Being a manager of people can be very rewarding, and to get to that rewarding experience it requires being able to build empathy and trust, having strong communication skills, and understanding situational leadership. Doing all of that well is hard enough if the person is working within earshot or eyeshot of you. Having a remote direct report adds another layer of complexity to navigate.
Some of the strongest relationships I have built with my direct reports has happened while I have been a remote manager, but it did take a lot of intention in the actions of both parties to make it work.
Here are a few tips to get you started.
Build the Relationship
Get together in person & fast - Meet each other in person within the first month of working together. Nothing establishes trust better than creating in-person shared experiences. It could be as simple as sharing a coffee or a meal, or could be a more elaborate team building activity. Agree on a cadence of in-person get togethers to continue to build the relationship.
Get personal - As the manager, set the tone by being vulnerable and transparent. The more you share about yourself the more your team will share back with you. I have found that sharing photos is a great way to build the connection. After every vacation I take I send personal photos to my team, and I will occasionally send photos of random day-to-day activities. This opens the door for my team to share about themselves.
Set context - All your team can see is what shows through the lens of your laptop webcam, so share your surroundings. Give your team a virtual tour of what and who is around you so they have a better mental image of your space. Setting this context will help build the connection.
Establish Clear Expectations
Set performance objectives: Your company’s formal annual performance management process is one way to do this, but when you do not see each other on a daily basis you don’t get the same informal opportunity for check-ins on progress against goals. Be deliberate about setting the objectives together early and then schedule recurring meetings to discuss progress on a regular cadence.
Map out their sphere of influence: Make sure your direct report is clear on the internal and external people they need to influence to be successful in their job. Work with him/her to determine a strategy for working with those people, especially if they are geographically distributed.
Asking for help: Set expectations for that your direct report should raise his/her hand if they need help. This is especially important to deliberately talk about because you don’t have the luxury of seeing them everyday and won’t be able to tell if they look stressed, confused, frustrated, or bored.
Figure out the Communication Flow
Be Deliberate - Don’t make assumptions about how to best communicate with each other. Have a frank discussion about how you and your direct report each likes to communicate.
Decide the level of formality - More junior direct reports usually need more accessibility to their manager and may be shy to ask for it. Instead of them having to set up formal time on your calendar for every topic that pops up, I’ve found it best to agree to a plan for how they can virtually grab you in the flow of the day - via text, phone, or IM.
Virtual Drivebys - Your team won’t be able to pop into your physical office, so you need a plan to replicate that virtually. I tell my teams that a ping via Instant Messenger is like a virtual knock on my door. Texting is another option for a quick note to say that they need to talk.
After a few months of working together ask your direct report for feedback so that you can adapt your style and approach accordingly.
What if your co-located direct report asks to work from home?
It can feel risky for a manager to decide whether or not to grant an employee’s request to work virtually – whether it be a few days a week or permanently.
A question I often get is “What makes for a good virtual work candidate?”.
It’s important to look at the role and the person when evaluating fit for virtual work.