Leading remote teams - learnings from a manager who has been there

Remote teams illustration



Most of my career, my direct manager has been remote. And not just remote, they’ve usually been in a totally different country and a totally different time zone than me. I feel incredibly lucky to have had the chance to work with so many talented people and I know that although working with remote teams can be challenging, I have had the opportunity to learn things that would have been impossible otherwise. I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned from this experience that might be helpful for leaders taking their first steps in leading remote teams. 

When your manager calls

  • Flexibility is essential. Meetings at weird hours are the norm when your manager is in a different time zone. You want to be there when you are needed. To compensate for late evenings or long working days, I use the mornings for personal time. A quick work out, breakfast with girlfriends or 9am haircuts are some ideas. If your team members are ahead of you in time, allow for this type of flexibility. 
  • Discover the ideal focus time. I’ve usually been at least 4 hours ahead of my direct manager, meaning mornings are the best time for focus work as afternoons tend to be more meeting heavy. This suits me very well and I appreciate the quiet time that the time zone difference inevitably brings. Figure out when you are most able to work on tasks that require your full attention and schedule them during down time and schedule meetings when the time zones intersect. 
  • Navigate cultural differences. It’s important to set boundaries and explain different cultural norms involving working hours, vacation time, sick leave and communication styles. Being flexible doesn’t mean you totally surrender to another culture’s norms completely. In Iceland, where I work, we have long vacations and ample sick time. These are legal rights that should not be surrendered easily. Setting your availability in Slack or optimal meeting hours on your calendar can help you manage when other people are able to reach you. Norms in communication and speaking style can vary significantly from one country to another. Icelanders tend to be very straightforward and might sometimes sound almost rude to others. In our culture, we like to get right to the point and be practical and down-to-earth rather than flamboyant. But that honesty can also be an asset for the team and the organization, as things might be discussed that otherwise no one would have raised. Just be open for constructive feedback. 
  • Meet in person if possible! I’ve had direct managers that I have never met, which is just weird. Working relationships are super charged after you meet in person. Spending time together face-to-face can help you learn things that can never really be translated in online meetings. In my experience, online meetings are better, communication is easier and the work more efficient after meeting in person. 

The other side of the table

I’ve also been lucky enough to have the opportunity to lead my own teams. I’ve led teams with team members of various different backgrounds. And some team members have been remote while others have shared an office with me. It is a totally different experience to be on the opposite side of the table, leading a team as their remote manager. Here are some of the things I’ve learned as a manager of remote teams:

  • Know your team. The single most important thing to me when leading teams, is to connect on a personal level with team members. And when teams are remote and in different countries, you need to be more proactive to be able build that connection. Ask questions, share stories, be mindful of allowing for some time in each meeting for sharing on a personal level. This should be done on a team level as well as with each individual team member. During COVID-19 our team scheduled happy hours with ice cream or pancakes, or even played online games. We’ve also played quiz games to learn a few things about each other and to foster a team mentality. 
  • Meet in person. Getting a chance to meet face-to-face is awesome, and those opportunities should be fully leveraged to spend as much time together as possible. I always have 1:1s with my team members when I meet them in person. In those sessions we focus on the personal development of that team member and try to avoid discussing day-to-day stuff. I also like to use the opportunity when we meet in person to do as many brainstorming and planning sessions as possible. Finally, I always bring sweets or little trinkets that either show my personality or relate to my culture. That way my team members can learn a little something about me or the country I am from. I like bringing Icelandic chocolates and sweets that are delicious but might be hard to find elsewhere. When travelling back to Iceland, I sometimes like to bring traditional sweets from that region for the team here in Iceland. For that purpose I have brought unreasonable amounts of Canadian maple syrup back home to Iceland. 
  • Working sessions. When both team lead and team members are in separate countries, meetings can easily turn into working sessions, and that’s fine. It’s not rude. You might even need to schedule some working sessions with team members, either as a full team or just one-on-one. Using tools like Asana or even a Google Doc, can be a great tool to use during joint brainstorming sessions. I love sticky notes, but when the team is remote Asana will do just fine. 
  • Learn from others. Ask other team leads what they do and what they have learned. Read articles online. Watch learning videos from other professionals. Find out what fits your management style and your team. Try, learn, repeat. I ask my fellow team leads in the Reykjavík office for advice when I need it and HR can be a great source as well. Blogs and articles online can be fun to read and I’ve found some valuable material on LinkedIn Learning too. 
  • Personal development. 1:1s should be used for personal development and should happen on a regular basis. We follow a personal retro type structure in our 1:1s which we have every 4-6 weeks, without fail. I’m extremely committed to these 1:1s and will only move them by more than a day if it means that it will give us an opportunity to do them in person.
  • Staying on track. I have weekly check-ins with all my team members whether they share an office with me or not. But I find it even more important for my remote team members to have a check-in scheduled on the calendar where they get a chance to ask about any blockers they have or guidance that they need. I make sure to dedicate some time in each call for non-work related topics as well, even if it is just about the weather.
  • Share information on a proactive basis. Now that you’ve built a schedule of weekly check-ins and syncs, remember to share information on a regular basis. Talk about the status of the business, share details of ongoing projects, review past projects and discuss organisational goals. Share more information rather than less. And give team members the opportunity to share what they are working on. 
  • Shared goals are the key to all successful teams. We follow the OKR framework but it doesn’t matter what framework you follow, if any. What matters is that the team is clear on the organisational goals and how they themselves play a part in reaching those goals. Spend time together to come up with team goals as well as individual goals. Use Zoom or Google meet for a joint session and use Google Docs or some other tool to track your goals and their status. 
  • Cross-team communication. Don’t let the team rely just on you, they should be able help each other as well. Being the one person that everyone goes to for help will only result in you becoming a bottleneck for the team. Facilitating easy communication that flows from and to each team member is essential to any team but requires extra work when teams are remote. Encourage your team to go directly to each other for assistance or set up joint tasks or goals to enforce further collaboration. The results will be worth it. 
  • Recognise things well done. Most leadership material will tell you to praise team members in public when something goes well. This is true for remote teams as well but sometimes requires a bit more proactive thinking than you would think. 

Now that you have spent so much time and effort into building a strong team, it can be hard when someone decides to leave. When that happens, be happy for them. You’ve seen them grow and now they are ready for the next adventure. Be happy that you got a chance to work with them and join them in feeling good about taking the next steps. It can be hard and nerve wracking to make the decision to leave a company for new horizons. As their manager, it is your responsibility to support them all the way through to the end. And help other team members to understand and accept their decision to leave.  

Let technology help

  • Leverage technology, part I: I’m a heavy Slack user and use it extensively to communicate with the team as a whole as well as with individual team members. Slack messages, slack channels, slack reminders, @here or @channel as well as slack calls are all just a part of a normal work day. Video call systems like Google meet or Zoom are essential of course and I highly recommend turning the camera on if at all possible. 
  • Leverage technology, part II: we have used a Kanban board in Jira in the past and have recently started using Asana to manage our projects and tasks. This gives everyone a chance to see what the rest of the team is focusing on as well as share their own goals for the immediate future. For remote teams, having a tool like this is essential.
  • Leverage technology, part III:: Google suite - remember when we used to share Word documentations and track changes in there, but only one person could add their changes and comments in the document at a time and you would end up with several versions of your document that you then had to combine into one final version? To me, the Google suite range of products and the option for more than one person to work and make edits in a document at the same time is a game changer. 
  • Leverage technology, part IV: We use our own tools to track our time and have set up our Jira tasks in a way that allows us to track whether we are spending our time in the right places. We also use Tempo to plan and track vacation time. Together these tools provide us with transparency and assurance that we are investing our time in the right areas of the business. 

Added layer of complexity

There is an added layer of complexity when a part of your team is remote and part of it isn’t. How do you create balance? It comes more naturally to give attention to those team members that are sharing an office with you but your remote team members deserve the same kind of attention. My goal is always to find ways to be fair and that I spend equal amounts of time with each team member. All team members should have the same opportunity to reach out to me for input or feedback. And they should always get the same information at the same time. 

What we learned from COVID-19

When all our offices went on lockdown in March of 2020, it was a tough experience but the good thing was that we went through it together. Despite being difficult there were some learnings from it that we have tried to implement when we returned to the office. One thing we have learned is that when one person is remote in a meeting, everyone should be remote. Meaning, each person will be a face on a screen. That way everyone has equal airtime and the flow of meetings and brainstorms is more natural. We also liked how much time we spent together during lockdown, even if it was all remote. We met more often as a team and that really helped us get through that period. And it is something we as a team would like to continue doing. 

Finally, as a team lead, give generously of your time, attention and advice. And laugh - laugh a lot. 

One trait of a good leader is to continuously learn. With that in mind, I encourage you to continue to seek out advice and training to become an even better leader.

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