How to Manage Teams Remotely

Based on our own experience, published research and our own conversations with managers and employees, the problem isn't work from home - it's managing from home.

How to Manage Teams Remotely
Photo by Chris Montgomery / Unsplash

Adapting to the reality of the modern office

There’s a story I often tell about writing a farewell letter to my colleagues at Hall & Partners. While I said the usual farewell things, I took most of the email to explain how to properly load a dishwasher. I felt it was the most important thing I could offer as a parting word of wisdom.

For the past dozen years, though, I’ve worked mostly from home, and everywhere except an office I share with my colleagues. There is no dishwasher to load, no colleagues to clean up after. But also no colleagues to grab lunch with across the street, or to get a drink with after work. No colleagues to bump into at the coffee maker or to interrupt me to say hi on their way to the bathroom. No huddling on the couch in the canteen to brainstorm and write decks with colleagues. No elaborate holiday parties and summer gatherings.

And while I often miss that camaraderie as a fully remote worker, I made my transition long before the pandemic forced everybody else to work from home. Today, it seems that no one might be more nostalgic for pre-pandemic office spaces than workers in hybrid or on-site arrangements. 

The “post”-pandemic version of office life is supremely alienating. Buildings feel more like airports than workspaces as the spaces are nearly empty and interactions are awkward. Workers are likely to have a longer commute than they did before the pandemic due to the cost of living. We are still in a pandemic and masking is ideal for meetings with multiple participants. There are fewer people around to grab lunch with, or drinks after work. The modern office is no longer a space to gather, and be productive together, but to be accountable: to check your badge and prove you were there. The vibes aren’t great because most people in the office don’t want to be there. (Remote work continues to be massively popular with workers). 

Management is driving the return to the office (as well as investors who fear a commercial real estate market collapse). They are nostalgic too, for reasons we will discuss in this blog post.

To management, back to the office doesn’t mean “back with my friends and colleagues” - it means “back in control” and, right now, management feels out of control.

Who actually wants to go back to the office?

We see the conflicting interests in what workers and management want play out in trend reporting on the future of work. Stories either talk about remote work and flexible schedules— including four day work weeks—as a permanent change that offices are adapting to, or as a failed experiment that has gone on too long.

When you see a story like this Washington Post report, “Remote work appears to be here to stay, especially for women”, it is clear that it was written with workers in mind. Likewise, this CBS News story, “Most Americans want 4-day workweek according to recent Gallup polling” and this CNBC report, “Full-time office work is 'dead': 3 labor experts weigh in on the future of remote work,” is reported in a way oriented toward the needs of workers.

 In contrast, publications like the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s offer management-centric reporting, including the story, “I Just Wasn’t in the Mood to Work.’ American Employees Reinvent the Sick Day” noting that workers take more sick days than they did before the pandemic, and “The New Workday Dead Zone When Nothing Gets Done,” on why 4pm meetings are rarely scheduled any more as it’s a common hour to pick up children from school activities or beat the evening commute. These kinds of stories tend to bemoan workplace flexibility as an impediment to productivity without evidence.

Sometimes the framing of management-centric reporting inadvertently exposes inconsistencies (or exploitations) in workplaces. Sick days, for example, are benefits that workers are entitled to, and this Wall Street Journal story ultimately reveals there has been hidden pressure on workers not to use this benefit. Meetings at 4pm always privileged people without childcare responsibilities and pressured parents to either pay for afterschool childcare, or leave the workforce.

Workers adapted rapidly, management is stuck in the past 

This reporting also shows that workers, more than managers, have come to adapt more swiftly to changes in the modern workplace.

Transitioning to WFH was not easy for rank and file workers at the start of the pandemic.They had to figure out how to manage childcare and fit in endless Zoom meetings. Many had to pay out of pocket for new desks, printers, and monitors (and thanks to the 2017 tax bill, they could not deduct these expenses if they were W2 employees). Plus, this arrangement intrusively collapsed personal and work life in one’s own home. But four years on, workers have restructured their lives in step with trending changes in workspaces.

Managers, however, still struggle to come to grips with the new normal. Many don’t know how to lead or delegate work remotely. It’s hard to claim authority over subordinates when people aren't in front of them. 


What is management now?

It is understandable why a number of managers feel ongoing unease about WFH arrangements. Offices and in-person engagement provides soft support structures that less efficient managers rely on. 

As someone who has spent the past 12 years working with dedicated contractors, employees, and project-based freelancers and vendors remotely, I know it’s hard. Managing remote teams requires communication that is clear, concise, consequential, and accountable. I had to learn that passive instructions, “It’d be great if x could get done” weren’t helpful. I had to learn to truly delegate activities — and if something wasn’t getting done I had to learn how to bump a task up in people’s priorities, rather than rush in to do it myself. I won’t pretend I’m great at this; my one “hack” for getting better at this is to consistently check in with my team to see if they are getting what they need from me. And then I have to adjust what I’m doing to get the best work out of them. Likewise, I have to give them feedback on how I need them to communicate with me. We negotiate, and in the negotiation, we get better.

There are certainly tools that make this easier. Our team uses a variety of collaboration tools including Google Workspaces, Slack, and Trello. We use Zoom, of course. We agree on what the right use of texting is so we use it only when it’s absolutely necessary. 

But it’s not about the tools, really. It’s about valuing talent and resourcefulness in employees over proximity: believing that talented and resourceful people can live and work anywhere and bring value to your organization. Some organizations are learning this the hard way as they struggle to hire top talent in their region or city—or as they struggle to retain promising members of the team who have the choice in this low unemployment environment to take their talents elsewhere.

How to adapt your management skills to the 21st century:

Management has to develop remote management skills because remote work is not going away. Here are our tips, based on our own experience, and talking to managers and employees across a variety of public and private sector industries over the past two years:

  1. Schedule meetings only when necessary. Meetings paper over management issues. Too many meetings formalize inefficiencies and time-wasting. Good managers understand when face-time is crucial in a remote office and when it gets in the way of productivity.
  2. Hire right. A hybrid or remote workforce means managers have to be even more judicious in hiring new team members. You have to be discerning and look for people with soft skills: people who are accountable, self-starters, resourceful, and good communicators.
  3. Prioritize productivity. Burnout is the opposite of productivity. A motivated staff will get more work done in less time than a burned out, irritable, and stressed out staff. Allow for flexibility and trust in your hiring skills for the best work by your team to flourish.

And a note for brands:

A lot of brands benefited from the work from home “revolution.” Many saw enormous growth in sales and relevance as people did everything from home. Meanwhile, they were forcing their employees to come back to the office at least part time. Now as some people return to office and others do not, it’s more important than ever to stay connected to your customer. To do that, you need to stay connected with their experiences. Here are some tips for keeping up with the way WFH affects consumers:

  1. Don’t rely on the headlines. As I mentioned at the top, there are two clear sides of this debate, and reporting tends to—intentionally or otherwise—pick a side. You don’t have to: at an organizational level, workers and management are ultimately on the same team.
  2. Stay connected to reality. When there are two sides engaged in ideological battle, the best thing to do is—as the kids say—touch grass. Find out how your customers and prospects are structuring their lives, and how what you offer fits into that new way of living and working.
  3. Stay true to your mission. You really don’t need to pile on to every trend—and you definitely don’t need to awkwardly intrude on people’s lifestyles in a way that doesn’t make sense for them. Focus on what you do best, and find authentic opportunities for connection with the way we live and work now.