Keep Your Faraway Team Close By With These 6 Tips From Remote Managers

By: Chaia Milstein

It's 2 pm, and I'm writing this in my favorite loungewear. The laundry is happening, there's a fresh honey cake on the counter, and the cat -- who in her golden years has started exhibiting separation anxiety -- is curled sweetly nose over paws, deep in her 17th nap of the day, secure in my presence. Every other week, I pop into the office (about five miles away). Savvy's core team lives in NYC, but we work with various freelancers in all different timezones.

The benefit to remote workers is obvious: flexible time. Widely distributed teams benefit their companies with 24/7 workflow, which in turn benefits clients, who have nearly immediate answers for their questions. "Establishing a company that is first and foremost geographically independent is a win/win/win," affirms Juliana Slye, cofounder of the bicoastal Government Business Results, a 5-year-old firm that provides expertise to fulfill public sector sales and marketing needs. GBR has a 3-person office based in San Rafael, CA, with satellite offices in San Diego, Northern Virginia, and North Carolina; their workers span the globe.

"The way the world is moving, work is less about the traditional 9 to 5 and more about finding right time and space for work to fit into your life," says Slye, who has been managing teams remotely for about a decade.

As anyone who has ever tried to maintain a long-distance friendship can tell you, there's extra work involved in keeping a remote team running smoothly. Here's how to make that effort pay off.

HIRE THE RIGHT TEAM
Not everyone thrives in a distributed environment.

Extreme extroverts, or those who rely on constant in-person interaction to do their best work won't be a great fit. You'll need to hire team members who are highly independent and focused.

Monica Farrow has been working remotely for the last six years for a large, global IT firm; she says she does well in this environment both as a manager and a team member because she doesn't need a lot of direction, and maintains the right balance of social interaction. "If you don't have the kind of work where you talk to people all the time over calls (I do), it can be lonely. If I didn't have a rich social life outside work, I'd probably begin to feel unpracticed in professional social interaction. I do have days where I feel a bit weird, like a strange rodent in my work-nest, interfaced into and a fluid part of a cybernetic ecosystem," she comments.

GET THE RIGHT TECH IN PLACE

You'll need something to connect face-to-face, something to connect by voice, something for ongoing chats, and email.

You want to "deliberately architect that same feeling of a staff meeting or a water cooler conversation in a virtual world," says Slye.

Farrow's company has developed their own proprietary internal communication methods, but both GBR and HerCampus use various preexisting products.

The student-facing branch of HerCampus maintains local journalism outlets for college women all over the country, and runs primarily remotely by necessity. (HerCampus Media helps brands connect with those students.) The Boston-based HerCampus HQ keeps in touch with the editors on 280 campuses -- who then interface with a total of about 7000 contributors -- using a combination of Google Apps, Dropbox as file management, Meldium as password management, Wufoo for online form creation, DocuSign for e-signatures, and Clearslide for various other reasons, says Chief Product Officer Annie Wang.

"We are lucky to have incredible technology in the SaaS environment: timekeeping, project management, file storage, email, collaboration tools - those are all out in cloud. We don't have to have an IT person. Because everything is in the cloud and not permanent, it's constantly upgraded, and our team gets to leverage that. It's all mobile-friendly," Slye says, which helps keep workflow moving.

PRIORITIZE FACE TIME

Meeting in-person is best; video chat is next-best.

Several of the sources for this article emphasized -- several times -- the need to meet in person, even if the bulk of the work does not happen in person. Farrow's company flies in workers to meet face-to-face, as do GBR and HerCampus; HerCampus also runs an annual conference for their network to "get to meet each other and realize what a big family they're a part of," says Wang.

As well as offering social context, in-person meeting boosts a sense of institutional knowledge and insight into other branches of company culture. Farrow tells a story of her team of dedicated advance planners flying halfway around the world for a big meeting with another internal group, only to discover that group to be a lot more . . . laid-back about their prep. "We were finding motherboards and piecing together computers at the last minute," she says, adding that she never would have known that without seeing that team's style up close and personal.

And when you can't be there in person, meeting virtually is the next best thing to build a sense of inclusion, interconnection, and responsibility. International education manager Rayshauna Gray ran 4 programs across 3 time zones while she was based in Massachusetts, and also helped her coworkers meet their recruitment goals in other locations. She wasn't able to gather the people she supervised in one physical spot, but put extra effort into introducing them: "Lovingly reminding my team that the problem ain't just [in] Denver but Wichita too made them take heart, encourage one another when Mama Cat wasn't around . . . and share best practices with one another." Results? Her team felt freer to collaborate.

KEEP COMMUNICATION GOING, AND GOING, AND GOING

Check in with your team members individually and as a group.

Wang recommends regular check-ins. "[They are] really, really important . . . Setting a regular schedule for 1-on-1 check-ins is really important; 2 times a week for someone just starting out, so that any question they have is answered, and they know you're there as their advocate and their mentor and not just their boss. It's even more important if you're remote. It can be harder to feel connected if you don't see this person face to face. It's important to establish a rhythm."

Also crucial: maintaining ongoing group conversations, whether it's via a 24/7 Slack channel, or GBR's choice, Teamwork PM, where members can offer running commentary on a project's timeline, any time of the day or night.

Use all the tools at your disposal: group chat, instant message, email, video chat -- whatever it takes to keep everyone feeling connected.

And managers should encourage that connection like a broken record. The single biggest thing team members can do to close the gap is be proactive, says Slye: "We drill, raise your hand. [Say] 'I need help. I don't understand . . . I'm feeling isolated.' I ask my managers to reach out; we also need team members to reach out."

Farrow recommends that in either scenario, "Use the emoticons because written word can sometimes be prone to misinterpretation," adding, "Once you're used to it, it's just a different mode of communication. You're still getting things done; you're still delivering results."

TEST AND RETEST YOUR PROCESSES

Especially if you're managing a growing team, keep making sure what you're doing is working.

Wang reports that every summer, HerCampus spends time to rethink their systems. "We reevaluate and refine our process so it's as clear as possible. We do a lot of mock onboarding exercises with interns so they can identify areas that can be improved . . . Before you scale up . . . test [a process] with 1 person first before you add more remote team members, and continually revisit it, always thinking of it as something that can be improved."

She adds, "People work differently. Some people are really able to work independently, other people need more hand-holding. [So you want to make] sure it's not just a one-size-fits-all, but that you're tailoring management for each individual employee (which is true for in-office management as well)."

DISTANCE WILL ADJUST YOUR MANAGEMENT STYLE FOR YOU
Let it.

Speaking of tailoring management, the extra communication required in remote management might mean not just finding the right combination of tech tools for the job, but also some deeper self-reflection. Gray suggests, "Ask your friends about how they receive your communication style. If you really wanna be brave, ask your children. See what your personality type is on 16 Personalities and build up your low places."

And then feel good about your contributions to your remote team's work/life balance. A big positive for Farrow: "I have a happy dog."

Chaia Milstein is SVP of Content at Savvy. She has 10+ years of experience in journalism, copywriting, and screenwriting; she's worked as a writer/editor on Showtime and NBCUniversal properties, as well as for Viacom and various small owner-operated businesses.

This article originally appeared on Savvy.