Career Advice

How To Successfully Manage A Remote Manager

Just as remote work isn’t for everyone, having a remote manager isn’t for everyone either. I’ve been reporting to one for the past 9 months, and even though it’s hard at times, I can definitely see the benefits. Why? It’s teaching me to be a better team player and helps me develop faster.

With a remote manager, I have to over-communicate: about my schedule, my plans, my development goals. I have to be an expert planner: For any given project, I have to think about what I’ll need from my manager and ask for it in advance. I have to get really good at managing my time: I can’t just turn to her desk and ask her a question, even with instant communication like Slack I need to make sure that I bring up the questions I need to ask when we meet.
 
Before I started reporting to my current manager, who’s based about 640 miles away, I had never so much as taken an online course before. Working with a far-off supervisor can be difficult, especially if you’re not used to it. I can’t just ask her a quick question while we’re both in the kitchen. Sure, I can ping her on Slack, but she might be trying to focus on something if she were puttering in the kitchen, I’d know she’s not. The flip side is that I rarely feel micromanaged. And in these past 9 months, I’ve learned a lot about what direct reports and their managers can do to have a successful, thriving, productive relationship.

Lessons for the direct report:

  • Be smart about communication guidelines.
    If you’re the one in charge of setting up meetings with your manager, use that power wisely. If you know the afternoon slump hits you hard, don’t schedule your 1-on-1 for after lunch. More importantly, be open about your stress levels or other things that are going on in the office or your life that are affecting you. Even the most observant manager will have trouble sensing this kind of thing from afar.
  • Have a get-to-know you meeting in person! before you start working together.
    Ask about things like communication style, likes/dislikes, and, especially, what annoys her. Is she okay if meetings must be rescheduled at the last minute? Shifting schedules at the head office can have unwelcome ripple effects on those working remotely if you don’t communicate well. Your manager can’t see that you’re still stuck in a meeting with the VP of Sales.
  • Get as much face-to-face time as possible.
    In our case, this means using video. My manager once suggested using phone calls for our 1-on-1s. Instead, I suggested that video would be more productive and would create a richer conversation. It helps so much when you’re trying to get to know a person when you can see facial expressions and not just hear the tone of voice.
  • Make it easy for your manager to know what you’re doing.
    This is especially useful in the beginning of the relationship, to help build trust. If status updates work for you both once a week, do it. If daily status updates work for you, do it. And make use of technology. I put everything that I’m doing on my calendar, which I’ve shared with my manager. I’m constantly shifting and moving things around, so if she wants to know exactly what I’m up to, it’s easy for her to check in without interrupting me. Knowing that she has this access also helps me to be super productive.
  • Be open to feedback and also be willing to ask questions.
    Sometimes advice or explanations get shortened over email or Slack to the point where they don’t make sense. If you don’t agree with a piece of feedback or don’t understand it, it’s okay to probe. If you don’t understand the feedback, you can’t implement it correctly. It’s better to make sure you’re on the same page before you jump in.
  • Remember, you are your own boss but you’re also not your own boss.
    Don’t think that because you aren’t in the same location as your manager that you can let accountability slide. Especially in the first months, over-communicate. Unless expressly agreed on beforehand, your manager should know in advance if you’re taking a sick day or a vacation day. If you assume you can do whatever you want, you run the risk of making your boss look bad which reflects poorly on you. If your manager knows where you are when you’re not in the office, she can defend you if someone asks her about your whereabouts. Instead of shrugging her shoulders, she can say, “Oh, Kimberly. She is in Palo Alto today, I asked her to go to a client meeting there.”

Lessons for the manager:

  • It can hard, but try to be a little more available than usual, especially in the first few months.
    Plop virtual coffee dates on your direct report’s calendar. Ask him what’s up. Don’t assume that a solemn face means the world is falling down, but conversely, don’t assume a smiling face means everything is all right. Ask questions. Probe, probe, probe. On video, you can’t always know the surroundings or what email pop-ups might occur. If someone makes a what seems to be an unhappy face, just ask if everything’s okay. It could be that it’s not about you. It could also be that she doesn’t agree with the procedures you’re taking on a project. In that case, you can dig deep to find out the true feedback and act on it.
  • Make sure you hire someone who can deal with working remotely.
    In the interview process, ask questions to find out if she will be able to handle it. You may never find the holy-grail questions to hiring the perfect candidate for remote work, but try to get stories about how she works on solo projects, if she prefers group work over solo work, how she collaborates, etc.
  • Set the standard early for your expectations, but resist the urge to micromanage. 
    It’s important to talk about your standards early on, but it’s just as important to stand by them. It’s hard to change habits when they’ve been cemented. This doesn’t mean you should micromanage it means that you should tell people your expectations and provide them with the tools for success, but also be okay with letting them know if they’ve dropped the ball. Maybe have a live document for status updates, so that everyone on the team can see what everyone is up to, and whom they need to contact for what.
  • If it’s possible, try to meet in-person at least once a quarter.
    There’s truly no replacement for in-person quality time, so do your best to make it a priority. My manager and I try to meet up at least once every quarter, whether that means her coming to our San Francisco headquarters or me traveling up to the Pacific Northwest.
  • Remember the little things. Seemingly small things like birthdays and work anniversaries are extra important when you have a remote team. They can help your direct reports feel valued and appreciated even when you aren’t in the same room together.

It hasn’t always been easy, but these habits help both me and my manager be more productive and effective as a team. More importantly, I think that the overarching lessons around communication, prioritization and good time management can make any direct report–manager relationship stronger, even if you don’t work miles away from each other.

Anya C. Gonzales is a Marketing Associate at Jhana, which provides bite-sized performance support for people leaders to build the skills they need to be successful, in a simple, on-demand format they’ll love. This article was originally published by Jhana. Reprinted with permission.

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