In 2020, I got an exciting job offer I couldn’t refuse – sales manager at one of the most innovative tech companies in the world, Microsoft – in Ireland! I packed my bags, said goodbye to all of my friends, and was excited to explore a new country on a different continent and work with the locals.
But the move wasn’t meant to be (thanks, COVID), and my role was transformed into a remote one. It wasn’t my first choice to work remotely, and I wasn’t entirely prepared for it. But it’s been a blessing in disguise.
I’ve been working as a sales manager remotely for 3 ½ years. I’ve learned a lot about how to manage without sharing office space with my colleagues. In this article, I’ll share some tips about how to lead and successfully manage a remote team in the hopes that they will be helpful to others.
I see my role under two main pillars: People Management and Business Management. Both require building and nurturing healthy relationships with teams and with stakeholders in order to meet business goals and grow professionally. To do these successfully in a virtual environment takes a great deal of leadership. And happily, I’ve received great feedback about my leadership and remote management skills. (You can read about that here.)
As a manager, your team relies on you for leadership, direction, support, and coordination. Creating a strong, trusting relationship with your people from the very beginning is critical. Relationship building is also a fundamental part of being able to manage the business side of sales management. But how can you establish and maintain relationships when you can’t be in the same physical space as your team members?
To make sure you have a well-functioning team that achieves its goals, even if you’re not in the room together – here are my tips for anyone who is or wants to be a remote manager:
Team building contributes to the overall success and effectiveness of a group and contributes to a positive group identity. This can occur mostly organically in a shared workspace. But when you’re managing people across different locations, team building has to be more intentional and takes a more thoughtful effort.
Focus on building community in weekly team meetings. A team that is united collaborates and supports each other. If team members end up building friendships, this is extremely valuable to the cohesion of the team. A manager should encourage each person to share what they’ve learned, what works well, and what doesn’t. Make space for team members to be vulnerable and expose their errors without judgment, and for them to help each other.
Create a team culture. This sets the stage for the tone of the team, helping people stay motivated and feel valued and united. This includes team DOs and DON’Ts, vision and mission statements, and agreements. These are crucial to creating a solid foundational team structure and can be done in a virtual workshop by whiteboarding.
Be sure to include a social element. Every team meeting can start with a fun element, helping team members to connect and get to know each other better. This encourages building team spirit, a team brand, and a unified group. Once collaboration and support are solidified, a strong sense of teamwork will help lead team growth.
Create themes for your calls. Choose a theme based on different cultures or holidays according to your team members’ traditions. Ask them to share about them so they feel seen and their teammates learn more about them as people and not just colleagues. This also strengthens the sense of belonging and unity. You may decide to choose to celebrate a time of year or a specific topic: happy hours, dress codes, game days, mealtime together, and so much more. This resolves integration challenges and is also a fun way to recognize and celebrate the diversity within teams.
Make things fun and interactive. This takes the pressure off of focusing on work all the time and keeps the mood light. You can do a wellness challenge, ice breakers, Kahoots – there are lots of short, easy games or off-line challenges that help build team spirit and morale.
Pair up. Pairing team members together as Mentor and Mentee or as Team Buddies is a good practice. This gives your people the opportunity to collaborate independently on issues, which builds trust between them. It also provides a sense of empowerment to work things out with a colleague before reaching out for managerial support.
Create a WhatsApp group. In today’s world, WhatsApp groups are a must for teams. They are a free and easy way for your team to engage in remote socializing and sharing personal moments. Show your contribution by participating in them; don’t try to be different because you are a manager. Within appropriate boundaries, share your fun moments and photos with them, too.
Building and nurturing relationships with your team is not only beneficial for team members individually, but it is also essential for creating a positive and productive work environment.
Have 1:1 meetings every week, without fail. Communicating directly during a dedicated team member meeting helps build your relationship and builds trust. Instead of jumping right into the business aspect, first ask your team members questions and show genuine interest. Chat a bit, be curious and mindful about their personal life, and take a moment to try to understand what they are going through. Only after making this connection should you talk about business. Always end a 1:1 meeting by asking if they need any support from you, or if there are any challenges they want to discuss or receive feedback on.
Hold virtual coffee sessions. Use these sessions both for yourself and your team members for networking purposes. This will help you expand your network and will encourage your team members to do the same, supporting professional growth. Aim to meet one new person virtually per month. At the end of your virtual coffee date, ask your new connection to suggest another person to meet.
Always keep your video on. When participating in any virtual meeting, people need to sense your energy and see your facial expressions and body language. When your team witnesses your personality, there is a deeper connection. Put in the same effort as when you meet people in person. Wear professional attire, do your hair, put on makeup, etc.
Managerial interpersonal skills
A manager must have sophisticated interpersonal skills to lead, communicate, and collaborate effectively with team members and other stakeholders. A manager with strong interpersonal skills can inspire, motivate, and positively guide team members.
Strike a balance between micro- and macro-management. As a remote manager, you don’t always know what your team members are doing all day. Trust that your people are actually working and do not worry about tracking their time or actions. Every team member has a clear job description and individual KPIs, so hopefully they are fulfilling their requirements and hitting their goals in the allotted time frame. Help them focus on the bigger picture with strategic planning, provide them guidance without excessive control, and support them with any resources they may need to do their jobs.
Micro-managing your team can cause tension and may slow them down, so letting team members be independent and take responsibility for their outcomes gives them the space to accomplish their tasks. They’ll appreciate you even more as a manager for allowing them the freedom to do their job!
Celebrate wins. Acknowledge every achievement, even the small ones, and make your team visible to others in the company. Always say thank you and celebrate your teams’ or individual team members’ successes. Tell other people about these wins, especially upper management and business stakeholders. This can be done with a short email, a chat announcement, or even a “kudos” post on LinkedIn.
Make them feel special. Mark important dates about your team members’ lives on your calendar and celebrate with them together. Show them that you care about them by remembering birthdays and anniversaries. Share with them that you appreciate them and you appreciate their effort/time/dedication.
Send small surprises. Who doesn’t like to receive a gift? You can be far away but make your team members feel you are closer than they think. One example is Secret Santa, end-of-the-fiscal-year gifts, or taking them out to lunch when you can meet in person. It’s a fun way to send surprises every year.
Be a cheerleader. It’s your job to motivate your team as a whole and motivate each person individually. Your team members need to feel supported by you to reach their potential, and they need you to believe their potential is endless so that they can believe it too.
Advocate for your team members. Show them that you’ll stick up for them. Others may speak negatively about your team or may interpret actions incorrectly, and it’s your job as a manager to support and defend your team members in front of others. Your team members need to know they can trust you to advocate for them, and that they can count on you to publicly defend their work when necessary.
Strong leadership is essential in a managerial role, especially one where you are not physically with your team. It provides direction, motivates colleagues, facilitates effective communication, and builds a positive organizational culture. Leadership is the foundation of effective management, helping managers navigate challenges and guiding a team to achieve its goals.
Be an example. Show up motivated, energetic, passionate, and committed to drive results as a manager. These qualities are contagious. Your team members see your attitude and behaviors as inspiration and will be tempted to replicate them!
Communicate with respect. Always refer to your team in “we” language, not “I.” As a manager, you are in the trenches with your team. Speak in a way that lets them know you and them together are part of the success and failure of a team.
Actively support individual growth. Encourage your team members to set career development meetings with you every quarter. This is an opportunity for them to have a designated time to get support from you about their career growth and professional development.
Be accessible, but not always available. Make sure your team members know how and when they can reach you. Be accessible to them so they know they can count on you to support them. Also, show you respect yourself by committing to your personal time boundaries.
Include breaks. When working remotely, your team may become deeply immersed in the work, putting in long hours, and skipping breaks. Remind your team members to block their calendars for scheduled breaks.
It’s also important for you as a remote manager to pay attention to your own work-life balance in addition to your teams’. Encourage your team to use their vacation days to take a break and disconnect, recharge, and come back fully energized. Be an example and make sure to do the same!
Be kind and compassionate. Remember that your team members are people who have lives outside of work. Treat them like cherished community members. Be mindful of their external priorities, and remember that they have big responsibilities in their personal lives too. Be patient and flexible, and give them space when it comes to family issues. They’ll appreciate it, and they’ll be best able to focus and give their best attention to the work when they’ve had permission and time to take care of non-work matters.
Be available to give feedback. Feedback should be part of your ongoing communication with your team, and not just reserved for bi-annual performance reviews. Feedback – both positive and negative – should be given immediately as appropriate. It should be offered in a constructive way in a personal setting that will lead to a plan for improvement.
Be available to receive feedback. Encourage your team members to give you feedback as well. Let them know that it’s a two-way street and that you always welcome their opinions and reflections so that you can do better for them and the team. Set aside time during bi-annual performance reviews for them to provide more general feedback about your managerial style, the team, or their position.
Be mindful of time zones and schedules. When you work remotely, you and your team members will probably have different work days, public holidays, or time zones. Make your work days/hours clear, and ensure your people communicate about theirs. This way, expectations are clear around timely email responses and participation in meetings. Communication is key. Agendas should be defined at the beginning so everyone is synchronized. If you’re not available on one channel, make clear how your team can best reach you and vice versa.
It takes a lot of dedication to manage a team remotely. But once you’ve created a trusted, motivated environment for your people, they’ll be happier and more committed to the work. This makes your job as a remote manager more enjoyable, and it also makes managing the business end of things easier.
If you’re a remote manager (or thinking of becoming one) and want some guidance on improving your approach, or you just want some collaborative brainstorming support from a seasoned manager, please reach out to me!