Balancing the Pros and Cons of Managing a Remote Team
If you’re thinking about taking your team remote, there’s plenty to consider — so you might want to use the reliable decision-making tool, the pro/con list.
I asked experts and remote managers about their favorite and least favorite parts of managing a remote team. See what parts of their experience apply to your situation and make your list accordingly.
Pro: You can hire better talent
This is, by far, the greatest advantage of running a remote team.
“You can hire new talent from all over the world. Your team isn’t stuck in one office, in one city. You can hire a more diverse, cosmopolitan team,” says Gregory Golinski, a marketing executive at YourParkingSpace.
You might actually be able to find the dream candidate that your job posting describes.
“It’s much easier to hire. Not having to take location (or relocation) into consideration when hiring makes it a lot easier to find great talent. When your hiring pool is the whole world, you’re in good shape,” says Luis Magalhães of DistantJob, a remote work hiring agency.
That means you can hire personnel with expertise and skills that are at a premium in your area, according to Mike Sims. Sims founded ThinkLions, an app development company, and he employs remote developers.
“As a Detroit-based agency, a city with a small tech startup scene, it was tough finding app developers that we could hire locally. Having a remote team allowed us to search for candidates from around the country, which was significant to our ability to offer a high-quality service.”
Pro: Higher productivity from better work-life balance
Work-life balance can improve if your team moves from on-site to remote work. Eliminating commutes is just one example.
“Less commute time means less time spent in traffic and more time working on what you should be focusing on,” says Kevin Tash, the CEO of marketing agency Tack Media. “That results in lowered stress on the team, because working remotely can save time from rushing, time in traffic, and the stress of being late.”
Remote employees also have an easier time handling family responsibilities, like care for children or parents.
“Employees can organize their schedule to pick up their kids after school and spend more time with them at home,” says YourParkingSpace’s Golinski.
Plus, everyone tends to be more comfortable at home. Colleagues that do their best at home could thrive.
“When you give people the freedom to work on their terms, they produce great results,” says Shaun Savage, the CEO of GoShare, a moving startup. “Some people are just more comfortable working from home, and they appreciate having the flexibility to work on their schedule.”
Pro: Lower turnover rates/higher retention
You might even find that this improved work-life balance helps you retain employees.
“Our employees seem to be extremely happy with the flexibility of a remote work environment,” says Sims of ThinkLions. “As a result, our turnover rate is extremely low and there is always a productive company morale.”
Colleagues who are back at home are also less likely to have a wandering eye to find that work/life balance, according to Magalhães.
“Retention is fantastic. People feel very good about being able to work from home and stop keeping an eye out for the ‘next big break.’ I’ve noticed a definite uptick in job satisfaction whenever I’ve worked with remote editorial teams.”
Pro: Reduced office expenses and lower cost per employee
“Your organization can save money by hiring remote workers — there’s no extra square footage needed to grow your company,” says Patricia Fox, the founder of Unicom Teleservices, a call center.
That savings is critical if you’re starting a new company.
“Office space is not cheap and startups need to find ways to save money, especially in the early days,” says Savage of GoShare. “Allowing some people to work from home will reduce your office expenses.”
On-site employees also incur expenses beyond office space.
“Less overhead for office space, materials, snacks — you don’t notice this stuff until you do the math,” says Tash.
Even if your employees need equipment for a home office or a coworking membership, you’ll still save on overhead.
Con: Building team culture is more difficult
You can draft all the company culture documents you want, but it’s the relationships between colleagues that makes a culture real. Unless an employee sees their coworkers living the company culture every day, the lofty ideas in the employee handbook can seem corny or overwrought.
That’s why remote managers need to work extra hard to make culture real for remote employees. Sims (and I, but I’m biased) recommends using video conferencing, web apps and other tools to help remote teams build a positive culture.
“It can be tough for employees to build work relationships in a remote work environment. Having a strong culture can be important to a business, especially to a new startup. To overcome this, we use tools like Slack and Google Hangouts where our employees can frequently communicate with one another. Additionally, we have weekly video conferences where everyone can get to know each other a little better. Our business requires a ton of team collaboration, and bridging the gap between our remote employees has been imperative to our success.”
Informal engagement — what onsite teams would call water cooler talk or scuttlebutt — is something that you’ll have to make an effort to foster. But it can be done, according to Fiona Adler, the founder of Actioned, a productivity app for remote teams.
“When team members are purely remote and never in the office, it can be quite difficult for the team to get to know each other and bond. This is important as teams that like and respect each other are more likely to work as a team, support each other, and strive towards common goals. However, although it’s not as easy as in a local team, it’s still very possible — it just takes commitment and a bit of extra time.
“Instead of being transactional at each meeting or chat conversation, take a moment to engage on a personal level. There are lots of resources online to help with ideas on how to do this, but it could be as simple as asking everyone what they’re planning for dinner that night or discussing what everyone is watching on Netflix.”
Con: Communication is more difficult
Remote work arrangements tend to come with an implicit understanding that the remote employee will enjoy a certain amount of flexibility as far as errands and chores. That can be a frustrating bargain if you’re trying to clear a blockage quickly.
“A remote team can be less responsive. Team members might be slow to answer queries sent via chat apps,” says Golinksi.
Depending on where your remote employees live, getting them together can be tricky.
“We have team members in four different time zones. That makes it hard to schedule team meetings sometimes,” says Savage.
Plus, remote workers might not stick to typical work hours no matter what time zone they’re in, according to Diane Domeyer, the executive director of The Creative Group at Robert Half.
“Remote workers may keep non-traditional hours, and reaching them for an urgent project or impromptu meeting may be more challenging. Managers should know when staff are available and the best ways to reach them.”
Of course, there is a silver lining to the communication barriers of remote work. You might find that your staff becomes more independent, according to Golinski.
“Your team members learn to become more self-sufficient. They can’t always count on their managers to answer their questions straight away, and they learn to find solutions by themselves.”
Con: One-on-one management is more complicated
Keeping tabs on employee morale, productivity, and energy levels is the core function of a manager. That can be hard to do if you’re communicating primarily by phone, email, chat, or even video conference. The mundane, such as onboarding forms or client paperwork, can also become daunting.
You might not be able to tell if someone on your team is having trouble ending the workday, according to Magalhães. That could easily lead to burnout or resentment.
“Remote workers tend to overwork, and as a manager, you need to be very attentive to the health of your employees. And yes, tell them ‘enough for today; if you show up on Slack during the weekend, I’ll kick you out!’”
Or you might have the opposite problem — remote work, especially remote work from home, is full of distractions like video games, pets, or a favorite book.
“People can take advantage of working remotely, and some organizations don’t trust people to self-manage. It becomes hard to ensure when an employee is working and when they are playing on their Xbox,” says Tash.
Still, if you’ve hired the right people, you should be confident that they’ll get their work done and put forth the right amount of effort, especially after the transition is over. In fact, you might have noticed that all of this advice has a common element: you.
A remote manager needs to make a conscientious effort to make their team succeed. You’ll need to make an effort to stay in touch with your team and keep them talking to each other with tools like online conference calls. (We’re big fans.)
But if you do, you might find that your team is happier and more productive than ever.