Conquering the challenges of managing remote employees

Discover the key challenges of managing remote employees and best practices to effectively manage your teams.

Chris Wright
8 MIN|December 19, 2019

More and more businesses are waking up to the possibilities of remote working, although few have gone as far as ‘all-remote’ like GitLab or adopted distributed teams as enthusiastically as Atlassian. The traditional model – having all your employees on site – is still prevalent – but we’re moving toward a landscape where, in order to find and retain talent, you have to accommodate your people when they need to relocate or be able to bring in new employees who work remotely from the start. And this comes with the many challenges of managing remote employees.

It’s no mean feat to make the shift in your business from having everyone on-premises to employing remote workers. I know that because I’ve done it myself. Well, ­­­­­‘done’ may not be entirely correct – like most things in life, it’s a work in progress. There are always new things to learn and improvements to be made. I’d like to share what I’ve learned during the journey with my own company, Fifty Five and Five.

Closing distances between people

Fifty Five and Five has grown a lot since we began in 2014 – both in terms of numbers and the geographical distance we cover. We’ve gone from a small group of talented people in London to having offices in Britain and the USA as well as numerous full-time, part-time and freelance team members spread across many different cities and countries.

Once upon a time, maintaining this kind of setup – and doing so productively – would have been like herding cats, but we overcome the challenges of managing remote employees through our culture and how communicate. And, of course, as a digital marketing agency, tech savvy and early adoption are deeply coded into our DNA. That means picking up the latest digital workplace tools and making the fullest and best use of them.

To start with, let’s look at the story of our very first remote worker:

Our woman in Oslo

Enrika has been a crucial part of our marketing team for many years now. She knows our business inside out and has become a big part of our marketing strategies, SEO projects, PPC campaigns and more. Enrika also runs our website and internal marketing – she’s probably the reason you’re reading this blog right now.

So, when she decided she wanted to move from London to Oslo in Norway but was keen to keep working for us, we were determined to make that happen. When you find talent of Enrika’s calibre, you hold on to it.

At that point, we were already using cloud services to store all our documents and other business data, so Enrika could – and can – always reach the information resources she needs to work. If we still kept everything on-prem, there’s no way we’d be able to provide that.

And, as keen adopters of Microsoft’s cloud-based productivity and collaboration tools, we’ve given her and everyone else the full Office 365 suite and made sure they’re using it effectively. That includes Microsoft Teams, with its indispensable set of video, voice and messaging functionality.

It’s been a year since her move, and Enrika’s success story spurred us on to provide more remote working opportunities – including our very first remote hire, who’s based on an entirely different continent.

The Seattle connection

When we decided to open an office in Seattle, so we could be closer to our North American clients, I knew was perfect to take the wheel. As our stateside Account Director, she grows and manages much of our US business, as our first point of contact for clients there and in many other countries worldwide.

Liz’s role demands close contact with clients in the USA and overseas, as well as with her colleagues in the London office. We knew we had to provide her and other workers abroad in the future with the same remote working foundation that enables Enrika to work remotely. But that in this case there were also new difficulties to be met.

For one thing, we needed to grapple with time zones. Oslo is only one hour ahead of London, which is pretty easy to manage. But London is eight hours ahead of Seattle, which increases the challenges of managing remote employees.

With such a geographical distance and time distance between us, we quickly discovered it could become difficult for everyone to work well together. We needed to prevent our people in the USA from feeling isolated and disconnected from our business and our culture.

To make sure everyone can work together, feel part of the same team and stay on the same page, Fifty Five and Five developed a set of principles for the whole company to adopt. These key pillars define how we should work, to make sure remote working really works.

Managing remote employees: best practices

1.   Automatic sharing

So that nobody misses anything or gets left out, everything has to be shared with everyone, all the time. All internal meetings are captured on video in Teams, recorded and stored, along with any notes, in our cloud-based information repository. Anyone can access them and catch up.

That includes our weekly Learn and Share sessions, which provide a vital part of our collective knowledge and skills base. Enrika, Liz and others have already presented Learn and Share sessions attended by people in both offices via video chat. As well as knowledge-sharing, these sessions are also a great way to bring everyone together and get us all engaged.

We also use dedicated Teams channels to share useful and interesting articles, and other handy links. And our Thank You channel ensures that praise and credit are given in a public forum without having to resort to a formal all-company email. It fosters a culture of encouragement and unity – everyone appreciates getting a shoutout at the end of a long project and seeing their colleagues’ hard work being recognized.

We’re making it fundamental to Fifty Five and Five’s company culture that this kind of sharing happens automatically, in a way we can all benefit from – not just the ones within earshot.

2.   Document everything

With our roots in content marketing, we’ve always known the power of written communication. But the challenges of managing remote workers mean we’ve had to double down on developing that skillset and strive to communicate in writing even more effectively.

Now, we’re committed to writing down and recording knowledge rather than relying on verbal explanations. Setting things down in words means they can be shared, referred to later and – crucially – not simply forgotten as soon as they’re heard. This also extends to our processes – instead of just on-the-job-training, we are now much more thorough in documenting our processes and making this documentation available.

This mindset means information that’s useful to everyone isn’t as likely to be automatically siloed in need-to-know access limitations, which only need to be applied to sensitive data. Instead of top-down control of documents, they’re open for access and editing by anyone in the company, so they can contribute and increase their own knowledge. And that means we can all understand our projects and our clients better and work more effectively for them.

When building up your internal knowledge repository, tools like OneNote and Notion can be invaluable. We write up the notes of every meeting and make them available like this, with a central index, so all team members everywhere can find answers to their questions and get to grips with new projects and accounts easily

3.   Asynchronous and synchronous comms

I think of all this as asynchronous communication: a more inclusive, multi-directional way to communicate that can be less linear and limited than traditional synchronous (real-time) communication such as face to face or phone calls. Both kinds have their place in modern business and need to be harnessed properly.

Real-time, synchronous communication, whether it’s in person or via Microsoft Teams, will always be needed. A two-way exchange in real time allows the participants to expand and direct the conversation in the moment, asking important questions as they occur. But now this can all be easily recorded and shared. We’ll often record client meetings (after asking their permission, of course) so that we can refer back to that recording and share it to help other team members. This is synchronous and asynchronous communication used together to achieve the best possible results.

A great asynchronous communication tool we use is Asana. Accessed via your web browser or an intuitive mobile app, Asana helps us to stay on top of our individual tasks and priorities, as well as managing and tracking projects. As soon as one member has finished playing their part in a task, the next person is alerted so they can take over. We all check on our task lists and calendars regularly, and Asana has become firmly embedded in our processes and communications. I can’t recommend it enough – it really works. Our project manager Alessandra would agree, as the company’s resident Asana evangelist/superfan.

Something else we’ve introduced more recently is the ‘employee user manual’. We each write one, available for everyone to read, explaining how we like to work and our preferred methods of communication (e.g. some prefer Teams chats, some may prefer a phone call). This has given us an insight to the different ways that our co-workers like to operate, and it’s really helped us all to communicate more effectively.

4.   Always think about how you speak

Although written communication has some advantages over spoken, it also has weaknesses. With a lack of visual cues such as expression, or vocal tone of voice, nuance can be lost and responses can be misinterpreted, seem cold or even rude.

Luckily, the ‘consumer-grade enterprise comms experience’ of Microsoft Teams includes emojis to put the smiles back into text-based communication. But I think it’s also important that we promote positive communication in general within Fifty Five and Five’s company culture.

We always assume positive intent, as well as assuming a lack of knowledge (‘crossed wires’) on the part of the other person instead of intentional negativity: ‘ignorance before malice’. And, where such misunderstandings do occur, a colleague is only a Teams video call away, which is sure to clear everything up.

Use everything available and set up to win

In conclusion, if there’s anything I’ve learned from the challenges of managing remote employees, it’s that it’s relied on three things: the right tools, the right approach and the right attitude. They’re all important, but often it’s the last one that makes the biggest difference. You, your people and your business itself need a can-do attitude if you want to make remote working really work.

If you’d like some help making your communications more effective, get in touch with the team at Fifty Five and Five today.