Illustration by Fanny Luor

Virtual First, More Connected

What does it mean to be a good manager remotely?


Published on November 24, 2021

These three skills are key for focused—and happy—teams

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The concept of management can be a nebulous one. For some, it’s a natural progression up the ladder of the corporate world; for others, it’s a true calling. There are many different management styles and forms of training to help managers be the best they can, but according to a study by author and researcher Marcus Buckingham, one fact holds true: average managers play checkers, while great managers play chess. 

Consider the best bosses you’ve ever had: Did they treat you as one of the herd, or did they truly understand what you brought to the table as an individual? Buckingham found the best managers “discover what is unique about each person and then capitalize on it.”

Remote work has thrown new challenges at managers, and many in these roles fear what the future of work means for them. How can you really get to know and support people you might not even have met? If you want to “play chess” as a manager, you need to be able to strategize a few moves in advance no matter the circumstances, and you need to be able to guide your players to make their best moves.

“Everyone needs different things from their manager and being in a work-from-home scenario means that has all shifted,” says Roy Duncan, a manager at a major telecommunications company who now oversees a department from his home office. “Some people don't actually need to see you for that work to happen. Others want to have communication so they feel secure in their portfolio. It’s all about working with individual needs now.”

"As a manager, it’s about trying to avoid the pull to say, ‘let's just all jump on a call really quickly'"

That’s why remote work has the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to management. If the purpose of a manager is to guide a team through obstacles, to provide them with resources, to coach and encourage them, and to create a positive working environment, well, you can do that from anywhere. That’s because effective management is an attitude and a set of behaviors, not simply a title.

Good remote management requires the same attitude it did in the office—with a few important tweaks.


Don’t try to simulate the office

Remote managers today are in a bit of a double bind. Communication is the best way to share what’s going on within an organization when no one’s in one place, but too much digital outreach can be overwhelming and slow productivity. An increase in the frequency of check-ins—which may feel to a manager like the only way to oversee a distributed project—can come across as micromanagement. 

While so much of the way we communicate is different when working remote, it’s in everyone’s best interest to resist the urge to simulate the in-person chatter of the office space. 

“Trying to shed meetings that were more superficial or could be an email were interesting shifts, because in the office those meetings were also a culture-building exercise,” says Duncan. A quick stop by a desk for a chat or a last-minute stand-up to talk strategy served the double duty of conferring information and hopefully strengthening bonds. With spontaneity all but off the table, remote communication runs the risk of becoming overwhelming—no longer a welcome hello, but another ping to attend to.

“As a manager, it’s about trying to avoid the pull to say, ‘let's just all jump on a call really quickly,’ simply because in the office, we would have spent two minutes chatting at a desk,” says Duncan. “These days that can happen over chat as people are able to tap in over the day, as opposed to at this very minute.”

Of course, not all meetings are unnecessary; brainstorming as a group can reveal new and exciting ideas, and certain sensitive topics still call for personal check-ins. Continue to take the temperature of your team to determine what constitutes a necessary meeting

Self-awareness plays a huge role in the reframing of this skill. Ask yourself: am I checking in because I need information or am I trying to control the process from afar? Tone is also important to consider when communicating primarily through writing. There’s a difference between “We need to meet today” and “Let me know when you have a moment to discuss X”; one strikes fear in the heart, while the other provides clear direction about the topic at hand. 

"The reality is that when people were in the office, that didn't mean that you were necessarily able to monitor what they were doing all day either. That was a fallacy"

Communication is also a two-way street. Remind your staff that even though you’re physically far apart, they can still come to you if they need anything. Then use your people skills to determine the best way to meet your employees where they are. 

It’s easy enough to play checkers here—to schedule daily catch-ups and acknowledge email replies—but Marcus Buckingham contends that if you want to think like a chess player, you must remember each piece on the board is important in its own way, and needs to be treated accordingly. Certain communication should also be personalized, and employees should feel a sense of one-on-one connection from you—along with a sense that you authentically understand their roles and outputs. It’s all about balance here, and about considering individual needs alongside those of the team.

Weekly check-ins are common, and a very reasonable way to get everyone up to speed relatively quickly. Some reports might want more face time than that, while others will want to use their work hours to power through assignments rather than sit through back-to-back meetings. Find what works for you and for your employees. “It has been a challenge,” says Duncan. “But having some cadence of one-on-one time is important. Just be wary of overbooking people to the point where now you’ve got 20 catch-ups in your calendar.”


Learn to trust your reports (and yourself)

Trust was different in the office because you could at least look over and see who was there and who wasn’t. Remote work presents both a new challenge and a new context to work within. It’s hard to have a sense of trust when all the pieces feel scattered and you can’t see the whole game at once. 

According to the Harvard Business Review, “Research shows that managers who cannot ‘see’ their direct reports sometimes struggle to trust that their employees are indeed working.” These doubts lead to unrealistic expectations of availability and a sense of being monitored at all times. In short, a manager’s level of trust directly impacts the health of the team—figuratively and literally. Constant monitoring increases anxiety and chips away at autonomy, and a study from Indiana University found that high-stress jobs where employees have little control over their days even increases the odds of early death. 

“You want to manage a team of whole people, not worker drones—people that you hired for their skill sets, for their personalities"

Managers who feel a little uneasy about no longer being able to see their reports hard at work aren’t alone. In fact, a recent study spanning 24 countries found 40% of supervisors and managers “expressed low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely.” But left unchecked, this fear can trickle down to employees who are probably wrestling with their own insecurities for less pay. Ultimately, work-from-home models require a bit of faith.

“Trust is part of the agreement that you have as a leader and team member, in the office or remote,” says Duncan. “When you have open communication about capacity, you shouldn't really have any sort of fear that somebody’s playing video games all day long at work. And the reality is that when people were in the office, that didn't mean that you were necessarily able to monitor what they were doing all day either. That was a fallacy.”

If you’re struggling to trust your employees, what can you do? First, set clear expectations, or what leadership strategist Brent Gleeson calls “Rules of Engagement.” Chain of command should be clear, daily expectations should be outlined, and everyone on the team should have the same information. 

Next, if possible, let go of the synchronous, 9-to-5 workday. This is one way to demonstrate not only that you trust your employees, but that you’re realistic and flexible when making new policy decisions. The same study about remote management suggests that managing by results, rather than hours at the desk, goes hand in hand with job autonomy. 

“I'm happy for team members to work however they want to work that balances both the business needs and their own personal needs,” says Duncan. “You're going to need to have a certain amount of availability during the day, but that doesn't mean that you're at the beck and call of anyone from 9-to-5 anymore.”


Support time for inner work

One of the positives that came from the abrupt shift to remote work for many desk workers was the reprioritization of what was really important. While some joined in the great resignation, others have used this time to find new meaning in their day-to-days. 

The concept of inner work revolves around mental acts focused on your inner world that shape your mindset in order to better facilitate your goals. This could be anything from de-stressing, meditating, or simply sitting back and waiting for an idea to come. This can be a very powerful mindset, and it’s one managers and organizations should encourage, not quash.

"No one should feel like they're on some sort of work treadmill"

Staring off into space can not only be surprisingly good for business (not to mention the mental health of your employees) but it’s also one way to empower people to bring their personalities back into work, no matter where they log in from. We’ve lost so much of that connection and culture, but inner work—and the space to do it, guilt-free—makes people more creative, happier, and reminds them you value a team that shows up all the way. 

“You want to manage a team of whole people, not worker drones—people that you hired for their skill sets, for their personalities,” says Duncan. “Part of that is making sure that they have time to not be neck-deep in work all the time. People need time to be creative and strategic if they’re going to come up with new solutions to business problems—and that’s not time they should be using to get through their inbox.” 

Demonstrating through example is a great way for managers in the remote era to cultivate that kind of environment, and it can be as simple as allowing for daily or weekly time for the sole purpose of inner work. 

“I blocked my calendar, and I encourage my team to block their calendars,” says Duncan. “For me, that time is 8:00-10:00 am every day. I need that early morning time to be creative, and plan, and have some time for myself. No one should feel like they're on some sort of work treadmill.”