10 strategies for success when managing from a distance

by Natasha Lane
managing from a distance

Over the past year, remote work has become the norm all over the world. And, according to research data, it’s likely to remain a big part of our lives.

The Buffer State of Remote Work 2021 report shows that 97% of people wish to continue working remotely (at least to some degree) for the rest of their careers. Furthermore, PWC states that 55% of employees would prefer to work away from the office at least three days per week once the pandemic is over. 

And, finally, a survey from Harvard Business School Online showed that 1-in-3 employees felt more productive because of working from home during the pandemic. Fifty percent saw no negative impact on workplace relationships or trust in leadership.

Clearly, many people are eager to continue practicing remote work (and enjoy the multifaceted benefits of working from home). In this new era of work, it’s crucial for business leaders to understand that getting things done with a distributed team isn’t just about wanting it to work out. Managing from a distance requires jumping over some hurdles, but fortunately, these challenges are not insurmountable.

Managing from a distance: 10 strategies for success

So, if you’re looking for strategies you can adopt to make your company ready for a future of flexible work, here’s everything you need to know about getting great results when managing from a distance.

1. Don’t just manage. Lead.

Leadership - Managing from a distance

The essential quality of successful management (from near or far) is that great results don’t actually depend on managing at all. Instead, they’re the outcome of inspired leadership. So, to really win at managing from a distance, you (and your key players) must learn how to lead.

But what’s the difference between managing and leading anyway?

Well, to manage means to control or be in charge of. It means having a predetermined set of goals and instructing workers on how to do their tasks to accomplish those goals while meeting deadlines and quality requirements.

To lead, however, means to attain those same predetermined goals, but not by exercising power. Instead, leadership means motivating, empowering, and trusting people to do their jobs well. It also means becoming a mentor whose role isn’t to supervise or control but inspire and nurture talent.

If you are new to your managerial position (or you simply want to become better at it), it’s a great idea to start learning about becoming a leader. With a multitude of resources on leadership, you can pick your format of choice.

Build relationships on trust

Despite what old-school entrepreneurs would like you to believe, stellar business results aren’t achieved with blood, sweat, and tears. In fact, it can be argued that these have no place in any organization aiming to do great things.

But what makes teams work well together? Well, one of the ingredients for super-successful teamwork is communication. More precisely, communication that’s based on trust.

According to research, there is a direct positive correlation between team trust and team effectiveness. Moreover, a study published in 2003 found that employees who worked in trust-oriented teams had more positive feelings towards the organization, were more committed to their work, and achieved higher-quality results.

Why is this so?

Well, if you think about the most fruitful relationships in your life, you’ll realize that they all have something in common. They’re a safe space in which you can openly express your ideas, opinions, and vulnerabilities without the fear of being judged. And the same applies in a professional setting as well.

Nurturing a company culture that prioritizes trust means cultivating effective communication, collaboration, creative thinking, and even productivity. Moreover, it means building a secure environment where employees aren’t afraid of taking risks, admitting their mistakes, or learning from past experiences.

In other words, teams whose relationships are built on trust don’t waste time hiding their mistakes or trying to protect themselves from their coworkers. Instead, they’re free to focus on progress.

So how can you drive trust when managing from a distance?

For one, you can lead by example. Be transparent about your own work process, and don’t be afraid of admitting your mistakes. 

Secondly, don’t let yourself betray your coworkers’ trust. Even if they make a mistake (however critical), don’t lash out. Maintain a calm composure and work together to recover as a team. 

Finally, don’t underestimate the power of personal relationships. No, you should not pry into your employees’ lives. But showing an interest in them as people (as opposed to just workers within an organization) will help you build a connection of trust and respect that’s needed for outstanding results.

Understand the challenges of remote work

challenges of virtual teams

Here’s a thought: if you’re looking for strategies to succeed when managing from a distance, why not start by doing some strategizing first? 

One of the main mistakes remote managers make when planning their course of action is that they only think about the technical side of the job. They address issues such as “Will all my team members have access to the required software” or “When will we hold team meetings to accommodate everyone’s location and time zone?” 

But while zoning in on these technical matters, they forget about potential problems that have a much more significant impact on team performance.

For example, research on remote work shows that the main problems dispersed teams face relate to loneliness, isolation, and communication. According to Buffer’s survey, remote workers quoted the following as the most impactful struggles when working from home:

  • 27% struggled with poor work-life balance
  • 16% had communication and collaboration issues
  • 16% felt lonely
  • 15% dealt with distractions at home
  • 12% had trouble staying motivated
  • 7% struggled with being in different time zones from their teammates.
Remote work Struggles - Buffer report

If you look at other resources, you’ll find that the results are largely similar. Statista, for example, lists all of these challenges to have been reported by remote workers, adding a new issue to the list: the inability to nurture career growth.

Challenges of working remotely

With this data in mind, remote managers must come up with game plans that address and prevent (to whatever degree possible) these issues from interfering with the work that needs to be done. For example, instead of solely focusing on to-do lists for each team member, it might be a better idea to discuss the value of a project. What does a given project aim to achieve, and why is that goal important? 

In the end, it’s good to remember that motivation to do excellent work can’t be constant. But when there’s a sense of purpose (and great leaders can definitely instill that in workers), the commitment to doing a good job will be present, even if the team is going through a low point.

4. Prevent technical hiccups

The most common struggles for remote workers relate to workflows and relationships. However, it’s important to note that they’re not the only things that tend to go wrong in distributed work environments. 

From a more technical perspective, managing a virtual team also involves keeping a handle on everyone’s tech, which can mean anything from providing tools and software to organizing data access to preventing potential security breaches.

According to HavocShield, 22% of small businesses suffered a security breach in 2020. Furthermore, the average small business had as many as 43 user profiles on the dark web. With this in mind, it becomes clear that managing from a distance requires a solid amount of crisis management skills.

But what better way to address a potential crisis than to prevent it?

To avoid technical and cybersecurity hiccups, it’s not a bad idea to prepare and enforce systems that will protect your company and your employees.

For example, the most effective way to prevent cybersecurity breaches with virtual teams is to provide company-owned tech and software to all employees. But the thing is, most small businesses can’t afford to do this. 

So, a good alternative would be to: 

  • Include cybersecurity education in the onboarding process. 
  • Insist that your employees use a VPN and two-factor authentication for all work matters.
  •  Keep backups of all your team’s files. 
  • Teach everyone not to share sensitive information via email. 
  • Provide employees a powerful antivirus/antimalware system that’ll keep them protected.

If your main concern isn’t security but rather the everyday frustrations of dealing with tech, come up with workflows that will allow your team to continue working when things go south. 

For example, cloud-based tools make for an excellent choice for remote teams, as they allow access from almost any device. They’ll make it much easier for your digital nomad employees to do their jobs without being limited by poor connectivity. Of course, don’t choose the cheapest solution. Make sure that the software and tech you’re using always provide the security features you need to protect your business.

These are all simple steps. But, when each one is implemented, the chances of your remote business suffering due to a technical hiccup or a cyber attack will be much smaller. And, you’ll be able to concentrate on the part of managing that’s geared towards producing results instead of fixing mistakes.

5. Learn how to set & accomplish goals (as a distributed team)

team goals

The one thing that remote management has in common with on-site management is that it’s highly dependent on the leader’s ability to set, communicate and follow through with the organization’s intentions.

Unfortunately, this is a murky area for most beginner managers, mainly as they approach goal-setting as a 3-step program that’s 100% straightforward and doesn’t come with complications. Unfortunately, that’s rarely ever the case in business.

Think back to your high school algebra classes. Did you ever get fewer points on a test because you arrived at the correct answer by doing your own thing? Well, it just turns out that the problem wasn’t you. It was your teacher’s goal-setting system. They gave you an aim, they gave you the tools, but they skipped the crucial part: communicating the preferred method.

The same thing happens in professional environments. A remote manager may be excellent at setting SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound). But if they don’t communicate those objectives effectively enough, they’re of no use to anyone. Especially not the organization.

So, what tactics can you implement to become better at setting goals for your remote team? Well, here are a few.

1. Be clear about your expectations

When establishing goals as a remote manager, you must learn how to set expectations for the job at hand – whatever that job may be.

Don’t just be explicit about what you want from your team. More importantly, tell them why you want the job done a specific way. Furthermore, establish the KPIs that’ll help you measure success and set up communication channels through which you can all address questions or issues as they come up. (Yes, email and video calls work great, but they won’t always be necessary. Sometimes, a Slack message will do perfectly fine.) It’s also not a bad idea to invest in a project management solution such as Trello, which will help you keep an eye on everything that’s going on at the same time. 

However, this doesn’t mean that you need to micromanage every process. 

Sure, as a remote manager, you need to have a clear idea of what everyone’s working on. But don’t let yourself take over other people’s jobs. That’s not what you’re paid to do. Instead, be there to assist when you’re needed and learn how to stay out of the way when you’re not.

2. Track progress

Another thing you can do to streamline your distributed team’s work is to track progress throughout the allotted time frame. Regular tracking will help you avoid any unpleasant surprises as you near your deadline.

For example, when managing from a distance, you’ll get plenty of information by integrating time tracking and project management software. But more than that, you can also set up regular team meetings to go over any bumps in the road. Meetings are also a great opportunity for teams to just share progress and inspire each other to do great work.

To ensure that these meetings are productive, set up a prep system. In this system, people can suggest discussion topics or report problems they’re struggling with beforehand. That way, you won’t fall into the trap of everyone blocking out an hour for the meeting, then only having five minutes of conversation points to cover.

4. Recognize & reward success

Here’s the thing: team management doesn’t end when the work is done. After all, meeting a deadline is just part of your job as a manager. 

Do you want to make sure that each (small) success counts towards the long-term goals of your organization? Then you must learn how to use short-term progress and turn it into a jumping-off point for future work.

One thing you can do is to establish systems that recognize and reward individual and team effort. As you’re managing remotely, it won’t be as easy as giving a round of applause at the next team meeting. But, you can surmount the physical distance by doing your best to make any recognition public.

Why not dedicate a social media post to an employee who consistently does an excellent job? Or reward the whole team by giving them an extra Friday afternoon off? Research shows that non-monetary rewards motivate better than money. So, there’s absolutely no excuse for managers not to give credit where it’s due.

6. Use the power of feedback (& turn it into feedforward)

One of the more impactful things you can do as a manager is to learn how to give feedback that can be turned into action. In other words, you must learn how to use constructive criticism in a way that will nurture growth amongst your employees. Even when you’re not there with them to guide and oversee that growth.

But how can you do that? Well, you can start by learning how to turn feedback into feedforward. 

An employee evaluation isn’t about criticism. It’s about points that can be improved. With this in mind, great feedback needs to be:

  • Clear – Be specific about what the employee is doing well and what they need to improve.
  • Actionable – Provide the employee with actions they need to take to do better next time.
  • Timely – It needs to be given at the right moment, in the correct format. Waiting too long or not enough can spell disaster for improvement.
  • Personalized – Every person has individual needs and capabilities, and everyone’s road is different. A leader must understand that individuality and steer it in a way that will work best for the person and the organization they’re working with.

Another thing you can do when commenting on your employees’ work is to do it in a way that feels as safe for them as possible. Sure, you may prefer face-to-face communication over digital methods. But you’re not the one facing possible criticism. So, instead of doing things in the way that’s easiest for you, ask your employees how they prefer to receive comments.

By giving them control over the “environment,” you’re actually making sure that you’re creating a safe space for them in which they might feel vulnerable but which won’t cause them to become overwhelmed. 

And that’s also part of being a great leader. Yes, you might deliver hard truths sometimes. But you’re doing it in a way that builds on trust and focuses on growth.

7. Try managing from a distance with an “Open-door policy”

peer feedback

Want to become truly exceptional at managing from a distance? Then you need to understand that feedback goes both ways.

No, the point is not to invite your remote employees to give you tips on how to be better at your job (though it might be a good lesson in trust and vulnerability, both of which are crucial for inspirational leadership). It’s to look at every one of your team’s challenges as an opportunity for you to become better at managing from afar.

For example, if you see that most of your team members struggle with meeting deadlines, your best bet might not be to give them productivity tips. You might actually see better results by having conversations about what they’re dealing with and actively listening to what they’re saying. 

Perhaps their workload is too heavy. Or, they might be dealing with too many time-wasting assignments you could automate organization-wide. Or, they may just need better instructions and access to resources.

With an open-door policy, you can prevent negative events simply by being there for your employees and playing an active role in finding solutions to their work-related problems.

Of course, in a remote setting, you can’t just say “my doors are always open to you” during the onboarding process and leave it at that. As a leader, it is your role to remind people that they can come to you if they need help or even a person to bounce ideas off. 

Set a good example of the type of communication you want to see by reaching out to employees regularly. Moreover, make it easy for people to come to you. Something as simple as using scheduling software can ensure that the entire process runs smoothly. And, it can help you achieve the effect you’re after. That’s a healthy back-and-forth with your remote team, despite not being able to knock on their door in the middle of the workday and just check in.

8. Pay attention to employee health

Did you know that employee absenteeism costs U.S. businesses as much as $225.8 billion per year? Even more worryingly, did you know that, in 2020, workers missed 45% more workdays than average due to poor health? That’s right, as many as 1.5 million U.S. workers missed work every month because they were ill.

Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic had a lot to do with those numbers. But even under normal circumstances, remote workers tend to have a questionable approach to their physical and mental wellbeing. According to a 2020 survey, 67% of remote workers reported being disinclined to take time off when they were ill. And, 66% believed that their employers would look down on it unless it was due to a severe illness like Covid.

But even when there’s not a global pandemic going on, remote workers tend to deal with serious wellbeing challenges.

Fortunately, however, leaders can do quite a lot to help their teams remain at the top of their game – physically and mentally. Even when managing from a distance.

For one, doing something as simple as setting clear boundaries (such as not sending emails at 2 in the morning) will prevent your employees from becoming overwhelmed by their professional obligations. So can insisting on taking time off for rest as well as wellbeing.

But, you can take things a step further as well. Sure, you may not be able to supply them with healthy break room snacks. But, you can give gym memberships, provide benefits like therapy, or arrange stress management classes. Any of these can help your entire team become incentivized to take better care of themselves. And, in turn, your organization will benefit from the fact that they’ll be in top shape to do amazing work.

9. Nurture diversity

What’s the main thing remote managers have going for them? It’s the advantage of being able to employ the absolute best talent for their teams.

You see, the great benefit of knowing how to direct your team from afar is having the experience needed to employ people from all corners of the world. Plus, hiring foreign talent doesn’t just widen your organization’s possibilities. More importantly, it allows you to build a team of people who work perfectly together towards the desired goals.

Of course, skill isn’t the only benefit of nurturing diversity in the workplace. Experience is a factor that’s far more important. Also, a global workforce has much broader insights than people from the same walks of life.

If you want to be a manager who nurtures diversity, don’t limit that diversity to physical location, ethnicity, or culture. Take experience, education, interests, and any other difference into consideration as well. 

Who knows, perhaps the most valuable addition to your team won’t be a genius developer with a degree from MIT. It may as well be a freshly-graduated French Lit. major who just happens to have a keen eye for detail and strong command of a foreign language that’ll help you meet the demands of your international clients.

10. Have fun

happy colleagues

We already covered the fact that effective management isn’t about control but rather about leading, mentoring, inspiring, and supporting workers.

But here’s the deal. It’s a tough job to do – especially when you’re doing it remotely. No matter how passionate you are about your work, there will be moments when it will simply get overwhelming. And the truth is, there will be times when you’ll prefer to do anything other than solving other people’s problems.

Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your work. Or that you can’t encourage your colleagues to do the same.

Finding something fun in the work process (both for you and your team) won’t just help you stay engaged. It can also ensure better results, drive innovation, and even help you build better relationships.

For example, gamification can be a great strategy to boost employee engagement. Fun team-building activities can help build a collaborative company culture. And, watercooler conversations play a big role in building those trusting relationships we talked about.

So don’t be afraid of using your managerial position to inject some fun into everyone’s workday. Even simple team games are bound to help everyone find another thing to enjoy about their jobs.

Final thoughts

The thing about being in a managerial position is that the strategies that drive success aren’t that different for on-site and remote work. 

Sure, managing from a distance comes with some additional challenges you wouldn’t typically come across when doing your job in-house. But, the tactics for overcoming them will largely be the same.

You see, great management isn’t about productivity tricks or time management. It’s about helping employees be their best possible selves through providing support, mentorship, and encouragement. And while a remote setting may prevent you from communicating face-to-face, it should never be an obstacle to reaching your potential as an exceptional leader. After all, with so much technology at your hands, it’s easier to overcome the challenges of managing from a distance. All you have to do is make the most of what you’ve got.

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