How to successfully manage a remote team


Whether your team has recently been asked to work from home due to the coronavirus outbreak, or you’re simply new to managing a remote team, leading a group of geographically-dispersed professionals can be a challenge.

Typefi's EMEA team stand smiling around a classic European car.
Amsterdam, 2018: Jason (centre) with Typefi team members from the Netherlands (Guy & Gabriel), England (Peter, Kevin & Stephen), France (Marie), Romania (Vlad), South Africa (Damian), and Australia (Chandi).

I’ve been remotely managing Typefi’s globally-distributed Professional Services team since 2015, and have a few tips on how you can turn this into a successful experience for you and your team.

Who knows? You may find that working remotely becomes a blessing in disguise that greatly improves your team’s productivity and makes them all much happier human beings.

It definitely works for us!

Two keys to success: Communication and trust

When managers first encounter the idea of team members working from home, it can cause a negative response.

How will I know my staff are doing the work? How can we run a meeting if we’re not in the same room? The team culture will diminish!

You can overcome these concerns by focusing on two key areas—facilitating communication, and building trust and understanding between yourself and your team members.

Whether done at home or in the office, work is still work. Whether remote or office-bound, good employees are still good employees.

If your team is used to working just one day a week at home, they probably see their days at home as having a different pace than those in the office.

They’ve likely saved up tasks that suit working solo: writing code, crunching numbers, reading reports, and so on. All meetings will have been planned for their days back in the office. In short, team communication is minimised on these days at home.

When you work from home every day, this approach won’t work. Instead, everyone must try harder to communicate clearly, as you’ve lost a plethora of non-verbal cues by not seeing one another.

This leads us to the first, most critical piece of managing a remote team.

Explicit communication

Project direction, deadlines, assignments, annual goals and company values must be explicitly communicated when teams are remote, and then either minuted or followed up with written communication for future reference.

When assigning a task in a meeting, give it to one person and agree on a clear timeline for delivering it or checking in again. Don’t be tempted to say, “Can someone take this up?” and then leave the call.

Verbal generalisations will not result in positive outcomes when they are not supported by the non-verbal reinforcements that we see in the office.

We use an internal wiki (Confluence) to assign tasks across the team, keep minutes, and manage projects. This provides multiple views: who needs to do what, the requirements for each project, and a list of all outstanding tasks across the entire team.

Validate information

As team lead, don’t be afraid to ask the “stupid question”. Indeed, you should make a point of doing it, especially when you get a sense that your team might not be 100% certain about something.

On audio-only calls, in particular, there can be distractions and connection issues. Ask for clarification and summarise the key points made in complex discussions to ensure your team has a clear understanding of expectations.

As a manager, asking questions can break the ice and open up space for other team members, giving them the freedom to ask questions that they perhaps had been resistant to ask otherwise.

If you don’t feel everyone understands exactly what is required in a meeting, do not move on to the next point of conversation.

Create a culture of transparency and trust

People gather a lot of sensory cues when working in an office. They can see that their colleague is overworked, or that everyone on a project team is looking particularly stressed, or that there is tension between colleagues.

We must accept that when working remotely, such events happen out of sight to other team members. Literally only the people on a stressful call know about the stress. And it is quite easy for someone to suffer in silence when going through a tough patch with work.

As the leader of the team you must get ahead of the game, by establishing a transparent culture based on mutual trust that encourages staff to approach you when they face challenges.

Take responsibility for workload

One of the first fears managers have when moving to a remote team is how to make sure their team members are working and not watching TV all day.

I’ve known companies to install all manner of software on laptops to ensure their staff members are present. One particular acquaintance was required to work in front of an invasive webcam all day.

Surveillance is not the same as transparency. Presenteeism does not equal productivity.

People work best when they feel good about themselves, are trusted by their manager, and have the right amount of work.

Distance can create a challenge when sharing workload. No one wants to look unproductive, and even when tasks are listed on a shared wiki, it’s difficult to see when a colleague is buried in work.

It is your job as team lead to ensure everyone’s workload is balanced. Make it clear to your team that responsibility for them having enough work lies with you, not them; however, it is their responsibility to reach out when work is too heavy or too light so you can adjust accordingly.

Build culture by having fun

It’s really important to make a conscious effort to have fun when working remotely.

At Typefi, we use Slack to communicate between teams, and have a dedicated channel called “Water Cooler”. In this channel we regularly post pictures of Australian wildlife invading houses, videos of our dogs not chasing frisbees, and links to funny news stories.

A screenshot of a Slack post by Shanna Bignell with a photo of an enormous huntsman spider and the caption 'Working from home challenges: Creepy office co-workers. This guy is approximately the size of my hand.' Typefi co-workers have responded with Slackmojis of a shoe, a person screaming, a spider, and fire.
A typical Aussie post in the Typefi Water Cooler Slack channel.

This is really important in helping us feel more connected to each other as people, and it gives us the opportunity to chat about things not directly related to work.

Encourage use of emojis 😀

When so much of your communication is done in writing, the nuance of mood can be easily misunderstood.

A busy consultant’s short response to your email might be because they have 80 emails to plough through that morning, or because they are in a bad mood. The addition of an emoji smile (or even a frown!) makes the meaning clear.

For team members who may be uncomfortable expressing their emotions, emojis can be a much less threatening way of sharing what they’re experiencing. And you can have a bit of fun with them, too! 🤪

Embrace the benefits of remote work

We are convinced that remote working is fantastic!

Our culture of trust allows our team to enjoy a better quality of life. The time we save by not commuting becomes additional time with friends and family, and leads to more exercise, higher community involvement, and better rest.

When our team members do come together in the same geographical location, we have a genuinely great time and there is a clear absence of “office politics” between us.

Our team is a remarkable group of people, but I also believe the trust and independence we all gain from working remotely makes us happier. Happy people lead to happy teams, and happy teams DO MORE.

Jason Mitchell, VP of Customer Experience at Typefi

About Jason Mitchell

As VP Customer Experience, Jason leads Typefi’s global Professional Services team.

Prior to joining Typefi, he gained over 15 years of experience in managing publishing operations for both small and large publishing houses in the travel and medical sectors, where he successfully led teams to redefine their publishing processes to include digital products and improve profitability.

He lives in England with his family and a dog who refuses to catch frisbees.