Making remote work: how to manage a fully remote team

It’s a new era of “remote native” startups. But without an established playbook, managing employees across different cities or even countries remains challenging for founders. How do you deal with time zone differences, cultural boundaries, and using (or misusing) communication tools?

In 2021, 86% of small companies and 85% of large companies built remote functionality into their operations. 

Bosses had to rapidly evolve decades-old management styles to handle remote employees.

Founders who envisioned bustling offices, after work beers, and close relationships with staff suddenly sitting alone at home in front of a screen, trying to energise teams and drive innovation from their dining rooms.

With a pinch of trust, some one-on-one communication, and a helping hand from some smart time and project management SaaS, transitioning from an in-house manager to a full-remote manager is very doable.

But a common mistake is trying to apply in-house skill sets to remote situations. 

Because while there’s a lot of carry-over, you need a whole different set of skills.

Talking across time zones

You’ve no doubt heard variations of “it’s not the same over email” or “text gets misconstrued” multiple times over the past couple of years. 

It’s possibly not that the software isn’t available, or that you lack the skills to use it. It’s that it’s hard to know instinctively which will work for your startup. 

Long email chains are inefficient for daily back-and-forth. But messenger platforms like Slack can get annoying. 

Zoom meetings are great, but they don’t work for the latest hateable buzzword “asynchronous communication” (or async comms if you’re very cool). Loom provides a solution, and you even get a notification when workers have watched your recording, but how engaged are teams when they’re watching rather than actively contributing?

Making remote work work doesn’t just hinge on communicating or over communicating. It’s about finding the right tools – and the balance of their use – that works for your team. 

Daily standups tick a lot of boxes – get everyone together, check progress, and make a plan. But some employees may not need such frequent check-ins. Some might feel checked up on rather than checked in with. Some might enjoy the social element, some might not need that daily interaction.

They also don’t cater to timezones very well. HubSpot Blog Manager Lestraudra Alfred offers a deadline solution: “When working with team members from different time zones regarding deadlines, I’ve found it helpful to explicitly state the deadline we are working to in both my timezone and their timezone so there is no confusion on either end when the deliverable is expected to be complete.” To put it more cynically – no room for excuses.

Sharepoint sites and project management tools like Trello or Asana are a godsend for asynchronous, cross-time zone comms. They also give you time to type out detailed notes or updates, assign tasks, and promote autonomous working rather than calling meetings every five minutes. 

Minimise your micromanaging 

Some managers thrive on tracking employee work hours, monitoring project progress every few hours, and setting unrealistic expectations. No one likes a micromanaging manager, and ironically, it’s counterproductive.

Gartner VP Analyst Daniel Sanchez Reina notes the negative effects micromanagers have in the workplace: “Employees who don’t feel trusted lose self-confidence and contribute less. Micromanagers stifle creativity and growth, and need to take action and work on both their own behaviours and the norms they set for their teams.”

By the same token, when you’re not passing people in the hallway, you can easily forget to throw out an attaboy from time to time. Make notes to say thank yous and well dones, whether in text or meeting form.

Don’t overstep

This Reddit thread gives an amazing example of a well-meaning founder who did too much. 

After his team went full-remote due to COVID-19, he noticed his 20-strong team was feeling lethargic and productivity was plummeting. His solution? To implement an internal “personal accountability” initiative, getting employees to use SaaS to track sleep, movement, nutrition, and time off-screen to help them feel better.

Staggering invasiveness aside, the well-intentioned self care policy just added more to their to-do lists. 

Caring about employee well-being is great, but the second it becomes mandatory is when managers (and founders) are crossing a line. 

Your only job is to help them do their job.

Just be flexible

A better route to happier, more productive workers is to allow greater flexibility in the digital workplace.

94% of Aussie employees state that flexibility in working hours made them “happy” or “very happy” with this arrangement. 30.2% stated it gave them a better work-life balance than they did two years ago.

Unless an emergency or mandatory meeting occurs, allowing employees to pop into shops or work odd hours won’t harm productivity. It actually benefits your company.

43% of employees said that companies which permitted flexible working hours helped them achieve more productivity. It caused employees to work an additional 1.4 days a month or 16.8 more days every year compared to office workers.

Remote management isn’t in-office management

In the end, founders have to remember in-house management doesn’t carry the same skillset as remote management. It’s an unavoidable truth that business models that successfully adapt to remote work will survive in the future.

It’s not about reinventing the wheel. But a wise and modern move is to reconsider the traditional 9-to-5 schedule. It just doesn’t work for so many people, and with greater flexibility comes greater productivity, employee retention, and overall work-life balance for your team.

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