Keeping your remote team focused and productive

Keeping a team on track as a manager can be tough. There can be tight deadlines, multiple projects in flight, and helping your direct reports sort out things that are blocking them.

On a remote team things can get trickier. You can’t see or judge how someone is doing based on their tone of voice or non-verbal cues. One of the biggest roadblocks to managers adapting to a remote culture is being able to know how your team is performing and how to keep them on track.

In this article I’ll discuss some proven strategies to help you as a manager create the conditions necessary for folks on your team to do some of the best work of their lives.

Be mindful of how you use communication tools, especially Slack

In a remote company picking your communication apps means more than just deciding how your company is going to communicate.

Picking tools also means you are picking the culture and DNA of your team.

Slack makes it very easy to communicate. It requires no thought to open the app up and send someone a direct message or mention them with a question.

This can be a good thing or a bad thing. If you’re in a situation that requires real-time collaboration, this can boost your team productivity. However, if your team needs to do heads down focused work, multiple messages throughout the day can interrupt people and ruin their focus.

Have a plan to deal with distraction and questions

Slack makes it easy to communicate in a pinch, but the lower friction of communication comes with a number of hidden costs. If we’re always relying on teammates to answer questions, here is what we’re giving up:

Two strategies, and one to avoid, for dealing with distractions and questions

Do: Create a culture of transparency through documentation

Tools like Confluent, Coda, or Google Docs can house your documentation. I recommend that for each project you have a master document with all the details you can provide about that project. Everytime something changes with the project, or a work item is completed, it should immediately be updated by the person doing the work to keep it up to date.

Questions about a project should be immediately directed to this document, and if the answer can’t be found, then take some time to answer it and update the documentation.

If you receive a ton of questions, I recommend checking out Stack Overflow for Teams, a service which helps surface question and answers to everyone in a company.

Do: Use forms to triage communication

For other communication I recommend using a form to triage communication. This helps queue up work and also gives it a priority. Seeing what needs others have that you’re blocking is a helpful way to plan what to work on next.

Filling out a form also adds friction and makes someone think about their question. Often times, this added friction can be the encouragement they need to try to answer their own question by reading documentation.

Don’t: have an on call Slack question answerer

One typical pattern I’ve seen in teams that are Slack-focused is to have someone be designated as interruptible or on call to answer questions. This approach can work for smaller teams, but as your company grows it can become unmanageable!

Having someone on call to answer Slack questions is a band aid approach. If you find yourself going down this route I recommend following the strategies I’ve outlined above.

If you need someone to truly be on call to manage outages and customer facing emergencies, there are better tools than Slack for managing these.

Prioritize mental and physical health

One thing that’s easy to overlook for managers is how your reports are doing. Mental health issues, if left untreated, can be just as deadly as physical illnesses. It is also common for employees of remote companies to work long hours and neglect their physical health.

Managers are not responsible for the health of our employees. But we need to provide a healthy working environment that encourages people to seek help and take time off when appropriate, where health and family come first.

To model healthy behaviors, I always like to be up front with my teammates about things I’m struggling with, especially if they are affecting my work. These can be things like illness, feeling tired or burnt out, or just needing to take some time off and work less.

Look out for working parents, caretakers, and those with disabilities

I often see working parents (including myself!) apologize for taking time off to care for a sick family member or child, then immediately promise to make up the time later. Being a parent or caretaker is like having a second job, and things can get particularly stressful during times of illness.

It’s ok to work less than 40 hours a week in these situations, and we shouldn’t burn ourselves out by trying to work a certain number of hours. If you take time off, take time off, and don’t work weekends or nights to make up for it. Encourage your teammates to do the same.

Establish team rituals around something other than work

One technique that I really like is to have a dedicated amount of time for teams to talk about something other than work. This could be the first 15 minutes of a meeting, or a dedicated meeting, where no work chat is allowed.

Chances are if you can be open with your teammates about things you care about in your personal life, you will be able to open up to them about other issues you encounter during your work.

Finally: Lean into conflict, and explore uncomfortable things together

Remote communication tools often fail to convey emotion, making it hard to see how someone reacts to being asked to do something.

Encourage your teammates to be open about how they feel about the work they’re doing. Frustration and anger are often signals that something is misaligned, or that you need help. Even if there is disagreement, it’s important to discuss it and work through it.