Remote Team Management: A Full Guide to Making Your Virtual Team Happy

Erika Rykun

Written by

Erika Rykun

Read Time

10 minutes

Are your remote employees happy and productive?

If you’re not sure, then you may not be engaging with them as well as you should. 

Remote work has really taken off in the last decade. Perhaps it’s a new direction for your company, which can put the onus on you to make it work. Or something that’s been in place for a while, but with some niggles or outright problems, such as high turnover, poor communication, or no sense of a cohesive team.

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In both cases, you’re feeling daunted and for good reasons.

You might be managing remote workers who are hired as full-time staff, or freelancers who are independent contractors. They may as well be in different time zones or even different countries. Whatever the situation, you want to keep your remote workers happy and make sure that the work they’re producing is high-quality.

But even though remote team management can be a real challenge, keeping them happy is in the end the rewarding part of the job.

Here’s how to do it:

#1: Engage Remote Employees and Recognize Their Achievements

One way to keep your remote employees happy is to make sure that they feel engaged with their work. 

This means that you should:

Pay Particular Attention to Onboarding

In an office, you’d expect to spend time with a new team member on their first day. Without any doubt, you’d provide them with crucial paperwork and things like a key card to get them in and out of the office, a pass for the car park, and so on. You’d then introduce them to colleagues, inform them about the office policies, and let them know you’re available if they need help.

It’s easy to forget that virtual employees also need a clear onboarding process. You want them to feel settled and confident as quickly as possible. So you want to make sure they have access to everything they need in order to get their work done.

Creating and using an onboarding checklist is the best way to make sure everything gets done, especially if some tasks are handled by an admin assistant or if the employee is responsible for working through some of them. 

Provide Clear Expectations

When you give someone instructions face to face, they don’t just have your words to go on. They have other important indicators, like your body language and tone of voice.

If you say, “I need this done quickly,” your employee might take a guess from your body language (nervous pacing, grim expression) and your tone of voice (anxious, harried) that “quickly” means “as soon as possible”.

But if you email someone with the “I need this done quickly”, it can mean different things to each person. Some employees might think you’re implying “some time this week” or perhaps “within a couple of days”.

With remote work, you may find that people aren’t so willing to ask questions as they would face to face. And remember, you won’t have indicators like their expression or tone of voice to indicate they’ve misunderstood you.

Be very clear with your expectations when you’re communicating by email or any form of text (e.g. Slack). For instance:

  • Instead of, “I need this done quickly,” write, “I need this by 5pm (EST) today.”
  • Instead of “Put a bit more detail into this report,” write, “Please add examples and figures in the sections I’ve indicated with a yellow highlighter.”

Acknowledge and Reward Remote Employees’ Achievements

Do you have any sort of recognition program for your remote employees, where they’re rewarded for reaching certain milestones or targets? 

Although you’re unlikely to gather everyone and present an “employee of the month” trophy, there are plenty of ways you could recognize remote employees’ achievements:

  • Taking the time to acknowledge and thank them, in a public way (e.g. via your Slack channel) for peers see that you appreciate them too.
  • Awarding a gift card (perhaps for Amazon or another online retailer) – this has the advantage that you can send it electronically.
  • Sending a physical note or card to let a remote employee know how much you appreciate their work beyond the virtual boundaries.
  • Giving employees a bonus or pay rise. If your budget allows for it, this will always be appreciated and can really motivate employees to continue doing a great job.

It will seem fair if remote employees are eligible for the same rewards and recognition as their in-office colleagues. Unless there’s a good reason why remote employees should be on a different scheme (e.g. they’re all freelancers), try to ensure that all rewards can be given both in person and remotely.

#2: Provide Appropriate Feedback to Remote Employees

While having a recognition program in place is a great way to provide positive employee feedback, it’s also important to do it in smaller ways on a regular basis.

You need to feel comfortable with delivering both positive and negative feedback to remote employees, as well as have a good system in place for this.

Positive Feedback

Although you might know when your employees are doing well and meeting (or exceeding) all your expectations, do they have a good grasp of it?

It’s important to provide regular positive feedback. That could be a simple “Great job, thanks!” when someone turns in a piece of work to you. This alone can go a long way. 

Where possible, though, get more specific about your feedback. Let employees know exactly what it was that you appreciate about their work: that way, they can focus on maintaining and building on that in the future. According to OfficeVibe, effective feedback has three main components:

The Behavior (the description of what has been done), The Outcome (the result of the employee’s behavior), and The Next Steps (recommendations of how to proceed with the current situation). This is how positive feedback might look like for an employee who meets or exceeds set goals:

“I just got a report on your cold calls performance and I see you’ve exceeded your goal by 15%! [The Behavior] This is a great result as we’ve already seen a positive impact on our sales. [The Outcome]. Nice job! You really did your best. Do you mind sharing your ideas how did you do it? It would be great to keep these numbers growing and I’m happy to help. [The Next Steps]”  

Negative Feedback

It may feel awkward to discuss performance issues over the phone or on a video call, rather than face to face – but those awkward discussions are part of managing remote teams. 

Whether your remote employees are full-time, part-time, or freelance, the last thing they want is for you to keep quiet about a problem until i’s too late.

If an employee’s performance isn’t up to the standard you want, then be proactive about addressing that. You might find it’s helpful to have a system set up where you do this on a regular basis: for instance, you might have a one-month review when someone first joins your company (or starts to work remotely rather than in the office), followed by quarterly reviews after that.

When considering whether or how to deliver negative feedback, take into account any difficult circumstances your employee might be facing. 

Being physically present in an office, makes it easy to spot who’s having a rough time with their babies, who’s struggling on through a cold, or who’s facing difficult decisions about nursing their parents. 

With remote employees, you might not be aware of these situations. For example, if one of your employees is normally very proactive and on top of deadlines and they suddenly start sending rushed work at the very last minute, you might want to gently check whether they’re going through something difficult in their personal life.

Encourage Employees to Give You Feedback

Do you regularly encourage your employees to tell you how you can make their lives easier? If not, you’re almost certainly missing out on a lot of opportunities to be a great manager and help your remote teamwork more smoothly.

Here’s what one remote manager, Rodolphe Dutel, found when he asked remote employees how he could make their lives easier:

Answers may surprise you. They may need more face time/mentoring/written instructions… Here are some situations I previously encountered:
1. Moving a weekly meeting by an hour lets someone pick up their kids at school. 2. Syncing before a teammate sign off for the weekend to help reduce their stress. 3. Setting up a daily-check up to get unstuck.

At regular intervals, encourage employees to tell you what you could do to make them happier. If they seem reluctant to suggest anything, it helps to offer a range of options or even an anonymous survey.

#3: Raise Performance and Productivity

One worry about managing virtual teams is whether employees will actually be productive or simply goof off when they’re not in the workplace. 

What if someone does the bare minimum to scrape by and spends the rest of their day watching Netflix? Or what if they “busy” themselves and don’t accomplish much that’ll actually help the company reach its goals?

The truth is that most remote workers feel that they get more done when working remotely, so you’re unlikely to see a drop in productivity. As long as your team members are producing the results that you want, avoid putting in place any measures to track their productivity.

If you insist on employees checking in constantly, or having monitoring software installed on their computers,  that’s likely to be a fast track to demoralizing and even alienating them. 

Trust your employees to manage their time effectively. If that means they take a ten-minute break to get their laundry in the dryer, it’s no problem –  as long as they’re still getting the work done.

Measuring Your Team’s KPIs

You’ll need to measure your remote team’s KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), of course. Depending on the type of work they do, that could involve metrics like:

  • For a support team: Number of emails responded to and average response time 
  • For a writing team: Number of articles (or words) written 
  • For a sales team: Number of sales and total amount of those sales

KPIs should not include things like “number of hours worked”. After all, if an employee can exceed their target of 10 sales by working flat out for 30 hours and take regular breaks, that’s a better situation than an employee who only gets 7 sales while working 40 hours.

You should ensure that team members know their KPIs and also how they’re progressing against them. These KPIs can vary depending on the experience level. For example, a new support team member will respond to half the number of emails as an experienced member, as they’ll need to look up more information and potentially consult colleagues.

In specific teams, particularly sales teams, it might make sense to have a “leaderboard”, but in other contexts, that could r create an unhealthy sense of competition between different employees, so tread carefully .

How to Help Your Remote Workers Perform Well

Simply stepping back and not playing any management role at all won’t help you team members do the best work they can.

There are lots of things you can do to help your remote workers perform well, including:

  • Giving them a sense of the “big picture”: of how the work they’re doing fits into your project, or your team’s role, as a whole. 
  • Providing regular, detailed feedback to each individual on what they’re doing well.
  • Making sure they have everything it takes to do their job, such as logins to specific sites or pieces of software, style guides, visual assets, instructions, checklists or anything else they may need.
  • Ensuring that you’re available as much as possible during the working day, via Slack, phone, or email, to answer any questions that crop up.
  • Helping employees who need support with productivity, like paying for a subscription to time tracking software – if an employee thinks they’d find that helpful. 
  • Stepping in to address any difficulties between team members, when communication issue between two members of your virtual team arise.
  • Scheduling time to talk face to face by video – to build a closer connection with employees and provide encouragement and support. 

#4: Team Building

One of the toughest challenges you might face when managing remote employees is how to get them to gel as a team. 

In most scenarios, all of your employees will never have met one another face to face. When someone new joins in, it can be tricky for them to get to know people in a way that’s natural in an office environment.

Before you put a ton of effort into building a strong team identity, it’s worth considering whether that’s necessary (or even appropriate) for your particular set up. In most cases, it will beut sometimes, it’s not that big of a  deal.

For example, if you’re managing a team of freelancers who are on short term contracts and tend to come and go, then there may be no particular need for them to know one another. In fact, urging them to join lots of “team building” activities might seem a bit odd or even off-putting.

In most cases though, it is important for your team to feel like… well, a team! You’ll have team members who need to work together on projects, so it makes sense for people to get to know one another. 

Using Technology to Help

There are plenty of ways you can use technology to build stronger links between your remote workers. You might consider:

  • Slack – a very popular tool for remote teams. Set up a “watercooler” channel where employees can chat with one another about things that aren’t work-related.
  • Facebook – if your team members don’t need to be in fairly constant communication, then a Facebook group might be a good way to bring everyone together for updates and occasional chat. This could work well if you’re managing freelancers, for instance. 
  • Email – yes, a simple email can help you build your team. Introducing new members to everyone by email, or sending a weekly email where you provide a quick summary of what everyone’s working on, can help ensure your team members are all on the same page.

Team Building Games You Can Play Remotely

Team building games can be a great way to have fun and to get to know one another better. 

Unless your company has the budget to fly all your remote employees to one location for a team building day or weekend, you’ll need games to play remotely (and quite possibly not all at the same time). Here are a couple of very simple ones to try:

  • Get employees to take photos of their desk or workspaces and share them with the group. This can be a fun insight into how and where people like to work. Another option here is to share a photo about an important aspect of your life.
  • Create a quiz to help you find out more about your employees. Keep it light, fun, and quick (one word answers are good). Alternatively, ask people to share, “Three facts about you that might surprise us”.

Bear in mind that some people may have opted to work remotely precisely so they can focus on their work rather than on non-work tasks. Don’t be “that” manager who  rushes everyone into lots of team building activities when they’d actually be much happier working.

If you don’t think that games are going to be very engaging or interesting for your team, you might want to find a different way to get everyone together in a fun but productive way. “Coffee and learn,” where employees take turns to give a 10 – 15 minute presentation about a topic relevant to their areas of interest and expertise could be a great option.

Wrapping it all up 

Managing remote employees and keeping them happy might feel like a huge challenge, but you can nail it if you keep in mind these principles:

  • Have a clear onboarding process ( with a checklist) that you run through with each new employee.
  • Provide clear expectations for your employees and have a recognition program that rewards achievement.
  • Create regular opportunities for two-way feedback. Do your very best to act on your employee’s requests promptly. Little details can make all the difference.
  • Don’t get hung up on monitoring productivity. Focus on the results and KPIs, not on the exact number of minutes your employee spends at their desk.
  • Encourage your employees to gel as a team, and make time for non-work chats. But don’t force anyone to engage in team building games if they don’t want to.

Making your virtual team happy means they’ll be more motivated, more productive, and far more likely to stick around for the long term. Investing a little bit of extra time now in making sure you have good processes in place will really pay off in the future.

Author Bio:

Erika Rykun is a content strategist and producer who believes in the power of networking and quality writing. She’s an avid reader, writer, and runner.

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