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I’ve managed a remote team for four years. Here are the 5 things you can’t ignore

From onboarding to investing in the right tools.

I’ve managed a remote team for four years. Here are the 5 things you can’t ignore
[Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash]

It’s not easy being a manager. Not only are you accountable for your team’s performance, you are also in charge of hiring new candidates, and you have to work hard to earn their trust and respect.

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Now, imagine doing these things when your closest direct report is 800 miles away, and your team members live in five different time zones. Over the past four years, I’ve managed a remote team at a company with a 60% remote workforce.

Our team has undergone a lot of changes in the last few years, (including an acquisition) but we’ve remained productive, close-knit, and happy. When I look back, I realized that we’ve been able to maintain our culture because we established some basic ground rules, and we stick to them as much as we can. Here are my five biggest takeaways for managing a remote team.

Design your hiring process with remote candidates in mind

The most important part of building a robust remote team is to hire the right people. When you’re interviewing candidates, you should look for three main things.

1) A strong skill set relevant to their jobs: This might sound obvious, but unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen. Too often, managers hire candidates without seeing their work product first. When your direct hire is remote, you don’t always have the luxury of working through things together (particularly when you’re in a different time zone). So you need to feel confident that they can complete basic job tasks independently.

I always give candidates a short homework assignment after their initial screening call. If I’m hiring a product marketer, I’ll ask for a go-to-market plan. If it’s a content manager, I’ll request a sample blog post.

2) A candidate with an affinity for remote work: They should be excited about the setup and have ideas about contributing to remote work culture. There are specific skills you need as a remote worker that are not as crucial in an office environment. So while they might not have worked remotely before, you need to determine at least whether their working style is compatible with remote work. For example, you can ask about their experience working with distributed teams or whether they have freelanced. I also like asking questions like, “What type of work environment do you thrive in?” or “Can you share an example of a time when you felt empowered by your work environment, and a time you didn’t?”

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3) Hire candidates who share your company’s values: Remote employees have fewer opportunities to absorb company culture in person, so they’ll fit in faster if they share your cultural code. For example, one of our values is “Be the change you seek,” so I usually ask candidates to tell me about a time when they didn’t like something at a previous gig and how they fixed it.

[Image: courtesy of Trello]

Put extra effort into onboarding

In any workplace, the first few weeks on the job determine the tenor and trajectory for the new hire. Remote workers won’t have the opportunity to partake in watercooler conversations or team lunches, but there are other things you can do to help them settle.

For instance, I always create personalized 90-day plans for new hires in Trello. Their board contains all the critical “new job” stuff: team member introductions (personal bios, photos, advice for new employees), HR training links, task checklists, long-term goals, and more. Not only does this practice provide a sense of structure, it also gives me the mechanism to check on their progress and offer help if needed. With a remote team, this is extremely crucial, since I get less face time than managers in physical offices.

I also assign mentors to new hires, who schedules regular video check-ins, make themselves available on Slack, and make new employees feel welcome. And don’t forget to consider their experience level. Naturally, junior hires may need more training than senior hires. With our early-level employees, I tend to schedule more frequent check-ins and encourage them to participate in company-wide exercises.

Invest in the right tools

Remote workers need a dedicated, quiet space to do their work, so as a manager, it’s important to set some guidelines.

At Trello, we encourage remote workers to either join a coworking space or have a home office with a door that closes. We’ll even pay for their home office setup, including an ergonomic chair or a standing desk. They can still work from a coffee shop every once in a while, but they need a good default setup. Fast, reliable internet is also a must. Most Trello meetings happen over video chat, so we need a strong connection to get stuff done.

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Make time for face-to-face interactions

As a remote manager, you won’t sit next to your team members every day, so you should look for other ways to build strong relationships.

If something takes more than 30 seconds to explain via chat, I jump on a video call. Sure, chat apps like Slack are great for hashing out logistics or sharing articles, but they lack fundamental human elements like body language and tone. Sometimes it’s just faster to figure things out face-to-face.

But even video calls aren’t enough. When most of your team is remote, you need to set aside the resources to host team retreats. After all, you’re saving money by not renting physical offices, so why not funnel that money into team bonding? Recently, my team met up in Austin for a few days of barbeque, Tex-Mex, karaoke, brainstorms, and working sessions. We joke that we have better relationships than our office peers because we don’t grate on each other’s nerves every day, and we look forward to our cherished in-person meet-ups.

Trust your team to do the work, but check in from time to time

When I tell people that I manage a distributed team, they always ask, “If your team is remote how do you know if they’re working?” I laugh and say, “If your team is in an office, how do you know they’re working?”

A shared office doesn’t guarantee productivity (especially in open offices, where distractions roam everywhere). Dan Sines, founder and CEO of personality assessment Traitify, previously wrote for Fast Company that when his company went remote, productivity improved because they were forced to design (and follow) efficient work practices.

Of course, you still need to keep your finger on the pulse. I watch projects unfold in tools like Trello, Confluence, and Slack. That way, I’m not bugging my direct reports for status updates, but I can understand what’s happening.

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Being the manager of a distributed team certainly comes with its set of challenges, but I’ve found overcoming them has made my team even more productive. If you’re a remote manager, consider establishing your own guidelines. Mine helped my direct reports stay on track, and they could help yours too.


Stella Garber is the head of marketing at Trello.

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