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8 Top tips for managing at a distance

distance manager

Managing a remote team of people – who are not sitting anywhere near you and may not even be in the same time zone – can be a huge challenge.

How do you make sure out of sight isn’t out of mind, especially when you might have been used to seeing at least some of your team on a regular basis? Yvette Gyles, Director of =mc, looks at how to manage effectively at a distance.

Managing at a distance

We work with many organisations that have remote teams and those which work disparate hours, so paths do not always cross. Whether it’s home workers, regional offices or international colleagues, managing individuals you could be in the same space as less than half a dozen times a year is tough. And in this new world we find ourselves in, where working remotely has become the new ‘normal’, you are inevitably not going to see each other ‘in person’ anywhere as much as you used to. To help you make the best of this tricky situation, we’ve gathered together participants’ top tips from =mc’s in-house management development programmes and our internal expertise to help you keep your teams close, even when you are not together.

1. Make it frequent

In a ‘normal’ office environment you tend to see, hear or bump into people at least once a day. It’s then generally fairly straightforward to get a sense of how they are feeling through informal ‘water cooler moments’ and reading their body language.  You have a good idea of who’s on top of things and who may need help. This is much harder when your team is scattered in different locations. You can get closer to a similar sense of finger-on-the-pulse through frequent contact. Make it daily, if possible, and vary the channel – maybe a mix of phone calls, Skype, email, text and even group chats via applications such as WhatsApp. Mix it up with individual and group contact – remember that saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”?  Now is the time for the saying to shine.

2. Make it realistic

Avoid making your contact simply about exchanging business information – going through reports or giving updates. Make some of it conversational. Ask questions about how others are, what are their current challenges and how you can support with those. Share anecdotes to help with learning, encourage reflection, take a coaching approach when appropriate. When it’s not possible to make personal observations of your individuals’ performance it’s really important they can reflect and feedback on themselves. You might need to help them do this.

3. Commit to the ‘meeting’

When you are having a remote meeting (or call), it’s tempting to multitask and check your inbox or another device at the same time. Resist. However ‘professional’ you think you’re being your distraction will be reflected in your voice, and potentially on camera! You wouldn’t do that in a real life meeting, so don’t do it remotely. One manager told me they struggled with this over the phone, so closed Outlook and replaced it with a picture of their colleague (with the colleague’s consent). This made it easier for the manager to form a connection.

4. Energetic emails and newsletters

Many participants have tried getting staff to contribute to a regular group email or newsletter to encourage a sense of team. Unfortunately, these tended to end up being less a rallying point for esprit de corps and more a collective to-do list. Try instead to keep business updates small, relevant and quick, focussing on engaging topics. Rather than a list of tasks, ask people to share useful learning, interesting news, things they have read or challenges they have overcome.

5. A personal touch

Good management is professional – with an element of personal. When you don’t see people, you can miss out on the casual personal catch ups and what’s going on in life that may impact on work. There is no ‘How was your evening?’ or ‘How are the family?’ impromptu chats over your desks or during a trip to make coffee. So when you’re catching up remotely make sure you ask about more than just work – and then remember what they tell you. I know a great manager who keeps notes on her team members’ pets, children’s/partner’s name, and what’s top of mind for them to refer to when she’s in touch. It shouldn’t all be about work, the personal touch helps people feel connected.

Online meetings

6. Don’t forget

If you work with or manage people who are not near you it can become tricky to coordinate diaries – especially with constantly changing and conflicting demands. Nevertheless, it’s important that you book calls and remote meetings, as far as humanly possible and stick with those bookings. Never forget or cancel a meeting with your invisible team. Make them a priority and stick to it.

7. Remember body language

Regular calls and daily contact through emails or messaging can only go so far. Nothing really replaces face time. Try to see people remotely as often as you can – show you’re a real person and not merely a disembodied voice. Use a form of video chat as often as you can so you can see body language, facial expressions and match it with tone of voice.  This will give you a broader picture of how the other person is managing and hints as to whether you need to dig a little deeper about what they are telling you.

Body language online

8. Give Permission

Developing relationships remotely can be hard, so using a tool like De Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats gives a structure to a conversation and permission for people to talk about things in a rounded, open and honest way. This enables them to discuss things like processes and facts, benefits, creativity and cautions (or concerns) as well as feelings. You don’t need to use all of the hats in every discussion, but once you encourage your team to do this, you pick up on nuances you may otherwise miss.  And as a manager you’re more likely to hear what people are really thinking – rather than just focusing on making (that all important) efficient decision.

What’s next?

For further information on how =mc can help with your management development, keeping your teams motivated and getting the best out of everybody in these testing times contact Yvette Gyles on or call 020 7978 1516 to speak to one of our Learning & Development consultants.

To find out more take a look at this online learning opportunity – Managing at a Distance.

If you found this helpful, why not tweet about it? Don’t forget to tag us @mgmtcentre

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in leadership, personal effectiveness, change and innovation. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as an HR...