Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
February 21, 2018 · 12 min read

How to Manage a Remote Team and Stay Productive (From the World’s Top Remote Startups)

Successfully Manage Remote Workers

As far as changes to the way we work, few things have had as much of an impact as the rise of remote work.

And why not? As our jobs shift from menial repeatable tasks to more independent, cognitively demanding roles the need to be constantly supervised has dropped dramatically. Add to that a plethora of powerful tools that make collaboration and communication easier than ever and it’s no wonder that remote work is seeing such high adoption.

But, (yes, there’s always a "but") not everything is perfect when it comes to remote work.

Like any long-distance relationship, the less face-to-face time, the more issues seem to creep up. Comments get misconstrued. Expectations aren’t clearly set out. And teammates feel the need to "prove" they’re always around just because they’re not physically in an office.

These issues can dampen or even ruin all the fantastic aspects of being a remote team. If we let them.

We spoke to managers at some of the world’s most successful remote companies, including Buffer, Zapier, Remote Year, Close.com, and Dribbble to understand the tools and techniques they use to keep their remote teams happy, productive, and on track.

The biggest myths about remote work that need to be dispelled

Dive into the research on remote work and you’ll quickly find there’s a lot to feel good about for those workers who aren’t location-bound:

Yet, for some reason, myths and rumors about the negative impact of remote teams still come up time and time again. So before we get into how to effectively manage a remote team, we need to clear the air.

Remote management myth #1: Remote teams are less effective

For office workers, it can seem like a clear bonus to have your teammates around you. Questions can be answered quickly. You can jam on an issue over lunch or after hours. And projects generally go smoothly due to physical barriers not getting in the way.

But Zapier’s data team manager, Muness Castle, says this simply isn’t true:

"I've worked ~15 years on collocated teams and the last ~5 on remote teams. For teams without clear goals or decision making process and lower autonomy, collocated teams work better. On the other hand, when those issues are addressed a remote team can be as productive and sometimes more so than a collocated team."

Having the freedom to block out distraction, in a place that’s most comfortable for the individual, and have focused time for work, leads to greater productivity.

Dribbble’s VP of Product, Sarah Kuehnle, agrees. Adding that the lack of distractions can make teams thrive:

"There is a feeling that you must be present in order as proof of productivity. In reality, the opposite is usually true. Having the freedom to block out distraction, in a place that's most comfortable for the individual, and have focused time for work, leads to greater productivity."

Remote management myth #2: Company culture suffers when employees are remote

It’s not just productivity that remote detractors think gets in the way. For many people, the idea of your team not being together seems like a recipe for low engagement, less collaboration, and a weak company culture.

But, as Greg Caplan, co-founder and CEO of Remote Year, explains, a recent Gallup poll showed that remote workers actually score higher in areas like "my opinions seem to count" and “understanding the company’s mission and purpose,” which are signs they feel more part of a company’s culture.

Remote workers score higher in areas like “my opinions seem to count” and “understanding the company’s mission and purpose”.

"We cannot assume that culture will just happen as a result of employees being together in a physical space," he says, adding that it’s up to remote team leaders to explicitly communicate and state their values early on and make sure their teammates are on board.

Remote management myth #3: Remote teams don’t collaborate as well

It’s hard to believe that entire companies have been built across continents and time zones, which is probably why the myth that remote teams are less collaborative perpetuates. But speak to people who actually manage remote teams and you’ll get a different picture.

Dribbble’s Kuenhle, says technology has made collaboration easier and that fully remote teams actually work better than "mixed" ones:

"With so many tools that enable people to work together today, there's no reason that remote teams can't be as effective as those in the same room. The most important thing for this to work, in my opinion, is that it's best to have the entire team remote. A team that's partially co-located and partially remote tends to fail more often as it's easy to forget you have remote coworkers present when you can turn to another coworker who's right beside you."

And when it comes to meetings, Remote Year’s Caplan says they’re actually faster and more efficient for remote teams:

"In our experience, virtual meetings are often more efficient and productive than in-person meetings. Also, there are fewer distractions or reasons to linger in a virtual meeting, so folks tend to stay focused on the agenda and turn off video promptly when a meeting concludes."

Virtual meetings are often more efficient and productive than in-person meetings.

5 Strategies and techniques top remote managers use for keeping workers productive and efficient

While the myths around remote work are for the most part unfounded. There are issues that all teams face that become a little more complicated when you’re working remotely.

However, with the right management and communication, remote teams can be even more productive than collocated ones. Here’s the strategies that top remote managers use to ensure their teams have all the resources and support they need to be productive:

1. Recognize when your remote workers need help (and give it to them)

When you’re working in an office, it’s easy to see when someone’s having an off day or when something is bothering them. Maybe it’s personal issues, or they’re feeling under the weather.

But when you’re working remotely, it’s almost impossible to pick up on those physical cues. And unfortunately, not too many people are going to message their boss telling them they’re going through a rough patch and might not be doing their best work.

Dribble’s Kuenhle says this just comes down to making the effort to really know your team:

"In the office, it's easy to see when someone is struggling or not in the swing of things. Managers need to pay much more attention when working remotely. Spending time with each report and getting to know them both personally and professionally, is really key. I want to learn what makes my team tick. What they're interested in. What's going on in their lives. That way, I can be the best support I can."

Remote Work Success with Key Communication

For Planio CEO Jan Schulz-Hofen, it’s important to show your team that it’s OK to not be on your A-game every single day:

"At Planio, I tell my team if I'm having a bad day or if I'm not in the mood for work on a certain day and they do the same. It's only human after all. We're not machines. When you know your teammates will respect how you’re feeling it's much easier to be honest about these situations."

Personal issues aside, there’s also always the chance for communication to get misconstrued or misunderstood when you’re not speaking in person. So, if you give your team unclear goals or expectations, it’s a lot harder to make sure they know what needs to be done when you’re not "managing by wandering around," as Zapier’s Muness puts it.

Instead, Muness says you can fix these issues by dedicating regular time to discuss exactly what everyone needs to be doing:

"We write these down periodically and make sure to be explicit about the reasons we change our plans. It’s not that the plans are set in stone, rather what matters is that we understand each others priorities and concerns," he adds.

Another option, says Planio’s Jan, is to switch your management style from one where you’re the leader, to one where you’re a resource:

"Instead of managing in a ‘push’ manner by giving people tasks and next steps, I always try to establish a ‘pull’ style where everyone tries to get the resources/information needed for their next step so they can continue their work and aren't blocked. ‘Pull’ also includes (virtually) raising a hand when you're stuck with something and finding the right person to help you with moving forward."

2. Build camaraderie and connection through letting the personal come into the professional

Tools and processes can help your team work effectively together. But for a remote team to really thrive, they need to have that same sense of connection and camaraderie that in-person teams do.

You know, the random conversations about the newest Netflix series, or shooting the crap about their favorite sports team. Unfortunately, a lot of those conversations either don’t happen, or feel painfully forced on remote teams.

Luckily, there are a few strategies and team-building activities you can try to break through this.

Remote Year’s Caplan starts by creating safe places for employees to be themselves and show off their individuality. They call these "virtual watercoolers":

"For example, we have a ‘books and music’ Slack channel to allow team members to share what they’re reading and listening to. Likewise, we have a “wellness" channel as well that employees can join and share tips that they use to stay healthy, especially when travelling a lot.”

At Planio, creating this type of virtual watercooler actually spawned one of their most popular product features. When both their main frontend engineer and their software architect went remote, their team suddenly became much more distributed than they had been in the past:

"Obviously, we wanted to make it work, so we sat down and thought about how Planio needs to be improved to be better suited for remote work," explains Jan.

"One big result of that is the launch of Planio Team Chat as a core feature to extend our suite of tools. Fast forward to today, the team is constantly signed on to Team Chat via IRC. We have project specific channels and a ‘watercooler’ channel where we discuss movies we watch, things that happen in our personal lives, etc. There are also tons of cat and sloth pics."

For Kuenhle, it’s less of a dedicated communication channel, and more of a mindset. Instead, she hosts weekly "anything goes" meetings:

"Sometimes we talk about design. Other times we’ll talk about muppets or Disney. It’s a free-form meeting where we can share work, give feedback, and just spend time together. We laugh a lot and it’s a very welcoming, safe place for the team to open up."

The greatest challenge growing a remote team is cultivating a vibrant and intimate company culture.

Sometimes it’s the format that causes issues. Which is why at SaaS startup, Close.com, CEO Steli Efti experiments with non-business tools to make the conversation feel more personal:

"The greatest challenge growing a remote team is cultivating a vibrant and intimate company culture. The remote tool stack is awesome in creating consistent team communication but poor in fostering personal social connections with your co-workers. That's why we experimented using a tool like Snapchat (not really a business productivity tool in the conventional sense) as a internal (and fun) way to help co-workers share special moments during their work day with the rest of the team and it made a huge positive difference."

3. Give feedback according to their work style and preference

Asynchronous communication, whether through email or any other shared tool, can be a nightmare for giving and receiving feedback.

Giving and Receiving Feedback about Work

Take time to put together thoughtful feedback and you’re basically doing the work version of leaving them on read. Call right away to talk through it and you risk coming across as flippant or overbearing.

However, according to Buffer’s Director of Marketing, Kevan Lee, this all comes down to understanding how your team works, and tailoring your approach accordingly:

"I need to be mindful of how a person prefers to receive feedback: do they like the real-time nature of a video call, or would they prefer an email so they can sit and reflect on the feedback before responding?"

Planio’s Jan says that giving and receiving feedback is a skill that needs developing whether you’re working remotely or on site. And it’s important for managers to create an environment of trust where teammates know feedback is factual, not personal:

"Once that is established–when giving feedback–we don't need the sandwich approach (where we say something nice first, then give feedback and then say something nice again). Instead, we can feel comfortable addressing issues directly. When receiving feedback, it's equally important to listen on a factual level. Don't take it personal, because it's not meant to be."

With those factors established, Jan says they use Planio to provide feedback in writing, which lets the person giving feedback take the time to write down their thoughts clearly, and also gives the receiving person time to reflect and re/act according. Additionally, this means all their reviews are on record (searchable as Planio issues), so the learnings are shared collectively as a team.

4. Give remote teams more freedom to make them more creative

As Steve Jobs famously put it, creativity is just connecting things. Unfortunately, it’s so much easier to connect things when we’re together and hashing it out.

Buffer’s Lee agrees that with a remote team, there have been fewer moments when creative ideas can be built off one another. However, this just means you have to be more purposeful in manufacturing those experiences:

"We'll get together after each six-week work cycle to discuss what we went well, what we'd like to change, and what ideas we have for the next cycle," he explains.

For Remote Year’s Caplan, taking advantage of the flexibility and freedom of your remote team is one of the best ways to promote creative thinking:

"For certain types of creative work, you have to be in your favorite room, or listening to your favorite music, or sitting in your favorite chair to do your best thinking. No other environment will do. That’s why people often say that they do their best thinking in the shower or that their best ideas pop into their brains when they’re not thinking about a subject."

Freedom Makes You More Creative

Caplan says they encourage and even offer a small stipend, so that team members can work from wherever will make them most efficient and happy, which rarely means people are working from an office.

"We have found that giving employees the ability to control their own work environment and location increases their happiness, their productivity, and their creativity."

5. Let your team know they don’t have to be "always available"

One of the major downsides of working remotely is feeling like you have to make up for the fact that you’re working from home, a co-working space, or coffee shop. For many people, that means overcompensating by always being available on your team chat channel, responding instantly to emails, and generally putting in more hours than necessary just to "prove" they’re not slacking off.

While for some managers have employees always around might sound like a bonus (you monsters!) the reality is that this ultimately leads to stress and more than a few pissed off teammates.

Instead, successful remote teams create a culture of trust and know that everyone’s there to do their best work. At Planio, they use their Planio Team Chat as a place to show whether you’re available or not:

"Our etiquette is: when someone is logged on to chat, it's okay to ping them by mentioning their name to start a conversation. Whenever we need time to do concentrated work, it's totally okay for everyone to be offline in chat and to have our phones in silent mode as well."

Whenever we need time to do concentrated work, it’s totally okay for everyone to be offline in chat and to have our phones in silent mode.

For Dribbble’s Kuenhle, it all comes down to understanding that remote work and autonomy go hand in hand:

"The only rule I have is that it's always okay to step away and take a break. I don't want my team to feel chained to their desk, forced to make their presence known throughout the day. We all have work to do and we trust each other to get it done. If someone on my team wants to take off for a bike ride in the middle of the day, I want them to do that. They'll come back refreshed. I want my team to work happy. Trust and flexibility are the keys to that happiness."

The essential tools needed to manage (and work on) a remote team

While these techniques will help with how you communicate and manage your remote team, the other part of the equation is what tools you use to do this.

Where does communication happen? How do you collaborate online? What about showing appreciation for people or making public announcements about the company?

The proper remote working tools will make your team not only productive and efficient, but happier and more engaged.

Kevan Lee, Marketing Director at Buffer:

"We use Zoom for video calls, Slack for real-time communication, and Discourse for team announcements. For collaboration, we like Dropbox Paper for collaborative docs, Gmail for transparent email, and Trello for project management. Finally, we use HeyTaco (a Slack app) for recognition and celebration."

Muness Castle, Data Team Manager at Zapier:

"I believe it's important to have clear, low friction communication tools. I like a group chat tool or IRC and then something to elevate to when you need higher bandwidth communication, usually video chat.

Other tools I find invaluable are real-time collaboration tools. Word and/or Google Docs are essential for taking notes during a meeting. While whiteboards like those in Skype for Business are great for high level planning calls."

Sarah Kuenhle, Head of Product at Dribbble:

"Slack is critical for day to day discussion about projects, but also as a way for our team to connect socially. We have a mix of company, product-focused, and social channels where we can gather. We use Zoom for video conferencing because it's very reliable.

Finally, a good project management tool is important for keeping everyone on the same page and ensuring everyone knows who's doing what. Flow let's us track work by task and timeline, and makes it easy to structure out projects the way we like to work."

Greg Caplan, CEO at Remote Year:

"Tools like Zoom, Google’s G Suite, Slack, and Whatsapp help us collaborate and communicate everyday. I also send a weekly email to all team members to update them on milestones and important information for the week prior and the one ahead."

Jan Schulz-Hofen, CEO at Planio:

"We built Planio to be a comprehensive project management tool and collaboration platform where everything is in one place. We advocate against having too many tools, because you'll never find files or past communications again if you have to search for them in 5 different tools. It's also much harder to control who should be able to see/edit/comment what. Plus, you have almost no ownership of your data with everything scattered across X different cloud providers.

You’ll never find files or past communications again if you have to search for them in 5 different apps.

We use Planio Team Chat to stay in touch all day long, our powerful Planio Wiki to collaboratively edit documents for ourselves and our customers.

We’ve also reduced our use of email to an absolute minimum—both internally (no emails) and with external partners. When we email with external people, we do it from Planio Help Desk, which makes communication look like an email to external partners but will appear as a shared ticket inside Planio. It's like a much better version of a shared inbox. We can draft and comment on email threads that are visible to relevant team members so everyone knows what's been discussed. Plus, all the content is available in search, along with all other tasks, files, chats, etc.

For larger-scale team communication, Planio Forums and Blogs can be used for announcements or longer discussion threads.

The beauty of it is that everything is in one place with a unified user interface and centralized control."

Final words of advice on managing remote teams and making them successful

Building a remote team can be the smartest thing you do for your company.

It can save costs, open you up to the best talent, and allow you to build the kind of culture you’ve always wanted. But there are also special considerations that need to be taken to ensure that everyone’s doing their best work and stays happy.

It takes time to experiment. And not everything will work. But listening to the words of leaders at some of the world’s most forward-thinking and progressive remote companies will give you a good idea of what it takes to build a successful team, no matter where you are.