Managing a remote team certainly has its challenges: you are being asked to organize and lead people from different countries, time zones, cultures, and backgrounds. On top of that, you won’t often get the chance to physically go over to their desk to check in on them. As a result, it's easy to unconsciously overcompensate, as a means to ease the anxiety that you’re not in control of things.
The need for status updates, paired with frequent communication gaps, often leads to micromanagement. You may not have displayed the traits of a “control freak” before, but, when there is no process around effective remote communication, it is easy to default to an overabundance of “check-ins.”
As a manager, it is your responsibility to create a good working relationship with everyone and maintain a healthy morale within your team. Micromanaging will only result in the opposite—disgruntled teammates and a toxic work environment.
Here are a few strategies for removing the micromanaging mindset from your remote team.
Foster An ‘Open Door’
If teammates are hesitant to ask questions or request help, problems may remain unaddressed. By the time you come to know about the issue at hand, things may have already snowballed into a crisis. To avoid recurring fire drills it’s natural to think you should start micromanaging, believing that you are not giving employees enough structure, or that they can’t triage significant decisions on their own.
When your teammates aren’t asking you questions or sharing their problems, consider it as a red flag for your manager-managee relationship. It may demonstrate that you are not as approachable as you’d like to be. The reason could be anything from time zone differences, cultural differences, or personal issues. Despite the possible reasons, doubling down on project involvement and status updates is not the answer.
Instead, focus on creating an environment that fosters high levels of trust, collaboration, and transparency. Here’s how:
- Don’t let pings go unanswered: Make sure notifications are turned on or communicate your schedule and availability.
- Ask for feedback regularly: Have one-on-one feedback meetings, or distribute anonymous surveys using Typeform.
- Make them feel comfortable: Have a separate chat channel for informal discussions. Ask people how their weekend was, and whether they’ve seen any good movies/gone to any cool shows, etc.
- Learn more about their culture, and be engaged when they open up about their different perspective.
- Identify the personality of each of your teammates and tweak your approach accordingly. One light hearted way is to ask people if they’re comfortable sharing their MBTI score.
- Make sure you propagate and observe messaging, email and even Slack etiquette to avoid workplace miscommunications.
- Use a scheduling tool to organize check-ins and meetings, and make sure you notify ahead of time if you have to postpone them.
- Be consistent when it comes to managing expectations. Say what you’ll do and do what you say.
- Make sure you celebrate with your teammates when new skills are put into action and objectives are achieved.
- Regularly encourage your teammates: Send them funny GIFs, recognize them during meetings, post the best performers’ pictures on your team’s channels, etc.
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Stop Obsessing About The Process
Establishing process is necessary for any team to work effectively, especially a remote team where communication is asynchronous.
Overly committing to managing the process, however, can lead managers to be short sighted about whether or not the specific process is actually working for their team. This often leads to managers demanding more documentation, updates, and meetings, when increased transparency and co-ownership with employees might more quickly reveal and build up the process breakdown.
When employees are not invited to share their opinions on how a process is working they will most likely be frustrated, albeit for a variety of reasons:
- They feel their creative freedom is being violated.
- They are not given the opportunity to evolve how they work proactively.
- It appears as though management doesn’t trust them to structure their own work.
- Constant process interventions make it hard for them to stay focused.
- Too much time on documentation means less time spent on deep work.
Check out this Glassdoor review:
"Getting things done you need ... to be a stickler for process."
Here are some ways to kick process-obsession to the curb:
- Communicate the expected result in a clear manner: the quality, the quantity, and the deadline.
- Use work collaboration tools to track your team’s progress and achievement of milestones without inundating them with update requests.
- Be democratic and collaborative. If a teammate has a better alternative, give them a chance to present their case, and have a constructive discussion about the change.
- If the proposed change is relatively minor, trust your teammate’s ability and give them the autonomy to implement it.
- Find out how much time your teammates are spending on documentation, and try to cut it down wherever possible.
Recognize Your Weak Spots
Imagine the lack of autonomy a designer feels when they are constantly being told which colors to use by a team lead who has no prior design expertise. Or how a copywriter might feel if a higher up overrides their grammar edit because “this way sounds better.” This kind of behavior leaves just about anyone feeling stifled and demotivated.
For remote teams this effect can be even more severe, especially if the communication happened in writing. This is because it is difficult to gauge the nuance of tone and intent.
Check out this poor designer venting their frustration at being micromanaged:
The first step to stop yourselves from doing this is to identify your weak spots in terms of skills and areas of knowledge. Knowing this will make it easier for your ego to take a step back.
No one is asking you to give your teammates a free run on everything. You are still required to be the proxy between the larger goals your team needs to hit and the ways your team is working to get there. But, don’t become an overbearing presence by giving unsolicited suggestions and advice, or by making invalid demands when it is clear that you don’t have the required expertise in the area. Instead, give them the freedom to complete their tasks by themselves and focus on removing blockers for them so they can get back to what they do best: the role you hired them to do.
This will help you nurture the strengths of your teammates and mould them into an effective unit. If you still find yourself wanting to give feedback try getting help from a peer who has expertise in the domain, or ask your teammates to attend training programs.
Let Go, But Gradually
If you are starting to build up a remote team, it’s okay to explain to your team that initially you may be more hands on. You should also be clear with them, however, that over time you will gradually ease up.
Part of letting go is understanding your teammates’ working styles, the time zones during which you can expect to reach them, and their preferred methods of communication (chat, video call, Trello updates, etc.). Here are a few additional tips:
- Create checkpoints (for example, a list of tasks or milestones or questions) for every member of your team to gauge their progress.
- Regularly source team members’ confidence levels with retrospectives.
- Give team members autonomy to make their own decisions.
- Create small groups within the team and put someone in charge for each particular group. This way you can slowly reduce direct supervision.
- Help them establish a standardized way of working or set up a daily routine. This ensures greater consistency, clarity, and cohesion.
- Adopt a clear onboarding process that outlines the expectations for remote communication so everyone is clear on what to expect.
Ditch The Pursuit Of Perfect
Perfectionist behavior often leads to never-ending email threads, revisions, and rechecks. Piling up tasks in the pursuit of perfectionism makes it difficult for your team members to meet deadlines.
Most perfectionist managers hate opposition.
No wonder Monica never managed a remote team. :)
Here are a few tips to overcome perfectionism:
- If the quality of the work satisfies all the necessary criteria, don’t ask for endless revisions anyway.
- Make sure you give your teammates the freedom to make mistakes. Fear of “messing up” can stifle innovation.
- Have a limit on the number of revisions, and stick to it.
- Before delegating, imagine what is the worst that could happen if the task is not accomplished on time, or if it is not up to expected level. Then, regulate your involvement according to the possible severity of the lapses.
- Set realistic goals—both for your teammates and yourself.
- Your feedback should be guidelines, and not a checklist. Instead of showing your teammates how to do a particular task, give them bigger-picture pointers.
- When a team member does exceptional work, give them public praise and be sure to specify exactly what you liked so much and why it was successful so they can replicate those positive features next time.
Management Practices For Extra Credit
Along with the five points mentioned above, implementing the following habits can also help you banish the urge to micromanage your remote team:
- Note down things and discuss them later. Instead of pinging teammates every time you have a suggestion or something to say, make a note of it for your next 1:1 meeting.
- Predetermine meeting and work audit times. Rather than checking up on your teammates randomly, fix a time, let everyone know, and make it a routine practice.
- When you are delegating a task, make sure you invest enough time up front so that there is enough clarity: What to do, when should it be completed, and the expected quality.
Building Bonds Across Borders
As manager, it is up to you take on the responsibility of crafting your leadership style. Not only do overcompensating habits hurt your team’s productivity and morale, they can impact your organization as a whole.
Companies offer remote work with the aim to develop a culture that offers their employees greater freedom, promotes creativity and innovation, and encourages transparency and inclusiveness. Micromanaging a remote team is contradictory to these fundamental values that make distributed work environments so engaging. Trust in your team, and explore just how far remote work can take you as a leader!