Managing a distributed workforce requires more than cloud-based tools.
When the COVID-19 pandemic caused virtually all knowledge workers to go remote, their managers were suddenly faced with translating leadership from behind a screen.
It hasn’t been easy. In many cases, the desire for face time led to Zoom fatigue. In other cases, the need to meet deadlines (and not seem like a slacker) made it difficult to “shut off.”
With remote work here to stay, learning how to manage a distributed workforce should be a top priority for all managers—regardless of whether their companies plan to remain remote.
To better understand effective remote management, we took a look at how a few of the most experienced remote-first companies were managing their distributed workforce.
The product and project road-map platform Aha! enables organizations to manage and execute their most important plans.
Aha! is also a remote-first company. Since its launch in 2013, Aha! has grown to almost 100 employees across six continents and 87 cities. But they couldn’t have done this successfully without learning how to build and manage a distributed workforce.
Here are a few of the secrets to Aha!’s success:
Use visuals to communicate
The Aha! team uses their own product to do this, but there are plenty of tools that make visual communication possible. Whether your team uses Trello, Miro, or any combination of visual planning apps on the market, several studies have proved that people absorb and retain information better when text is paired with images.
Up your video meeting game
Video meetings are an essential component of managing a remote team, but they’re not always purposeful or productive. More often than not, these meetings consist of managers talking “at” teammates rather than having meaningful, decision-focused discussions. To combat this, the Aha! team creates a meeting-agenda document that everyone can access beforehand. This encourages participation and ensures that meetings are worth having.
Be proactive about documentation
Common questions from team members often surface documentation gaps in your brand’s repertoire. For remote managers, this presents an opportunity to reduce friction by documenting the most frequently asked questions—ideally in a central location—so that people can get answers without disturbing their colleagues or diverting their attention from their actual work.
Founded in 2011, Help Scout is a global remote-first company that powers help-desk software for some of the world’s most popular brands—and they value remote work every bit as much as being customer-centric.
With remote employees scattered across more than 12 countries and 50 cities, Help Scout believes managing a distributed workforce requires a radical commitment from leadership.
Here are a few ways Help Scout supports a thriving remote culture:
Create a “hierarchical messaging” plan
To avoid bad meetings, email bottlenecks, and unwelcome distractions, Help Scout recommends creating a messaging hierarchy to define the rules of engagement when communicating with remote coworkers. For Help Scout, that means limiting email to nonurgent one-on-one conversations and leveraging Slack for everything else.
Promote clear and concise writing
With most remote team communication occurring via text, managers at Help Scout model clear and concise writing—not only so their messages are easily understood but also because they want to encourage team members to do the same. When people put clarity before cleverness and take care not to assume, there’s little to no need to obsess over things like “tone.”
Embrace a remote-first mind-set
Remote workers should never feel alienated. But at many “remote-friendly” companies, lack of access to information is one of the most common problems distributed workers face. According to one HBR study, remote employees report feeling “left out” and “ganged up on” at a higher rate than their in-office peers—and the disparities in available resources are a huge factor in the divide.
While a fully distributed workforce may not make sense for everyone, Help Scout encourages any company that calls itself “remote-friendly” to instead declare itself “remote-first”—even if the company has a central office.
For many organizations, this will require changing the way they share information. Purpose-built knowledge management tools like Tettra help remote teams centralize their institutional knowledge in a searchable and accessible platform.
The folks behind the productivity and team communication app Doist think critically every day about the way teams engage asynchronously. With close to 70 team members distributed across 25 countries, their remote management strategy evolved out of necessity.
To build a united and high-functioning team without the benefit of face-to-face interactions, Doist recommends that remote managers:
Hire slowly and carefully
Unlike most companies, Doist doesn’t view employee acquisition as a positive indicator of business growth. They see company size as a vanity metric—and they credit a deliberate and cautious approach to hiring new team members with preserving their carefully crafted remote-first culture.
To help them vet candidates they can trust, Doist shapes their interview process around assessing whether a candidate’s values align with the company’s and whether they have a history of taking ownership of their own learning. Recruiting for these two traits helps Doist preserve its culture.
Set employee-centric boundaries
It’s too easy to work too much while working from home, and the Doist team makes it clear that sustainable work-life balance matters. In addition to providing staff with five weeks of mandatory paid vacation, Doist also allows its team members the flexibility to work their own schedules.
When employees do take vacation, they’re forbidden from sending out-of-office messages that invite contact. If a vacationing employee responds to a message, they’re told to log off. To further prove their commitment to work-life balance, Doist added a “time off” feature to their Twist app.
Prioritize asynchronous communication
Meetings are a rarity at Doist. With only 5% of their team’s communication (i.e., meetings or group chats) occurring in real time, the Doist team relies heavily on asynchronous tools. This affords them a few benefits. First, it supports their belief that the best ideas can come from anyone. Second—and perhaps most importantly—it ensures that decisions are transparent, conversations are searchable, and information is accessible to everyone.
Zapier enables organizations to connect with thousands of apps to automate simple processes and is a popular workflow solution.
A fully remote operation from day one, the company employs 300 workers in 28 countries—and they’ve learned a lot about how to effectively manage a distributed team since launching in 2011.
Zapier frames its remote management approach in three common-sense categories—people, process, and technology:
Make customer service everyone’s job
At Zapier, customer service is everyone’s job. And although the main driver of this initiative is to ensure that each employee hears the voice of the customer, the strategy also supports Zapier’s remote culture. Uniting the entire organization around sharing the same perspective—the customer’s—promotes teamwork in a way that few other activities can.
Hire doers and automate the rest
Micromanagement and remote work don’t mix. Things need to get done, and trust should be a given, which is why Zapier takes recruitment very seriously.
There are plenty of distractions when working from home. Competing for quiet space with spouses or roommates who also are working, raising children, or just feeling overwhelmed are common obstacles to remote work productivity.
To get ahead of these factors, Zapier takes a two-pronged approach. First, they hire doers—people who default to action while maintaining a sense of prioritization. Second, they encourage employees to embody one of their core values (“Don’t be the robot, build the robot”) by automating whatever they can.
Invest in the right tools
Collaborative tools are a must-have for a distributed workforce. With the right technology, remote teams can replace email, search old discussions, and remain informed with minimal effort.
Since some information can get lost in the fast-paced world of Slack, Zapier built its own tool, called Async, to support asynchronous communication. Described as “a blog meets Reddit”, Slack is where they talk about work, while Async is where they share it.
The Zapier team also recommends investing in a company-wide password manager, because working from home can heighten security concerns about sharing login information.
Managing a Distributed Workforce Requires More of the Same (and Some of the Different)
Managing a distributed workforce isn’t easy. Perhaps more than in the office, remote teams need structure, communication, and proactive transparency from their managers.
With the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating the need for remote solutions that go beyond tools, managers must rise to the challenge to drive engagement, productivity, and a sense of belonging.