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Why Managing Remotely Is Tough

Published Thursday Apr 11, 2019

Author David Deacon

Why Managing Remotely Is Tough

Managing remotely has quickly become the norm in today's work world. But it's not easy. With more employees working remotely or on flex schedules, it can be tough for managers to create the kind of connection needed to help people do their best work. Remote conversations don't allow managers to pick up on non-verbal cues or to even recognize if someone is having a good or bad day. You can't have those quick, informal interactions needed to form comfortable, cooperative relationships.

This is why managers must be intentional about defining the environment and team culture you want, says David Deacon, author of The Self-Determined Manager: A Manifesto for Exceptional People Managers.

"You must ask more, listen better, clarify more, explore challenges together, and engage on personal stuff in addition to work stuff," says Deacon. "The best managers are able to do these things in a way that builds loyalty and connections that endure the ups and downs of corporate life."

Deacon says the best managers seek to intentionally shape work environments. He describes managers who excel at creating the best environments as "self-determined managers." This is challenging and relentless work even when everyone works in close quarters. So, when distance is a factor, a great manager must push even harder to build a positive culture and get the most out of their team.

Here are eight ways managers can successfully lead remote teams:

  1. Keep in touch. Great managers connect with their people by email, Skype, or phone. This isn't an occasional event either; it's a regular and predictable conversation that they look forward to.
  2. They focus on more than tasks. The best managers know they need to show that they worry about everyone's successes and challenges. It's not only about the project or job at hand.
  3. They talk about personal stuff and professional stuff. Being remote doesn't mean treating people like distant relatives. Good managers master the art of chatting and also take time to discuss and share information about what's going on.
  4. They even talk about themselves a little. They know that managing well is personal, and they don't forget this just because their team member isn't in the room with them that day.
  5. They listen more carefully. The greatest managers listen more when they are talking with people who aren't in the room with them. They are more attentive, more alert for signs and clues, and more conscious of the need to understand what is really going on.
  6. They get really clear about what they need done. They know the goals their employee needs to achieve and what standards need to be met. They know it's harder to course correct along the way when everyone is remote and that less time together requires more clarity up front.
  7. They ask more questions too. Great managers ask questions about context, about things that get in the way, about local relationships, and about resources. They make fewer assumptions that they know how things are or what would be best, so they inquire more and assume less.

They do more coaching. They do so not because remote employees need more coaching than other team members, but because there is a ton of value in exploring alternatives and options, and that's what coaching is. As a result, a large part of the conversation is the manager and the remote worker together coming up with solutions given the environment the employee is working in—talking about priorities, and resources, and opportunities, and possible pitfalls, and choices.

"Bad managers do the opposite of these things," adds Deacon. "They listen less, not more. They make assumptions and do not offer help. They gather information they need but do not share. They give tasks without offering support. They take little interest in the person on the other end of the line. And they do not look forward to the conversation but see it as a chore."

To steer clear of these mistakes, grab a post-it and write out the following checklist. Refer to it before you connect with your remote team. When you've covered all five of these items, you'll have had a really good call with them.

  • Inquire more, much more
  • Get clear about goals and standards
  • Explore options together
  • Share—personal and professional
  • Support well by assuming less

"It takes a conscious effort to avoid the pitfalls of managing remotely," he concludes. "You can get the best out of your remote workforce by showing up for your team and projecting a supportive environment to them. Anything less and you're missing a valuable opportunity to get the very best from your people."

David Deacon has been a human resources professional for more than thirty years and passionate about how managers manage for almost as long. He has worked for a variety of companies, including Credit Suisse and MasterCard, and has lived and worked in the US, the UK, and Asia. (

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