According to growth figures from the Office of National Statistics, 50% of the UK’s workforce is set to work remotely at least once per week in 2020. The rise of remote working means businesses and team managers need to adapt to having a workforce spread out across multiple locations.
This raises a number of unique challenges in terms of keeping everyone on target and maximising productivity. There are also a number of practical issues with not working face-to-face with colleagues and not being able to interact with the same items.
Despite the challenges, there are a growing number of companies that are entirely remote, proving that it can be done. In the case of Venture Harbour, we’re not entirely remote but the majority of our team is spread out across the world so we’ve experienced (and overcome) the more extreme type of challenges that come with managing remote teams.
Here’s how you can do the same in 2020.
The challenges of managing a remote team
We’ve looked at the challenges of remote working before on our blog, but we split that article into two sections: one for team managers and another for individual remote workers. In this article, we’re focusing purely on the challenges of managing remote teams and how to overcome them.
Before we get started, here’s a quick look at the key challenges you’ll face when managing a remote team:
- Managing tasks & projects: Creating and assigning tasks to team members and tracking progress.
- Tracking tasks: Making sure tasks are actually being completed and targets are being hit.
- Maximising productivity: Ensuring team members are getting enough done, quickly enough.
- Remote collaboration: Making it as easy as possible for team members to work together, wherever they are.
- Language & cultural differences: Getting the best out of diversity while preventing any misunderstandings.
- Building & maintaining trust: Creating a sense of trust between management and remote workers, as well as individual team members themselves.
Throughout this article, we’ll be exploring these challenges and a number of ways you can deal with them by implementing managerial techniques and using the right technology. Software plays a crucial role in making remote teams work together so we’ll also be taking a look at specific apps and tools to overcome the challenges of managing remote teams.
Overcoming the challenges of managing a remote team
Managing remote teams effectively requires a different kind of business culture than the traditional office-based environment. To overcome these unique challenges, you’re going to need to change the working culture of your business – from top to bottom – and make sure you have the right tools on our side to make facilitate this culture shift.
This will make more sense as we explore the challenges of managing a remote team in more detail.
Managing tasks & projects
The first challenge we’re looking at isn’t unique to managing remote teams but it can prove even more difficult when remote workers are involved. The good is that the solution is relatively simple and something you’re business is probably already in a good position to implement (you may already have everything you need).
How do we solve this problem?
The only difference remote working makes here is that some or all of your team members aren’t present. This makes certain things like asking people how busy they are or whether they’ve finished a certain task before assigning them something else, for example.
Apart from that, your needs as a manager are basically the same, which means you have to be able to do the following:
- Create and organise tasks
- Assign tasks to team members (and reassign them as needed)
- Manage the workload of individual team members
- Manage workloads at the project level
- Get feedback from team members
- View progress at both the task level and project level
Essentially, project management is broken into three key areas: individual tasks, team member workloads and projects. So what you need is a project management platform that allows you to create and manage tasks at all three of these levels. You don’t want a piece of software that great for project management but doesn’t provide the control you need over individual workloads or the ability to even view individual workloads.
Ideally, you want a single platform that allows you to manage everything from the same piece of software. With remote teams, you also need the ability to communicate with team members, as individuals and in groups. A lot of project management tools now include live chat and video conferencing features to make this possible. If your platform of choice doesn’t have this functionality, it’s easy to integrate with other tools like Slack and Zoom.
Just make sure you get the project management features you need.
One problem most project management platforms won’t solve for you is the inability to track tasks when you’re not in the same workspace as your team members. Sure, you can assign tasks and get notifications where they’re completed but how can you know they’re actually being worked on or what problems your remote workers are facing while they complete them.
This isn’t only a question of trust, it’s a productivity issue that prevents you from knowing the problems your team members experience and helping them to overcome them. It’s an issue that can seriously get in the way of progress at the project level.
How do we solve this problem?
To get a more real-time look at team progress, you’ll want a project management tool like Status Hero. The platform prompts team members to provide quick “check-in” details about what they’re currently working on so you can see what everyone’s up to at any given time.
Crucially, Status Hero allows team members to create “Blocked” tasks and explain what’s preventing them from completing them. This means you instantly get feedback when there’s an issue and can decide whether to address the problem now or put the task on hold until a resolution can be put in place.
You may also want to know is how long tasks are taking to complete. This helps you assign tasks to the best person for the job and identify tasks that routinely take longer than expected. At the project level, you can also see how much work really goes into hitting targets to ensure your company is charging enough to hit the target profit margins.
Toggl has this covered for you by tracking the time it takes to complete tasks, which you can use as benchmarks to maintain and improve turnaround times, as well as pinpoint issues getting int the way of productivity.
Maximising productivity is something else that works at multiple levels. First, you wan to make sure your team is maximising productivity collectively but you also want individual team members to be as productive as possible.
How do we solve this problem?
I’ve addressed the topic of maximising productivity for remote teams in a previous post, but here’s a quick summary of the best practices we covered:
- Stop multitasking: Studies have found multitasking is one of the biggest productivity killers so encourage your team members to focus on a single task.
- Avoid unnecessary interruptions: Separate studies have found it can take up to 23 minutes to recover concentration after becoming distracted – so allow team members to work uninterrupted where possible.
- Work in short bursts: The average person can only concentrate on a single task for roughly 20 minutes before their focus starts to suffer. So encourage your team to work in short bursts with regular breaks and keep this in mind for meetings, presentations and other group tasks.
- Block out distractions: Use software to block distracting apps and websites (e.g.: social media) during the short work sessions.
- Choose the right collaboration tools: Collaboration software is crucial for remote team members to work together effectively so invest some time and effort into finding the right tools (more on this in the next section).
- Talk about workspaces: Encourage team members to create a home office or dedicated workspace that allows them to concentrate on work and avoid home distractions. You may even consider helping team members fund key essentials – e.g.: a decent desk, chair, etc.
- Switch off after work: Encourage team members to forget about work when they’re done for the day and avoid disturbing them out of hours.
- Address productivity killers: Track individual and team progress, compile reports and identify productivity killers so you can address them.
To help Venture Harbour’s remote team workers achieve best practices on a daily basis, we developed our own productivity tool called Serene. The app asks users to set
a single goal for the day before I get started. This keeps me focused on a single objective throughout the day so I don’t get caught up in distractions that can wait for another day.
It then asks me to break this objective into multiple work sessions for the day and these are the individual tasks that will help me hit my target by the end of the day. Now, what’s really great about this feature is you can set timed work sessions of between 20-60 minutes. These short bursts make it easier to keep focus and take regular, short breaks after each session.
Serene also blocks distracting apps and websites during work sessions to help users concentrate on the task at hand. It can even silence team members’ phones so email notifications and other distractions don’t interrupt their attention. We designed Serene to discourage multitasking, prevent unnecessary distractions, boost focus and help team members get more done on a daily basis.
Best of all, we’re releasing Serene as a free app for macOS and you can sign up for the beta version here.
With team members spread out across locations, they can’t talk to each other freely, hand each other items, work on the same document or give each other feedback in the same ways that are so easy in the traditional office. There are hundreds of micro-interactions that remote working removes and these have a significant impact on collaboration and productivity.
The answer to this problem lies in software and maximising the potential of digital collaboration.
How do we solve this problem?
To solve the collaboration challenges that come with remote working, start by creating a list of the face-to-face interactions you need to replicate. The full list will depend on the nature of your business, how much of your workforce is remote and the individual needs of your remote workers.
This list will help you choose the right tools and, to give you an idea of what this involves, here are some of the most common collaboration features you’ll need to get from software:
- Live chat: Instant messaging to enable real-time communication.
- Voice & video calls: You’ll also want voice and video calls (group, as well as one-to-one) for digital meetings, idea sessions and other virtual meetups.
- File sharing: Team members need to be able to share and access files.
- Docs collaboration: The ability for multiple team members to work on the same document at the same time, in real-time with universal live changes.
- Feedback: The ability to add notes or other types of feedback on documents for other team members.
- Team calendar: For tasks and events to be scheduled and visible to everyone on the team.
- Task management: A platform that allows team members to manage their tasks and collaborate.
So those are some of the most important collaborative tasks you’ll need to cover with software and there are plenty of tools on the market for these. For example, Slack provides one of the best team communication platforms available right now and Zoom will have you covered for voice and video calls.
You’ll also have more specific collaborative needs based on the kind of projects you work on. For example, we also use InVision as a collaborative tool for our designers, allowing them to create mock-ups, share and interact with them and provide feedback.
Language & cultural differences
One of the biggest benefits of having a remote team is the ability to hire the best talent from around the world. However, this can come with challenges when you build a team of people from different language and cultural backgrounds. Language proficiency is always a factor but the bigger concern is how cultural misunderstanding can divide your team and isolate individuals.
How do we solve this problem?
I’ve worked with a lot of non-native English speakers over the years and I’ve also been in teams where I was the non-native speaker. So I’ve got experience on both sides of this issue and the communication problems it can lead to.
The worst instances I’ve seen are where non-native speakers are hired and then resented later for not having fluent language skills. Whatever hiring process you have in place, this is where you decide whether someone has the necessary language skills to join your team. If they don’t, responsibility lies with the person who decided to hire them- not the individual.
Aside from this, you also want to value people who have the patience and understanding to communicate with non-native speakers if you’re going to hire them.
Now, on the topic of cultural differences, here are some key areas to consider:
- Holidays: Not everybody celebrates Christmas and there are plenty of religious events around the world unique to other cultures that may, among other things, require certain team members to take time off.
- Language: Language proficiency is obviously a factor and there are distinct differences between languages irrespective of fluency that can lead to misunderstandings.
- Openness: Some cultures promote openness as a positive virtue while others encourage people to keep certain thoughts (particularly negative ones) to themselves.
- Agreeability: Likewise, in some cultures, there can be a reluctance to say “no,” refuse or say that something can’t be done. I’ve personally seen this in many Asian countries where people can feel compelled to take on tasks they’re not fully comfortable with or don’t have the time to take on.
- Hierarchy: This is a fundamental principle in many cultures and simply being older can give someone authority in many societies.
- Work ethic: The expectations placed on people in the workplace can vary a lot, too.
- Workers rights: The level of workers rights in cultures has a large impact on how people conduct themselves in the workplace – for example, how many breaks a person might expect to take during the day or how many hours they want (or feel compelled) to work.
- Bereavement: The practice and duration of funerals can vary a lot, as well as the wider cultural process of bereavement.
- Individualism: It’s also really important to understand that someone’s cultural background doesn’t define who they are. People are still individuals and some of us a more “British” or whatever else than others. The aim is to understand cultural differences, not pigeonhole people with cultural labels.
Being aware of cultural differences is the first step of ensuring they don’t get in the way of your remote team. Your aim is to maintain a positive relationship between your team members while also getting the best out of each individual and this doesn’t always mean treating everyone the same.
These differences can be one of the biggest strengths of your team if they’re managed effectively.
Building & maintaining trust
There are obvious trust issues that can arise among remote teams when you can physically see what people are doing. In some cases, team members may have never met each other face-to-face and this can hinder the ability to develop mutual trust in a number of ways. As a team manager, your priority is being able to trust the people working for you but you also want to build that sense of comradery between team members.
How do we solve this problem?
PukkaTeam is a remote communication tool and the company knows a few things about building trust between distributed teams. In this article, it presents seven tips for building trust and I think every remote team should implement these in their own way:
- Get to know each other: Here at Venture Harbour, we organise team meetups every month and getaways twice a year to build a social bond between everyone.
- Be responsive and reliable: When team members are responsive and tasks are completed on time, trust typically remains high. It’s the equivalent of knowing people are there for you when you need them.
- Promote transparency: Promote transparency at every level and demonstrate the benefits to team members.
- Get the right collaboration tools: Be strategic in your choice of collaboration tools – which ones promote transparency, allow face-to-face video calls, make people accountable, etc.
- Create shared goals: When people have shared goals, they have an invested interest in working together and covering each other’s backs.
- Avoid micromanagement: Check in with team members but avoid micromanagement, as it can reduce incentive.
- Lead by example: Show your team members that you’re trustworthy and willing to trust them.
The funny thing about trust is it takes a leap of faith and this means giving people enough freedom to prove their trustworthiness. It also helps to incentivise team members with shared goals, positive feedback and rewards for hitting targets and any sacrifices they have to make along the way.
Best tools for managing remote teams
We’ve already looked at a number of tools for managing remote teams in this article but let’s take a moment to comprise a list of the best productivity tools for teams. Choosing the right set of tools is crucial to bringing a team of remote workers together and these platforms should get you off to a good start.
- Slack: A team communication tool to make individual and collaboration work easier.
- Status Hero: Allow every team member to see what each other are currently working on to avoid interruptions and timewasting.
- Trello: A simple task management tool that makes projects easier for remote teams to complete.
- monday: A more advanced (and expensive) task management tool for managing larger teams and more complex projects.
- Process.st: A simple checklist tool for non-tech teams.
- Airtable: Imagine spreadsheet project management on steroids but with an interface so intuitive anyone can use it.
- Doodle: Team scheduling for meetings, video calls and joint sessions without the hassle.
- Zoom: Video conferencing, the way it should be for distributed teams.
- Chrome Remote Desktop: Access your computer securely from any device and screen share with teammates for stronger collaboration.
Best tools for remote workers
Part of maximising team productivity is helping individual team members establish the most efficient workflow and there are also plenty of tools designed to help people maximise their own productivity. Here’s our pick of the best:
- Serene: A tool that cuts out distractions, helps you stay focused and complete tasks faster.
- Toggl: Keep track of how long it’s really taking you to complete tasks.
- Calendar: Manage all of your calendars and events in one place, arrange meetings without dozens of emails.
- Google Drive: Free file creation, sharing and collaboration for basic document types (text files, spreadsheets, presentations, etc.)
- Spark: A smart email client that stops your inbox getting in the way of productivity and turns it into an asset.
- Zapier: Save time on repetitive tasks and switching between apps by automating processes (e.g.: automatically saving Gmail attachments to Google Drive).
- Daywise: Schedule notifications to stop work interrupting your free time.
You can find out more about these tools in our 10 Best Apps for Working Remotely From Home article.
Make a success of remote working in 2020
Managing a remote team successfully requires a shift in workplace practices and the changes need to come from the top. Instead of trying to annex a remote team onto an existing workforce, the change should start from within by creating a new working culture that adopts the principles of remote working.
Issues like productivity, workplace satisfaction, work-life balance and collaboration are equally as important to modern businesses as they are to individual employees – whether they’re remote or in-house.
The biggest challenge for remote team managers this year is bridging the digital divide between team members across multiple locations. And the solution to this starts with implementing a collaborative workplace culture and reinforcing this with the right remote working tools to maximise team productivity.