How to work with remote employees

I ran a remote agency a few years ago, but I didn’t understand how difficult remote work was to manage until I spent a few years as a consultant.

Most of the companies I’ve worked with in the last few years would have profited from a remote work structure. But a lack of information about how they could work remote made it difficult for them. I only realised this the other day while talking to a Project Manager I know. He shared several fears about managing remote work that didn’t have any obvious solutions.

This got me thinking, maybe most information online today is aimed at remote workers, and not remote managers?

So here is my first attempt at trying to share what I’ve learned managing remote workers over the past 10 years.

We are all remote

This is the most important insight I’ve had about remote work. At any office people are coming and going at different hours. Picking up kids or running a quick errand during lunch. Just try to book a meeting at the end of a work day and see how your mailbox fills up with counter proposals!

Every organisation is already remote. Not in the sense that your colleagues are sitting on a beach in a different timezone, but in the sense that you are not always in the same building at the same time.

That’s why a remote work process will help you communicate more effectively.

Remote communication is more effective

If people are not in the same room. You need to start writing things down, in a clear, chronological, and distributed manner. This allows people to work at different hours from yours, but it also cuts down the follow ups and syncing between people. As an added benefit it also makes it easier to track how things are progressing, and what has worked or not before.

It does require a bit more effort from the communicator. So naturally we are all a bit sceptical about this at first, we’re busy people. But writing down decisions and meeting notes publicly makes communication much more effective for all receivers. Including you. Which makes writing it down publicly a net benefit for everyone, not in the future, but right now.

Imagine having less email to deal with and fewer meetings. That’s the side effect of writing things down.

Remote meetings are much more effective

Meetings are important. Really important. Despite that we all dread seeing our calendars fill up. Deep down we know that a lot of those meetings, while important, are not very important for us.

If someone is not in the same office as you, meetings need to be held via a phone or video call, and these are magic.

Again it takes some effort to get everyone set up for issue-free video meetings (I’ll explain how in the next part) but when you have issue free video meetings there are a lot of benefits. No more need to book a room, find the damn room, get the projector working, wait for everyone to get coffee, etc etc. Instead you’re left talking about what needs to be talked about, and can even take notes while you do it. Without hiding behind a screen.

Remote tools are really the only option today

Last but not least I want to talk about tools. Most of us already use remote tools. But we rarely think about it.

Tools like Slack, Word, Excel, DropBox, GitHub… you name it. Pretty much every digital tool stores its information in the cloud. Which makes it a remote work friendly.

If you are still bouncing files back and forth in email threads, shame on you. Not only is it bad from a security perspective, but versioning is nearly impossible, and mistakes are very easy to make.

Stop sending files, use a remote tool. Most apps already do this.

That’s it, you are now managing remotely

Of course there are a lot more things to say about how to manage people working remotely. But get these things in order and you’ve covered all the basics. With a proper process for remote meetings, public decisions, and tools you are already remote.

It no longer matters where you work, and you can start getting more done with colleagues who might not share your exact office hours. Enjoy!

Extra — curious about how to handle remote meetings? this is how:

I’ve met a lot of people complaining about conference calls and video meetings. But most problems I’ve seen are not related to the tools or tech. They mostly work fine. The problems are most often related to people being uncomfortable or unused to the format.

Here’s how I have held literally hundreds of solid remote meetings:

  1. Video. Seeing someone makes it a lot easier to stay focused and to listen. Always use video. I recommend Zoom. It’s excellent.

  2. Headsets. Almost every bad remote meeting I’ve been part of has had a small group of people shouting into a cheap laptop. The problem is microphones on laptops aren’t very good, and those conference call mikes are usually worse. Everyone received a headset with their phone. Get everyone to plug in with their own headset and you will be surprised at how much better the sound quality is. Added benefit: no more echo.

  3. Agenda. Have one before the meeting, follow it, remote meetings actually make faffing about harder. Enjoy the time saved.

  4. Speak in turns. In face to face meetings the person a lot of people talk over each other. In video meetings two people can’t speak at the same time, which is a good thing. Use the video calling softwares “raise hand” function, or chat, to let the other participants know you want to speak next. Then hand it over to the next speaker. It might feel a bit stiff, but damn the meetings get productive.

  5. Save the video. Most meeting software offers this, Zoom actually auto generates a transcript for you when you save the meeting. This is a great way of letting people who could not attend get up to speed. And you can refer back to a meeting without having to try to remember it. Costs practically nothing, will cut down the amount of unnecessary meetings by half, at least.

There you go, my 5 steps to a great remote meeting. Try it out, be adamant about the rules, and you will love it.