Connecting, collaborating, and getting work done isn’t as hard as you think

Around the world offices have emptied and people are working from home—some of them for the first time. Getting the hang of working remotely is one thing, but managing a team is something altogether different. The good thing is if you hired good people, they will step up. All you need to do is keep everyone on the same path. And for that, here are some tips to make managing a remote team easier.

I first started remote working twenty years ago (we called it “telecommuting” back then) and since then about half my jobs have been partially, or completely, remote. I’ve been a team member, a manager, and part of the leadership team. Across all those roles, there are some basic things anyone can do to make managing remote teams easier.

Everything in this post is time-tested and works. And if you think this is going to be a list of “use this app or that app”, you’re wrong. These best tips have nothing to do with which apps to use and everything to do with how you connect people and get things done.

Earlier this year Vancouver was hit with a sizable dump of snow—sizable for us, laughable for people in Eastern Canada—that shut down the city for a few days. My team got an unexpected dose of remote work, and it didn’t go well. The biggest reason is I didn’t follow any of the tips below. Now that we’re all sheltering in place and working from home, I’ve been following all the tips and my team hasn’t just been productive—we’ve had some significant wins.

Here’s how you can lead a successful team remotely—and otherwise.

1. Morning Sync

Take a page from Agile development and do a quick sync with your team every day—preferably first thing in the morning. You don’t have to be too formal about it, just three simple questions for each person:

  1. What did you get done yesterday
  2. What are you going to do today
  3. Do you need help or have blockers from keeping you from getting work done

That’s it. Maybe fifteen minutes to half an hour you’re done and people should feel in sync. If you’re going over 30 minutes, you need to have a separate meeting for whatever the topic is and move on. Repeating what got done the previous day is important, it lets you know how productive people are and identify blockers. If someone says they will work on x, y, and z today, but nothing more than x ever gets done. You have a red flag to check in with that person to see what’s going on.

When I’ve done morning stand ups in person, they helped people feel connected to each other and gave me a chance to make sure everyone is working the right things at the right time.

As an IT manager leading a remote team the best things you can do are:

  • unblock people
  • help them prioritize work

Sometimes you’re going to need to help a shared resource—say your single web developer or graphic designer—figure out who to help first, but that’s all in a day’s work for you. Morning standup syncs are the first and easiest way to help your team.

2. Over communicate

However your company or team does it—Slack, Teams, Skype chat—stay in touch all day. Have a group chat with the whole team, chats for project teams, and one on one chats with individual team members. Check in, say hi, ask what’s for lunch, make sure people are taking breaks, be there for your team just like you would in the office.

Don’t forget to have a chat for the fun, silly, water cooler conversations you would have in person. Right now, these connections to each other are essential. A lot of people aren’t able to be with friends or family. It’s hard. Let people chat and connect with each other. You could even have Friday afternoon happy hour to relax at the end of the week. Stay connected as people, friends, and colleagues to help everyone adjust to not being in the office.

The key to keeping your remote team together is helping them feel they are still part of a team and work needs to get done. Do that, and the rest is easy.

3. The 3 minute rule

Chat is great—perfect for staying in touch, sharing files, and giving updates—but sometimes you need to talk it out. When do you need to talk it out? My rule is if it takes more than three minutes to type it out, talk it out. Stop and have a voice or video call to talk in real time.

I was trying to finish off a website today. Getting those little details like “make this bigger, tighten that space, move this over” and after about 10 minutes of trying to type it all out we switched to a voice call and I shared my screen. We hashed things out in a few minutes and made real progress that wasn’t happening through chat alone.

I’ve followed this rule every day for the past few weeks—and so has my team. My web dev guy calls about a CSS or server issue. My writers work through ideas and edits. My boss and I sync on everything from admin tasks to priorities. We might use chat 90% of the time, but it’s the final 10% that makes a difference.

When in doubt pick up the phone and call.

4. Keep it organized

Whatever project management tool you were using before, double down on it. If you had a big whiteboard managing projects in the office, now is the time to try any of the hundreds of online tools available and make the switch. You need people to get organized and always know what’s the next thing they need to do.

A few weeks ago when the executive team called all senior managers in the day before we shut down the office, their biggest concern was “how will we know work is getting done”. My team had already been using a project management tool for a few months and I cranked how we were using it to 11.

I made a composite project of all the projects we were working on. Then I had everyone create tasks for all things they did during the day—even some of the little tasks like “email white paper draft to design”—and the company leadership team could see how things were going and adjust priorities if needed.

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For the first week working remotely, I had morning and afternoon syncs to make sure everything was on track. I became hyper organized—truth be told we had a lot of projects on the go too—and this helped everyone know what they needed to do and what other people were doing. This extra effort primed us for the success we’ve had in the past two weeks.

After the first week, we didn’t need twice daily syncs. I didn’t need my über project to show everything we did. The leadership team saw work was getting done and they could cross that worry off their list. A couple weeks in, project management has returned to “normal”. We’re not documenting everything, but we’re keeping on track with the right tools for us.

5. Make time for yourself

You can’t manage your team if you don’t have your work in order. Stay in sync with the people you report to. Follow all the tips above yourself and stay in touch with the rest of the leaders in your company. Maybe you don’t need morning syncs, but maybe it’s not a bad idea either.

If you’re new to managing a remote team, you are going to worry people are playing games or watching TV all day. It’s natural. However, if you have a good team, most of them know what they need to do and want to get the work done. When you have your morning check in you’ll see people are working on the projects they had. People are still working together and making sure the business stays running.

You might find, as many of us have recently, you’re getting more done. Which isn’t a bad thing either.

BONUS TIP – Make sure everyone is working securely

This is a good time to make sure everyone on your team has their VPN set up for secure connections to internal servers. It’s also a good time to watch out for scams—I’ve seen an uptick in spam and phishing attempts lately—because the bad guys seem to be bored and figure people aren’t being as careful as they should be. A lot of people may be using personal machines for work, those people need to be reminded about antivirus and malware scanning. The last thing you need right now is ransomware getting injected into your network when you aren’t there to physically pull the plug on servers.

You might like our Cybersecurity 101 post for some tips and how you can up your company’s cybersecurity game.

2019 Endpoint Security Trends ReportA crucial part of keeping everyone secure is having solid endpoint security. Learn about new threats on the landscape and how to mitigate them in our latest research: 2019 The State of Endpoint Security Trends.

Remote work could be the new normal for a while

Let’s accept remote work might become the new normal for a while. Some companies find things are better with a distributed team and have more people work at home at least some of the time. We all might find we’re managing teams in a whole new way with some people in the office, some at home, some doing a mix of both. Shelter-in-place aside, which could go on into the summer, there are hundreds of successful companies with entirely remote workforces and for the rest of us to get a taste of it, can’t be a bad thing.