Work Smarter//

A First Time Manager’s Guide To Managing People Remotely

Adapting and learning from new situations is part of everyone’s career journey. Here are some tips that I’ve found helpful for managing people remotely.

fizkes / Shutterstock
fizkes / Shutterstock

A few months ago when I became a manager for the first time, the last thing I was expecting to figure out was how to manage my team remotely. As with every new role in my career, I knew it was inevitable that roadblocks would pop-up. I just wasn’t expecting a global pandemic to be one of them. Yet, here I am, reporting right from New York City, the epicenter of the storm.

Although the novel coronavirus has upended almost every corner of reality, it has provided a unique context for me to grow as a people manager. When you’re new at something (like managing people), you have no choice but to see a situation with fresh eyes. Adapting and learning from new situations is part of everyone’s career journey. Here are some tips that I’ve found helpful for managing people remotely.

Communicate your priorities to keep your team aligned

I’m used to sitting at a table with all my teammates, where it’s easy for us to spontaneously brainstorm ideas, or ask clarifying questions about the action items discussed in a meeting from a couple of days ago. The shift from working with a co-located team to a distributed one made the extent to which I rely on impromptu, real-time conversations to help me stay on task and make meaningful progress in my own work evident pretty quickly. In a sense, co-location was a bit of a shortcut for me – I could get away with skipping written documentation, gambling that someone else would probably remember those easy-to-forget details at the end of a workday.

Sitting by myself at my new home office setup at the dining room table has forced me to get more honest and more specific with expectations for my role and projects. For me, this means writing my observations, sharing my questions, and explicitly letting my team know where I need their input. By modeling how I communicate my current priorities and projects, it makes it easier to show my team what context I expect them to share from their individual projects. Documentation and communication are the best strategies we have for staying aligned and focus on the right business priorities.

As a manager, understanding and communicating my priorities helps me better guide whomever I am managing to focus and execute on their work. Once you know how you best work under the new conditions and what you can expect out of yourself, you will find it easier to do the same for your people. 

Schedule regular check-ins

For us at Ellevate, every meeting is a video meeting. Even though we usually take 5-10 minutes at the beginning of meetings to catch-up, the majority of the time is dedicated to discussing projects, upcoming priorities, and reflecting on progress we’ve made. When your day is a marathon of video meetings, it’s easy to let casual, personal(fun) interactions disappear completely from your work routine.

As a leader in your organization, you need to remain committed to creating opportunities for your team to socialize and laugh(yes, laugh!) about the phenomenon created by Tiger King on Netflix, or perhaps the failed attempts at a DIY face mask project(thank you, Trevor Noah). Even if spontaneous coffee breaks can’t happen in a virtual environment, you can still set aside time in the calendar for your team to chit-chat, exchange personal stories, and celebrate the moments of joy that are happening in their worlds.

I have personally found it helpful to schedule 15-minute 1:1 chats throughout the week. Taking time to connect on a personal level is important both for building relationships with colleagues, maintaining a culture of learning and motivation, and for creating moments where we are, simply, humans. focus on our humanity.

Be sensitive to different home set-ups

The great work-from-home experiment has made one thing apparent – many of us did not decorate or design our homes as full-time office spaces.

We didn’t count on kids, partners, and pets becoming full-time officemates either. We didn’t think about how disruptions in Internet service might escalate from“Netflix isn’t loading” to“Zoom won’t start my video for an important business meeting.” And we didn’t(and couldn’t) anticipate how working from home would affect our mental health and emotional well-being,

As a manager, it’s important for you to know your people and be in tune to their needs. Make sure to reach out beyond your 1:1 meetings, let them know you support them. Ask how you can reduce stress or how you can help them improve their work-from-home setup. Sometimes, it’s as simple as suggesting they schedule stretch breaks. Or, if they have kids, work with them to setup childcare hours. Let them know it’s okay to take breaks and disconnect from technology and work.

Showing you care is the mark of an empathetic manager. Yes, it is emotionally and mentally exhausting, but you need help your people weather the storm. That sensitive and support is not easily forgotten. 

Be open to change

If you’re a first-time people manager like myself, trial and error is a part of becoming better at what you do. Let’s face it, getting everything right the first time hardly ever happens. To really identify how you can better support your team, go straight to source by asking for feedback from the people who work directly with you. Making adjustments to how you collaborate and communicate is something that you should treat as an open dialogue with my team, especially right now.

Whether that’s changing the cadence of meetings, adjusting how often you provide feedback, or providing more guidance on professional development, you can’t make those changes without the perspective of people other than yourself. Taking steps to ask and then follow through with changes is not only an important element in building trust, but it also shows that you take accountability seriously.

No matter what’s happening, you can’t make a positive impact or enact change alone. You need to lean on the people you work with, and combine forces to enact change and progress.

Talk about the positive possibilities for the future

Let’s face it, when change hits us unexpectedly, it seems impossible to think about anything other than the day that’s ahead of us. Focusing on that “to-do” list for the day creates a sense of control – it offers a bit of comfort even when the world no longer seems recognizable.

Still, it’s important not to lose perspective and cease talking about the future. Daily routine provides structure and order, but imagining the future carves out opportunities for creativity, to envision possibilities for the future not only of your business, but also for each team member’s growth trajectory.

So, how do you go about doing this?

In your 1:1 meetings, set aside time to ask about professional development opportunities. Ask them: What do you want to learn? Offer guidance by letting them know how developing specific skills can help them contribute to projects that are already in the pipeline – or even make it possible to pursue new ones.

If your team is experimenting with developing something new, you can also attend webinars or workshops together. The virtual and digital learning landscape is more expansive now than ever before. Making an investment, is another way to help your team grow and innovate together.

Talking about the future (and making moves to prepare) is a motivational framework that shows your team that there is opportunity to grow as long as they keep an open mind.

Trust your instincts

There are days where you are going to question everything you’re doing. Self-doubt is normal and, in fact, experiencing it forces you to evaluate how your decisions affect outcomes. Remember, reflection and evaluation are strengths in leadership – each new situation will teach you something new.

Living, working, and leading during a global pandemic is an unprecedented scenario. Even though the world may seem unrecognizable, don’t ignore your instincts. If you feel that you could have handled a situation in a meeting better, you’re probably right. Can’t figure out what to do differently? Then you need to ask the right questions, to the right people. Remember, it’s the first time that all of us are navigating a situation like this one. There are no experts, but that doesn’t mean you should not listen to your gut. Listening to your instincts is what will help you advocate and stand by your people.

Even when the world is in flux, take moments each day to learn, sharpen your instincts, and recognize patterns in business and behaviors that will shape how we lead tomorrow.

Originally published on Ellevate.

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