions you might want to follow to keep all the information in order are: 

  1. Limit the quantity of the folders you create 
  2. Come up with a naming template in a way that will allow easily find the needed files in future. 
  3. Set up a catalog of all the links to according documents that can be filtered by team, topics, etc. 

6. Clear goals and management system 

Agile methodology and Kanban work pretty well for managing remote teams. You don’t have to dig in deep to start using the basic concepts. 

First of all, you won’t get far without using any task-management tools. 

Every task your team works on, no matter how small it is, should be written down. These techniques are almost always used within development teams, but you can apply them to any other industry with the same success. 

First of all, choose an app or a website you’re most comfortable working with. When selecting, pay attention to the pricing models, features, and mobile-version availability. Here’s a list of the most popular options: 

At Lemon.io we also do a lot of work remotely. The tool we chose for task-management is Trello. It suits our inner-team purposes best because it’s simple and we try not to overload it with additional features. 

Here’s what a Lemon.io Kanban board usually looks like: 

As you see, we have 5 lists that hold all kinds of tasks: 

Backlog. This list contains every single task I want to work on in the future. Every idea instantly goes there. We recommend you to revise it once a week, pick the things that have the highest priority at this moment, and move them to the next list. 

To do. Everything we choose to work on during the week goes here. This will help you keep on track with time, and always know when you should speed up or have time to work on something else. Having a backlog and to-do lists divided makes it easier to prioritize the problems and always work on what’s important. Once you get to know your work pace and how much you can do in a certain period of time, you should plan to work on a number of things that suits 80% of your full capacity. The rest 20% of your time you will dedicate to spontaneous urgent tasks. 

In progress. While the name of this list is pretty self-explanatory, there’s one very important rule: no matter what, there can be only one task in progress at a time. If you have a task board for a whole team, of course, there will be more than one task assigned to different people. What you should take away from this passage is that the In-progress list is the bottleneck of your production line. If you try to do more things at once than is possible, the productivity will only suffer. 

Review. Once you’re done with your part of the task but still have to wait for proofreading, QA, approval, etc., move the task to this list to get it out of the way and start working on something new. 

Done. Only fully solved tasks can move to this list. The ones that are 100% closed. The one you won’t be getting back to. This is the rule. 

7. Avoid micromanagement at all costs  

Micromanaging hurts everyone. It’s a typical trait of professionals prone to perfectionism, who had no choice but to delegate some part of their workload, although they didn’t really want to do that. 

It’s hard to fight, but here’s a framework on how to manage a remote team without micromanaging: 

  1. Open new positions only when there is more work than you and your current team can handle 
  2. Hire only those who will be better at their job than their manager 
  3. Once your perfect candidate joins the team, remember why you hired them and let them do their work 
  4. Give them all the information and tools they need in the very beginning 
  5. Don’t tell them what and how to do, unless they ask (make sure they know that you won’t micromanage them) 
  6. Give feedback on their results, not process. If you feel there was a more efficient way to do that, suggest it and explain why it might work better, but don’t forget to ask, whether they see any flaws in methods you were proposing. 

8. Small things count 

Want to hit the right spot in your employee’s brain? Praise their efforts and reward them. Every time we get approval from our social environment, our brain gives us a bonus dose of dopamine. This hormone has been held responsible for pleasure and happiness, has also been proven to increase motivation and self-esteem.

Can’t think of a simple and efficient way to show them you care? Make a habit of recognizing their successes. Other awesome ideas? Send them a swag bag with cool stuff for them and their family, which they can show off. Even a simple gift basket you can order from their local vendor will make a great deal. These are small things that will cost you nearly nothing but can raise loyalty sky-high. 

9. Productivity tools  

We all struggle with distractions, low focus, poor time-management and constantly look for ways to be more productive. Want to help your coworkers with that? Share your life-hacks. Give them the same tools you have. 

For example, here’s the list of productivity tools popular within our team: 

Noisli. Awesome Chrome extension that produces white noise. Personally, I can’t go through a single workday without turning on my favorite mix (fireplace+forest+thunderstorm) at some point. The extension also has a built-in timer, so if you’re a fan of a Pomodoro technique, that will come in handy. 

SelfControl. This app lets you block all the distractive websites and applications that let your focus loose. 

Pocket. All the things on the Internet I find to be distracting throughout the working hours but want to get back to later, go in my Pocket. 

Lightshot. Probably the best screenshot app I’ve ever used. You can select the required area of the screen, make notes on your screenshot, highlight the things you want to show your colleagues and share it in a way you prefer best. So instead of wasting my time trying to explain what’s wrong or calling a colleague to show it, I can just send a screenshot with notes. 

10. Focus on the bigger picture

While it’s easy to get stuck in the land of operational management, don’t forget about your strategic goals. Know where you’re going and how you are getting there. To measure your success, hold everyone accountable and set up the appropriate KPIs. Keep them clear and transparent, so not only you but everyone on your team know exactly how it’s going and come up with new ideas on how to do better. 

While KPIs are not something universal and should vary from position to position, you can use the big picture analytical reports that will be applicable to the whole team. 

A great example is the burndown chart. Especially, if your job is to manage a remote development team. Once you have the strategic goals set, you can come up with a perspective on how fast you should be going. Let’s say you know, that to complete your project, you have to solve 120 tasks throughout a year. Here’s how your burndown chart may look by the end of October if you mark down your progress level: 

It’s a very straightforward solution, but it gives the whole team a clear idea of the current state of affairs. 

Afterword

Regarding the problem of how to manage remote teams project management theory and practice may differ. Still, it does not matter that you can’t figure it out along the way. At Lemon.io we deal with distributed teams every day. 55% of our own team works remotely, others are free to leave the office at any moment. This approach gives us unlimited opportunities of hiring the best people we actually want to work with, not those who are available in our area. 

Our entire existence is bound to the idea of pushing the boundaries and giving businesses from around the globe an opportunity to scale using the remote workforce. And we can assure you that if you think you won’t be able to manage a remote software team, you’re underestimating yourself. It’s like riding a bike: once you learn how to do it, you won’t be able to forget the feeling. 

We not only provide top freelance developers for standalone projects but can also team you up with professionals who will become a full-time part of your team. If you want to detach from everything that’s holding you from thriving, but can’t find the right people to lean on, it’s time to think bigger.