“The leader’s job is to create and maintain the environment and culture to enable people to do their best work,” said Amir Salihefendić, the founder and CEO at Doist, a fully remote company with team members spread across 40 countries. “They must ensure that the core values are clear and everyone is aligned and rowing in the same direction.”
Luckily, there’s steps to take to improve remote management skills and tactics.
Tips for Managing Remote Employees
- Embrace flexible work schedules
- Establish communication boundaries
- Make work objectives clear
- Help employees build their own remote work practices
- Ask for employee feedback and be responsive
- Lead by example
How to Manage Remote Employees
1. Embrace Flexible Work Schedules
The 9-to-5 workday is standard at many companies, but studies have shown that the eight hour schedule isn’t all that efficient. According to a 2023 survey by Blind, 45 percent of employees reported working for four hours or less hours in an eight-hour workday. A 2023 study by Zippia also found the average worker only spends about four hours a day actively working, with 78 percent of respondents feeling that they don’t need a full eight hours to complete their daily work.
“Employees can actually get an astonishing amount of work done with a flexible schedule, and the wheels don’t come off when everyone isn’t online at the same time,” said Patrick Lightbody, CEO and co-founder of calendar tech program Reclaim.ai. “Embrace the fact that people need flexibility in their schedules, both for work and for life.”
Support your team and help them maximize their time by giving them a little more freedom to make their own rules. To make sure everything goes smoothly with flexible work schedules, you still need to establish some ground rules. Instead of measuring success based on the hours someone put in, place an emphasis on the actual contributions.
“Some people work right up to the deadline on something, while others have things ready to submit days prior to a deadline,” said Alexander De Ridder, co-founder and CTO of the AI editing engine INK. “If two people on the same team have these opposing approaches, just set the deadline and let each submit their contribution by the project deadline. As long as the project parameters are clearly defined and met, the means to achieve them can differ.”
2. Establish Communication Boundaries
Because companies can employ workers from across the world, it’s a lot harder to sync up schedules and set up meetings. As a manager, it’s important to set expectations around email, Slack and other messages — this streamlines team communication and doesn’t disrupt an employee’s workflow.
“People can respond on their schedule, from wherever they are. They can spend their time doing their best work and communicate when it makes sense,” said Salihefendić.
Asynchronous communication gives employees more autonomy. Rather than making team members attend daily video calls to discuss their progress, ask them to share achievements via email when they’ve been reached. Lightbody recommends scrapping the rigid scheduling, and instead setting four core hours per day, giving employees more freedom to meet objectives on their own terms.
“Let employees dictate their own schedules across work and life outside of these core hours,” Salihefendić said. “Set expectations with your employees that if someone is sent a note, message or meeting invite outside of those core hours, they shouldn’t be expected to respond until the next day’s core hours.”
At Doist, meetings are kept to a minimum and 90 percent of all communication is asynchronous, according to Salihefendić. “This allows employees to focus on ‘deep work’ without being interrupted throughout their day with unproductive meetings or constant notifications from Slack, iOS and email,” he said. It’s unconventional, but his method gets results — Doist has an employee retention rate of roughly 98 percent.
3. Make Work Objectives Clear
One of the keys to achieving goals in a timely manner is transparency. When your remote team knows exactly what is expected of them, they’ll know when and how to address their tasks and meet deadlines.
Vague directives leave employees confused; too strict and that might be frustrating. Find a balance between the two ends of the spectrum and learn to prioritize. It’s difficult to take in a lot of new information at once, so be clear with three to five priorities, and allow your team to draft their own strategy for achieving them.
“‘Write docs for a new feature’ is probably too granular, and ‘build a great product’ is probably way too vague,” Lightbody said. “A better example is ‘launch new feature X’, which is a defined goal with a clear end. Focus on aligning to priorities and orienting all your discussions around that.”
4. Help Employees Build Their Remote Work Practices
Each person has their own needs and working styles — so help your employees discover how they work best. Support employees in building their own remote working practices that are most effective for them. Doing so will ensure everyone on your team can perform at their peak.
At Doist, Salihefendić introduced a time management quiz designed to help employees understand what they need to be most productive.
“The results provide clarity into which productivity method works best based on your unique strengths, challenges and goals, and then offer helpful information and tips to better suit your working style,” he said.
Ask employees questions about how they like to structure their days: Do you tend to work better in the morning or the evening? Are frequent one-on-ones helpful or distracting? Do you prefer that we check-in over email, Slack, or in person? These clarifying questions help you better support your employees and your team members learn more about themselves.
5. Ask for Employee Feedback and Be Responsive
Want to make sure your remote team is productive and happy? The first step is asking for honest feedback.
“Listen to your employees,” Salihefendić said. “Evaluate people differently based on their output and results, not how responsive they are or if they are online all the time.”
Don’t wait for your employees to volunteer feedback; seek it out. Unsurprisingly, people are sometimes afraid to bring up issues with their managers, because they’re unsure about the response they’ll get. When a teammate feels their time isn’t being managed well, they may not feel like they can bring it up — paving the way for burnout down the road. It’s also important to give your team permission to disagree with you and say no to things.
“In previous lives, when I was managing big distributed teams of product people, we literally used to sit down and look at their calendar together,” Lightbody said. “The idea wasn’t to micromanage or be invasive, but really to ask questions like ‘Do you really have to go to this meeting?’ or ‘What’s the cost of you not doing this thing?’”
6. Lead by Example
Leadership sets the precedent — it’s crucial to develop a workplace that allows for down time and doesn’t glorify working 24/7.
Managers and team leads have dozens of tasks on their plate at once. Understandably, this can sometimes mean longer work hours. However, don’t sacrifice your work-life balance, as doing so will wear you out and your employees will feel pressured to follow in your footsteps.
Even if you have to catch up on email after-hours, schedule them to go out during work hours. You may feel like being a manager means being in work-mode constantly, but knowing when to step away from the computer will do a world of good for your team’s productivity and morale.
“I think the best way is to lead by example,” said De Ridder. “I set meetings for 20 minutes, come with a clear agenda, and end meetings on time. This shows respect for my team and their time.”
Every leader has to learn the value of a healthy work-life balance. For Lightbody, that revelation took him by surprise. Originally planning to establish an office in Portland, Oregon, the Covid-19 pandemic and the pivot to remote work forced his team to fully restructure their work schedules. It also meant looking at productivity and work management differently, too. The circumstances weren’t ideal, but Lightbody says that the changes were overwhelmingly positive.
“We built processes and policies that gave us all a lot more flexibility in our work and lives, which has led to happier and more productive people,” he said. “Speaking personally, as much as Zoom school has been painful, I’ve been immensely grateful for the time I’ve gotten with my three young kids. I would have missed out on a lot due to business travel and office time.”
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best practice for managing remote employees?
Some of the best practices for managing remote employees include embracing flexible work schedules, establishing work communication boundaries, making work objectives clear and helping employees develop remote work methods and strategies that work best for them.
How do you manage performance of remote workers?
When managing the performance of remote employees, it can be helpful to:
- Set direct working expectations and goals
- Schedule routine one-on-ones or check-ins
- Provide regular feedback and communication
- Recognize and reward employees for their achievements
- Conduct annual, bi-annual or quarterly performance evaluations and self-reflections